It’s not hyperbole to say that the Xbox One is the most ambitious console launch of all time. A lot may have changed since Microsoft announced the system earlier this year, but one thing has always remained clear: The Xbox One is not just a game console. It’s a machine that aims to transform the way we consume digital entertainment and the way we interact with our TVs. Ambition of that scale is often a double-edged sword, and that is certainly the case with the Xbox One, which, at the moment, can be defined by some pretty big hits and misses. Of course you want to know: Do the positives outweigh the negatives? The answer is a nuanced one, as the Xbox One experience doesn’t lend itself to the kind of hard line “buy it” or “don’t buy it” recommendation. In the following pages, we break down the hardware and software so you can decide if the Xbox One is right for you.
The Hardware—A New Way to Kinect
The first thing you’ll notice about the Xbox One is how massive it is. It’s almost 11 inches wide by 13 inches deep and three inches tall. In an age of ever-shrinking electronics, I actually love how the Xbox One bucks the trend and hearkens back to a time of behemoth top-loading VCRs that dominated our entertainment centers. The Xbox One is, of course, much prettier than a top-loading VCR, with power and disc eject buttons that aren’t really buttons at all, just sensitive spots on the console’s face that operate on the lightest of touches. Like the PS4, the Xbox One is housed in a mixture of glossy and matte black plastic, with nearly half of that housing built out of vents to dissipate heat.
Those vents will come in handy because if you use the Xbox One the way it was intended, it’s going to be on all the time. The console has an HDMI IN port for your cable signal, and if you choose to set it up this way (which you should, as this is a major selling point) you actually won’t be able to watch TV without your Xbox turned on; this connection does not serve as a dead pass through. This can seem like a pain in the ass at first, but once you start switching between apps, games, and TV, you won’t be pining for the option to just turn on your cable box. The Xbox One’s new hardware allows for a lot of programs to run in the background and makes switching back and forth between games, TV, and apps like Skype and Netflix, super-fast. Snap mode allows you to run TV or a game in the main window—more than three quarters of your TV screen—and have one additional app running as a sidebar to your screen. One of the coolest uses of this new mode is to have the NFL app snapped to the side of the screen—scrolling headlines, stats, or your NFL.com fantasy team (at launch, no other fantasy sites are supported, unfortunately)—with a game running on the main screen. In addition, a new Smartglass app designed especially for the Xbox One lets you navigate the UI and perform some remote control commands, including volume control and channel changing, from your smartphone or tablet.
Most discussions about Xbox One, however, usually start with the new Kinect, which comes packed in. The Kinect is a pretty serious piece of hardware, a heavy, 10-inch wide camera and microphone that can be mounted above or below your TV. It connects to the console via a thick, nearly 10-foot-long cable. Like the original Kinect for the Xbox 360, the new version lets you motion-control certain games, and because it’s far more advanced than the first, does a much better job in this regard. But motion-controlled games are just the tip of the iceberg; the new Kinect allows you to channel surf, open any app, Skype, and navigate any part of the Xbox One’s interface through voice commands. This is simultaneously the source of the Xbox One’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side: This allows you to walk into your living room and say, “Xbox on,” and instantly fire up your Xbox, cable or satellite box, and TV with that single command before you even sit down. Shutting the whole entertainment system down is just as simple with an “Xbox, turn off.”
Say, “Xbox watch TV,” then “Xbox, watch ESPN,” and the Kinect is responsive enough to bring you there quicker than your remote can. But any channel with a name not as distinct as Fox, NFL Network, or Comedy Central will give you problems. While the Kinect can take me to the NFL Network 10 times out of 10 that I try, it’s yet to be able to take me to the correct channel when I say “Xbox, watch NFL Redzone.” Most of the time, it takes me to the NFL Network or, if I try to emphasize the “Redzone” portion of this, it might take me to another, totally random channel. Ironically, a few times it took me to the Lifetime channel.
Other new functions like gesture control using Kinect aren’t very smooth, either. In theory, you’re supposed to be able to wave to the Kinect to enable gesture controls, and then navigate the interface or the channel guide with simple hand gestures. This is fine if you want to “grab” your home screen and swipe to the left or right, but selecting a piece of content or a channel rarely works well. Hopefully, this is something Microsoft can iron out in a future update. Another major drawback: At the moment, the Kinect has no DVR functionality, meaning you cannot go to your cable box’s DVR using any voice commands. Given the popularity of DVRing—I rarely watch live TV outside of sports these days—this is a significant issue, if only because it robs the Xbox One of feeling complete. Again, Microsoft can and will likely iron this out in future updates, but at launch, it remains a major oversight.
When you’re done messing around with the new Kinect, you might actually want to play some games, and the first thing you’re going to notice is the new controller. Considering the fact that the Xbox 360’s controller, aside from the clunky D-pad, is one of the most universally loved console controllers ever, I had reservations about tinkering with success. And, I’ll admit that I didn’t think much of the new design when I first picked it up; the grip forces the hands to pitch slightly toward one another, and that takes some getting used to. But after playing several Xbox One titles in multiple genres, and playing Ryse through to the end, picking up the 360 controller feels like a serious step back in time; it’s a toy compared to the elegant design of the Xbox One controller. The materials are sturdier; the matte black plastic gives it a serious look like the console itself; the D-pad is perfectly accurate; the triggers have even better contouring for comfort, with each one delivering independent rumble feedback; and the analog sticks have deep convex centers and a textured edge for grip—with the most precise control yet.
The launch library for the Xbox One is a big check in the plus column. Like the PS4, the Xbox One is home to all of the latest installments in the big, third-party franchises like Assassin’s Creed IV, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Madden 25, and FIFA 14, all of which represent a graphical upgrade over their Xbox 360 and PS3 counterparts. On the exclusive front: Though the PS4 boasts a deeper library through independent offerings, the Xbox One actually has more must-owns, with two AAA exclusive launch titles available now: Forza Motorsport 5 and Ryse: Son of Rome. (In this reviewer’s opinion, the only AAA must-own on the PS4 is Killzone: Shadowfall.)
In its fifth installment, Forza has officially raised the bar for all other games in the racing sim genre with 200 cars lovingly detailed to a photorealistic finish. Other racers have had more—Forza 4 had 500—but none have ever looked this good. The Xbox One’s new processing power also allows for more realistic racing physics than ever before, and the controller’s rumble triggers allow you to experience feedback in a totally new way; with your finger on the right trigger—the throttle—you’ll feel the peaks and valleys of the RPM gauge, and depending on how hard you hit the brakes with the left trigger—and how fast you were going—you might feel a smooth deceleration, a light tremble as the brake pads work to control the car, or an all-out grind indicating the car is on the verge of flying apart.
Ryse is arguably the most next-gen-looking game on any system, even if its gameplay and premise is decidedly old-school. You are Marius Titus, a Roman soldier whose mission is to quell a barbarian uprising—and eventually get revenge for the death of his family—with a sword, shield, and the occasional spear or turn at the Scorpion, a crossbow turret. The swordplay is the real heart of the game, though, and the combo system demands that you fight through each enemy or group of enemies with perfectly timed attacks and blocks; mistime one of these commands and you’ll not only lose life, but also miss out on the rewards of building a huge string and have to start a new one. It’s wildly addictive, and the execution animations, while limited, are amazingly detailed—the perfect reward for a well-fought battle.
Other exclusives of note include Dead Rising 3, a fun zombie romp, and Killer Instinct, a triumphant rebirth of the arcade and N64 classic available via download from Xbox Live. You can’t go wrong with either of these, but steer well clear of Lococycle and Crimson Dragon, both of which fall flat.
The Xbox One may be a work in progress, but it absolutely is progress, and reflects the way many people use video-game consoles today. Yes, it is a games machine, but moreover, it is an entertainment hub that gives you instant access to TV, games, and a number of entertainment apps, more seamlessly integrated on a big screen than they've ever been before. Of course, work needs to be done, and future updates—or lack thereof—that bring increased functionality to the Kinect are going to write the final history of the Xbox One. Today, at the start of the Xbox One’s life cycle, voice commands for cable boxes and smart TVs are not yet common, but they will be. Pretty soon, Microsoft is not going to be able to rope in consumers with novelty, and drawbacks like lackluster motion controls and a complete lack of DVR functionality will become issues that cripple the system if they’re not corrected.
But for now, the Xbox One is in a good place with a solid launch lineup. The much-anticipated Titanfall, coming in March, will only be available on Xbox One and PC, not PS4. Of course, there’s also a little game called Halo 5 that will be coming down the road, and even the most hesitant adopters will likely fall in line to be on the Master Chief’s first next-gen mission.
So how are you going to answer the ultimate question: PS4 or Xbox One? The only way to answer that is to think long and hard about how you’re going to be using your console. Do you want an entertainment hub, or more of a dedicated games machine? I don’t consider any of the caveats to either system to be true deal-breakers.
For those with the budget, the real question isn’t which one to buy, but which one to buy first. And thankfully, the answer to that question comes back to which games you feel you have to play right now.