Microsoft Xbox One review: Much improved, the Xbox One has hit its stride

Sarah Tew/CNET

Backward compatibility

Included in the November 2015 "New Xbox One Experience," the Xbox One now offers limited backward compatibility with a handful of Xbox 360 games. Around 100 Xbox 360 games currently work, and Microsoft will let each developer decide whether to allow legacy play for its existing 360 games.

Windows 10 game streaming

With the introduction of Windows 10 and the "New Xbox One Experience," Xbox One owners can now stream games 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.

New Xbox One Experience

In a November 2015 update, Microsoft completely redesigned the dashboard interface for the Xbox One. We've outlined its major features here.

Long story short, the new dashboard is easier to navigate and more logically laid out. But a lot of the fundamental shortcomings like slow game installations still plague the system. Most of the back-end settings like app and game management remain unchanged.

We'll continue to keep our eye on the Xbox One's dashboard and update this review with significant changes.

Xbox One cons

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

System interface

Even with the New Xbox One Experience in place, the console's interface leaves room for improvement. Compared with the PS4's, it's at times confusing, especially when navigating through the system's settings. Overall it's undoubtedly better, but still, two years after release, navigating through the Xbox One takes some getting used to.


The New Xbox One Experience


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 over 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 seconds as opposed to the Xbox One's 8 minutes. 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 more quickly when no other features are being used. This includes watching live TV.

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, Ori and the Blind Forest, and the yet-to-be-released Below. Like PS4, Xbox One also has console-exclusive deals in place for titles like Cuphead and INSIDE.

To be fair, a lot of the PS4's indie offerings are only console exclusives as well. 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. As for now, Xbox One doesn't allow for YouTube streaming.

Taking a screenshot isn't as easy as the single-button press it should be, so it's tough to get that instant shot you want. The way screenshots and videos are captured feels shoehorned in, so we'd really like Microsoft to figure out an easier way to provide access to capturing in-game content.

Using the Upload Studio app, Xbox One users can share clips to Xbox Live, OneDrive and Twitter.

Xbox One vs. PS4

There's not likely to be a definitive winner in the current-generation console wars. While the PlayStation 4 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. The two consoles are now similarly priced and offer many of the same features. For what it's worth, at the time of this writing, the PlayStation 4 is closing in on 30 million units sold. The Xbox One is estimated to have sold about roughly half that.

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 more smoothly 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.

These two consoles are constantly evolving, and the competition is only ramping up. We'll continue to check back in on both the Xbox One and PS4 as they continue to evolve.

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