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.
Don’t forget the games
Lest we forget, this is still a games machine first and foremost, and like Sony, Microsoft has been putting plenty of thought into how that should work for this new generation. It’s DRM-like, constantly connected authentication system was binned after the post-launch outcry, but you do install all games to the Xbox One, as you do with PS4.
Disc-based games begin installing as soon as you slot them into the drive, but some games can be played before the process is complete. The 55secs it took for the PS4 to have Killzone ready to play is still the benchmark, though – on Xbox One we waited nearly 4 minutes for Zoo Tycoon to be playable, and 7 minutes for Forza 5. Ryse was “Ready to Start” in just under 2 minutes, when just 3% was installed, but it turned out that only applied to the menu screens – actually starting a game took us to an installation page and it was in fact over 8 minutes before we could play.
Interestingly there’s no way to check how much of the 500GB hard drive you’ve used. We’re told that when you do eventually fill it you’ll be prompted to delete some content (save games are safe in the cloud), but there isn’t yet enough content available for us to find out. Expanding storage capacity via USB (of which there are three sockets on the One) is apparently coming in the future.
The launch line-up
As we mentioned in our PS4 review, the Xbox One arguably has a marginally better launch line-up, thanks in no small part to the brilliant Forza 5 – if you’re into driving games it’s going to make you do a happy dance.
But not everyone is into driving games, and the One’s other big exclusives – Dead Rising 3 and Ryse – are more solid than spectacular. What’s more, a number of big cross-platform games, most notably Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4, play at lower resolutions on Xbox One than on Battlefield 4, and that’s going to be a bitter pill for gamers expecting the next-gen experience to swallow, even if the games still look and play great when tackled in isolation.
Looking to the future we’re very excited about Titanfall, which is an Xbox One exclusive, but only time will tell if it lives up to expectation. For now, let’s concentrate on the launch-day exclusives.
More after the break...
Forza Motorsport 5
Forza 5 is the first next-gen game we’ve played that seems to use the console’s power for more than just pushing extra pixels. It looks incredible, with even the reflection of your car’s steering wheel sometimes visible in the windscreen when the light catches it just so, but the most noticeable changes in gameplay come from the more advanced physics, which give you a much better idea of what the car’s doing underneath you than ever before (helped in part by the Xbox One pad’s targeted vibrations).
The cloud-powered Drivatar – which informs the on-track behaviour of computer-controlled cars based on how human Forza players really drive – is a massive success. Bump it up to the higher levels and single-player races actually feel like multiplayer games. And when you log off your own Drivatar continues racing and earning money for you.
Ryse: Son of Rome
Bloodier than Patrick Bateman’s coffee table after a night in, Ryse lets you hack and slash your way through ancient Rome relieving enemy centurions of their limbs as you go. With gameplay graphics that are barely distinguishable from the cut scenes, Ryse is a real showcase for your new hardware, but the button-mashing action gets rather samey rather quickly.
Dead Rising 3
This zombie-slayer-cum-DIY-‘em-up allows you to combine weapons or vehicles to create preposterous contraptions that increase your horde-wasting abilities to extreme levels: mash a motorbike together with a steamroller, or a wheelchair with a lawnmower. If nothing else, the sheer size of the zombie crowds it can show on screen should give you an idea of how much processing power the Xbox One has, even if the general graphical quality and frame-rate is a bit patchy.
Build a zoo! Fill it with totally adorable animals! Race around your zoo on animal-shaped golf buggies! All in 1080p! Kid-friendly but deep and rewarding, Zoo Tycoon is a management sim with added cuteness. You can even use Kinect to interact with your animals, but while pulling faces at chimps works a million times better than you’ll expect, feeding elephants using gesture control is a frustrating farce. At least that’s optional. And no, you can’t let a tiger loose in the penguin pen – this is a family game after all.
Endless gaming making you a bit pudgy around the middle? You could do worse than fire up the free Xbox Fitness app for a quick workout between sessions. It includes a bunch of free workouts presented by very American, often nauseatingly enthusiastic trainers, but Kinect is accurate enough to track your movements and weight placement and offer specific feedback as you go, although the heart rate tracking wouldn't work for us during testing. There are more fitness videos available for download, but the free selection is pretty generous and thorough enough to get you working up a sweat.
Online: how to make friends and follow people
Already extremely robust on 360, the Xbox Friends system has been fairly heavily modified for Xbox One. One of the biggest changes is that you can now add anyone as a Friend to immediately get updates on their activity (assuming their privacy settings allow it), but to them you’ll appear as a Follower unless they also add you as a Friend. It’s like the old system with a bit of Twitter thrown in.
It’s easier to connect with the people you want to then, but crucially it should also be easier to avoid the foul-mouthed tykes that so often ruin an online deathmatch, thanks to a reputation system designed to segregate players with bad reputations. With so few players online pre-launch we don’t yet know how well the feature works, but it sure sounds good.
And of course the scarily addictive Achievements system has been ported over to Xbox One, along with your existing Gamerscore. Challenges are being introduced, too, so that specific goals can be set for individuals or the community at large to work towards – a nice idea that seems to have been borrowed from Bungie’s Halo series.
Less of a nice idea is Achievements awarded for non-gaming activities, such as watching a movie or listening to a song. Thankfully these don’t add to your Gamerscore, which would just be weird.
Talking of movies, the Xbox One gives you a variety of ways to watch them. There’s support for Blu-rays, which play in 1080p with support for Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio (although those formats output to your amp as Linear PCM), and if you’re the kind of person who gets a kick out of that sort of thing you’ll also love the built-in picture calibrator, which is an extremely thorough way to get your TV looking its best.
There are video apps, too, and while Netflix wasn’t available during testing and Sky isn’t due until next year, Xbox Video has a massive selection of movies available to rent and buy on-demand. Even movies that are bought are streamed rather than downloaded, with the One dynamically scaling picture quality to match your broadband speed, but while there’s touch too much judder for them to be mistaken for Blu-rays, the overall quality is high.
As with the PS4, the Xbox One is constantly recording as you play. Clips are saved in two ways – automatically when you do something special in a game (usually it’s unlock an Achievement), and manually by saying “Xbox, record that”. These clips are then made available in the Upload app, but the onus is on you to then go into the app and save clips you want to keep – otherwise they’re deleted to make room for more.
Using the Upload app you can also edit and share your photos, including sending them to SkyDrive, where they’re stored as a 720p MP4 for further editing and sharing however you see fit. That's much more open than the Facebook-only video uploading of the PS4. On the other hand the PS4 has live Twitch streaming available at launch, whereas Microsoft has just delayed the Xbox One’s Twitch integration to 2014.
There’s something of a theme running through this review, and it's that just about every one of the Xbox One’s flagship features has a caveat attached.
There’s Kinect, which is often truly brilliant but occasionally unbearably frustrating. And TV integration that could be amazing but doesn’t yet fulfil its promise, especially in the UK. Then there’s the Snap picture-in-picture tech that with a few small tweaks could be massively useful.
If it’s simply games your interested in we’d argue that Forza 5 probably pushes the Xbox One’s launch line-up above that of the PS4, but Sony’s console counters with higher resolutions for key titles such as Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts. Whether you’re more interested in an incredible driving game or the crispest versions of those cross-platform games really comes down to personal preference.
Overall, we’d say the Xbox One is the more ambitious console, but it just doesn’t quite manage to follow through on all of its potential.
This isn’t a console battle, though – it’s a console war, and just about all of our criticisms of the Xbox One are things that can be fixed on the software side. This feels like the beginning rather than the end, and if the One realises it’s potential we’ll immediately bestow upon it that missing fifth star.
Microsoft Xbox One
Hugely ambitious and with game-changing potential, the Xbox One just isn't quite there at launch