The new Xbox that emerged at launch was both traditional and under-featured, a disappointment borne of a company reeling from the negative reaction to its original vision and trying to offer something else in a short space of time.
In a now infamous u-turn, Microsoft scrapped plans for the always-online revolution that would have allowed for disc-less play, easy game sharing on other owner’s consoles, mandatory system scans and an end to second-hand purchases as we know them.
And with an excellent showing at this years’s E3, offering some huge platform and timed exclusives as well as genuinely impressive new features, the future is really looking bright for Microsoft’s chunky console.
Not only has it had a price cut (you can find a basic edition for well under £300 these days), the regular firmware updates, an expanding game library and some excellent additions to its media playback capabilities have made for better games console.
The Xbox One is now a true multimedia hub, close to what Microsoft always promised it would be.
It’s a next-gen games console, a TV companion and guide (compatible with Sky, Virgin, BT, Freeview and Freesat), a media streaming centre, a Skype phone, a Blu-ray player, a pizza delivery machine and more.
We might have expected some tweaks to Microsoft’s design of the Xbox One, coming up to two years in its lifespan, but it has stayed faithful to its design. There’s no slimline version or hardware update on the horizon just yet.
We do though have a new 1TB version of the Xbox One; a sensible move given the size of a modern game install. How big was The Witcher 3?! Dang…
Companies like Nyko, PDP and Power A have come along to offer additional products like intercoolers and clip-on charging stations, but Microsoft’s rock-solid design has stood the test of time so far.
The first thing you’ll notice about the console when you get it out of the needlessly elaborate packaging is what an absolute beast it is. It measures 274 x 79 x 333 mm, making it longer and taller than a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox 360.
You don’t need a tape measure to figure that out though, the thing just looks huge and it’s not exactly a looker when you see it up close, either.
Its size and girth harkens back to the original Xbox, an imposing black plastic beast covered in black plastic ridges. Microsoft seems to be throwing back to that design, bringing back the all black and the ridge-covered aesthetic.
Its massive size and black rectangular construction evoke thoughts of an eighties VCR or a stereo tuner from the nineties. Its imposing bulk begs to be hidden away, with just its slot loading disc drive exposed, little white Xbox logo glowing in lonely TV cabinet darkness.
For a console of this size, you would at least expect for the power supply to be built inside the unit. But as with the Xbox 360, that’s not the case. The external power brick is large and contains its own fan. This, at the very least, offers a quieter console unit than Sony’s competing console.
Given the overheating problems the 360 suffered from it’s no surprise to see Microsoft going overboard on keeping things chilled. Especially with its vision of an always-on console.
It does, however, make the PS4 look even more elegant, which is a lot smaller despite having an internal power supply.
Flip the machine around and you’ll see a plethora of ports. It has all your standard nodes: ethernet, HDMI out, power, S/PDIF (commonly used for optical audio), dual USB 3.0 ports and an IR out.
Additionally, there are two proprietary ports, one for hooking in the Kinect, and a HDMI-in, which is how you feed the Xbox One a TV signal from a set-top box. There’s also a third USB 3.0 port found on the system’s right side.
The HDMI-in can function as a passthrough and allows any old HDMI signal in, but this introduces a lot of input lag, making it no good for hooking in another console. So if you were thinking of running an Xbox 360, PS3 or even a PS4 into the Xbox One in order to save HDMI ports in your TV… forget it.
That’s not what it’s for.
What’s in the Box?
An Xbox One purchase gets you the console, a power cable and adapter (aka the power brick), a decent headset, the headset adapter, a HDMI cable and controller with batteries. You’ll also get a 14-day free trial of Xbox Live Gold.
Depending on your choice of edition, you may or may not get a Kinect in there too. This isn’t always explicitly clear on the packaging, so make sure to read up on your options if you do want one. Your bundle may also pack-in titles such as Halo: The Master Chief Collection or The Witcher 3.
So far there have been a few special edition coloured consoles, such as the white and a gunmetal grey (with squiggly Titanfall decals), with more expected in the coming holiday period.
The Xbox One’s setup is more involved than on the PS4, but it’s still not terribly complex. If you bought a Kinect, you’ll have to connect its proprietary cable along with power and HDMI.
If you plan to watch TV on the console, you’ll need to supply a second HDMI cable, through the system’s HDMI-in port. You’ll then need to run the OneGuide’s setup, which isn’t too complex. We’ll get into that in the OneGuide portion of this review.
When you first switch the system on you’ll be met with a setup wizard which will get you connected to the internet for that initial patch. It was a sizeable initial download upon release, and with multiple firmware updates since then, you can expect it to take quite a while. It’s also absolutely required before you can even get to the home screen, so make sure you have both a working internet connection the first time you turn it on, as well as a cup of tea, some snacks and maybe a pillow.
Kinect 2.0 began as a statement, one of Microsoft’s many challenges to the existing console model. However, as the Xbox One itself reneged on its promises of always-online functionality, the Kinect began to look more like a boondoggle, a remnant of a discarded design philosophy.
Ultimately, Microsoft seems to have agreed, ditching the console camera/microphone/box of magic from new models of the console. On the whole, that’s a shame, as the Kinect is a truly fascinating, if frustrating, piece of kit.
From design perspective, the Xbox One’s version of Kinect is a whole lot bigger than its predecessor. It’s also designed to sit in front of your TV, rather than perched on top of the screen like the PlayStation Camera. That’s because its field of view is now so large that it doesn’t need to sit up high, meaning you no longer have the original Kinect’s unnerving habit of moving to find you across a room.
Just like the system itself, it has a white light up logo on its right side. Dull red lights from its IR blaster intermittently glow when it’s active.
The underside of the Kinect has rubber feet that provide a firm grip. It’s not going to fall off your entertainment center any time soon. It can also tilt up and down, with enough range of motion that there shouldn’t be any trouble finding the right angle for your living room.
But, given that Kinect has been dumped as an intrinsic part of the console, why mention it at all?
While it’s no longer deemed necessary, Kinect’s still woven into the fabric of the UI. In fact, its built-in voice commands are probably the best way to navigate the console at this point (more on that in “interface”, below).
Games themselves use it sparingly at this point (although a couple of indie games, Fru and Nevermind, look to be using the peripheral in some hugely inventive ways), but on the whole I’d recommend those with an extra chunk of change indulge in one from the start.
Kinect bundles tend to run at around £50 more than those without, while the Kinect unit itself retails at around £130.
In terms of set-up, the camera takes around five minutes to calibrate, finding the right angle and learning both your voice and performing a sound check. After that, the system becomes spectacularly good at recognising users, even signing in anyone who’s tied their face to an account as they enter the room. Its ability to recognise gesture commands (used to swipe between menus or act as a cursor) is a little spottier, however.
In terms of vocal commands, the Kinect will recognise TV noise, but if there’s background chatter, it will start to struggle to hear what’s being said. For British readers, it’s also worth pointing out that, initially at least, anything other than received pronunciation may prove incomprehensible to the software.
Commands are hugely varied. Saying “Xbox” is the prompt for Kinect to begin listening for a command, after which you can switch the console on and off, navigate menus, activate and Snap apps or control individual functions of programs, such as controlling media players. It’s also strict on what needs to be said to perform any of these functions.
You “go to” games rather than “play them”, for example, and must say “Xbox on”, but “Xbox turn off”.
I wouldn’t holding out much hope for Microsoft instituting a more accommodating list, but if you learn the existing one well enough (the console has an exhaustive tutorial page) it becomes a truly useful feature, alongside the added extras of having a built-in mic for online play, a camera for streaming and access to some of the stranger games coming to the console in future.
Xbox One’s central menu has all the hallmarks of Windows 8‘s Metro UI, a mosaic of reactive tiles separated into four broad sections: pins, home, friends and store. Home is what you’ll see when you switch on your console, or return to when you press the menu button on your controller.
Dominated by a tile of the app you last used, still running (even if you’ve turned the console off, given the console’s standby mode default), it’s surrounded by a series of recently-used programs, your games & apps library, featured adverts and the Snap start-up function (more on that below).
Swipe left and you’ll find your pins – apps you want to keep permanently accessible. This functionality runs deep: you can pin individual shows or even a TV channel.
Swipe right and you’ll find the relatively new friends section, which gives easy access to your own profile, a friends list, recently played games, an activity feed (updated to allow for comments on other people’s achievements or shared clips) and a Gamerscore leaderboard.
Finally, the store panel offers fairly cluttered access to games, apps, movies and more, which, in sadly now-traditional Xbox style, prioritises huge adverts over easy navigability.
All of these screens are simplified to the point of being unhelpful. It’s a UI so clearly built around access to Kinect that buying a console without one actually makes finding the things you need actively difficult.
“Settings”, for example, is hidden within the games & apps menu. If you can’t just bark “Xbox, go to settings”, you need to go to the home screen, hit games & apps, then navigate to the apps page, scroll over any number of downloaded content to get to it, before actually doing what you wanted to in the first place.
All of this may soon be moot however, as there are rumours of a full UI redesign to come in tandem with the release of Widnows 10, which will interact more closely with Xbox One. But for the buyer right now, it’s worth realising the difference Kinect makes.
You can’t accuse the interface of being sluggish, however. The console turns on extremely quickly, because it rarely fully turns off, rather going into standby mode, allowing for background downloads and multitasking to continue.
Loading times are a question only of your own internet connection speed, even when switching between whole apps, or running two simultaneously with Snap. It may be flawed in design, but in performance it can hardly be faulted.
Snap is perhaps Xbox One’s standout feature, letting you use a third of your screen space to run a second app in tandem with your main focus. Either say “Xbox, snap [app name]” or double-tap the controller menu button and press up on the D-pad, and you’ll be able to choose from many of the console’s apps that would otherwise require fiddly switching to get working.
TV or streams, Twitch broadcasts, Skype, achievements and parties can all be viewed, set-up and organised as you play a game or watch something else on the remaining section of the screen. The resulting black bars that come from retaining main screen resolution are an unfortunate necessity of how Snap works, but you will come to ignore them.
Most interestingly, certain developers are now making games that can be played fully in Snap mode. Mobile smash Threes! and the Pac-Man like Nutjitsu can both be run on the small side of the screen.