We've been front and centre on a madcap rollercoaster ride ever since Microsoft publicly unveiled the Xbox One back in may. Following that abysmal debut event we've had twists and turns aplenty, policies corkscrewing wildly and new controversies to plunge into on a weekly basis.
None of that matters now, because the end product is currently sitting in over a million lounges worldwide. Having lived with Microsoft's entertainment system for the best part of a week, it's high time to deliver our official launch verdict.
At its best, when Xbox One and Kinect conspire to revolutionise the way you interact with your games and lounge entertainment, it genuinely feels like the future. But there's still work to be done right here in the present.
First Impressions & Build Quality
Xbox One makes a single overriding first impression. "Whoa. It's huge."
Hailing from the land of Super-Sized burgers and SUVs, the Xbox One is the biggest console Microsoft has ever released, a chunky obsidian monolith that dwarfs even the original Xbox. You'll have to clear a huge amount of space on your shelf or A/V cabinet to house its whopping 33.3cm x 27.4cm x 7.9cm bulk, which must be laid flat.
Luckily its half-and-half styling helps to break up the outline of the case, an optical illusion that makes the system appear smaller than it actually is, while it's intended to sit at the very nerve centre of your living room anyway. The Xbox One's understated design will grow on you once embedded within your existing A/V setup, exuding a sense of real power while not distracting the eye, though its glossy surface is a magnet for fingerprints and small scratches if you're not careful.
However, the chunky and solidly-built behemoth is surprisingly light, which is largely down to an enormous amount of venting on the top and flanks of the unit, lending it a somewhat hollow feel. With the addition of a separate power brick, it's clear that Microsoft have painstakingly engineered their new console for efficient cooling to avoid the ruinous overheating issues of its predecessor. Its massive case makes room for massive fans, which are pleasingly silent, allowing the Xbox One to run whisper-quiet during all but heavy disc installations.
Kinect, too, is super-sized. The formidable depth sensor is larger, thicker and heavier than its Xbox 360 forebear, requiring a fair bit of free space on your television plinth or cabinet. Thankfully it's also rather handsome in this reviewer's opinion, and feels satisfyingly well-built. Plus, as we'll discuss later, Kinect earns its pride of place within a matter of hours.
As we've already covered in exhaustive detail, the Xbox One Wireless Controller is beautifully made and makes a great first impression, not to mention a strong lasting one.
What's In The Box?
If you've ordered an Xbox One for Christmas, don't expect to get stuck straight into your games after tearing off the wrapping paper. As a complex piece of consumer electronics, you'll have to jump through a fair few hoops first.
Once you've performed the manual labour of hooking your Xbox One up to the power supply, television (HDMI only), Kinect sensor, sound system and potentially your TV set-top box, you'll need to connect to the internet and install a 500MB day-one update. Depending on your ISP and broadband package, this can take anywhere from five to fifty minutes, during which you'll basically just have to leave it alone. You'll then need to sign into your Microsoft account or create a new one, followed by a few minutes of tweaking as the console acclimatises itself to your particular AV requirements.
Kinect also requires its own setup procedure, which is surprisingly convenient. You'll only need a few clear feet of floorspace to introduce yourself thanks to its wide-angle perspective, followed by a handful of painless audio calibration tests, after which you can also quickly register the make and model of your television and set-top box. This allows Kinect to assume command of your telly via its IR Blaster, and is well worth doing. We'll get onto that later.
No, you can't play games yet. Accessing even the most basic functionality requires you to download standalone apps from the marketplace, so it's worth spending a few minutes queuing up the Blu-Ray player, Audio CD app, Upload Studio and any entertainment services that you've subscribed to (such as Netflix or Lovefilm), then pinning them to the home screen.
Finally, all games have to be installed to the hard drive in their entirety, whether bought on disc or downloaded from the marketplace. Most games can be played in some capacity before the process is complete, but a common glitch can make the install procedure hang at 1% and take an extraordinary amount of time. Microsoft has issued a workaround, which I've personally verified.
User Interface: Appy, Snappy & Scrappy
The Xbox One's user interface takes its cues from Windows 8's Metro OS featured across PCs and mobile devices. Large clear tiles give you quick access to your recently-used games and applications, clustered around a live feed of your last-minimised program in a large central window. To the left lies a series of pins that lets you create custom shortcuts for your favourite games, apps and even media content, while the game, music and video store lies a bumper press to the right. It's an attractive setup, complete with customisable colour schemes, but both the apps menu and store require category tags to improve discovery going forward.
"Always on" became a dirty word back in May, but after some furious backpedalling, it's actually a worthwhile feature. On default settings, Xbox One remains in a low-power standby state when not being used, quietly downloading updates in the background and waiting to be speedily reactivated with a voice command or brush against its front panel. Games can also be suspended and resumed, but this feature is currently in beta and won't work for many third-party titles that dump you back to the main menu rather than the game in progress. Always save just in case.
Metro divvies up practically all of the Xbox One's features and services into standalone apps, each with their own smart tile, which allows Xbox One to efficiently multi-task between them. You can hop from games to Skype to Netflix to the settings menu to the achievements tab with ease, and resume your progress when you return. Want to watch telly while matchmaking? No problem, barring the fact that only one game can be active at any one time (a reasonable restriction). Better yet, many applications can be snapped to the right-hand side of the screen, allowing you to mediastack with merry abandon. Microsoft needs to improve navigation and usability for several snapped apps, but it's a fun new feature that fits easily into our current gaming routine.
So, in the main, Xbox One's UI lays a decent foundation with its robust multi-tasking... but its reliance on individual apps leads to two major problems.
The first is more of a short-lived irritation: downloading them in the first place. Want to listen to music? Install Xbox Music. Unless you want to listen to an Audio CD, since there's a separate app for that. Blu-Ray playback? That's an app. Video editing? App. Though small downloads, they all add up and can make your first few hours intensely irritating. A single unified entertainment centre would have been more fitting with the "All In One" maxim.
Xbox One's biggest flaw, though, is all about workflow. Whereas the Xbox 360's blades brought the console's various features together in a cohesive and intuitive way, Xbox One's dashboard is a disjointed scattershot mess of standalone programs, barely organised even with the pin system, and an absolute pain to navigate on a controller. Different services and applications are scattered throughout poorly-organised and cluttered menus, and throw up annoying busywork where you least expect it.
Setting up a party and inviting friends to games is spectacularly inconvenient, for example, while unlocking an achievement and finding out what it is has a bizarre extra step in the middle. Want to know how much battery life your controller has, or how much hard drive space remains? TOUGH. The Xbox handles that side of things in an worryingly opaque manner (but Microsoft's Albert Penello has confirmed that this is a top priority for future updates).
Indeed, it often doesn't feel like an operating system at all, rather you're constantly opening and closing and opening and closing all manner of tiny separate programs; some of which multitask in the background, others of which don't, and all prefaced by a little loading time that continually adds up. Rather than offering a single menu or interface that unites everything, accessible at the touch of a one button. Microsoft is already taking feedback for potential improvements that frankly need to roll out as soon as possible.
Or do they? What we really need is a way to navigate directly to the game, entertainment content or application we want without even having to use a controller. Surely such a thing is impossible, the realms of science fiction.
Guess again. I never thought I'd end up typing this: but Kinect is a revelation, and makes the Xbox One user experience something truly magical.
Genuinely Better With Kinect
Far from the gimmick we once suspected it to be, Kinect is handily the most compelling reason to own an Xbox One, slotting into your console user experience in smart, effortless and intuitive ways.
Its camera signs in registered users automatically with a cheery "hi!", taking them directly to their content, and immediately assigns the correct controller to each player without having to faff about with menus. Though its enhanced motion sensing is under-utilised at launch, it's factored into several games in interesting ways (such as leaning and head-tracking, and a sensationally responsive Kinect Sports: Rivals demo), and allows you to drag around menus like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. QR codes replace those horrible 25-digit redeem codes for digital content and Xbox Live Gold subscriptions, recognised almost instantly and cutting out a huge amount of aggravation.
And then the voice commands change everything. You can immediately jump to any game or application by simply saying "Xbox, goto," effortlessly and instantly multi-tasking to the content you want. If you've set up your television, you can change the volume in the middle of a stressful Need For Speed: Rivals race, and switch it on along with your console thanks to the soon-to-be-iconic "Xbox, on!" command. Apps can be snapped. Game DVR can be recorded. The television can be muted and the action paused without thinking. Every tile and on-screen command can be accessed with a quick phrase, and even Bing manages to redeem itself with a fantastically convenient way of browsing media content and services. It's so intuitive, so simple and effective, that Kinect quickly becomes an integral part of your core gaming life.
It's not the lounge commander. You are.
Put simply: it feels like the future, and brings a sense of childlike magic to the proceedings. We've got a full list of voice commands and a handy user guide here. In all honesty, I've actually caught myself talking to my PC and Wii U before realising that they're not listening. I can never go back.
Brilliant as Kinect is, there's still work to be done. Many players are struggling with voice recognition due to Kinect's slightly inconsistent pickup of regional accents, while niggling workflow issues still remain. Saying "Xbox" puts the system into alert mode, but sometimes you have to say "Xbox" again in order to trigger the command. The "goto" command feels redundant, when I'd ideally just like to be able to say "Xbox, achievements." I've also found that the "Xbox On" command only works 50% of the time for me, annoying since it's the first one you'll want to show off. Kinect may work superbly, but voice commands need to work every time - for everyone - if Microsoft is serious about pushing it as a mandatory pack-in. Sounds unreasonable, but that's the fact of the matter.
Is it worth the extra £80? For me, absolutely, unequivocally yes. In fact, it's currently the most "next-gen" thing about either next-gen console in this reviewer's opinion, at least until the next wave of games release for both systems in Spring 2014.
It's brilliant, unlike the uncomfortable official headset.
Games & Graphics
For many gamers, Forza Motorsport 5 will be your first taste of the Xbox One's capabilities. Running at full 1080p at 60 frames per second, these oft-quoted numbers become meaningless when faced with the crispness and clarity of Turn 10's racer, the gorgeous real-time reflections and sumptuous texture work. It's delicious.
However, barring the exceptionally pretty Ryse: Son Of Rome and the visually underwhelming Dead Rising 3, much of Xbox One's launch lineup exhibit relatively modest improvement; upscaled from lower resolutions to 1080p in the main. Multi-platform (especially cross-generation) titles like Need For Speed: Rivals and Call Of Duty: Ghosts do look noticeably better on Xbox One than Xbox 360 or PS3 -- sharper, more defined, offering greater detail and more gratuitous particle effects -- but in ways that you'll quickly take for granted. As we've also seen with the PS4, the generational jump is less pronounced and packs less 'wow' factor than we saw from Generation five to six, and six to seven, outside of each system's graphical flagship game. We'll have to wait for studios to get more used to the platform and Microsoft to continually improve their drivers before really knowing what the console is capable of.
In terms of gameplay, Xbox One's launch titles are a pleasing mix of genres, from racing to surprisingly enjoyable zoo simulations, hack & slash action and fighting games. We've got reviews in the pipeline. Beware the digital-only titles Crimson Dragon and Lococycle, which are both very disappointing. As a side note, it's odd to see many Microsoft Studios-published games pushing microtransactions and in-app purchases. Is there a mandate from on high? We hope not.
I'm not going to be drawn into the Xbox One vs PS4 "resolution wars" issue yet. It definitely seems that third-party developers are struggling to get to grips with the Xbox One's embedded ESRAM memory pool compared to the PS4's more unified architecture, which acts as an learning curve to push through in order to deliver on higher resolutions, but we'll only be able to comment on this with authority a few months down the line. We don't have the data yet, but if graphics are important to you, waiting a few months for a clearer picture (no pun intended) might be a good idea.
Then again, if you're genuinely obsessed with graphics - to the extent where you say the phrase "720p" or "1080p" more than once per day despite not working in consumer electronics or videogame industry - then consoles aren't really for you. Do yourself a favour and save up for a monstrous upgradeable gaming PC!
TV, HDMI-In & Entertainment
Xbox One's HDMI-In port is set to be the console's second most exciting feature. If you plug an HDMI television source (such as a Sky HD box), your Xbox One will act as a passthrough device of sorts, allowing you to seamlessly multitask between games and television using voice commands, and even snap live TV to watch while playing. It's a fabulous feature, and its potential is already evident. There are reports of juddering due to our archaic European 50Hz standard, but in practice, this depends enormously on your specific television set. Be sure to remember that television surround sound is currently in beta and needs to be activated in the settings menu.
Impressive as it is, TV feels declawed here in Europe, at least for the time being. Without the fully-featured OneGuide application that lets us control our set-top box using voice commands and on-screen prompts, you'll effectively just use the Xbox One as a middle man who sits between you and the content you already watch, and control in exactly the same way as you always have, all while paying for extra electricity. It's also annoying that the console has to be active in order to watch television, as opposed to allowing signal passthrough while on standby mode. OneGuide is scheduled to be updated in Europe next year, and frankly, this needs to happen yesterday.
You can also plug any HDMI-supported console or HTPC into the Xbox One with mixed results. While media streaming is surprisingly satisfying (Wii U's BBC iPlayer app worked brilliantly, as did XBMC on OUYA despite a little overscan), most games are practically unplayable due to input lag. A fun feature, but why not just plug your other devices directly into your television and save on electricity?
Don't despair, because the Xbox One's range of entertainment apps are much more relevant. From Netflix and Machinima to 4OD and Microsoft's own media marketplaces, Xbox One brings a swathe of conveniently-designed applications that will sign in automatically if you've paired them with a Microsoft ID. Quality and voice commands are excellent across the board, and better yet, Bing unites them all with voice command searches. "Xbox, Bing Arrested Development" took me straight to a series listing page from which I could directly hop to a specific episode on Netflix, all without picking up a controller.
For those of us who increasingly use streaming media over traditional telly, the Xbox One really is a living room entertainment tour de force.
For those of us who use our PCs as a media server, though, it'll be totally useless. Despite boasting DNLA support in the months running up to launch, the Xbox One isn't capable of acting as a Windows Media Centre Extender or a true streaming media client. Microsoft could potentially add this functionality in a future update, but without it, the new console lacks basic functionality that we took for granted with the Xbox 360. PlayTo is not enough, not by a long shot.
"All In One?" Not quite. Hopefully this will be a different story next year. We're still waiting on Nintendo TVii, mind.
Social, Achievements & DVR
Your Microsoft ID brings your avatar and Xbox Live friends into the next generation, though your existing Gamer Pics will become tiny dots next to a massive range of new 1080p portrails. The maximum number of friends has been massively boosted to 1000, and you can also "follow" other users without sending them a friend request - a fun system that takes its cues from Twitter by letting you passively keep tabs on people you meet.
Achievements has been modified slightly with the addition of time-limited challenges to complete (added throughout each game's lifespan) and large high-definition artwork instead of small square icons, but otherwise functions in a similar manner to the Xbox 360's original format. The constant acquisition of Gamerscore will doubtlessly still provide an addictive draw over the next few years, while challenges are likely to become incredibly compelling, though I do miss unlocking a little 'pin' or 'badge' for my efforts.
Xbox Live Gold members can also record, edit and upload game footage for friends and the community to peruse, depending on privacy settings. Though a scant five minutes of footage is recorded, it's much more natural to capture the last thirty seconds by saying, "Xbox, record that," then easily top-and-tail your superb overtake or noscope in the upload studio app. It's also possible to create picture-in-picture walkthroughs and narrate over clips thanks to Kinect, though Microsoft needs to enable YouTube sharing (and, erm, increase the length of clips) to make this worthwhile. Still, it's a nifty feature, and will doubtlessly improve over the coming months.
Skype & Internet Explorer
Xbox One offers too many apps to fully detail here, but two of its most important features deserve a closer look.
Skype is utterly sensational on Xbox One. Worked directly into the OS and bristling with voice commands, it's a superb hands-free way of talking to or video-calling your friends and contacts regardless of what device they use (I called Matt for a long video call on his PC on day one), as Kinect intelligently pans and tracks your face, zooming in and keeping you in frame like an expert cameraman. Should you receive a call, you can answer it without even touching the controller. A 'snap'-enabled version is currently in the works, which will make it doubly convenient.
The included version of Internet Explorer is also nicely optimised and handles even media-rich pages well, but I'm not sold on its convenience. Controller navigation is clunky, as are the voice commands (browsing to sites with voice commands is like playing Roulette at the moment) - meaning that you'll likely fall back on your phone or tablet. We'll take a look at the SmartGlass app in a future article.
- Kinect makes owning a console more convenient, more fun and plain better
- Superb voice commands and user recognition
- Robust multi-tasking between games and apps
- Launch games lineup offers pleasing variety and impressive flagship visuals
- Whisper-quiet operation
- Excellent controller
- Undeniable HDMI-In potential
- Commands your TV and devices via Kinect's IR Blaster
- Range of well-designed entertainment apps unified by Bing
- Skype is fantastic and well-implemented
- Potentially lengthy setup procedure, hefty space requirements
- Mandatory disc installations can be annoying, no way to effectively manage hard disc usage
- User interface needs prompt updates to streamline workflow and improve party formation
- Kinect voice commands require further tuning and extra shortcuts
- OneGuide not available in Europe at launch, limits TV utility
- Disappointingly limited DNLA support
- Several features still in beta or arriving next year
- Full graphical potential yet unknown
The Verdict: Kinect transforms Microsoft's big black box into a vision of the future, a voice-powered lounge commander that puts your games and entertainment at your literal beck and call. Your console will recognise you, listen to you, marshal your devices and spice up the everyday user experience in numerous natural ways. Sporting a pleasingly varied launch lineup of both first-party and multiplatform titles, alongside plenty of media applications, the next console generation has kicked off with a surprisingly playful flourish. "Xbox, on."
However, it's clear that Microsoft have their work cut out over the next few months if they want to cement Xbox One's place in the lounge. Certain annoying aspects of the interface require immediate attention, Kinect needs further tuning and various niggling irritations abound. We'll also have to wait until 2014 for the system to realise its "All In One" potential here in the UK.
If you're excited about the upcoming games, Kinect and entertainment then believe the hype: Xbox One really is a lovely bit of kit that brings some of the magic back to the simple act of owning a console, while Kinect manages to justify its extra expense. But if you're on the fence, playing the waiting game will reward you with an improved interface, more solid information about what the system is graphically capable of and additional TV features. Not to mention Titanfall. A fairly strong start, then, but one that needs to be built upon and soon.
As a service as much as a games console, the Xbox One experience is going to evolve over the coming months, both in line with player feedback and as more applications launch on the marketplace. We'll keep you up to date with the latest.