Calling the launch of the Xbox One a bit of a false start would be going rather easy on Microsoft.
There was Kinect, which nobody wanted but which was bundled into every box for an S$100 premium. There was the TV integration, which wasn't only unpopular but which also didn't work anywhere near well enough in the UK. And there was a performance deficit when comparing the same games against the PS4. Needless to say, the Xbox One has been losing out to the PS4 in sales ever since.
But that was eight months ago, and the Xbox One of August 2014 is very different to the Xbox One of November 2013. All of the flaws have been tackled to one extent or another. Most significantly, Kinect is now out of the deal - that's allowed Microsoft to drop the price to match the PS4 and has released enough extra power for developers to make their games look and play better.
The ambition has been pared back then, but there's a renewed focus on perfecting the basics. Does that make it a better console than it was? And even more importantly, is it now as good as or even better than the PS4? Continue reading this fully upated review to find out.
READ MORE: Sony PS4 review
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 eight months in we're yet to experience or hear of any significant technical issues or heat problems with the Xbox One, the same can be said of the much sleeker PS4. There's always time for a big issue to turn up, but so far both consoles appear to be just as reliable as each other.
Noise (or a lack thereof) is vital for an all-singing, all-dancing lounge-friendly fun box, 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 - 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.
Planning on standing your Xbox One up? Microsoft revealed at the Tokyo Game Show that the Xbox One is designed to be placed horizontally. "We don't support vertical orientation; do it at your own risk," says Albert Panello, Xbox senior director of product management and planning. "It wouldn't be a cooling problem, we just didn't design the drive for vertical," he adds. "Because it's a slot loading drive, we just didn't design it for both".
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, though – to us those thumb pads seem too small, the d-pad feels rather cheap and clicky, inserting AA batteries into a controller feels decidedly last-gen (is a bundled Play & Charge kit too much to ask?), it rattles when shaken, and over time we've become rather annoyed by the hard edges where the plastic panels meet. It's largely the same controller as before, but it feels a bit cheap compared to the PS4 pad.
But there are also some improvements. 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 - on paper it certainly seems the more advanced pad, and in the hand it feels that little bit more premium. Having said that, to those migrating from Xbox 360 the Xbox One pad will feel totally 'right', and the localised vibration is a fun and occasionally very useful addition.
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 instinctive 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.
And talking of the Store, there are some weird issues here, too. Try using the One's global search function to find Destiny. You'd have thought it would take you to game page where you could at the very least watch trailers and probably pre-order the game for download on the day of launch. Alas, that game page doesn't exist, the One doesn't yet support pre-orders of digital editions, and no trailers or other game information is turned up. It's almost like the game doesn't exist, but is made all the more weird by the fact that there's a trailer for the game on the console's Home screen. Think that's just Microsoft marginalising a game that's launching with exclusive PS4 content? Try typing in "Advanced Warfare" or "Quantum Break" and the result is the same.
KINECT: FROM CORNERSTONE TO MARGINALISED ACCESSORY
Now here's the big change: Kinect, touted by Microsoft as an absolutely key component of the One's very existence, has been unbundled from the package. So should you buy one now that it's merely an accessory? Probably not.
Over the last eight months we've barely used ours, and given that Microsoft has now introduced new controller shortcuts that are actually much quicker than the mostly-correct-but-occasionally-annoyingly-inaccurate Kinect voice and gesture commands, there's even less reason to get it.
There haven't been any particularly compelling Kinect gaming experiences, either, and those few developers who had such games in development will be seriously rethinking their plans now that the install base of Kinects can't be relied upon. Perhaps an amazing app or game will appear in the future that will bring Kinect back into the light, but we wouldn't hold our breath.
If you've already got a Kinect you may as well keep it set up for those handy features such as automatic login via face recognition – it can even log in a number of players at once and automatically switch priority by working out who’s holding the controller. It also gives you one of the best Skype experiences we’ve ever, umm, experienced, automatically panning and zooming to keep you in shot and producing crisp video and audio.