Microsoft Xbox One review: Slow and steady, the Xbox One gradually improves

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.5
  • Design: 7.0
  • Ecosystem: 7.0
  • Features: 8.0
  • Performance: 7.0
  • Value: 8.0
Review Date:

The Good Microsoft's Xbox One offers impressive graphics and can integrate and control live TV with Kinect (which will drive the price up by $100). The Xbox One has a slightly better roster of exclusive games going into 2015 compared to that of the PS4. Xbox Live Gold is no longer required for basic streaming apps and synced game-saves, and the Microsoft console has a slightly better selection of those media apps than PS4 at the current time.

The Bad Xbox One's interface isn't as smooth as PS4's. Kinect's live TV integration is fraught with frustrations: Kinect voice commands don't always work, and the system lacks full DVR integration. PS4 generally delivers slightly better installation times, graphics and performance on cross-platform games so far. Xbox One also lags behind the PS4 in its selection of indie games.

The Bottom Line While the PS4 remains our overall preferred choice in the next-gen console race, the Xbox One's significant first-year course corrections -- including a welcome holiday price drop -- make it a better deal than ever, and a much better bargain than when it first debuted.

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It's been a year since Microsoft and Sony unveiled their new generation consoles, the Xbox One and PS4, which means it's time to reassess their places in the market. What's new? What has changed? And of course, which exclusive games are out or headed to the console?

Without a doubt, the Xbox One has gone through the most significant metamorphosis of the two consoles since its release last November. Even before its launch, Microsoft had begun changing the messaging philosophy of the platform, going from a console that heavily relied on DRM to an unshackled experience where owners can trade in and play used games. That was followed up by the end of the Xbox Live "tax" -- the premium gold tier is no longer required to do basic media streaming -- and the unbundling of the Kinect as a required part of the system (the no-Kinect bundle is now the default entry-level model).

Meanwhile, a lot has been fine-tuned under the Xbox One's hood -- particularly the firmware's functionality, which, from a performance standpoint, is still playing second to Sony's impressively smooth interface. Xbox One's dashboard is still peppered with frustrations, whether it be a lack of transparency or just functional ineptitude -- but more on that later.

When the Xbox One and PS4 both debuted, we recommended holding off on a purchase to let the platforms mature. That evolution has finally started to ripen and will only get better as we move into 2015. With that in mind, we now think Xbox One and PS4 are ready for your living room.But which one? To be clear, both consoles are very closely matched. Both offer a growing library of third-party games -- mainstays like the Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed and Madden series, as well as newer titles like Destiny. And both double as full-service entertainment systems, with built-in Blu-ray players and streaming services like Netflix, YouTube and Hulu Plus.

In our opinion, the PS4 still maintains an edge, with slightly smoother gameplay and a much more straightforward interface. But Xbox delivers a slightly more mature media app ecosystem (it has HBO Go, which is still lacking on the PS4, for instance) and a decent list of exclusive titles. For those who prefer Microsoft's platform and have been waiting to buy a new Xbox One, the holiday-only price cut seals the deal. (Just make sure you give the PS4 and even the Wii U a fair shake first.)

Editors' note, November 21, 2014: We've reformatted and updated our review of the Xbox one so that we can make updates more often and keep up with the constant evolution of the console. As of this update, we've also raised the overall rating of the Xbox One from a 7 to a 7.5. This review also includes the latest software updates Xbox One has received.

Xbox One bundles

Xbox One is sold in two different formats, with or without Kinect. Without any discounts, Xbox One with Kinect is $500, and runs $400 without it.For the 2014 holiday season, Microsoft is offering $50 off any version of the system, including limited-edition specialty bundles. These include one-off versions of the console, like the all-white Sunset Overdrive bundle for $350 or the 1TB Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare bundle that goes for $450.

While these bundles are discounted strictly for the holiday season, odds are you're likely to find a bundle (usually retailer-specific) any time during the year.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Major Xbox One exclusive games (available now or soon):

- Dead Rising 3 (also available on PC)
- Ryse: Son of Rome (also available on PC)
- Forza series
- Halo: Master Chief Collection
- Sunset Overdrive
- Titanfall
- Killer Instinct series

Major Xbox One exclusive games due by the end of 2015:

- Quantum Break
- Halo 5
- Scalebound
- Gears of War (next game in the series)
- Crackdown

Sarah Tew/CNET

Xbox One pros

Here are the areas where Xbox One excels -- and where it occasionally has an edge over the PS4:

Media apps

By far, Xbox One has the better lineup of streaming apps of any new console. It has roughly twice the number of offerings compared to the PS4. Some notable wins here include: Comedy Central, Fox and FX Now, HBO Go, MTV, Redbox, Starz, TED, USA Now, Verizon FiOS TV, YouTube and others.

Microsoft-owned video-conferencing service Skype is also exclusively available on the Xbox One.

Media playback

Xbox One now has a media player app that will play nearly any file format you throw at it, something the PS4 can't say. As of now, the PS4 allows playback of music files only off a USB drive, while the Xbox One can play items off a drive or anything discoverable on your home network, like another PC or NAS (network attached storage).

The Xbox One media app also lets you customize the dashboard with a custom photo wallpaper.

Kinect advantages

Kinect is an ambitious attempt to integrate voice control and motion gesturing with live TV, interface navigation and some gaming elements.

When it works, Kinect brings with it an "a-ha" moment straight out of a sci-fi movie. Kinect lets you change the channel, volume and other items using only your voice. Its problems though, are well documented later in this review.

Other features of the Xbox One experience can be accessed or activated with hand gestures and voice commands. You can say "Xbox, record that," and the console will save the last chunk of gameplay to the hard drive. The list of voice-control triggers is lengthy.

Of course, the Kinect is available only in the more expensive Xbox One bundle. However, if you buy the entry-level no-Kinect bundle and decide you want to upgrade, you can buy a standalone Kinect later for $149 (usually bundled with a game).

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Xbox One controller

While it's not necessarily what I'd call an improvement over the Xbox 360's stellar input device, the Xbox One's controller is a solid and mostly comfortable handheld. Microsoft has totally revamped the problematic d-pad present on the Xbox 360 controller and opted instead for a clicky, tactile directional pad. Battery life is impressive on the controller, though it takes two AAs as opposed to the DualShock 4's internal rechargeable battery. (You can use your own rechargeables, or invest an extra $25 per controller in Microsoft's Play and Charge Kit.)

BYO USB 3.0 storage

PS4 offers an easily accessible and replaceable HDD, but Xbox One's drive is not to be messed with. Instead, a recent firmware update now allows users to bring their own storage via an external HDD over a USB 3.0 connection. And because USB 3.0 offers a quicker speed than the Xbox One's internal stock drive, odds are you'll get a slight bump in performance, too. Just make sure your external drive is 250GB or bigger.

Cloud synced game-saves

Signing into any other Xbox One will give you access to all of your digital games and their respective game-saves. PS4 owners need to have PlayStation Plus to upload cloud game-saves, while Xbox One owners can do it without Xbox Live Gold.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Gold no longer required for basically everything

It took a while, but Xbox Live Gold status is no longer needed to access apps like Netflix and Skype. You still need it to play multiplayer games online, but the massive restrictions on other functionality have mostly been lifted.

Exclusive games and content

Microsoft has secured a number of high-profile exclusive deals for content with third-party games like the Call of Duty franchise and titles like Evolve. Occasionally, games perform better on Xbox One, as seems to be the case with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.

Xbox One also has a solid roster of exclusive franchises including the Forza, Halo, Fable, and now Sunset Overdrive and Titanfall series.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Xbox One cons

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