Microsoft Xbox One review: A great gaming deal that's tough to beat

Sarah Tew/CNET

Backwards compatibility

Announced at E3 2015, the Xbox One will soon offer limited backwards compatibility with a handful of Xbox 360 games. Microsoft says around 100 games will work out of the gate, but will let each developer decide whether or not to allow legacy play for their 360 games.

Xbox One owners with access to the console's preview program will get the functionality first and will open up to everyone else in November of 2015. By then Microsoft expects 100 titles to be backwards compatible. Better yet, every 360 game included in the monthly "Games With Gold" promotion will also work on an Xbox One.

Windows 10 game streaming

With the introduction of Windows 10, Xbox One owners can now stream an game to their PC with the Xbox Windows 10 app. For more on that specific experience, check out CNET's Windows 10 review.

Over-the-air DVR

Announced at Gamescom 2015, the Xbox One will introduce live TV DVR for over-the-air content. You'll need the $60 OTA tuner to make use of DVR and, as it turns out, you'll also need a separately attached storage drive as well.

Xbox One cons

Here are the areas where the Xbox One leaves room for improvement.

System interface

One of the outstanding issues with Xbox One is its user interface, or dashboard. Compared to the PS4's, it's illogically laid out and confusing, not to mention it's noticeably more sluggish. There's not enough transparency throughout either. It's tough to tell a game's installation progress without diving into a series of settings. It also takes too many screens to see a list of your installed games. Quick-access to information like this would go a long way.

Overall, navigating through the Xbox One takes some getting used to. With nearly two years of practice under my belt I'm still faced with frustrating dead-ends and head-scratching organization.

The 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.

The overall Xbox One dashboard experience is getting better, though. Regular updates have improved performance, increased ease of use, and added functionality. It's not out of the woods just yet, but the interface has made some significant strides.

A newer streamlined version of the Xbox One's dashboard is set to hit later in 2015 which aims at addressing a significant portion of the experience's annoyances.

The Xbox One November update will let you customize your background. Microsoft

Kinect's shortcomings and annoyances

If you're not interested in getting an Xbox One with a Kinect, skip ahead. But if you're on the fence about spending the extra cash on Microsoft's microphone/infrared/camera technology, read onward.

Given the short list of positives Kinect brings to the table, more often than not it's a pain to endure. I've had Kinect attached to my Verizon FiOS cable box for a year, and it's been nothing but a love/hate relationship. Half the time Kinect will operate flawlessly, other times it's a frustrating mess.

Kinect still has never understood the channel voice command "HGTV." It seems to miss other commands quite often, too, with no real explanation as to why something wasn't understood. The system will also not let you watch TV before a system update has been installed. The fact that the console can actually prevent you from watching TV is a huge issue.

At the end of the day, Xbox One's ambitious live TV and other extracurriculars get in the way of it being a focused gaming system. Navigating the interface seems to be much more problematic than it rightfully should be, and there's simply not enough transparency in the logic within it. There are oddities peppered throughout, which is the root for countless headaches and frustrations.

For now, I just can't recommend Xbox One with Kinect because of the numerous shortcomings the tandem continues to exhibit. Save your money and buy Xbox One without its camera-microphone array.


Installation times

Even though the Xbox One and PS4 have similar optical drive hardware, Xbox One lags behind PS4 in some installation times.

Xbox One starts installing a game once a disc is inserted and then will flash a "ready to start" message when the game can be booted up before it's done completely installing.

In a small sample comparison, Xbox One fell behind PS4's installation time. For Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the PS4 was ready to play in 2 minutes 30 as opposed to the Xbox One's 8 minutes flat. Assassin's Creed Unity also installed in 2 minutes 30 on PS4 but wasn't ready to go until 3 minutes 42 on Xbox One.

Installation times will vary by game, but when I used a stopwatch to time the consoles side by side, the PS4 came in faster nearly every time. Oddly enough, it seems Xbox One will install a game quicker when no other features are being used. This includes watching live TV.

Xbox Live Gold needs to catch up

Microsoft has made significant strides in the attempt to bring Xbox Live Gold to the impressive standard that Sony has set with PlayStation Plus, but right now it's still not as much of a value. Priced at $60, £35 or AU$89 a year (as opposed to Sony's $50/£40/AU$70 per year step-up service), Microsoft's "Games with Gold" promotion doesn't include as many or a similar quality of offerings as what PlayStation Plus does.

While it varies month to month, we think it's reasonable to expect an increase in the quality of software. Only recently have we seen some impressive titles being offered in Games with Gold, most notably Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.

Independent games

There are independent games available for Xbox One and a smattering of others coming down the road, but not as frequently or as plentiful as they are on PS4. Xbox One owners will get occasional gems like Max: The Curse of the Brotherhood and the yet-to-be-released Ori and the Blind Forest and Below.

To be fair, a lot of the PS4's indie offerings are only console exclusives. Xbox One owners also have access to the fruits of ID@Xbox, which have already given way to titles such as Super Time Force and Sixty Second Shooter.

Indie fans aren't totally out of luck on Xbox One; there's just a shorter list of titles to play.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Broadcasting and sharing

Xbox One offers broadcasting through a Twitch app, but it's nowhere as seamlessly integrated as it is on PS4. The experience is bound to get better, but for now, streaming and social sharing is way better on PS4.

Xbox One vs. PS4

There's not likely to be a definitive winner in the new generation console wars. While the PS4 had a clear advantage at launch, that edge is slowly evaporating as Microsoft has worked feverishly to undo most of the Xbox One's original missteps. Both consoles are now similarly priced and offer many of the same features.

While the Xbox One has had to play catch-up for some time, it's entirely possible the pressure will eventually get to the Sony camp as well. The PlayStation 4 has yet to see a price drop, whereas the Xbox One has tweaked its pricing structure a few times.

Right now the PS4 and the Xbox One are neck-and-neck with exclusives -- though the PS4 also has a better range of digital-only titles. But taste in games is always subjective; either those games will appeal to you or they won't. Each console manufacturer has made exclusivity deals with various developers, so the sad reality is you're going to miss out on something great no matter which platform you choose.

You might read about the PS4's specs trumping those of the Xbox One, but it's important to keep in mind how that translates to actual results. You'll remember that the PS3 was originally poised to be a massive powerhouse that would leap past the Xbox 360, but in reality it didn't perform much better. You could even make the argument that most multiplatform games played smoother and looked better on the Xbox 360. That said, at the time of this writing (and having considered most of the multiplatform games currently available), the PS4 does seem to perform slightly better than the Xbox One.

That said, these two consoles are constantly evolving, and the competition is only ramping up. We'll check back in on both the Xbox One and PS4 later this year this year and reevaluate both products at that time.

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