Review: Microsoft Xbox One

The Xbox One has now been in consumer hands for just over a week now, so it’s time to reflect on the launch. The new Xbox is the first...

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The Xbox One has now been in consumer hands for just over a week now, so it’s time to reflect on the launch. The new Xbox is the first in 8 years, so the anticipation was incredibly high, despite some bungled PR efforts around the launch. During the life of the Xbox 360, Microsoft sold more than 80 million of them which means an average of around 10 million per year worldwide. While those numbers pale in significance to mobile devices, the import thing is to understand is that consoles make most of their money on software, not hardware.

This time around the hardware and software have been redone completely which unfortunately breaks compatibility with existing, well, everything. Get ready to spend up big if you want in on the Xbox One, it’s a whole new ecosystem with new processor, new OS, new games and new accessories. The break in compatibility was always going to piss off fans of the platform, so why are Microsoft and Sony both doing it? The answer is.. the future. These new gen consoles need to serve our gaming and entertainment needs for the next 8-10 years and that means doing things differently.

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Hardware

The first thing you notice about the Xbox One is its size and after taking more than a billion dollar hit on the Red Ring of Death issue, it’s not surprising this gen was going to be overcooled. A powerful 8-core x86 AMD processor, 8GB RAM, 500GB HDD and finally a Blu-ray drive just in time for it to be irrelevant. Probably the most unique hardware inclusion isn’t inside the box, it’s at the back, a HDMI In port, the first for a mainstream consumer device.

While the break in compatibility with Xbox 360 may be good for the bottom line in Redmond, there is actually a perfectly valid architectural reason for the break in support. There is hope that the virtualisation technology built into the Xbox One will one day be used like an emulator and support older games, even as digital-only options. An insert disc to authenticate process would work well to avoid re-buying.

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Kinect

Updated with high resolution video and sensors the new Kinect has some neat tricks. First off, it can sense your heart rate through your clothes, that’s just plain impressive and innovative. We can safely expect every fitness game to leverage this one.

When it comes to Skype calls, the Kinect’s 1080p is necessary when video is stretched to the largest display in your house, the first version of Kinect only allowed small video windows to hide the quality issue.

One of the biggest changes with Kinect 2.0 is that Microsoft are maturing in their use of it along with game developers. The whole, ‘you’re body is a controller’ was cool when Xbox was trying to beat the Wii, but now the Wii U is a bust it’s time to move away from the gimmicks and get smarter about things.

The real power of the Kinect is it’s ability to monitor and react to the environment, how many people, what those people say and do in front of the camera. Microsoft have ditched the clumsy air gestures to control the interface with the Xbox One, instead moving to voice as the best option to move around quickly. Of course the controller still works if you get stage fright or the Kinect can’t hear you correctly which is as annoying as Siri miss-hearing you.

Generally the new Kinect is much better at everything including a dramatically improved infra-red sensors so it can essentially see in the dark, neat.

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Controllers

The Xbox One controllers are a refinement on the Xbox 360 controllers and at first glance you may not notice the subtleties. The introduction of rumble into the triggers is fantastic in driving games. When your tyre leaves the tarmac and kisses the curb, then drops back down to the road, skidding under brakes, you can feel it. The angle of the triggers has also been tweaked and extended gaming sessions are now much easier.

The thumbsticks now have a textured outer ring which makes them grippy, even if your getting nervous sweats while camping out with a laser scope pointed at the enemy. The d-pad was reworked to allow better diagonal movement, but personally I don’t use this much so never noticed this issue. If anything the d-pad feels a little flimsy now.

The change from a proprietary power connector to a micro-USB connector is a very welcome choice. Anyone with a Windows Phone or Android device will have a bunch of these cables around already and can use them rather than having to search for a specific Xbox cable. The controller that comes with, takes AA batteries so you’ll need to purchase a rechargeable battery pack first though.

The select and start buttons have been ditched and their place taken by option and menu buttons. No real difference here, just a new icon, the change was necessary given the extra menu items you’ll get. Pressing on the menu icon (old start button) will give you app options like snap, settings, help, etc.

It would have been great to see a microphone in the controller to increase the reliability of voice, but this could come in a future revision to the controller without waiting for the next console revision.

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Software

The Xbox One architecture combines 2 operating systems to power the gaming and entertainment experience and uses a hypervisor to move seamlessly between them. A fundamental difference between the Xbox One and the Xbox 360 is that everything that runs is treated like an app. The advantage of this is that switching between games, entertainment apps and even live TV is fast, creating a pretty great experience overall.

As good as fast app switching is, the software in general is early, really early. Not only did they start fresh with the new hardware, but also the Software and from the moment you fire it up, you’ll find it feels very empty. Gone are the 6 or 7 sections of the home screen, now you’re left with just 3, which in theory gives you access to all the same stuff faster, it just doesn’t feel like it.

To increase the functionality of the Xbox One you’ll jump into the Store and start downloading apps. I knew I wanted to try out most of the apps available (selection is very limited) and the process of adding one at a time is a pain. Xbox really needs multi-select and install for apps, games and generally everything. It does the hard work in the background and will flick you a toast notification when it’s ready. The ‘are you sure you want to install this free app’ is tired and doesn’t treat us like adults. At least give advanced users an option to turn this confirmation off.

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Snapped View

By far the easiest way to snap a secondary app to the right side of the screen is to use your voice. “Xbox, snap TV” will snap the TV app to the side in a panel that takes up around a quarter of the screen and proportionately scales the primary app down to fit. Here’s a few common scenarios that work really well when you have the capability of running 2 apps side-by-side on the biggest display in your house.

  • Setup 1 – Gaming with snapped TV
  • Setup 2 – TV with snapped IE running Twitter
  • Setup 3 – Movie with snapped Skype session
  • Setup 4 – Store with snapped Friend activity stream

You would think it’d be easy to switch the primary and secondary (snapped) apps right? Wrong. Microsoft have made this much harder than it needs to be. You may think the “Xbox Switch” voice command would do it, but it simply changes control focus between apps. This means you’re left unpinning one app, changing the primary, then pinning what was the old pinned app.. this process is clunky, slow and broken. The three quarter, one quarter split means that video content in the snapped panel is scaled appropriately and positioned to the top right, this leaves the rest of the right snapped pane empty and unused.

My dream would involve a snapped video app (hopefully ABCNews24) to the top of the snap, then a twitter feed underneath. What’d be even better would be to walk in the room and say “Xbox On”, followed by “Show me TV, Twitter and Forza 5” or “Show me Weather, Friends and News” and the Xbox One to detect that you listed 3 apps and arrange them appropriately. Hopefully the snapped view on Xbox One is like the snapped view in Windows 8, it’s a first run at it and will get improvements over time. Even something as simply as switching the snapped view to the left side is not possible, nor are controller shortcuts for moving between apps like an Alt+Tab equivalent. Throughout the week I often thought, holding the left trigger and flicking the right thumbstick to the left could work well to move the snaps around the screen like the Winkey+L or R that walks apps across the desktop.

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Gaming

It’s launch time which means the selection of games isn’t exactly extensive. I picked up Forza 5 and Dead Rising 3 with the Day One console which also scored me a download code to FIFA 14. These games definitely vary in quality by one thing stood out above everything else. Buying games on disc is ridiculous.

Having Fifa14 installed on the hard drive of the Xbox One allows you jump in and out any time you like. While it’s possibly the best case of a first world problem, getting up to change discs is less about the physical energy expended to do so and a lot more about asking why am I still doing this? There is so clearly a better way – digital downloads. Of course network speeds will continue to hold some back, but what I would love to see is a trade in program to turn my disc copy into a digital version so I can ditch the disc for good.

My advice, don’t buy games on discs anymore, you don’t buy CDs still do you? As for the launch titles themselves I may do a full review on each but here’s the skinny now.

Forza 5 – Another great addition to the franchise, the addition of Aussie track, Bathurst will showcase our motorsport legend to the world. Unfortunately there’s only 1 Ford and 1 Holden in the game, no reflection of the current Care of the Future platform that has seen Nissan and Mercedes-Benz join the sport (soon to be Volvo as well). The graphics and physics systems are a work of art, but the best thing is the new lighting system that gives you a very real sensation of driving into the sun. This is the clear winner of the 3 launch titles I’ve played.

Dead Rising 3 – Killing Zombies always equals good fun right? Wrong. The camera system in this game is completely broken. There are two settings and neither makes the camera something you forget. I found I was moving the camera with the right stick just as often as I was my character with the left. This has to be fixed. Outside of that the ability to craft weapons together to make some truly insane zombie killing tools is pretty funny, as is the ability to drift cars through a crowd of thousands. With the camera the way it is, I can’t recommend this game.

Fifa 14 – If you’ve played any Fifa game ever, you have played this game. There’s nothing new or original to speak of, it’s the same clumsy controls that pretend to make you feel skillful that really just don’t make soccer fun. I love the tension of the sport and the world cup would make anyone think playing the digital version would be a treat but without the ability to really feel like you’re in control of whether a tackle or goal attempt are successful, ultimately it’s a non-starter in my eyes and probably why it was given away for free at launch.

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Entertainment

The first thing to touch on here is the support for Blu-ray coming to Xbox. Last time the release of the consoles were overwhelmed by the famous Blu-ray vs HD-DVD war. If you have fond memories, I’d be happy to sell you my completely useless HD-DVD drive and 4 movies, those were the days. Like everything else on the Xbox One, Blu-ray playback is done via an app. Thanks to the new, more powerful hardware, Blu-ray movies load quicker than ever so those of us who bought PS3s primarily for this movie playback capabilities, you can now officially move to TeamXbox.

The timing is rather ironic, given that movie and TV show consumption is rapidly moving to digital distribution and the Xbox has a decent story to tell. Today Microsoft released a web version of Xbox Video which adds to the existing places you can watch, rent or buy video, adding to current Windows 8/8.1 and Xbox options. Starting anywhere and finishing anywhere is a great option for those with busy lives and often don’t get an opportunity to watch a movie end-to-end.

TV

HDMI in allows for the connection of set top boxes like TiVo to deliver TV to your Xbox One. Why would you want that? The answer is simple, to finally eliminate HDMI switching, something nobody enjoys, but something we endure to experience our multiple entertainment experiences. There’s one big issue with this, the much discussed TV guide on Xbox One isn’t a one stop shop to replace your bad DVR guide. In Australia, OneGuide simply lists the apps that form ‘digital channels’. Currently the sources available are:

  • SkyDrive
  • Twitch
  • Xbox Video
  • Crackle
  • SBS On Demand
  • TenPlay
  • TED

Internationally this feature is very different, with a non-hamstrung guide, it has potential to merge the traditionally silo’d experiences of broadcast, OTA TV and IPTV for the first time. The other very broken part of running your TV through your Xbox One right now is that the IR blaster cannot be configured to control your devices (read: TV and TiVo in my instance). Without this, I’m left still using the TiVo remote, so while not changing HDMI input is great, changing controls is almost worse.

Ok so imagine that gets fixed over time, having your Xbox running all the time will definitely add to your power bill, but will change your experience with the Xbox. With a tap of your Xbox button, you can switching rapidly between applications and TV, this means you’ll never watch another bad TV advertisement again. You could change out to IE and read Facebook for 6 minutes, or twitter, or chat to someone on Skype, or play a game, but you certainly won’t be watching bad ads.. listen up advertisers, stop yelling at us, we’re not listening anymore.

One of the biggest reactions I’ve had this week online was when I posted a photo of the TV running through the Xbox One. Clearly interest is high with a unique feature like this, it just needs to be a full feature, not broken like its current implementation.

Miracast

While never confirmed, some demo videos of Xbox One in the leadup to the launch hinted that Microsoft may make the device Miracast compatible. Sadly this isn’t the case. Miracast support would have allowed users to wirelessly send their desktops to the TV, via the Xbox. The 55” LG UHDTV I’m also reviewing does feature Miracast and I can confirm it’s awesome, matching Apple’s version called Airplay. Very disappointing to see such a future looking feature left off the feature list.

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Potential

This console has so much potential to be your one stop shop for entertainment and information, but there’s currently some missing components. Had the Xbox One included a OTA tuner (or dual tuners) we could ditch the set top box all together. This may come in the form of an optional 3rd party device which would better cater for the international differences. This mythical tuner add-on can’t come soon enough with the current state of play leaving us paying for the power to the Xbox One and the DVR to be constantly on, a very uninviting prospect.

The biggest untapped potential of the device is it’s developer ecosystem. Part of the reason Microsoft binned the old infrastructure and moved to x86 was surely to open it up to every Windows developer on the planet. We’re not talking about adding a desktop here, but if you currently write metro apps for Windows 8/8.1 or even Windows Phone apps, you can’t wait to get your app on the big screen. There are definitely some unique design considerations apps on the Xbox, when people are in the lean back mode but you do have new opportunities like being sure every user has a Kinect sensor. This is clearly in the works, but Microsoft didn’t have it ready for launch which won’t matter so much in the life of the console, but could have been a killer difference at launch. For the most part, the PS4 looks like it’ll be a lot less expandable over time.

Problems

The list of problems on top of what’s already been discussed is pretty short, but I wanted to highlight a specific case I hit a couple of days ago. When the console arrived I got a number of QR codes as a Day One reward. These were super easy to redeem after watching Major Nelson’s demo video.

A few days went by and I had another code to redeem. I repeatedly called out to Kinect ‘Xbox redeem a code’ to which there was no response. I thought that’s pretty strange, that’s definitely what it’s been called for the past 8 years.. redeeming a code, using Kinect to scan the QR code was simply a quick way to avoid typing in the 15 digital code. Turns out the command is very precise and must be ‘Xbox use a code’. Technically it’d be very easy to support both variants and it’s this lack of polish you’ll find often when using the Xbox One.

Oh yeah, don’t bother trying the ‘Xbox On’ command, it won’t work, at least not yet in Australia. This is pretty unacceptable as it was promoted heavily as a feature of the Xbox One both at the announcement and again as we approached it’s release.

Price and Availability

The Xbox One is available now and cost A$599. That includes one controller with additional controllers costing A$79.00 or bundled with the play and charge kit, the controller costs $99.00. Games do seem to be landing around the $80-$100 range which is a good improvement on the up to $120.00 we seen last generation.

You can walk into most electronic retailers and pickup an Xbox One or order it direct from Microsoft’s Store online. Supply doesn’t seem to be an issue for the Xbox One and will no doubt be popular for Christmas. The problem is that Christmas present with a second controller and a couple of games will set you back the best part of $800, that’s a whole lot of love right there.

Competitor Sony seems to have production problems with the PS4 as they are currently unavailable in Australia. That’s really bad timing coming into the biggest sales period of the year.

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Overall

Unless you are an absolute true blue PlayStation fan boy or girl, the Xbox One is a great choice if you want a next generation console now. We know its only going to get better with time and lets hope that improvement curve is short hockey stick. When Microsoft turns the store over to developers, it’ll be not only putting the knife into Sony’s back, but turning it sharply. Apps on Smart TVs have been average at best, apps on Xbox One could be amazing with the horsepower that lives inside.

Hopefully I’ve answered all your questions with this extended review and I’ll be off now to sell my Xbox 360, games, controllers, the lot, there is no going back, Xbox One has arrived.

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GamingMicrosoftReviewsXbox One

This post is authored by techAU staffers. Used rarely and sparingly when the source decided to keep their identity secret, or a guest author who isn't seeking credit.