Xbox One, Console Review

Review Daniel Hill 11/25/2013 at 12:35PM

We've had all weekend to play with our new Xbox Ones, and here's our official review...

When has a console's release managed to stir up as much controversy pre-launch as the Xbox One has been able to? With all of the back and forth thanks to some heavy-handed DRM (if intentioned to make a few technological leaps), a required Kinect sensor, and a focus seemingly entirely opposite of Sony’s “The Best Place To Play” approach, the world made us all believe that Microsoft had totally lost sight of why the Xbox brand was born to begin with – to play games. After spending the weekend with the Xbox One, it really looks like Microsoft has managed to please both crowds, but some technical missteps mar what could have otherwise been a solid launch.

As a disclaimer from the get-go – I am a technical layman. I don’t read into the software architecture or dive into all of the different things I can plug into a console. I just want to play the damn thing and have a reasonably streamlined experience while navigating the dashboard. If you’re looking for something extremely technical, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m only here to tell you how easy/entertaining the console is to use.

The Hardware

Whereas the PlayStation 4 is the sexiest thing this side of (insert your sexy Hollywood figure of choice), Microsoft, on the other hand, has made a considerably less attractive piece of hardware. Looking a lot like a two-tone VCR from the ’90s, the Xbox One will not make any entertainment center more attractive. The fact that it can only lie on its side is also irksome, given that it is already larger than the Xbox 360. It will take up a lot of space. Oh, and did I mention the external power brick?

Included but no longer required, the Kinect sensor manages to look a little better, but hey, how can you screw up a box that small and that much less intricate on the inside? The only real problem is that the cord for the sensor is on the short side, and those looking to place it too far away from the Xbox will be out of luck.

Where the Xbox One does share common ground with the PlayStation 4 is the move the console has made to digital only. Say goodbye to those component cords and hello the HDMI outputs. For TV functionality, there is also an HDMI in port, where one would connect a cable or satellite box. Any HDMI-capable device will connect just fine through here, but those looking to run an Xbox 360 or PS3 through there, there are reports that playing this way can be laggy, so take that as you will.

As of right now, the three USB ports – two on the back and one on the front – can only be used to charge rechargeable battery packs for controllers, but Microsoft has said that external storage support is coming to the console in the future. This is good, considering that the 500 GB internal drive will likely be eaten up a little quickly than one might imagine, thanks to required game installs that take up as much as 5 GB, and that’s before updates, add-ons, etc.

The Controller

While I felt the PlayStation 4’s controller was a massive step forward for the Dualshock controllers, the Xbox One gamepad, successor to arguably the greatest gamepad of all time, isn’t really a step forward, and even falls short in an area or two.

The pad fit very comfortably in my hands, continuing the tradition of pads that are great for those with big hands. The D-Pad is finally useful, as well, thanks to arrows that click, unlike the mushy mess that was the Xbox 360 controller’s D-Pad.

The triggers still feel great to pull, and the face buttons all respond with a crisp click. The textured rims of the now-more-sensitive analog sticks also add just a little more precision and a feel of quality to things. Also neat is the haptic feedback that resonates in the triggers, adding just a little more sensation to the rumble we have all become accustomed to.

While all of that is good and well, the Xbox One remote isn’t without its faults. For whatever reason, Microsoft is still not offering a controller with a built-in battery, but requires either two AA’s or that you purchase battery packs separately. It really does make the controller feel dated, compared to the Dualshock 4’s built in battery, even if that controller is short on battery life. On the plus side, the battery compartment is no longer protruding from the back of the controller like in the Xbox 360, but is recessed into the rear of the controller, leaving that area nice and smooth.

Another problem came from the bumpers, which now lack the fresh click of the 360’s bumpers, and instead connect with a cheap-feeling thud. The bumpers also have a few dead zones, and I found myself once or twice not throwing that grenade I intended to throw in Call of Duty: Ghosts, but instead standing there like an idiot.

The gamepad also feels overall less rugged than the Xbox 360’s. It feels light, even while the plastic feels like it is of a quality build. It may sound ridiculous, but shaking the gamepad also resulted in an unsettling rattling sound that had me believing there was something wrong.

Setup

This was easily the Xbox One’s worst feature. The setup on this console was an absolute nightmare. Taking nearly an hour, I was left thinking on multiple occasions that I had gotten a defective console. The menus were easy enough to navigate, and importing my gamertag was no issue, but for whatever reason, the console took just forever to do anything, leaving me sitting on screens for quite some time before anything meaningful happened.

There was a day one update that apparently was used to remove the much hated DRM features, along with the requirement for Kinect functionality, and I’m sure there were a few last-minute fixes in there, as well. While the update downloaded in no time at all, the installation took a terribly long amount of time, and I was, once again, left thinking my console had broken.

Another problem I encountered once but, thankfully, never again, was games not installing. When I placed my Forza 5 disk in the console, the required install started, but went nowhere, sitting at zero percent for 15 minutes before I went to the internet for help.

After trying a suggested fix that had me unplugging and restarting my console once, the install finally started. However, game installs took almost an hour, which is just ridiculous, considering that the PlayStation 4 had them installed in minutes. You are able to play games once they hit a certain percentage, and while I had no problems doing this, I had friends that could barely play Dead Rising 3 without it lagging. Hopefully, Microsoft speeds up the install process in the future.

The User Interface

Once you get past the impeccably slow setup process and a few games installed, you thankfully have a great user interface waiting for you. While it is initially bewildering, Microsoft did a great job of providing all sorts of tutorials to help you get oriented. Once you have the basics down, the once seemingly confusing setup becomes extremely easy to navigate. This is one area where Microsoft’s past with software design definitely puts them a leg up from Sony’s sloppy UI.

The home screen, much like Windows 8, is composed of colorful tiles. Here, your most recently used apps will appear. Pressing the Menu button on the controller while you have these tiles selected feels like a strange way of getting to the options for these tiles at first, but ultimately, it was much easier to get access to options such as uninstalling and pinning.

Speaking of pining, this great feature allows you to put some of your favorite games and apps directly to the right of your home screen. While it’s great right now, when there isn’t exactly a wealth of apps and games on the market, Microsoft will definitely have to find a better way to organize the dashboard in the future. Digging further into the app library required navigating just a few too many menus.

The Store, sitting directly to the right of the home screen, is also likely to encounter a similar problem down the road. While the large tiles and suggestions were all pleasing to the eye and easy to shuffle through, once again, given the paltry amount of content to navigate at this point, of course that seems easy. Once more apps and games are released; Microsoft will have to find an effective way to categorize their content. Right now, though, navigation never felt like a chore, unlike with the PlayStation 4.

While the Kinect was something that I have never been, the Xbox One is starting to show me how it can revolutionize system navigation. While using the Xbox One game controller is by no means slow, I found myself using voice commands almost all the time, once I got used to their quirks.

These quirks come in a variety of small, but noticeable forms. For one, the Kinect is very particular about the things you say. To start Forza 5, for example, you can’t just say “Play Forza 5,” you have to say, “Xbox, go to Forza 5.” This includes saying the full titles of movies and games, so if you want to load up The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford on BluRay, prepare to say a mouthful to make that happen.

Another problem I encountered with Kinect was that it wouldn’t always catch exactly what you would say, something that isn’t entirely unexpected with voice recognition software, but was still annoying when it occurred. Saying, “Xbox, go to Snap,” only to be brought to the options screen, was quite irksome. Despite these problems, the times that the voice commands all came together outshined these moments.

It should be said, however, that I never once got any gesture-based commands to work. It seems like Microsoft really banked on the voice commands. Holding QR codes up to the screen in place of entering the 25-character codes is definitely an awesome feature that has me never wanting to type one of those in again. The fact that it also uses facial recognition to quickly sign you into your profile is also a nifty trick that makes things move just a little bit faster.

Another feature that feels inherently next gen is the Snap feature, which allows you to run two apps side by side on the same screen, should they support it. I was able to have Call of Duty running on one part of my screen while I had my friend’s activity feed up on the other. It really proved to be useful and, for the first time, I felt like I was using something that was just a little more than a gaming machine.

Xbox Live

Microsoft has historically had the edge on Sony in the past with its Xbox Live service, but with Sony adopting cloud saves and having Twitch streaming available at launch, something Microsoft says will not be available until early 2014, Microsoft definitely had to put a little more work into Xbox Live this time around, and for the most part, it shows.

First up is the new and improved friends list, which, like the PlayStation, expanded. Moving from 100 to 1,000 friends is a considerable leap, even if it’s not as many as Sony’s 2,000. Now, however, going to your friend’s list also brings up a news feed, telling you what achievements your friends have unlocked, showing you videos they have uploaded, and games they have downloaded. It really takes you beyond just having people on your friends list – it shows you what they are up to, as well, which softens the blow of Microsoft’s decision to remove all social media incorporation from this console.

Two apps that also allow Microsoft to remain competitive in the absence of Twitch are the Game DVR app and the Upload Studio. The game DVR will record up to five minutes of gameplay footage, or the last 30 seconds of it with the voice command “Xbox, record that.”After capturing your video, you can enter into the Upload Studio, where you can further edit your video before uploading it to the SkyDrive, YouTube, or other social networks.

SkyDrive gives gamers unlimited space in the cloud to save their games. These saves are synched worldwide, and allow you to access your saved games without towing your console of some form of storage around with you. This will no doubt make those sleepovers you have at a friend’s house a lot easier to get to.

Finally, I should also mention that downloads are fairly quick, as well. Whereas I found myself waiting for around 45 minutes for larger items to download off of PlayStation Network, I had Killer Instinct downloaded in only around 15 to 20 minutes. It’s nice to see downloads coming this quickly this early in the launch.

In Closing

Microsoft is probably sweating bullets right now. After all of the things they had to take out in response to the public outcry following the console’s announcement, it’s miraculous that they even got the console to us this year.

I found myself very polarized with the Xbox One – hating the horrible setup and long install times on games, but loving things like Snap and functional voice commands. This made the Xbox One a somewhat emotional experience in all the wrong ways, and it shows that Microsoft has a long way to go before the console reaches its full potential. Everything still feels a little like it is in beta. Once some of the present problems are addressed, however, I can see myself having a lot of fun with the Xbox One.

7 out of 10

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The internal battery complaint is just stupid. If your battery dies in your controller, you have to purchase a new controller and not just a battery for it. I would rather pay $20 for a new rechargeable battery than $60 for a whole new controller. Hell, a big pack of AA batteries can be bought for as low $8 with a coupon.