Microsoft Xbox One review: The game console that would rule your living room (but shouldn't quite yet)

The Xbox One's dashboard seems like a simple three-pillared approach on the surface: Pins, Home, and Store. Pins are the bookmarks you can place for quick access to almost anything and the Store section is the portal to all of the content accessible on an Xbox One. The Home (main) screen houses a large window that contains the app, game, or piece of media currently running. Surrounding it are tiles of recently used software and access to your Xbox One profile on the left.

Unfortunately, what appears straightforward on the surface, hides a handful of complexities underneath. The platform introduces a number of brand-new ideas; the most intriguing of all is probably the "snap" feature, which allows you to snap an app to a third of your screen. It brings the idea of multitasking to a console for the first time, though its implementation can be disorienting.

Not every app you own will be able to snap. So while you're able to snap Internet Explorer to a game, you might not be able to snap a different media app. You'll also battle with understanding which side of the screen you're controlling, though there are a few button shortcuts or voice commands in place to help you out. For example, double tapping the Home button will swap focus between snapped apps.

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Things can get complicated quickly though, especially if you hit the Home button during a snap session. Both apps will then sink into the Home window at which point you might need to unsnap everything to make sense of it all. There's also a confusing amount of incongruity when it comes to what can be done with your voice as opposed to the controller.

Without a doubt, the logic of the Xbox One dashboard will take some getting used to. It's tough to discern which apps can snap and how to take control of everything onscreen, all while managing voice commands and controller inputs. With every new piece of software the user begins to understand behaviors and rules that dictate how things work. With this new dashboard, though, the learning process will take longer than you're used to.

Too often in my time with the dashboard I'd get confused about exactly where I was in the system. The best way I can describe it is a form of "menu Inception" where I was within a menu within a menu, but accessing it from a different place than I thought I had originated from. Got all that?

Setup
The first thing the Xbox One wants you to do, of course, is connect to the Web, so you can download all the current patches and firmware updates.

From there you'll need to calibrate Kinect and program your AV devices before you're ready to start playing games, or watch live TV, should you choose to connect Xbox One that way.

To get Xbox One act just the way you want it, be prepared to spend some time setting it up to do so. The late winter updates have helped things slightly, but it still can be a tedious experience, especially getting it to play nicely with live TV.

Living room control: Consider it a supplement
Live TV integration is probably the most ambitious "outside-the-box" thinking a console has done in a while. Xbox One wants to get between your TV and your cable box so that it can tailor the experience. Or it least is does in the US and UK -- in Australia there's a certain level of "function lag".

The Xbox OneGuide, for example, is a channel guide overlay that appears on top of your live TV signal. Or at least it is in the US -- in Australia we're still waiting.

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So how well does the Kinect work? I'd say it worked about 75 percent of the time in understanding what I wanted it to do, including which channels I wanted to watch and where in the dashboard I wanted to navigate. Unfortunately, there's enough wonkiness riddled throughout its use that will probably be enough to scare some away from it altogether.

More specifically, the Kinect refused to understand specific cable channels. After two weeks of owning an Xbox One, neither my wife nor I have successfully gotten it to tune to HGTV. It just can't understand that.

For whatever reason, sometimes the Kinect won't even acknowledge a voice command at all. Other times when it does, the listening window will close before the onscreen cue has faded out. It's frustrating. A lot of the time it feels like I'm battling with speaking over TV audio which is absolutely no fun at all.

On three separate occasions, the Xbox One wouldn't start up when I asked it to. Instead, manually powering up the console gave me a green loading bar that indicated a new update was installing. Aside from the fact that this should probably be done during standby time, I was essentially locked out of watching my own TV. What's worse is there doesn't seem to be an automatic pass-through for the HDMI signal, so TV watching will always be at the mercy of what Xbox One is doing.

I've been told that such occurrences will only happen during the beta review period, but I still felt it necessary to point out to demonstrate how the Xbox One can get in the way of you watching TV. After nearly two weeks of having my Verizon FiOS connected to the Xbox One, I was contemplating routing it through a separate input. I've since disconnected it and then reconnected it back only once Dolby Digital was supported as an audio format.

Then there are the examples of where the IR blasting just falls flat. The Kinect can't change inputs on your TV or receiver, meaning that if you've set it up to turn on all your devices, you need to manually ensure that everything is set on the right input. There's also no option to control input delays, power-on ordering, or customized commands. Using the Kinect to control your cable box also comes with an inherent delay -- it's just not as quick as hitting remote buttons.

DVR functionality is basically nonexistent because there's no way to send top-level discrete commands to a cable box for specific recording. That's not the Xbox One's fault. But there's currently no way to access other commands you might find on a cable box remote, so for a lot of the nonessential cable box navigation, you'll need the original remote handy.

On the more technical side of things, I found that the Xbox One successfully passed through the original video signal coming from my cable box (meaning there's no noticeable resolution or picture quality loss). While Dolby Digital 5.1 was noticeably absent from the console's launch, it was implemented into the March update.

Live TV integration also allows you to snap TV to an app or a game. Finally, we can watch TV and play games at the same time! But there are a few caveats that for me are deal-breakers. For one, you can't mix the audio to your preference, nor can you choose to hear one and not the other. They're just both being mixed in at the same time, though in my experience it seems that the TV audio is louder than the game's. The option to mute the TV source would have been a fantastic feature, but sadly it's not yet available. I also found that the live TV feed tends to jitter occasionally when in snap mode.

Overall, the ambitious live TV and home theater integration features of the Xbox One are a mixed bag. When they work they seem like they're right out of a sci-fi movie, but when they don't, it's enough to drive you mental. I expect we'll see more refinements and tweaks down the road through system updates, but right now no one should assume it will be able to take over control of their entertainment space exclusively, nor should they assume there's enough customization for the experience to be tailored to their specific preferences.

For a more detailed look at the Xbox One's nongaming live TV and digital entertainment features, check out Matthew Moskovciak's deeper dive.

Beyond TV: Other entertainment
With all the focus on OneGuide and voice-activated channel changing, it's easy to forget that the Xbox 360 already had some pretty impressive living room functionality. Some of that carries over to the Xbox One, some of it doesn't, and some you'll need to wait for.

Microsoft announced a long list of "launch apps" in November which were scheduled to arrive between then and spring 2014. As of this review refresh Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, NFL, Crackle, CW, Twitch, Vudu, YouTube, FoxNow, FXNow, TED, Redbox Instant, Verizon FiOS and Skype. Still, major apps like HBO Go, Pandora, and Spotify were nowhere to be found. (HBO Go is said to be coming to the Xbox One in the launch window; the latter three are MIA.)

Unsurprisingly, that's a much shorter list locally. AT launch we saw Crackle, Machinima, MUZU TV, Network Ten's tenplay, Quickflix, SBS On Demand, TED and Twitch.

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In other words: If you use your Xbox 360 as your main streaming-video box, you won't want to replace it with an Xbox One right away.

The Xbox One also supports one of the coolest features on the Xbox 360: cross-platform video search using Kinect and Bing. The ability to say "Xbox, Bing 'Parks and Recreation'" and see all the available video services is neat, although it feels strangely isolated from your own cable TV content. You want video search to integrate results from your TV and DVR content, but search is limited to streaming video apps right now. One can envision a future where the OneGuide and Bing search can access your cable content through authenticated apps, like the Xbox 360's Xfinity app, but there aren't even Xbox One apps for those services at the moment.

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If you're looking to play other disc-based media on the Xbox One, there's support for Blu-ray discs, DVDs, and CDs. Though when it comes to DLNA support, things get a little dicey. The Xbox One only supports the Microsoft proprietary "Play To" protocol. To get the Xbox One to stream your media, it needs to be loaded into a SkyDrive account, which can be accessed through the SkyDrive app on the console (which is now renamed "OneDrive").

Sharing and social
Sharing gameplay footage on the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 is being positioned as the next-gen rite of passage. While the PS4 can upload screenshots to Facebook and Twitter, the Xbox One can only upload and stream video. As of this writing, recorded video can only be uploaded using the Upload app, as opposed to Twitch and Ustream, which are already live on the PS4. Players can edit their recorded video using the Upload Studio app, though that is not yet available either. Users will soon be able to upload videos to Facebook and broadcast on Twitch when those services go live very soon. I'll update this section when game sharing is more fleshed out.

As for now, social integration seems to be lacking on Xbox One and doesn't include game recording as seamlessly as PS4 does. If you don't want to use your voice to say "Xbox record that," there are half-dozen or so steps that you'll need to perform in order to begin a recording session. And where PS4 is constantly recording the last 15 minutes of gameplay, Xbox One only buffers the last 30 seconds.

Xbox Live: Go gold or go home
To play online multiplayer you'll need an Xbox Live Gold membership. That's always been the case. But at this point in the game it's becoming a bit ridiculous that an Xbox Live Gold account status is still required for a staggering portion of Xbox One's basic features. A lot of these perks (game DVR, Netflix streaming, etc.) are included for free with the purchase of a PS4.

This may have flown under the radar in the past because Xbox 360 was the cheaper console, but now that the Xbox One is $100 more than the PS4, it seems absurd to have to pay a premium in addition to an all-but-mandatory, $60-a-year membership to unlock basic functionality. Even certain features of the Xbox One channel guide are locked out if you're not a Gold member.

Xbox Live Gold is also required for Skype, cloud saves, and any of the game DVR and Upload app features. Like PlayStation Plus, Xbox Live Gold offers free games each month, but the list of freebies has yet to match the quality of PlayStation's.

The only highlight feature that doesn't seem to require Xbox Live Gold is SmartGlass, Xbox's second-screen companion experience that is transitioning to Xbox One. Available for Windows, iOS and Android, SmartGlass is an entirely different app than the 360's. Certain games and media content can take advantage of the second screen, and SmartGlass will also let you navigate the Xbox One through your device. I've also seen demos where SmartGlass for Xbox One can act as another TV remote control.

While the TV remote control functionality of SmartGlass is severely underwhelming (where's the number pad?), the other interactions one can do with the app is very cool. You can access game information, say details of Ryse: Son of Rome, whilst the game is running, or you can even start the game up from your device.

Xbox One vs. PS4
So you've read our PlayStation 4 review, and now you're nearly done with our Xbox One write-up. So which console is right for you? It's tough to overstate this, but there are a lot of factors that come into play here. Above everything else, it seems that waiting out the initial launch window is still the wisest move. Even months later, there are still plenty of bugs to be ironed out and features yet to go live on both sides.

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Then there are the games to consider. At launch, the Xbox One narrowly edges out the PlayStation 4 in the exclusives category, if only by a hair. That being said, the PS4 appears to have a stronger indie lineup in the coming months. Where PS4 has triple-A console exclusives like Infamous: Second Son, Xbox One has Titanfall. Peering out further down the road, Xbox One owners will have the exclusives on games like Quantum Break, Sunset Overdrive, Project Spark, a new Halo game, and more.

Of course given their different prices, the PS4 does seem like an overall better value at the moment, especially if you consider the advantages included in PlayStation Plus as opposed to Xbox Live Gold. (That said, current Xbox 360 Gold members can have their accounts transfer over, maintaining Gamerscores and point balances as well.)

While it's far from perfect, the Xbox One's Kinect integration to live TV is nowhere to be matched on PS4. So if that's of the utmost importance to you, your choice is simple -- for now. That could change later in 2014, when the PS4's streaming TV service is schedule to go live.

It's silly to base a purchase on hardware specs alone, especially in this case where both the Xbox One and the PS4's are so close. Instead, it's probably best to wait and see how multiplatform games perform in the coming months and combine that with the roadmap for exclusives to make a more educated decision. For instance, Call of Duty: Ghosts has a better frame rate on the Xbox One than on the PS4, but it runs natively at maximum 1080p resolution only on the latter. On the other hand, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition runs at 60 frames per second on PS4, but on 30 on Xbox One. At this stage, multiplatform games (software available for both Xbox One and PlayStation 4) tend to look and perform slightly better on a PlayStation 4.

Because the Xbox One and the PS4 are now on the same cycle, they'll both take some time to mature as platforms. That means it'll be a while until there is a reliable stream of software for each system. If none of the exclusive launch games intrigues you, there's no shame in waiting for something that does. While a few top tier titles are beginning to trickle out, we probably won't see a major round of compelling software hit until the 2014 holiday season, or even later into 2015.

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Conclusion
Xbox One gets points for its forward-thinking mentality and ambition to integrate live TV and home theater control, even if that vision is far from being realized at this point in its lifespan.

In terms of the rest of the Xbox One experience, time will tell if the system is able to garner a compelling collection of software that makes owning one worth it. Just like the PS4, the Xbox One has a great amount of titles that are already playable on a system you might currently own. For those games, an upgrade isn't necessary.

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The Xbox One feels a bit scatterbrained in its interface and presentation. To core gamers, it might come off as a lot of unwanted fluff. On the other hand, the casual audience may be asking themselves why they needed to spend six hundred bucks when a Chromecast might serve just as well for entertainment apps.

Where Sony positioned the PS4 as the "gamer's console," Microsoft felt customers would be better served with a console that wears many hats. Thankfully, it can still play games with brilliant visuals, but it lands short of its ambitious all-in-one hubris.

Even with its two most recent major under-the-hood firmware updates, Xbox One still faces some challenges as the most expensive next-generation console. While it is a solid gaming machine, its other features need to be presented in a way that feels invaluable, and less like tacked on bonuses. The Titanfall bundle is a good deal that takes away some of the pricier sting, but it's also worth noting that Titanfall will hit Xbox 360 two weeks after its Xbox One debut.

CNET Senior Associate Editor Matthew Moskovciak contributed to this review.

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    Quick Specifications See All

    • Regional specs shown for US. AU specs are unavailable.

    • Release date 23 Nov 2013
    • Media Type Blu-ray
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