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

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.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Ecosystem 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Value 9

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.

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.

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.

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