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

It's still not our go-to game console, but Microsoft has significantly improved the Xbox One.

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Jeff Bakalar
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Jeff Bakalar

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Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.

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With E3 2015 safely in the rearview mirror and the Xbox One's second anniversary fast approaching, we're diving back in the home console pond to take the temperature of the current landscape of videogame consoles.

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8.0

Microsoft Xbox One

The Good

Microsoft's Xbox One offers impressive graphics and a solid list of exclusive 2015 titles. The Microsoft console currently edges ahead of the PS4 with a better selection of media apps. The console's fall-2015 dashboard update is a noticeable improvement. The console has backward compatibility with around 100 Xbox 360 titles, and that list is poised to grow.

The Bad

The Xbox One's new interface is still more convoluted than the PS4's. In general, the PS4 delivers slightly better installation times, graphics and performance on cross-platform games. The Xbox One also lags behind the PS4 in its selection of indie games. The Kinect's legacy is still a blemish.

The Bottom Line

While the PS4 remains our overall preferred choice in the game console race, the Xbox One's significant course corrections and solid exclusives make it a compelling alternative.

Without a doubt, the Xbox One has gone through the more significant metamorphosis of the two big consoles since their release in November 2013 -- the other being the PlayStation 4. 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 making the Kinect motion sensor no longer 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. A massive interface update dubbed the "New Xbox One Experience" was released in November 2015 that has improved some of the dashboard's logistics and aesthetics, but it's still hanging on to some lingering frustrations. But more on that later.

Overall, Xbox One has had a great 2015 and is home to the best exclusives of the 2015 holiday season. In the short term, Xbox One makes a solid argument for ownership, but do 2016 and beyond look to be just as promising?

To be clear, the two 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 are all available for both platforms. 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 Xbox harbors a more mature media app ecosystem in the US and a decent list of exclusive titles. 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, November 16, 2015: This review has been updated to reflect the changes to the Xbox One platform including the November 12, 2015, New Xbox One Experience dashboard update. The console's overall score has improved from a 7.7 to an 8 and we've added one point to the design and value subcategories.

Xbox One bundles

Xbox One is sold in what feels like a constantly expanding bundle market. In fact, don't buy the console if it doesn't come with at least one game. At any given time the odds are there's a bundle that includes a game that's right for you.

For the most part, the Kinect camera-microphone array has been eliminated from bundles, but you can still purchase the original tandem for around $400 or more. Alternately, you can buy the Kinect module separately (usually with a game included) for $150. That said, we really can't recommend Kinect for much of anything.

No matter when you decide to buy an Xbox One, odds are you'll find a compelling bundle or discounted special pricing.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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

- Halo 5
- Forza Motorsport 6
- Rise of the Tomb Raider (timed exclusive)
- Halo: Master Chief Collection
- Sunset Overdrive
- Titanfall (also available on PC)
- Rare Replay

Major Xbox One exclusive games due in 2016 and beyond:

- Quantum Break
- Scalebound
- Gears of War 4
- Crackdown 3
- ReCore

Sarah Tew/CNET

Xbox One pros

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

Media apps

The Xbox One has a slightly better lineup of streaming apps than any other current-generation console. It has roughly twice as many offerings as the PS4. Some notable wins here include Comedy Central, Fox and FX Now, MTV, Bravo Now, NBC, Starz, TED, USA Now, Verizon FiOS TV and Skype (Microsoft-owned) -- none of which are available on PlayStation 4 at the current time. Xbox One is also home to EA Access, a subscription early-access program that gives members a chance to play games a few days before they're released and provides access to a growing list of EA legacy games.


Media playback

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.

Kinect advantages

Kinect is an ambitious attempt to integrate voice control and motion gesturing with live TV, interface navigation and some gaming elements. That said, it's definitely taken a backseat in terms of priority. In fact, we don't think Microsoft even said the word "Kinect" at the company's E3 2015 press conference. It's also no longer bundled with a new retail Xbox One.

But, if you're still intrigued by its potential, when it works, Kinect technology brings with it an "aha" 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 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 $400-and-up 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).

Sarah Tew / CNET

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 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/AU$199) which allows players to customize their pad with interchangeable D-pad pieces, analog sticks and triggers. That controller is also available in a bundle with a 1TB solid-state hybrid drive for $500.

Both controllers can also be connected to a Windows PC with a Micro-USB cable or wirelessly to a Windows 10 PC with a $25 dongle.

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BYO USB 3.0 storage

The PS4 has an easily accessible and replaceable hard drive, but the Xbox One's drive is not to be messed with. Instead, you can bring your own storage via an external hard drive over a USB 3.0 connection. And because USB 3.0 is faster than the Xbox One's internal stock drive, odds are you may see 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 saves, while Xbox One owners can do it without Xbox Live Gold.

For what it's worth, the cloud game-saving feature is definitely better on Xbox One. Going from console to console is a much smoother experience.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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. 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, save for receiving updates when you're not using the console.

PlayStation 4 added the majority of the functionality described here with a firmware update.

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.

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.

Xbox Games with Gold

While it debuted with an underwhelming selection of free titles, Xbox's Games with Gold monthly giveaway lets Xbox Live Gold members download two Xbox One games for free. The caliber of these titles has started to improve, but still isn't as impressive as the entire PlayStation Plus package.

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

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.

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The New Xbox One Experience

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 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.

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Microsoft

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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8.0

Microsoft Xbox One

Score Breakdown

Design 8Ecosystem 8Features 8Performance 7Value 9