Eight years ago the gaming climate was forever changed by the release of the Xbox 360. Its progressive online functionality, ergonomic controller, and enticing batch of exclusive titles would make it a challenging adversary for even the most battle-hardened gaming brands to deal with.
Now, Microsoft looks to approach from a different angle. Instead of focusing on gaming, it's after the entire entertainment market. But it's a tough sell at $499. Does it deliver?
The Xbox One isn't portable by any stretch of the imagination. It's large and hefty at a total weight of nine pounds. Microsoft even says that it shouldn't be stood vertically under any circumstances. Despite this, the console is attractive. Its contrast of glossy and matte finishes with diagonally facing fins on the top makes it fit well into any modern entertainment center. Microsoft's design philosophy has been pragmatically rooted in an effort to avoid a repeat of the Xbox 360's RROD (red ring of death) woes, and has gone to great lengths to design the internals and externals to keep temperatures in check.
Its large, rectangular shape houses an 8-core AMD CPU running at 1.75 with 8GB memory and a GPU capable of 1.32 teraflop throughput. The result is a drastic improvement in theoretical computational power over the Xbox 360. You can expect extremely fast UI navigation whether or not you're in a game or application. The horsepower hasn't manifested itself properly into the launch game library, though. Many of the games look good, but not great. It may be a while before we see what it's really capable of for gaming, but for now it's a marginally noticeable upgrade over last-gen.
However, the powerful CPU and generous amount of memory has translated itself into an excellent UI experience. Moving through the Xbox OS is a real treat. Microsoft's successful work in software over the years has proven immensely useful for Xbox One. Not only is navigation and loading fast, but the way it presents information with efficient square tiles is fantastic. On the main page, a center tile features your last, or currently, used application. Below it are applications you've recently used. To the left is an area where you can pin anything of your choice for quick access. The UI makes good use of screen real-estate by wasting as little of it as possible. For some that means it'll be daunting at first as there's a lot shown at any given time, but after an hour or two it's easy to fall in love with it. And if you don't care for the color, you can change it to a theme of your liking.
Bundled with the console are some goodies. There are the essential accessories such as an HDMI cable, as well as a headset and controller so you can play games and chat with your friends—and if it breaks you can use the Kinect's microphone. Those who played the Xbox 360 will feel right at home since the headset also has volume controls and a mute button, and the new controller retains the stylistic approach of the Xbox 360 controller. Additionally, there's a large power brick to deal with. It has an attractive design just like the console but it's baffling that the console needs one at all. Finding a location in the room to place it is something I wish I didn't even have to think about.
Most notably, the new Kinect comes standard with every Xbox One. Similar to the power brick it's large, but it's also extremely sophisticated. Microsoft is pushing it to be a keystone of the Xbox One experience now that it's bundled with every console sold. It offers both practicality and cool tricks to casual and hardcore users alike. On the practicality side, voice control is an integral part of the Xbox One experience. Although I've heard some reviewers say that they've found it unrealiable, I've had a 100% success rate in both environments I've tested in. There's a learning curve present, but once you get the fundamentals down there's no going back. Menu navigation, multitasking, and more are made readily available by simple commands.
Really, I can't give enough praise to the voice controls. I haven't used my controller to navigate the UI since the day I got it, not only because it's cool, but because it's quicker. I shut off my console, toggle between applications, and even answer calls without moving an inch. But, if you're not into being vocal you can choose to disable the Kinect entirely. It won't stop you.
There are also some cool tricks the Kinect brings. When you enter the room Kinect will automatically log you in. If you hand the controller to someone else in the room, it notices and switches profiles. There are also gestures, but they aren't very reliable. While you can raise your arm to go into a gesture input mode, it's clunky and the Kinect appears confused when you switch between one and two hands. It's impressive to navigate through Internet Explorer using gestures, and I hope it's polished at some point in the future. Currently, it's little more than potential.
Beyond voice controls and the included camera and microphone, the Kinect is bare on features. The launch library utilizes it sparingly. The good thing to know is that since Kinect is included, developers can find meaningful ways to implement it into their games knowing that it has a large install base. Indie developers are sure to find clever potential with its 1080p camera and intelligent software.
Where Xbox One really shines is with its multitasking capabilities. Not only can you run several applications at once, but you can pop them into a Snap frame at any time. For example, while playing a game you can open a side window for music, parties, and more. By verbally saying "switch" you can toggle between your application and whatever's in the Snap window. Think of it as a second monitor for your PC, but limited to a smaller space. This means, yes, you can watch TV or keep track of fantasy football stats while you play Call of Duty. It sounds gimmicky, but it's implemented well enough that it's worth using no matter what kind of consumer you are.
One thing I don't feel gets enough attention is Skype's integration. Currently, Skype is one of if not the best VOIP (voice over internet protocol) applications on the market. Having Skype at your fingertips allows you to interact with your friends not only from your Xbox One, but from a PC or mobile platform. Since Xbox One comes with the Kinect, you also always have a means of voice and webcam. At 1080p, the webcam is extremely clear, too.
The TV integration for Xbox One is underdeveloped. It performs its task of allowing you to watch cable television with the perks of overlaying the Xbox One's library and providing a clean guide for selecting channels. Unfortunately, some lag is present and the image can be distorted depending on your cable box. Also, the Xbox One has to be on in addition to your cable box for it to work—standby won't suffice. In an attempt to simplify and streamline TV consumption, it's actually complicated the experience. If it turns out that it works well with your current setup, you might be happy with the results. But at present it's too unreliable to say it's a killer app.
The current game library is great. There are multiplatforms games such as Battlefield 4 and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, but there are also time-worthy exclusives. Dead Rising 3, Killer Instinct, and Forza Motorsport 5 are some standout games of 2013's holiday season. The Xbox Live experience has undergone some evolution, too. Profiles, achievements, friends lists, and more have been upgraded for the next-gen. In the case of achievements the new design might not be favorable to everyone, but the presentation is neat. It's easy to follow what your friends are doing and keep up with the happenings of your social circle.
While playing games, you can choose to record game footage. By saying "Xbox record that" the system will automatically save the last 30 minutes of your game footage. You can also record several minutes of footage and then edit it in Microsoft's free Upload Studio program. There are enough options to make your video presentable for YouTube, and once you're done you can share it or upload it to SkyDrive, your free cloud storage solution.
For those looking to stream, well, Twitch was recently delayed. You can watch streams through the app, but sharing your own game footage won't be possible until early 2014. Its absence from the Xbox One's launch is unfortunate. When it arrives early next year it's sure to be incredibly popular. For now you'll have to live with game recording.
There's also Xbox Smartglass which allows you to use your smartphone to interface with the Xbox One. Given the increasing popularity of smartphones this is something that a lot of people can take advantage of, although right now it's most practical use is for typing quickly on the Xbox One. It'll be a while longer before it's built upon.
The Xbox One is a thoughtful delivery of Microsoft's ecosystem to the living room. Great applications such as Skype and powerful technologies like Kinect have converged to bring consumers a well-rounded entertainment package that has great multitasking capabilities. It delivers a game library with attractive current and upcoming titles, and an Xbox Live experience that has seen noteworthy improvements, making it an easy recommendation for fans of the brand. It stumbles along the way with a lack of polish in its touted TV integration, and its hardware isn't anything extraordinary. But when it really comes down to it, it has launched out of the gate with good software and a forward-thinking experience that make it alluring despite its steep $499 price tag.
Jonathan Leack is the Gaming Editor for CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter @jleack.