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. It was a huge disappointment then, that this other huge new feature of the One was so underbaked for the rest of the world besides the US at launch. Now, though, Microsoft has mostly finished the cooking.
It all starts with HDMI pass-through – you plug your set top box 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 of “Xbox on” - assuming you kept your Kinect, of course. A long press of the Xbox button on the pad will have the same effect if not.
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 inputs is 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.
Multi-tasking in a Snap
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. There's now a controller shortcut for this, too - a double-tap of the Xbox button. Guess what? That's even quicker than the Kinect command.
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” or return to the dashboard and click on the Unsnap icon.
Not every app is Snappable, but a good bunch are, 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 now has independent volume control for the two apps you're running. That's a big improvement on having both blaring at you at the same volume as before, but it's still not ideal as you have to go back to the dashboard and into settings to make adjustments, so you can't hear the changes as you make them, and even then it's a simple sliding scale of priority. How about simply prioritising whichever screen is currently selected and muting the other, so that you can concentrate on a game but quickly flick to the snapped TV app when a goal is scored or something? Or even in-app, on-the-fly volume control? Is that too much to ask?
There's now a Snap mode for achievements, and those who like to hunt down every last one will find it very useful, because as well as giving you info on the achievement you've just unlocked, clicking on one you're yet to get does an immediate web search for help on getting it. It's brilliantly quick - even more so than using the phone sitting next to you.
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.
More after the break...
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. Its DRM-like, constantly connected authentication system was binned after the post-announcement 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. Now that's just cheating.
A recent install of Titanfall took an age, too. 1min21secs to even begin (presumably because there was also a game update that needed to be cued up), and then we had to wait for the entire game to be installed before we could start playing, and that took a painful 17 minutes. Now that's not very next-gen.
One issue that has been sorted is that you can now manage your Xbox One's storage yourself. Pop into the My Games and Apps section and you can see what percentage of your 500GB HDD is currently in use and delete anything you're no longer playing.
Would you rather expand your storage than delete stuff? That's now very easily done, thanks to support for external hard drives via USB. 2TB external drives can be had for as little as S$200 these days, and the use of USB3.0 means there's no data-transfer choke point. The new storage is integrated seamlessly and unlike with the PS4, you're adding to, rather than replacing, the system's built-in storage. It may not be terribly neat having an external device dangling out of your console, but it sure is handy when you consider 40-50GB games are now the norm.
THE GAMES OF RIGHT NOW
There were 59 games available to play on Xbox One at the last count, which should be plenty but is actually a long way shy of the PS4's 96.
It's about more than numbers, though, and most of the big hitters are available on both of the consoles, including the likes of Call Of Duty: Ghosts, Battlefield 4, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, FIFA 14, Watch Dogs, Need For Speed Rivals and Wolfenstein: The New Order. Unfortunately, a good number of these run in a higher resolution on PS4 than Xbox One, which is 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. At least it's a problem that's on the way out, thanks to the unbundling of Kinect freeing up a performance boost for game developers.
And let's not forget the exclusives that are already out there. Dead Rising 3 and Ryseare more solid than truly brilliant, but the PS4 still doesn't have a driving game to rival the Xbox One's Forza 5, and Titanfall offers one of the best multiplayer gaming experiences of the last few years.
It does feel as though Sony is currently winning the indie game battle, but there are a couple of Xbox One exclusives that are well worth your time, including Halo: Spartan Assault and Max: The Curse Of Brotherhood.
READ MORE: Titanfall review
The games of the future
Eight months in, and the gaming floodgates are finally about to open - we're all going to get drenched in next-gen gaming awesomeness in the run-up to Christmas, and there's lots to be excited about after that, too.
Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Battlefield Hardline and Assassin's Creed Unity all look like proper revolutions for their respective franchises, while FIFA 15 is prettier and smoother than ever and next-gen GTA 5 will give everyone an excuse to revisit Los Santos.
All of these games are going to be available on both the Xbox One and PS4, though, and many an Xbox gamer is moaning that the PS4 version of the massively anticipated Destiny is getting a whole load of extra content.
Two can play that game, though, and the Xbox will be getting Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare DLC first.
Microsoft's also got one over on Sony by announcing that Rise Of The Tomb Raider will be available only on Xbox, at least initially. A big third-party exclusive like that is ridiculously rare these days, and it comes on top of a bunch of exciting first-party exclusives, such as Quantum Break, Sunset Overdrive, Forza Horizon 2, Crackdown, Ori And The Blind Forest, and the extremely intriguing Project Spark.
The future's looking very bright on the Xbox One games front. Brighter than the PS4? We'll have to wait until those games are actually playable to find out.
Long-term test: Microsoft Xbox One
There are still niggles, but the newly Kinect-less Xbox One is a better, more focused games machine