While the Xbox 360 and PS3 basically matched each other for sales with a frankly bonkers 80m each, there’s a feeling that the Xbox really won the last generation console battle, especially among hardcore gamers.
Unsurprisingly, those hardcore gamers were the first to throw their toys out of the pram when the Xbox One was announced as a TV-integrating entertainment device with gaming seemingly sidelined. Then there was the price - it costs more than the PS4 – the fact that Kinect, hated by the hardcore the way cats hate being stroked backwards, was now mandatory, and DRM so strict that it meant you couldn’t simply lend a game to a friend.
But things have changed since that fateful announcement night. Microsoft have shown off more of the One’s capabilities and even the most curmudgeonly of gamers are admitting that the TV stuff and new Kinect look pretty darn ace, and those features combined with a bundled copy of FIFA 14 are starting to convince some that the extra £80 might be money well spent. Meanwhile, DRM is dead, at least for now.
So in the cold light of day is the Xbox One a horror show or a home run? Actually, it’s neither, but boy is it aiming high.
Design: a face only a mother could love
Not everyone will love the design of the PS4, but at least it looks like it has been designed, rather than simply shoved into the case of a VCR from the ‘90s. Exaggeration? Ok, but the One is a big angular box of a machine that no one’s going to appreciate for aesthetic reasons.
The extra height (about 3cm) and width (6cm) is all the more disappointing when you consider that the One still comes with a chunky external power brick, whereas the PS4’s is built-in. Microsoft says it’s all about enhancing reliability by increasing air flow and keeping everything cool, but while we’ve had no technical issues or heat problems with our Xbox One, our PS4 has been problem-free, too – only when thousands of gamers put millions of hours of gaming in will we find out if one is more reliable than the other.
Noise is something we can test now, and the Xbox One is generally a very quiet console. When idling we measured a PS4-matching 42dB from 14cm in front of the console – that was just 2dB over the ambient room noise – and downloading and playing games or movies from the Xbox Store causes no increase in console noise. Popping a disc in automatically initiates installation, which increased noise to 49-50dB in our tests. Slightly disappointingly the disc drive continues to spin even after installation, and even if you’re not playing that particular game, but it does quieten to around 45dB, which is pretty much unnoticeable when combined with game or movie sound.
The controller: if it ain’t broke…
The Xbox 360 pad, loved so much that even hardcore PC gamers have been known to plug it into their rigs, is no more. But fear not, the One pad that replaces it is very similar.
In terms of size and weight it’s almost identical, but there are some small ergonomic points of difference, including a move of the Xbox Home button to an extended section at the top, a recessed d-pad, smaller thumb-rests on the analogue sticks and a battery compartment that doesn’t protrude from the back as it did before.
There are niggles – to us those thumb pads seem too small, the d-pad feels rather cheap and clicky, and inserting AA batteries into a controller feels decidedly last-gen (is a bundled Play & Charge kit too much to ask?) – but the overwhelming sensation is that this is largely the pad you know and love.
There are some improvements, too. The triggers and shoulder buttons are curved more comfortably, and Microsoft has upped the ante in terms of vibration – there’s even haptic feedback in the triggers themselves.
There’s always been a hefty dose of subjectivity to the discussion over whether the Xbox or PlayStation controller is “best”, and this generation it’s a closer fight than ever. Sony has closed the gap in terms of ergonomics and accuracy, while also adding a touchpad to a tech recipe that already included a motion sensor, and on paper it certainly seems the more advanced pad. But there’s a very compelling argument that you’ll get more out of the enhanced vibration of the Xbox One pad. For now we’re just going to say that both are excellent, and we’re going to have to wait to see how the new features are utilised by developers in the future.
Operating system: a slightly cluttered dashboard
Sitting somewhere between the Xbox 360 dashboard and the Windows 8 Metro interface, the Xbox One UI is clean, colourful and… a little confusing. The endless panes of the 360 have been stripped back to just three: Pins on the left, where you can keep your favourite apps and games ever ready, Store on the right, which is pretty self-explanatory, and Home in the centre.
Home is a difficult place to settle into at first. The last thing you had open takes up the large centre image, while the four underneath are also ordered by how recently you accessed them and the one to the right of that represents the disc that’s in the drive.
With these tiles constantly shifting as you switch between apps and games it can prove a little tricky to keep up, and it’s not helped by the fact that all of the system apps (Settings, TV, Store, etc) are represented by the same (user-selected) colour and a white logo, making them all look too similar for instinctual navigation. A game appearing in the recent activity tiles as well as the disc drive tile also seems a bit of a waste, especially as Xbox Movies you watch don’t appear, meaning you have to delve back into the Store to resume whatever you were watching, even if you’ve bought it.
Kinect: a game of nine-tenths
But of course Microsoft has a solution to that: Kinect. The rather hefty, bundled-in camera accessory (which plugs into a proprietary socket on the back of the console) has been given a serious makeover for Xbox One that includes the removal of motorisation and insertion of a 1080p sensor with IR for seeing in the dark and time-of-flight tech for gauging distance and sensing motion.
It’s also got a multi-microphone array for voice control, and that’s primarily how Microsoft intends the Xbox One to be operated. The majority of the time it works brilliantly – you can turn the Xbox on or off, open apps and games, multi-task, record game clips and perform endless other functions just by barking commands, and unlike with Xbox 360 the Kinect here is generally very accurate and quick to respond.
If we were to estimate we’d say that during our week or so of testing it's worked around nine times out of ten, and that’s impressive, but that final failed instruction is ever so frustrating. It happens most often when there’s other noise – whether that’s other people in the room or music and sound effects coming from the Xbox itself.
The One also understands only very specific commands, such as “Xbox, go to Forza 5”, “Xbox, Snap TV” and “Xbox, go Home”, and you’re going to have to put rather a lot of effort into learning the whole lot in order to make full use of the feature.
You will open the wrong apps, you will swear at the Xbox and you will give up and reach for the control pad, almost certainly all within the first fifteen minutes of turning the One on. Gesture control is too fiddly for the UI, too. After about a week with the console we found ourselves using Kinect for some specific functions – recording clips and Snapping apps, for example – but most of the time the controller was our operational weapon of choice.
What Kinect does give you is handy features such as automatic login via face recognition – it can even log a number of players in at once and automatically switch priority by working out who’s holding the controller. It does these things instantly, even when sitting 3m away in a fairly dimly lit room (the recommendation is 2m).
It also adds the best Skype functionality we’ve ever experienced, automatically panning and zooming to keep you in shot and producing crisp video and audio.
TV, TV, TV
It may have upset the thoroughbred gamers out there, but for a good number of people seeing Xbox control cable TV through voice commands during the announcement press conference was pretty exciting. Only some of the features shown off are actually available at launch, which is a great shame, but this is still a feature with great potential.
Essentially the Xbox One has HDMI pass-through – you plug your Freeview, Freesat, Sky or Virgin PVR into the HDMI input, and then plug the Xbox into your TV or AV receiver as normal. Hey presto, you can now watch your TV through the console dashboard. You can even set the Xbox to turn on your PVR, TV and amp automatically at start-up, ushering in the dream scenario of walking into a room and having all of your kit turn on with a two-word utterance – “Xbox on”.
If you’ve got a relatively simple setup in your lounge it’s awesome, but it’s worth remembering that while the Xbox can be taught the remote codes for all of your equipment there are only certain functions it can perform – switching channels and inputs are not among them, so if your TV or AV amp start-up to an input other than the one your Xbox is connected to you’re going to have to dig out the old zapper.
More disappointing for those of us in Blighty is that the OneGuide isn’t yet available in the UK. This is the theoretically brilliant feature that fully integrates your PVR into the Xbox One UI, allowing you to browse channels and shows, set recordings and flit from program to program, all with voice control if you so wish – and without it the TV functionality is massively hampered.
In the UK you can adjust volume, pause and play, but you can’t do other simple things such as change channel or access the EPG, which is a great shame when you consider that the Xbox works by sending IR commands to your devices and already knows what the commands are as you gave it your original remote’s code when you went through the setup.
Multi-tasking in a Snap
We’ve mentioned Snap a couple of times now, but it bears looking at in a bit more detail, especially as it gives you a reason to connect your TV box to the Xbox even though the OneGuide isn’t available.
Snap is the Xbox One’s picture-in-picture tech. At any time, while doing anything, simply say “Xbox, Snap…” followed by the name of any of the console’s Snappable apps and it will appear in a column on the right-hand side of the screen.
Playing a game and want to see what the football score is? “Xbox, Snap TV”. Watching TV and want to see what your friends are up to? “Xbox, Snap Activity”. And when you want to go back to just the one app, simply say “Xbox, unsnap”.
Not every app is Snappable, but a good bunch is, including the Game DVR and Xbox Music. In fact, using Snap is the only way to play Xbox Music while gaming, which is rather a shame – you may well want to listen to Band of Horses while racing cars in Forza 5, but that doesn’t mean you want to sacrifice a portion of your screen to pictures of the hairy chaps. Alas, that’s the only way to do it.
The Snap feature also lacks independent volume control for the two apps you’re running. It tries to intelligently decide what the priority is, but currently music and TV audio is too loud and drowns out game sound. We’d like to be able to watch the football, muted, while playing Battlefield, but it’s just not possible yet. Microsoft tells us it’s “exploring the best way to add user control to various audio sources and will have more to share in the future”. Hopefully that future is not too distant.
Putting Snap to one side, switching between apps on the fly is very quick and easy. If you’ve already opened the app you want at least once in this session it’s practically instantaneous, although you have to wait a few seconds for it to initialise if not. Game progress is automatically paused while you mess around with other apps – go back to it and it’ll instantly resume wherever you left off.
Microsoft Xbox One
Hugely ambitious and with game-changing potential, the Xbox One just isn't quite there at launch