With E3 2015 safely in the rearview mirror, we're diving back in the home console pond, taking the temperature of the current landscape of videogame consoles.
Without a doubt, the Xbox One has gone through the most significant metamorphosis of the two big consoles since their release in November 2013. 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 motion sensor 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 (not actual hardware tweaks), which, from a performance and ease-of-use 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 2016. 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. They 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 Fallout 4 and Rainbow Six Siege (both coming later in 2015). And both systems double as full-service entertainment systems, with built-in Blu-ray players and streaming services like Netflix, YouTube and Hulu.
In our opinion, the PS4 still maintains an edge, with slightly smoother gameplay and a much more straightforward interface. But the Xbox One harbors a more mature media app ecosystem in the US and a decent list of exclusive titles. The Xbox One will continue to have a solid 2015 in terms of exclusive software, but 2016 and beyond aren't as well defined.
Editors' note, August 4, 2015: This review has been updated to reflect the updates and changes to the Xbox One platform in the first half of 2015, including upcoming features and games that were announced at the E3 show in June. The console's score has bumped 0.2 points since the last time we reassessed the product.
Xbox One bundles
The Xbox One is sold in what feels like a constantly expanding bundle market. A large chunk of high-profile games can be found as included pack-ins with either a 500GB or 1TB storage console. For instance, right now Halo: The Master Chief Collection -- a game bundle that includes remastered versions of nearly all the classic Halo games -- is included with the 500GB/1TB Xbox One for $350/$400 respectively. Separate bundles with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and Forza Motorsport 6 will be arriving in September and October at the same price points. Sometimes you can find an even better deal on Amazon.
For the most part, the Kinect camera-microphone array has been eliminated from bundles but you can still purchase the original tandem for around $500. Alternately, you can buy the Kinect module separately (usually with a game included) for $150.
No matter when you pull the trigger on an Xbox One, odds are you'll find a compelling bundle or discounted special pricing.
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
- Killer Instinct series
Major Xbox One exclusive games due by the end of 2015:
- Halo 5
- Rise of the Tomb Raider (timed exclusive)
- Rare Replay (anthology collection from developer Rare)
- Gears of War: Ultimate Edition (Gears of War 1 remaster + some new content)
Major Xbox One exclusive games due by 2016 and beyond:
- Quantum Break
- Gears of War 4
- Crackdown 3
- Forza Motorsport 6
- Halo Wars 2
- Sea of Thieves
- Phantom Dust
Xbox One pros
Here are the areas where Xbox One excels -- and where it occasionally has an edge over the PS4:
The Xbox One has the better lineup of streaming apps of any current-generation console. It has roughly twice the number of offerings compared to the PS4. Some notable wins here include: Comedy Central, Fox and FX Now, MTV, Redbox, Starz, TED, USA Now, Verizon FiOS TV and Time Warner Cable -- none of which are available on PlayStation 4 at the current time.
Microsoft-owned video-conferencing service Skype is also exclusively available on the Xbox One.
The Xbox One now has a media player app that will play nearly any file format you throw at it -- 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. As of June 2015, the PS4 has a media player app, too.
The Kinect is an ambitious attempt to integrate voice control and motion gesturing with live TV, interface navigation and some gaming elements.
When it works, the 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, however, 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 $500 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, £130 or AU$170 (usually bundled with a game).
The Xbox One controller
While it's not necessarily what I'd call a vast 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, £19 or AU$30 per controller in Microsoft's Play and Charge Kit.)
Microsoft debuted two new controllers around the time of E3 2015: a revamped controller with a 3.5mm headphone port and the Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller ($150, available later this year) which allows players to customize their pad with interchangeable D-pad pieces, analog sticks and triggers.
Both controllers can be connected wirelessly to a PC (using a dongle) running Windows 10 and we're planning on a separate review after we get some real world hands-on.
The revamped controller with the 3.5mm jack will be packaged with the new Xbox One SKUs hitting stores soon.
BYO USB 3.0 storage
The PS4 offers an easily accessible and replaceable HDD, but the 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.
For what it's worth, the cloud game-saving experience is definitely better on the Xbox One.
Gold no longer required for basically everything
It took a while, but an Xbox Live Gold membership 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.
Always-on has a bright side
While the Xbox One's always-on feature has been a point of some contention, jumping right into a game from live TV is nothing short of brilliant. The Xbox One will suspend your most recently played game while you watch TV or do other things and when you rejoin your game session it's resurrected with absolutely no loading time. Of course, if you don't use your Xbox One with live TV there's really no reason to keep the console on 24-7, not to mention you'll save on energy, too.
Exclusive games and content
Microsoft has secured a number of high-profile exclusive deals for content with third-party games like Evolve and early beta access to a number of games including Tom Clancy's The Division.
The Xbox One also has a solid roster of exclusive franchises including the Forza, Halo, Fable and now the Sunset Overdrive and Titanfall series. A more detailed list of exclusives can be found at the top of this review.