Editors' note, June 9, 2014: The Kinect-free version of the Xbox One is now available (and fully reviewed). We'll be updating this review of the standard $500 version soon after E3 2014 with additional information and context.
Editors' note, May 13, 2014: Microsoft has announced that it will launch a Kinect-free version of the Xbox One on June 9 for $399 in the US and £350 in the UK. Furthermore, Xbox Live Gold will no longer be required to access media apps, but Xbox Live Gold subscribers will get access to free and discounted games during their subscription period.
Editors' note, March 11, 2014: This review was originally posted on November 19, 2013, and has been updated from its original version to reflect comparisons to PlayStation 4, and firmware updates the console has received.
Both the Xbox One and the Sony PS4 were released about four months ago. Since then, both consoles have received a handful of software updates, new apps, and new games -- making it a perfect time to look at them with fresh eyes.
Just a few months into the latest round of the Console Wars, the PS4 appears to have the edge in sales over the latest Xbox. But Microsoft is unsheathing its latest weapon in the form of Titanfall, a new multiplayer-focused sci-fi shooter that is exclusive to the Xbox and Windows platforms. In fact, as of March 11, shoppers can seek out a new Xbox One bundle that includes Titanfall (a $60 game) at no extra charge.
So, is that game, set, and match for the Xbox One? Not at all. Even with two recent small software updates under its belt, the Xbox One still carries with it a laundry list of issues: the vaunted live TV integration and voice control is often more a burden than a convenience; an overly convoluted dashboard interface; and some graphics and performance compromises compared to the PS4. The kicker remains the price tag: free Titanfall or no, the Xbox is $100 more than the PS4 ($499 versus $399), and you're stuck buying an Xbox Live Gold membership (up to $60 per year) to do anything online, from multiplayer gaming to watching Netflix.
On the other hand, there has been incremental progress. Those software updates delivered a handful of improvements: slightly better Kinect voice recognition, improved storage management, USB keyboard functionality, a battery charge indicator for controllers, better party and multiplayer systems, and real Dolby Digital audio output.
On the games front, the Xbox One boasts winning indie titles like Pebble 2 and Max: The Curse of the Brotherhood. Post-Titanfall, gamers are already looking forward to Project Spark: the free-to-play Xbox One exclusive (entering open beta in March) features an open sandbox world that is basically a crowd sourced development platform where players can play and build minigames with a powerful toolset at their disposal. There's also Sunset Overdrive and Quantum Break to look forward to, but we don't have any solidified dates on those two games either.
In other words, the Xbox One is better buy than it was at launch, but still not a slam dunk versus the PS4 -- or even the older Xbox 360 and PS3, which remain more affordable, and offer a much larger library of great games. If Titanfall is a must-have, the new Xbox One bundle may well put you over the edge -- just be aware that the game will also be coming to the PC and (albeit with less splendid graphics) to the Xbox 360 in a matter of days.
If Titanfall doesn't sway you, read on: we'll go in-depth on everything we love -- and don't love -- about the Xbox One, and how it stacks up against the PS4.
What's in the box
Inside the Xbox One box is the console, its power brick, the Kinect sensor, a 6-foot HDMI cable, one controller, and one chat headset. Like the $400 PS4, there's only one hardware version of the Xbox One, a 500GB system for $500.
Even though Kinect isn't vital to the Xbox One's functionality, you're still left paying the $100 premium for the Kinect, which comes in the box. (Of course, Kinect was originally required, but backlash forced Microsoft to remove it as a prerequisite.)
The PS4 includes a free month of the PlayStation Plus service (and its accompanying free games) and a $10 voucher for online purchases. As of March 11, you can buy a new Xbox One bundle that includes a download code for Titanfall (a $60 value) and a free month of Xbox Live Gold (worth $5 to $8). Needless to say, those are great extras compared to the earlier hardware-only bundle. If you have any interest in the Xbox One, definitely seek out the Titanfall bundle.
Under the Xbox One's hood is an eight-core AMD CPU, 8GB of DDR3 RAM and a GPU clocked at 853 MHz. The Xbox One's specs trail the PS4's only slightly, but it's important to keep in mind this was the case last generation as well. Both consoles' architectures are more closely constructed this generation, so for the most part we'll likely see similar graphical performance. There are somewhat noticeable differences from time to time and it's certainly possible this will grow as the consoles age. For example, Tomb Raider runs at 60 frames per second on PlayStation 4, but only puts out 30 fps on Xbox One.
The Xbox One is significantly bulkier and notably less sleek than the PlayStation 4; some have described it as a retrofitted VCR. Quite frankly it's not really anything special to look at, though the glowing white Xbox logo on the right panel is oddly soothing.
One ugly carryover from the 360 is the Xbox One's external power brick. That's in contrast to the trim PS4, which manages to keep its power supply tucked inside.
The Xbox weighs around 8 pounds and measures in at 13.5 inches wide by 10.4 inches deep by 3.2 inches tall, but it doesn't go as deep as the PS4 (10.8 inches by 12 inches by 2 inches). Unlike the PS4, the Xbox One's internal 500GB hard disk is not user-replaceable. Wireless Xbox One features include 802.11n and Wi-Fi Direct, but there's no built-in Bluetooth support.
The box is littered with vents on top and around the sides. Xbox One is designed to be on nearly 24-7, if only because it sits in line between your cable box and TV. I've had the console on more often than not when I've been home, and impressively enough, the machine barely makes any noise. (That's a far cry from the jet-engine din of the original Xbox 360 consoles.)
Kinect 2.0 is bundled into the Xbox One system and is meshed into the console's operating system, more so than the PS4's PlayStation Camera (an optional $60 upgrade to the Sony system). Kinect is not required for operation, but Microsoft is never shy to heavily recommend attaching the device during the initial setup. The camera and microphone array take up a little more space than one of those old-school industrial Swingline staplers, so finding a spot for it shouldn't be too much of a task. Be warned, though, unlike the PS4 camera, you can't put the Kinect on top of your TV; that could be especially problematic if you have a sound bar at the base of your screen.
When it's powered on, you'll notice three infrared (IR) blasting beacons emanating from the front of the Kinect. In fact, the Xbox One can send and receive IR commands, which means it can both control your TV and audio receiver or sound bar (to a degree), and accept commands from a standard universal remote. (The PS4 can do neither, even with its camera connected.) Note, however, that the Xbox's database of control codes isn't comprehensive; we already found some mainstream TVs that it wasn't able to control.
Around back is a collection of ports: an HDMI-in and -out (for live TV integration), an optical audio port, two USB 3.0 slots (plus one on the left side for a total of three), the Kinect attachment interface, a slot for an IR blaster, and an Ethernet port. The IR slot is for owners who don't have line-of-sight (if their devices are behind a closed cabinet, for example) between their Kinect and AV devices. For these setups, a wire (not included) must manually run from the console to these devices so they can receive IR commands.
An Xbox One media remote control with more device compatibility will be available in March for $25. We'll have a separate review of it when it arrives.
Xbox One must lie horizontally, unlike the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 and 4. Finally, standard-definition TV owners are out of luck; the Xbox One only connects digitally via HDMI.
Most of the Xbox One games I tried out look great and mostly perform well. Dead Rising 3 is capable of displaying a dizzying amount of zombies on screen at once -- way more than its hardware predecessor was physically able to do. Ryse: Son of Rome and Forza Motorsport 5 are the best-looking eye candy among the initial crop of exclusive titles.
As with the PS4, most multiplatform Xbox One games, especially those already available on current-generation systems, only look marginally better than the PS3 or Xbox 360 versions. In certain cases -- EA's sports titles, for instance -- new next-gen engines have been put in place to take better advantage of improved hardware. That said, the majority of games won't truly hit their stride until developers learn to master the system. It's just the nature of the beast and it affects both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 alike.
During any gameplay session, players can suspend the action and back out into the console's operating system, watch live TV, open other apps, or enter settings. The suspended game is only lost when a new game is started or the console is powered off.
Players can also "snap" certain apps to their gameplay screen, which I'll discuss in depth a little later.
Achievements are back with the Xbox One and presented within their own app in the operating system. Each achievement's details can be viewed and, depending on the game, some achievements will actually record gameplay the moment they are unlocked.
Microsoft is supporting independent game development for the platform, and those titles will be available exclusively in the Xbox One Game Store. Outside of digital-only offerings, all titles will be available in disc or digital form. If you buy digital versions of games, you can download and play them on any Xbox One you log in on. If you buy the disc version, that disc must follow you wherever you go. (The PS4 offers the same options for sharing digital and disc-based games.)
All games, disc-based or digital, completely install onto the system. You'll only need the disc to play if that's how you purchased the game. There's a significant install time that occurs the first time you pop in a game, noticeably lengthier than the time it takes to start a game the first time you play a PS4 title.
Just like the PS4, the Xbox One has no backward compatibility at all with Xbox 360 discs. The ability to buy and download classic games from Xbox 360 wouldn't be surprising down the road, but that's strictly wishful thinking for now -- no official announcements have been made.
Since the Xbox One's announcement, Microsoft has really drilled in the idea of cloud computing and how it will supposedly open the door for revolutionary in-game results. None of the launch titles we've seen incorporates cloud computing in any noticeable manner, but we're sure this kind of tech will surface as we head deeper into the console's life cycle.
It's tough for the Xbox team to have improved upon the Xbox 360 controller. Save for its subpar D-pad, the controller was easily the most comfortable one ever made. For Xbox One, the controller's shape and feel have undergone tweaks, and I can't say it's all for the better.
The new controller isn't necessarily uncomfortable, but it's gripped slightly different and has more angles as opposed the curves of the 360's controller. The Xbox guide button (now the Home button) is placed well away from where the Back and Start buttons used to flank it -- likely to avoid accidentally hitting. The Back and Start buttons are now the View and Menu buttons, respectively.
The Xbox One's controller still has the same layout for face buttons and the analog sticks are laid out in the same format as well. The sticks have smaller circular tops on the joysticks and they can be clicked in. The D-pad is the most different-looking, compared with the 360's controller; it no longer sits on a disc. The plus-shaped directional pad now clicks in four directions, totally eliminating the accidental inputs its predecessor suffered from.
The LB and RB buttons now have much more space atop the controller and the L and R triggers have a really solid squeeze and feel to them. There are even independent rumble motors tethered to each trigger, so, for example, stepping on the gas will shake the right trigger but not the left.
On top of the controller is a Micro-USB port that can be used if there's a rechargeable battery pack installed. It takes two AAs otherwise. There's also a sync button and two IR blasters that send information to Kinect. This is how Xbox One knows who is signed into the console, but more on that later.
Underneath the controller is a port for connecting a chat headset. Unfortunately, this interface isn't compatible with any 360 headset, though Microsoft will be releasing an adapter to so soon.
Additional Xbox One controllers can be purchased for $60 and the console can support up to eight connected at once.
Kinect 2.0 and the Xbox One interface
While Microsoft seemed to have gone all-in on how deeply rooted the motion sensing and voice recognition camera was going to be, a vehement pushback from the gaming community changed that. Sure, Kinect isn't required in order for Xbox One to work but it's still very much ingrained in much of the experience.
Xbox One is nearly completely controllable with the Kinect and your voice, though it can make for some frustrating moments. Kinect doesn't always hear you correctly and things that would take seconds to perform on a controller can take much longer as you start articulating and pronouncing every single syllable more clearer.
Kinect 2.0 introduces a handful of new voice and gesture commands, all of which will take some time getting used to. In fact, Microsoft provided me with a cheat sheet containing around 30 new voice commands and five new gestures -- though oddly this isn't included in the retail box.
When it does work, Kinect can provide some brilliant "a-ha" moments. Even the simple task of turning the console on without the need to locate a controller is a luxury tough to abandon once experienced for the first time.
The console can log you in using only your face, up to six different faces and six log-ins, to be exact. Once you turn on a controller, it then knows which player is holding which controller. It's a sneaky yet effective trick, especially when multiple users share a single console. During my test time with the feature, I found Xbox One would recognize me about 75 percent of the time. After almost four months with the console, that number has improved to about 85 percent.
When you're logged in to another console outside of your primary home console, your content is only available if you are the home user (meaning you push the Home button) on a controller. Once another attached user hits the Home button, they are then driving the console. This impacts which games and saves are available too. Essentially, your Xbox Live account follows you where you go. I'll dive deeper into Xbox Live accounts a little later.
Using the Skype app was a really great experience. The Kinect sensor isn't mechanical, but it can zoom in and out taking into consideration the amount of people in a given room. By tracking everyone's skeletons, the Skype video feed ensures everyone stays in the picture during a video conference. Skype is baked into the OS quite well and also responds to its own collection of voice commands. Keep in mind though, use of Skype requires an Xbox Live Gold membership.