Putting a new console through its paces is like doing the same for a new car. It takes some time before you figure out how it really works once it's in your hands. We've put some considerable time into picking through the Xbox One, using the last month as a road test of the console's wide swath of features. It's undeniably a major step up from Microsoft's previous console, and it works well as a control point for far more than just games. At the same time, for all the directions the Xbox One tries to take, it often falls just short of reaching its destination.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the new console is pretty brutal in its styling. Gone are the flowing curves of the Xbox 360, with the Xbox One opting for a monolithic brick shape. The front panel is featureless except for the disc drive slot and a power light that also serves as the console's touch-sensitive power button. The top of the case is divided into two halves, with the left side of the plastic case having a shined finish and the right side composed of angled air slats for ventilation. You're unable to put anything on top of the console for two reasons: The left side is easily marred with scuffs, and the right side expels a massive amount of hot air, and you certainly don't want to obstruct the flow.
The rear of the console features many of the expected ports. The standards of HDMI and a myriad of USB ports are present, as is a built-in SPDIF port for optical audio. The Kinect now uses its own proprietary port to plug in to the console, which carries both data and power to the peripheral. An Ethernet jack is present, though the system also has built-in Wireless N capability. The port list is rounded out with the inclusion of an HDMI input to allow you to plug in your cable box (or anything else, for that matter).
The controller is very similar in design to the Xbox 360's gamepad, with minor alterations to the overall form. The thumbsticks have more texture around the edges to allow for more grip, and the rounded Guide button has been replaced with a flat, illuminated button that is flush with the controller surface. The bumpers have seen a slight tweak that changed their action to be based on a hinge, which makes them easier to press with your index finger without fully leaving the triggers. However, this also makes them impossible to press with your fingertips if you press the top of the button, where it hinges. The triggers feel physically about the same but now have rumble functionality built directly into each one. The usefulness of this feature varies from game to game, but it's used to great effect in Forza 5. With a rumble of the trigger when braking or accelerating, you get a feel for how close you are to losing control of your car as the tires struggle for grip.
The initial boot process of the console took a very long time, with it sitting at a green logo screen for a few minutes. It was certainly long enough to begin worrying about a defective console, but the system finally booted up. As it turns out, it was just a first-time boot issue where the system has to set up behind the scenes. For the most part, the system boots up within seconds, going from standby mode to a fully working interface in about 15 seconds. After being fully unplugged and/or rebooted, the system takes around a minute to do the same.
Once you've gone through the initial console setup, you'll eventually reach the new dashboard interface, which is a cousin of Windows 8's interface. The tiled design stretches across multiple screens, with each serving as a sort of tab. The home screen shows the currently or previously running application, a series of recently opened apps, and quick access to whatever is in the disc drive. The screen to the left serves as a place where you can pin apps for quicker access, and the right screen is where you can access all of the content on the console. You'll get most of your use out of the home screen, and if you use the Kinect voice controls to launch apps, you can do so at any time, regardless of what is on the screen — that is, when it wants to.
In both its video and audio detection, the new Kinect is monumentally better than the old. I can walk into my living room and say, "Xbox On," and the console is ready to use by the time I sit down on the couch. I can follow it up with an, "Xbox Watch TV," to bring up the feed from my cable box. However, for some reason, my wife has to repeat some phrases to the point that she begins to add colorful, unrepeatable adjectives to the commands as the console continues to ignore her. More often than not, making sure you pause between words is the difference between the console figuring out what was said or not, and that's something you just have to get used to. Once the volume is turned up, the Kinect is absolutely woeful at picking up voices. There is a calibration tool that helps, but even after it's properly calibrated, you'll have a hard time being understood until you turn down the volume. You'll want to keep a remote handy if you're about to blast some movies or music, but for even moderately loud viewing, the Kinect is usually able to pick up my voice with little difficulty.
The intent is the Xbox One should be the centerpiece of your entertainment center. With the Kinect's IR transmitter, it is capable of sending commands to your cable box, TV, and audio receiver, so they power on and off with the console. You can also use volume commands, but they vary in their usefulness from device to device. It seems to only send three volume "presses" each time you say, "Xbox Volume Up / Down," which in my case is a measly three decibels. It would be nice to be able to configure how many pulses it sends for volume commands, but in any case, the takeaway is to keep the remote handy for volume-related changes.
The first time you tell the Xbox One to fire up and it brings your whole entertainment center to life is pretty novel, and once that wears off, it remains convenient. It's quite nice to be able to navigate something like Netflix without a controller, though some functions, such as using the search function, will require you to use one. Once you've used a voice command, the system continues listening for about 10 seconds or so, before the on-screen indicator goes away and it stops picking up new commands. This can be problematic, as it usually takes about 12 seconds for Netflix to fire up. The load times of an app shouldn't count toward that timeout because as it stands, you have to wrestle those timeouts every time you load an app.
The TV controls let you go right to a channel by its name ("Xbox, What's On NBC"), though the built-in OneGuide is better navigated with a controller. This is no fault of the console, since it's easier to scroll through a list with a gamepad rather than repeat, "Xbox Page Down." A number of noteworthy flaws drag down the multimedia power of the console.
Unlike the Xbox 360, the Xbox One can only support Push-based DLNA. This means it is unable to play videos or music off your PC. You can still do so by sending the file from your PC in a DLNA Push, but first, you have to set up your console on the PC to enable the feature, and even then, it's not the most elegant solution. Blu-ray playback works well and has some decent read speed, but 3-D Blu-rays are currently unsupported. DVD playback is measurably poor, with screen artifacts and frame rate issues on some DVDs that don't exhibit those issues on other consoles or players.
As a user, it would be great if you could turn off the Kinect's gesture recognition for some apps. I've lost count how often Netflix thinks I am trying to use my hands to invoke a pause or fast-forward command with a gesture when it's just seeing my elbow as I eat lunch while watching a movie. Other times, it finds some body part, physical or imaginary, and for the life of me, I'm unable to figure out what the Kinect is picking up. It's almost to the point where I want to cover up the Kinect before watching Netflix because I don't want it to fast-forward during a show when I reach for a soda.
The system also seems to have strange issues with the Kinect not working well after a while. It's almost as if the peripheral is going deaf and begins to have difficulty understanding commands or just stops realizing that you're speaking altogether. This usually coincides with the console no longer reliably powering other devices on and off, which is also a Kinect-centric feature. This is fixed by a restart of the console by holding the power light for 10 seconds, and unfortunately, it seems to need to be done every other week or so.
The Xbox One is a capable gaming machine, despite its obvious focus on other areas. There are a lot of launch titles that intend to showcase the power of the new console, but I'm unconvinced that any really do. Forza 5 certainly looks and sounds stunning, as does Ryse, but we are still in the transition period, and we won't see what the console is capable of pulling off for another year or two. As it stands, the currently released Xbox One exclusives are pretty meager, with no real system-seller games available right now.
Games are getting massive in terms of their overall file size, which makes the mandatory installations of all games a nuisance. Before you can play any game, disc-based or digital, the entire contents of the disc is copied to the hard drive, and any applicable patches are applied. At minimum, the process seems to take upward of 20 minutes, and it takes far longer for games like Dead Rising 3, which has a 13 GB patch for new installs. The upshot is that the console doesn't have the optical drive noise that plagued the Xbox 360 when games are run from the disc, and load times are presumably shorter. You're just getting a lot of the waiting done up front.
There are a number of other goofy issues on the Xbox One, and all of them center around the new interface design. Things like the ability to see your remaining controller battery life is completely missing, with the only indication being that the trigger rumble ceases when the batteries get low. This is problematic, since nowhere is it actually stated that it should do this, and it makes you think your controller is having issues. Also missing is the ability to send voice messages to friends or navigating to your friends list or other information without exiting a game.
It could be said that the Snap functionality, which lets you do a picture-in-picture sidebar, is meant to take up that role, but it has its own issues. It doesn't seem quite as easy to use as the old Xbox Guide button functionality was on the Xbox 360, though it can be used to see if friends are online and to invite them to a voice chat. While the Snap feature lets you watch multimedia, such as television or Twitch, while playing a game, you can't adjust its volume control separate from the gameplay. You can certainly watch a football game while putting in some laps on Forza 5, but don't expect to be hear one or the other very well, and forget about trying to do anything to adjust it.
It would be pretty easy to come away from this review with the feeling that the console is a slightly maddening example of technology overextending itself, and there are certainly times when the console completely loses its footing. The good news is that essentially all of the issues that currently plague it are ones that could easily be fixed with updates. The Xbox 360 ended up being a completely different console over its lifetime thanks to a slew of OS patches that improved it. The Xbox One needs much of the same, and while it's workable in its current state, it has no shortage of rough edges.
Taken as a whole, the choice between picking up an Xbox One versus another console is a tough one. Assuming that exclusive titles are taken out of the equation, the Xbox One has an edge on paper over what it can do, since it's capable of being a multimedia centerpiece and a gaming console. At the same time, those features often feel half-baked, with goofy little issues affecting just about all aspects of the system. In all likelihood, many issues will be addressed, and the console will become the one device that seamlessly controls all avenues of your entertainment. Unfortunately, it's not quite there yet.
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