The console war of 2013 has already begun. The Sony PlayStation 4 arrived in stores November 15, but the Microsoft Xbox One is not far behind. The One goes on sale Friday, November 22, and it really is the all-in-one entertainment device that Microsoft claims. I tested a pre-release unit, so some features, games, and services weren't yet operational (other services and features will roll out over time), but after a few days' experience with this console, I can see enormous potential.
What's in the box?
In addition to the Xbox One and Kinect 2 sensor, you get a power brick and cord for the console, one HDMI cable, an Xbox One Wireless Controller (AA batteries included), a headset for chat, and a 14-day trial subscription to Xbox Live Gold.
The Xbox One unit that I reviewed was flaky during setup. It froze several times during the initial system update, and I had to restart the system. This may have been an isolated case with my console, and I'll be able to confirm that when Consumer Reports gets a retail unit in our lab on the 22nd. Once I got the system up and running, however, it worked fine.
The setup itself is straightforward. Tutorials walk you through the process of syncing the Wireless Controller, connecting to your router and the Internet, starting an Xbox Live account (if you don't already have one), positioning and calibrating the Kinect sensor, and then preparing the Xbox to control your TV and set-top box.
That last little bit of setup is the key to one of the Xbox One's most important features. The Xbox One goes beyond the role of a traditional gaming system, and can be configured as a pass-through gateway between your cable or satellite box and your TV. Rather than running an HDMI cable directly from your set-top box to your television, you run an HDMI cable from your set-top box to your Xbox One, then another HDMI cable from the Xbox One to the TV.
It's a remarkable power grab within the living room AV system, which effectively makes the Xbox One the control center for all of your TV viewing. This type of set-top box takeover, however, is not unique to the Xbox One—in fact, it's becoming a trend; several TVs also have similar functionality. But centralizing control also means centralizing your connections—and if you have a lot of devices in your entertainment center, hooking it all up to the Xbox One can be a bit of a headache.
How it works
The Xbox One has quite a few connection ports to accommodate all of its functions. On the back is an Ethernet port, two USB ports, an optical audio output, a port for the Kinect sensor, and an IR output. It also has two HDMI ports—one is for input from your cable or satellite box, and the other is an output to the TV. And there’s another USB port on the left side of the console.
On the front face of the Xbox One is a disc-loading slot and eject button. There is also an Xbox logo, which is actually a On button that lights up when the Xbox One is activated. Booting up took 13 seconds in Instant-On mode. In Energy-Saving mode, bootup took about 64 seconds.
The Xbox One Wireless Controller is not a drastic departure from the Xbox 360's controller. And that's not a bad thing, because the 360's controller was already pretty great.
Improvements were made to the thumbsticks, which now have a textured grip along the rim and feel very smooth and responsive. The Start and Back buttons are now replaced by a Menu button and a View button. That View button can be used in games such as Forza Motorsport 5, where a one-button push can change the player’s viewpoint.
The Xbox One controller also has more rumble motors than the controller from the Xbox 360, which allow for more specific feedback. When you fire a gun, you feel the trigger rumble as opposed to the entire controller. These subtle nuances help to make games more immersive.
Seen Windows 8? If so, you'll find the Xbox One interface familiar. Clearly, Microsoft is looking to keep the scrolling tile UI consistent across its devices. The Xbox One's main screens are separated into brightly colored squares and rectangles representing available apps, games, and menus. The three main screens are called Pins, Home, and Store.
The Home screen displays your profile, recently opened apps, and a large window that shows whatever your last activity was. So if you returned to the Home screen while playing a game, that game will be displayed. If you were watching live TV, then that will be displayed in the window.
The Pins screen lets you access anything you have "pinned" to it. Basically, these are shortcuts. You can pin apps such as Netflix or even a particular show that you are watching so you can jump right to that show within Netflix without needing to navigate the menu.
The Store screen gives you access to the Xbox’s selection of games and media. The menu is easy to navigate, though you can forego any navigation by using voice commands via the Kinect (more on that below).
Visuals are probably the first noticeable difference in any next-generation console, and the Xbox One is no exception. It is clearly capable of better graphics than the Xbox 360. While results will vary depending on different visual styles in games, you can't argue with the results in a game like Forza, where cars and tracks are beautifully rendered with great attention to detail.
This is where the Xbox One shines. By connecting your set-top box to the Xbox One, you're essentially allowing the Xbox to control all your entertainment. In the initial setup, you tell the Xbox One which service provider and what type of set-top box you have. The Xbox then provides you with its version of your channel guide, called the Xbox OneGuide, and lets you control your cable or satellite box with Kinect's built-in infrared (IR) blaster.
You can use the wireless controller to navigate the OneGuide—but it's much faster and simpler to use the Kinect. For example, you can use voice commands to tune directly to a channel or show that you want to watch. Say "Xbox watch ESPN," and the console tunes your set-top box to the appropriate channel.
OneGuide can also pull in your streaming services, letting you browse Netflix and Hulu Plus right alongside the rest of your channel lineup. You can search with Bing for a particular show, movie, or actor, and it searches your TV channels along with your Internet services for the appropriate content. The one thing the Xbox One can’t search is your DVR, so you still need to use your set-top box’s remote for that.
While all this may seem groundbreaking, the Nintendo Wii U actually has similar features with its Nintendo TVii service; and many smart TVs and streaming-media boxes are offering similar services. In addition to all of this, Microsoft offers the HBO Go app (which lets you watch HBO programming on mobile devices), as well as an exclusive deal with the NFL—especially useful to those playing fantasy football.
One drawback to all this entertainment content is that, for most of it, you need an Xbox Live Gold account. It costs $60 per year, which is in addition to any subscription fees levied by the services themselves. By contrast, the PlayStation 4 requires that you pay for the PlayStation Plus service ($50 a year) only to play games online and for a few other perks, such as cloud storage; its other entertainment options are free.
Still deciding which new gaming console is right for you and your family? Our story, "Xbox One vs. PlayStation 4: How the features compare," can help.
The Kinect 2 is bundled with the Xbox One and can be used to control just about everything in the Xbox One's menu. It is more sensitive than the original Kinect, able to detect more subtle motions and up to six players at once.
You can make on-screen selections by making a push-forward motion with your hands, and expand the Home screen window by closing both hands and pulling them apart. Doing the opposite action will minimize the window.
Voice commands can also be used to forego menu navigation in many instances. Prompt the system by saying "Xbox," then follow up with a command. You can even use voice commands for surfing the Web. It isn’t 100 percent accurate every time, and it's not so easy to use in a noisy room, but it's still a pretty handy feature.
Of course, the Kinect is great for party-type multiplayer games, but it will also have some integration with major games such as Ryse: Son of Rome, letting you give commands through voice and gesture.
The Xbox also offers a fitness service that adds Kinect body tracking to popular workout videos such as Insanity and p90x, give users feedback while they exercise. The new Kinect can track your heart rate for the fitness service, though I had some trouble getting it to work accurately. I look forward to a more thorough evaluation from our health and fitness team.
If you're worried about privacy, the Kinect's audio, video, or both can be turned off through the menu. You also can unplug the Kinect altogether, and the Xbox will work just fine.
Playing games online works just as well as it always has on the Xbox. You can jump into games with your friends, form parties for in-game and cross-game chat, and make new friends online.
Unlike with the PlayStation 4, you won't use your real name even with your closest friends on Xbox Live—you'll be sticking with your existing Gamertag for now, if you already have one. Using the new SmartMatch system, Microsoft will attempt to keep games friendly by weeding out disruptive players, keeping teams evenly matched, and reducing wait times.
I'll need more time with the Xbox Live community to see if these features are actually working. If SmartMatch can save me from listening to kids arguing with their mothers about bedtime, I'll gladly pay for the Xbox Live Gold membership.
You can also Skype with friends, and using the new Snap feature, you can also Skype while playing a game or watching TV. Also, similar to the PlayStation 4, you can edit and share game clips with friends, via the Game DVR. And you’ll have access to SkyDrive, a cloud-storage service that lets you share photos and videos taken on your Xbox One or other devices.
One feature worth highlighting is the aforementioned Snap. It works kind of like picture-in-picture on a TV, letting you run two applications on the same screen at the same time. So, for example, you could be playing Dead Rising 3 while watching "The Walking Dead" on the side.
This feature works with most apps, so you can play around with different combinations. One drawback is that currently, the only available audio option is "mixed"—meaning you hear the sound from both applications that you’re running. This could be a problem if you’re playing a game, and the audio from a TV show interferes.
The SmartGlass app, available for mobile devices, also works with the Xbox One, serving as a way to keep tabs on your friends' activities, send messages, make purchases, and control the Xbox One menu. It also serves as a second screen for compatible games.
The Xbox One is packed with features. Voice- and gesture-based controls give the console a futuristic feel and a real wow factor. Visuals are superior to those of the previous generation of consoles. Running multiple apps at once is useful particularly for gaming while watching TV, and improved rumble feedback in the controller is a subtle way of making games more immersive.
The price is probably the Xbox One’s biggest drawback. At $500, it is the most expensive of the current-generation consoles. An Xbox Live Gold membership is required for most of its touted features, and that drives the cost up as well.
The console is large, so it's going to take up some space in your entertainment center. And because of the additional connections in the back of the console, the physical setup could be difficult, especially for those who don't have easy access to back of their TV and other devices.
So who should buy an Xbox One? Fans of Xbox-exclusive games such as the Halo series are going to want this console. And if you're the type of person who splits your focus between gaming and sports or keeping up with TV shows, then this is the console you'll want.
If you own a smart TV with similar entertainment features, though, you probably don't need them from the Xbox One. And a lot of devices that connect to your TV can give you at least some of what the Xbox One offers. But if you've been waiting for one device that can handle all your entertainment needs—including visually impressive gaming—then this One's for you.
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