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Xbox One REVIEW – A Play for the Living Room

by Joey Davidson | December 6, 2013December 6, 2013 2:36 pm PDT

Microsoft has dropped its next big living room play. The Xbox One is now on the market, and it’s arrived in a much better fashion than its first reveal roughly half a year ago.

Carrying an MSRP of $499, the Xbox One comes with the console, the new Xbox One controller, the new Kinect and a trial subscription to Xbox LIVE Gold.

Microsoft launched a PR disaster when it first announced the Xbox One. It was supposed to require a constant internet connection to work, it wouldn’t allow for used games and the Kinect had to be plugged in at all times. That’s all changed, and the launch day Xbox One is much more in line with what consumers demanded from the third Xbox.

But, is it worth your hard earned money? Is the Xbox One a worthy system in today’s gaming marketplace? Does it justify its $500 price point? Read on to find out.

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Xbox One Video Review

The System’s Hardware Design

Make no mistake, the Xbox One is enormous. It’s the largest system of today’s current selection, and it will absolutely command your below-TV-setup by sheer size alone.

I don’t normally care much about the bulk of a game console. Even the largest ones up until now have never been enough to cause an issue. The Xbox One, though, forced me to reorganize my entire console. Items had to be physically shifted from place to place in order to accommodate for its size.

Now that it’s sitting idly, I don’t particularly mind it. Certainly, it’s an enormous gaming machine, but its big footprint hasn’t kept me from enjoying it. The power supply caused some size issues as well, specifically because it’s been built outside of the unit just like on the Xbox 360. It’s annoying, yes, but I’d rather have it away and on the floor than inside the already huge box and creating even more heat.

In terms of shape, the Xbox One is essentially a big black box. There’s nothing understated or subtle about it. It’s large and in charge, by looks alone, and while we’re not exact fans of its girth, we bet Microsoft did this on purpose. For one thing, the internal space likely reduces a chance of overheating, something that was a major problem for the Xbox 360. System cooling was a priority for the Xbox One, and that’s indicative of its size and the amount of ventilation all over the console. Secondly, Microsoft wants the Xbox One to rule your living room. What better way to state that point physically than with size?

The Xbox One’s AV and data ports are all easily accessible and clearly marked. The disc ejection, which is no longer a tray, works well enough for us here at TechnoBuffalo, though some users have reported jamming and problems with the drive.

The machine is pretty quiet, though still the loudest in comparison to contemporary alternatives. It’s much quieter than the Xbox 360, though. That console’s whirs were often louder than the games I was playing. The Xbox One just hums along, really only spinning up loudly during installation.

Speaking of which, the Xbox One’s hard drive is not replaceable. It’s only 500GB, to boot. The huge games of next generation will, much like the PlayStation 4, eat this space up very quickly. The good news? Microsoft plans to patch in external hard drive support for the machine. It’s not ready yet, but it is in the works. Keep your eye out for a small one, though, as you’ll need to find something that fits relatively close to this behemoth.

The Xbox One Controller

As we mentioned in our PlayStation 4 review, a controller is an exceptionally subjective thing. The DualShock 4 won us over, but that didn’t come without a lot of consideration and discussion. The Xbox One’s controller is really no different, though a lot of the staff had minor quibbles with its design. It’s a quality input, don’t fret, but the subtle nuances between it and its competition are so subjective that it’s not even funny.

At first glance and first hold, the Xbox One’s controller feels largely like a slight upgrade from the Xbox 360’s. For Microsoft, especially after the mammoth controller it launched with the first Xbox, the design of the 360’s pad was a miracle. You might not love it, but a large part of the gaming world does. For good reason, it was well-weighted, ergonomically sensible and tight. It’s biggest downfall? The d-pad.

Well, I’m not a fan of this new d-pad, either. It clicks, which is something you may or may not love. It feels very loose and somehow imprecise. Is it an improvement over what they shipped with the 360? Oh, absolutely. But it’s still not a great standard.

But, onto the good stuff. The weight of the controller is still solid, though the battery pack has been made flush with the back of the input instead of jutting out. The face buttons and triggers feel largely unchanged, with the exception of rumble feedback. That’s right, the triggers rumble and tense up in certain games during play. In Forza 5, I especially liked this feature.

The Xbox 360’s analogue sticks featured a nice concave design, and that’s made a return for the Xbox One. However, this time around there’s a ring of texture that juts out around the sticks rather than four separate bumps. This minor change is also nice as it keeps thumbs even more in play. The tension in the sticks, though, has gotten a touch looser. While not quite as loose as the DualShock 3’s, the Xbox One’s sticks feel far looser than its predecessors. Again, a point of personal preference, but I liked the tension from last generation much better than what we have here.

While we’re back on negatives, I have to harp on the bumpers. They’re squishy, they require too much effort to depress and their click isn’t nearly as satisfying as it was on the old controllers. In fact, if you rest your fingers on the highest point of the bumpers, it takes a lot of force to depress them, something that’s a big problem in today’s shooters where a lot of action sits on the top of inputs.

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But, of course, my complaint was met with a little friction here internally at TechnoBuffalo. Here’s Eric Frederiksen’s take on the bumpers:

Eric

The bumpers and triggers are where Microsoft is trying to innovate on its newest iteration of the Xbox controller. The bumpers are especially off-putting at first, as they do take a lot of pressure to depress. They’re meant to be depressed with the pad of the trigger finger rather than with the tip, and if you click them toward the outside rather than the inside, they’re pretty effortless.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Joey doesn’t know how to use the controller, but that Microsoft is banking on people changing the way they use the shoulder buttons and assuming people will get the idea instead of thinking they have a broken controller.

While the Wii U and PlayStation 4 might be trying new things with their inputs, specifically introducing more touch during play with the GamePad’s screen and the DualShock 4’s touchpad, Microsoft kept things basic with the Xbox One. The controller is nearly identical to the one they put out last generation. Aside from the bumpers and triggers, Microsoft seemed focus on recreating its success with the Xbox 360’s input and only tweaking things.

I’m still frustrated by the fact that these controllers aren’t rechargeable out of the box, though. Microsoft still requires AA batteries, unless you spend an extra $24.99 on the Charge & Play kit. The controller itself is already $59.99, the same price as the DualShock 4, though it lacks the ability to recharge as a standard.

With that said, the Xbox One’s controller does rock an exceptionally long battery life. I’m running on standard AA batteries with my input, and I haven’t had to swap them out over the course of nearly a week of play. The life on this controller is great so far.

Kinect 2.0

The Kinect was a mixed bag on the Xbox 360, and, through our play here at TechnoBuffalo, it’s largely a mixed bag once more.

There are some great improvements, though, so lets start with the positive.

The camera is much sharper. It has a wider lens and is capable of operating in a much smaller space. Where the original Kinect required a huge open floor in front of the television to work properly, the new Kinect managed to track me during Xbox Fitness from around four feet away without a single issue.

It’s also capable of detecting more minute details. It measures heart rates, which is terrifying, and it’s able to discern muscle tension and weight transfer during play. In fact, I was more impressed with this new Kinect’s ability to read my movements and physique in one hour than I was over the entire life of Microsoft’s first iteration.

The Kinect’s use with Skype is also fantastic. Thanks to Microsoft’s decision to purchase Skype a while back, the Xbox One arrives with an awesome Skype application in tow. Since all Xbox Ones come with Kinects, every Xbox One owner has the ability to video chat over the software from the console. So far, so good.

Video chatting over the service works really well. The picture’s fidelity is strong, and audio both with and without the packaged headset sounds great. What’s even better is that the Kinect has software-based zooming and tracking. That means that, without any physical motion, the Kinect will digitally zoom in on the one or two human (we emphasize human and not dogs or cats) faces in the room. If those folks stand up and move, the Kinect will zoom out and pan over to their new position. It’s pretty awesome, actually.

The aforementioned mixed bag comes from the voice command side of the system. Now, users are reporting all sorts of “statistics” when it comes to the success of the voice functionality with their Kinect. For me, all alone in my lonely basement, the Kinect’s voice recognition worked a little more than half of the time. If it was completely quiet, and I mean no TV or game happening at all, the Kinect generally understood me.

We’ll hit Eric for a unique take once more:

Eric

It takes a bit of time to get down the commands that the Kinect wants to hear to perform some of the functions of the console, but once you know them they’re easy to remember and easy to use. Switching apps is as fast as saying, “Go to Netflix,” and it actually goes to Netflix just that fast. A lot of the commands are very intuitive and even convenient. I had paused my game to help my wife with something, and I couldn’t hear what she was saying from the next room. With both my hands full, I just said, “Xbox Mute,” and it worked exactly as expected.

For me, as soon as you add in a game or a little background noise, forget it. Microsoft is driving for the Xbox One and its Kinect to be the center of living rooms around the world. Those living rooms come with families, and families, dear readers, don’t shut up. If you try to give the Xbox One voice commands when other people are around, it will not work as well as it should.

When I’m alone, when it’s quiet, when I speak up and enunciate like my dad taught me, the Xbox One responds. Add more players, put me in a game or try and engage with it during TV? Forget it. The Kinect isn’t nearly as capable of recognition as Microsoft claims.

This is a software-side issue, we assume. And that means future updates might make the Kinect even better. We hope that’s the case.

An Emphasis on Content, Issues with Functionality

Microsoft has been swaying in this direction now since the tail end of the Xbox 360’s lifespan as its dominant machine. They’ve created a walled-garden of content, and they want users constantly engaged with everything they have to offer, free or otherwise, inside the Xbox One’s dashboard.

That continues. The dashboard, while certainly better than its predecessor, really feels like an evolution in content presentation. You can customize it to a degree by pinning applications that you frequently use to the left of the home screen, but, by and large, it’s all about what Microsoft wants you to engage with at any given moment.

Which, hey, is fine. The Xbox One, again, is a machine dedicated to becoming a focal point of the living room. You can sit down and hop into games quickly, which only took us around 20 seconds if we left the console in standby, or you can sit and explore whatever content they have readily available.

Of course, that message control also means that the UI and its information delivery sort of suffers. Navigation, for instance, is almost nonsensical. Trying to find a specific app quickly becomes an exercise in futility. How about figuring out how much hard drive space you have? Or, maybe, looking up how much time you’ve put into one game or another? This information seems present only when Microsoft deems necessary, and that comes because of its focus on content delivery.

In fact, it’s currently impossible to check controller battery life or hard drive space on the Xbox One. The storage space bit? Microsoft consciously chose to keep that information hidden, to a degree. This comes from the official FAQ for the system:

How can I check my free space?

Xbox One monitors your available hard drive space. When it starts to fill up, a message appears warning you that you’re low on space. These messages are stored in Notifications. You can check to see if you have any unread messages by saying “Xbox, go to notifications” or by selecting the notifications icon at the top of Home screen.

If you don’t have any notifications, it means you have plenty of free space. If you are running low on space, try deleting unused or seldom-used content.

In other words: you’ll know you’re out of storage space when we tell you you’re out of storage space.

For as much as the Xbox One gets right, more than a few aspects give the impression that the system was rushed to market. The upshot is that they’re all on the software side, but it doesn’t keep them from being irritating.

When Microsoft introduced app snapping and the focus on Skype, a pretty simple thought process occurred to most gamers listening: If I snap Skype, I can see my friends while we game and watch them as they crumple in defeat before me. Except that doesn’t work yet, despite it being the first thing everyone I know tried when they booted up Skype for the first time.

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I, personally, don’t have cable. The TV features in the Xbox One are lost on me. Eric, though, used them. Here he is once more:

Eric

As well as the TV applications work for those that will use them, there seems to be a glitch that breaks the functionality after a while, forcing you to disable the Instant On functionality of the system and reboot to get TV working again. This seemed to not only affect the TV application, but also the Xbox’s ability to turn on other devices and even the menu’s overall quickness.

Once I had the console patched and online, I found quickly that most aspects of the system worked exactly as advertised: like magic.

The television stuff works as expected, if you are going to use it. And that’s a big if. Microsoft wants to rule the living room with the Xbox One, and part of that, for them, meant ruling your TV interaction as well. The thing is, the number of people I know that use their televisions significantly are dwindling and the crossover between gamers and heavy TV users isn’t that big. A lot of gamers simply won’t be using the television functionality.

And that’s kind of a shame really, because it’s incredibly cool. It makes the aging medium of television feel a bit futuristic. The setup for the system is easy as you would hope for, and very smart. The system can be programmed to turn on your television, cable/satellite box, and receiver. When you boot up the Kinect for the first time, you’ll see a string of red lights in the middle. That’s not because it’s a Cylon or KITT’s arch enemy, KATT, but rather an IR blaster.

The Xbox One Guide is, without a doubt, a huge step up from my cable provider’s box. What I’d really like to see is cable providers offering boxes specifically designed for the Xbox One to take advantage of the features and to give them an opportunity to put less feature-intensive hardware in some viewer homes. I’m not putting much faith in that, but it’s a nice dream.

As soon as you look at the Xbox One, Microsoft’s goal for the system is evident. It wants to be that magical black box of entertainment in your living room.

In some ways, that’s totally feasible for the Xbox One. It doesn’t pack the exact same raw horsepower as the PlayStation 4, and it isn’t the same bastion for unique play as the Wii U. The Xbox One is, however, a strong option for home media consumption.

For gamers, that might be its biggest flaw. The emphasis on content delivery has made the Xbox One more of an entertainment center than a gaming machine. The games are there, absolutely, and they play wonderfully so far, but Microsoft has made it clear that they want this console to be more than that.

Unfortunately, a lot of the promises and features arrive a little more half-baked than we’d like. The Kinect isn’t as grand as Microsoft insists, the sheer bulk of the system might be a physical problem for users tight on space and the lesser hardware could contribute to some gamers’ purchasing choice.

Right now? It’s all about potential. We said the same thing for the PlayStation 4. It comes down to how Microsoft supports this machine. The company has dipped its toes into almost every media market they possibly could with this console. That means they’ll have to hit homeruns in TV, apps, games and a whole lot more to keep users happy.

For now, Xbox fans will probably like this machine just fine. We’re not convinced it’s absolutely worth its extra $100 price tag, and part of that comes from the Kinect’s failings, but we know it will be a strong system in the coming years.

Buy

As soon as you look at the Xbox One, Microsoft’s goal for the system is evident. It wants to be that magical black box of entertainment in your living room.

Disclaimer: We used several Xbox Ones on staff, in offices and at home since launch. We played games, watched TV and used applications a ton before starting and collaborating on this review.

 


Joey Davidson

Joey Davidson leads the gaming department here on TechnoBuffalo. He's been covering games online for more than 10 years, and he's a lover of all...

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