Microsoft Xbox One Review

Microsoft Xbox One Review

After almost a decade of gaming with the Xbox 360Microsoft’s Xbox One is finally available in South Africa (and 25 other regions this month).

Unlike gamers in 2005, however, people in 2014 require a lot more from their gaming electronics than the ‘one-trick-ponies’ of the past. With an audience that is always connected and driven by entertainment, Microsoft saw an opportunity to do something unique with their newest console, and what they have tried to do has been rather ambitious.

Comparisons to the PlayStation 4 are inevitable, since Sony’s console has been in South Africa and many other regions of the world for well over 10 months. However, instead of offering a judicial verdict as to which console is the “best”, this article will aim to showcase how Microsoft has developed a system that provides some stiff competition through providing some unique and compelling features.


Design

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A lot of people have compared the design of the Xbox One to a video cassette recorder (VCR) from the late eighties and early nineties, calling it “uninspired” and “boring”. I tend to disagree.

Although larger in size when compared to previous generation consoles and even the rectangular parallelepiped shape of the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One is actually a very sleek and beautifully crafted console.

The style and look of the Xbox One can be described as ‘beautifully understated’ because of how the system perfectly fits in with other home entertainment products, such as Blu-Ray players, satellite decoders and high-fidelity (Hi-Fi) amplifiers. When compared to other consoles, the Xbox One looks and even feels like a premium audio visual product. This is a step up and a far cry from days gone by of video game consoles that looked a lot like inexpensive toys.

When viewed head-on, the Xbox One’s front panel is split in two. The left matte black panel is separated by a sliver of anodised aluminium for the slot loading Blu-Ray 3D drive, whereas the glossy black panel to the right is clear save for the distinctive Xbox logo power button, which is silver when off and glows white when the system is on.

The aluminium strip for the Blu-Ray player actually runs through to the left of the console and ends in a ‘connectivity’ button, which can be used to sync Xbox One controllers to the system (unless you have the new Kinect, which would automatically sync controllers through infrared). The left of the console also features a neatly tucked away high-speed USB 3.0 port, perfect for charging Xbox One controllers or quickly plugging-in or removing storage media.

The rear of the console features all of the connectivity options necessary for the Xbox One to function, such as a power port, digital optical audio out via Toslink, proprietary Kinect port, two additional USB 3.0 ports (these are great for external storage options that do not need to be moved frequently), an HDMI-out port (signal to your television) and, unique to the Xbox One, an HDMI-in port (connect satellite television/Apple TV/media center computer etc.). Each port is clearly labelled and colour coded for ease of identification and use, which makes setting up the console an absolute breeze.


Kinect

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Kinect 2.0, as it has been dubbed, is a major improvement over the original version that shipped with the Xbox 360.  Despite being super successful and technologically revolutionary, the original Kinect had many recognition problems and its tracking capabilities left much to be desired. Kinect 2.0 hopes to fix a lot of those issues.

Kinect 2.0 features a full high definition sensor (1080p resolution) with a wide-angle lens and a specialised time-of-flight camera sensor that can measure distance based on the known speed of light. The device also has an active infrared sensor that allows Kinect to be used in complete darkness. Most importantly, it has the ability to process up to two gigabits of data per second to read its environment. As such, Kinect 2.0 can: track up to six people at a time, distinguish individual fingers, perform heart rate tracking and has a built in omnidirectional microphone for voice commands and recognition.

Kinect 2.0 has a lot of promise. However, Microsoft’s recent U-turn to offer two stock keeping units (SKU) of the Xbox One, one with and the other without Kinect, and the subsequent loss of mandatory Kinect integration in games by developers, thus removing Kinect from the core Xbox One experience, has resulted in the device having gone from potentially useful to simply becoming another “must have” accessory.

I personally use the Kinect all of the time. From saying “Xbox, On” to turn the system on from standby (including the option to turn on the television and HiFi system via infrared), to launching games and apps, through to allowing the device to automatically log myself and other family members in through facial recognition (a feature that works surprisingly well, even in dark environments) and using my voice to navigate through and use the features of the Xbox One user-interface (a feature that works quite well in quiet environments, but loses all focus if more than one person is talking); Kinect has, for the most part, literally changed the way I interface with the console, and I would not want to have it any other way.

There is, however, one annoyance that I hope is resolved in the near future and that is the need to say the entire name of a game in order for it to be launched. For example, one would have to say “Xbox, go to Ryse: Son of Rome” for the game to launch, instead of simply saying “Xbox, go to Ryse”. This issue aside, and with regards to games, almost all first party Xbox One games and a variety of third party titles support Kinect 2.0 in some way. From yelling commands to troops in Ryse: Son of Rome and using your voice to attract zombies in Dead Rising 3, through to exercising with the phenomenal Xbox Fitness (a true showcase for the device), competing against friends in Kinect Sports Rivals, and participating in sweaty dance offs with Dance Central and Just Dance, Kinect 2.0 is already off to a good start. However, is it worth the extra $150/R1700 cost?

If you like to be on the cutting edge, you consider yourself an early adopter and you want to impress your friends with the technical wizardry that Kinect provides, then yes; get an Xbox One with Kinect. Anyone else might be better off waiting until there are more games that take advantage of the new Kinect.

Although not perfect, Kinect 2.0 is a step in the right direction and is, arguably, the device that truly sets the Xbox One apart from the competition. It makes the Xbox One shine and embodies the new console with features that make the new console feel supremely worthy of the “next generation” title.


Entertainment

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It is no secret that Microsoft wants the Xbox One to be the “all-in-one” device of consumer living rooms. As such, the Xbox One supports audio and video input through an HDMI-in port on the back of the console. It even supports coaxial inputs through a USB add-on (sold separately).

Although meant exclusively for television, practically any video source can be plugged into the HDMI port, including a PlayStation 4 (although this is not recommended due to a slight lag induced from the Xbox One processing the video signal).

The Xbox One also has a feature called the ‘One Guide’, which is meant to offer television listings for programs as well as include the ability to set reminders, record shows and even pause live television. Sadly, this feature will not be available at launch for DSTV, Top TV or terrestrial television users in South Africa. Microsoft have said that the ‘One Guide’ will eventually be available to all users globally, but could not give a confirmed timeframe for release.

Despite the lack of a ‘One Guide’, users can still make use of the Xbox One’s television input by means of connecting a DSTV decoder, Apple TV or a Home Theatre Personal Computer (HTPC), among other devices. Doing so allows gamers to ‘snap’ the television app to the right side of the screen whilst playing games – a nifty feature that works especially well for gamers who enjoy watching sports or news when, for example, looting in Destiny.

In addition to accepting video signals, the Xbox One also plays host to a variety of applications that serve digital media, such as Xbox Video and Music, Hulu, YouTube, Twitch and, most notably, Netflix. Some of the mentioned services are not officially supported in countries outside of the United States of America and certain European nations. Technology savvy gamers, however, will know that Virtual Private Networks, which the Xbox One supports through customisable DNS settings, will do the trick to gain access to overseas content. As with the television application, almost all video applications can be snapped to the right of the screen during gaming sessions. A feature that, once used, is very, very difficult to live without.

Regarding digital content, it is absolutely worth noting that the Xbox One is currently the only ‘next generation’ console that has the ability to play digital media from USB thumb drives and hard drives as well as through networked drives by means of DLNA. The free to download Media Player application enables this functionality on Xbox One. It supports more codecs than the Xbox 360 including popular formats like Mpeg 2 TS, animated gifs and MKV. The Media Player application can also be snapped, allowing gamers to stream their favourite series or movies whilst playing games.

As someone who rarely watches ‘conventional’ television anymore and who has embraced digital media, the addition of the Media Player application in the August software update has really allowed my Xbox One to slowly become the hub of my family’s entertainment centre. The application still needs work, but even in its current state it has alleviated the need to switch between devices when one feels the need to watch a spot of television after an intense session of gaming – a feature that no other console can pull off quite as well.


Multitasking

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One of the strongest aspects of the Xbox One is the system’s ability to multitask. At a touch of a button or through a simple voice command, gamers can instantaneously switch back and forth between applications and video games. What really sets the Xbox One apart from the competition, however, is the console’s ability to ‘snap’ applications.

With an Xbox One, there is no need to pause or leave a game in order to, for example, watch a video on YouTube and Machinima or to surf the Internet for a solution to a problem. Xbox One gamers can merely use their voice or the ‘Snap Center’ (double tapping the home button) to literally snap an application with the needed information to the right side of the screen. Snapping applications may sound gimmicky at first, but once used it quickly becomes an indispensable feature that begs the question “why hasn’t anyone else implemented this”?

It is worth noting that the Xbox One can only run one game at a time and that games cannot be snapped to the side of the screen. What this means is that should you, for example, switch from Ryse: Son of Rome to Destiny, the former game will close in order for the latter game to run. Snapped apps, however, are not affected by switching between games and appear to run independently – an impressive feat given how smoothly the Xbox One is able to switch between games and snapped apps.

Although the Xbox One may not be able to snap games, it does make up for this small caveat with the ability to automatically resume opened games when brought out of standby. It is one of the consoles most underrated features and yet it is one that will be used most often by gamers. Gamers can ‘turn off’ the Xbox One console, via voice or controller, without exiting a game and simply resume from where they left off the next time they power up the console (this feature only works when the Xbox One is set to power down in standby mode). Gamers have come to expect this kind of functionality from phones and tablets, therefore it is a welcome addition to the Xbox One’s already impressive feature list.


Controls

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In my opinion, the Xbox 360 controller was the most ergonomic and comfortably designed controller of the former generation of consoles. Thankfully, the Xbox One builds on this winning design through a few welcome modifications.

The Xbox One controller is slimmer and slightly smaller than its predecessor, more refined if you will. The battery pack, for example, has been integrated into the controller and no longer protrudes from the back. This small change means that the Xbox One controller is even more comfortable to hold than the Xbox 360 version.

Other changes appear to be mostly cosmetic, such as making the guide button glow white whilst placing it a little higher than before (making the new controller reminiscent of the original Xbox controller), introducing a new ‘on-black’ colour scheme for the ABXY buttons using a new injected plastic method (gives the buttons a beautiful distended 3D effect) and replacing the start and back buttons with ‘View’ and ‘Menu’, respectively. The biggest change, however, comes in the form of the new triggers.

The reshaped triggers and shoulder buttons are a pleasure to use. Microsoft has kept the concave shape of the triggers, but has tapered the sides of each trigger to flow more naturally into the base of the controller. This slight ergonomic change allows the arch of your index fingers to comfortably grab and flow over the triggers. The shoulder buttons have also been revised to offer a more organic and cohesive feel. In addition to a new look and feel, the triggers now have rumble feedback and have been dubbed by Microsoft as ‘impulse triggers’.

The idea of adding rumble feedback to the triggers of a controller sounds inconsequential. However, it is great and a proper innovation to conventional controller design. The best way to explain the sensation of the Xbox One’s unique impulse trigger controllers is that it is similar to a 5.1 surround sound system, but exclusive to a person’s sense of tactile touch. The rumble feeling is accentuated because each of the four rumble motors in the controller can be operated independently.

Forza Motorsport 5 currently offers the best technical demonstration of the Xbox One’s impulse triggers. Gear shifts, for example, can be felt during races with the rumble in the triggers accentuating as the engine reaches its highest revolutions per minute. New sensations are given to breaking as well, whereby the impulse triggers are sensitive enough to depict the nuances experienced when applying brakes at full force. The lock and release of ABS, for example, is felt perfectly. The addition of impulse triggers may be subtle, but once felt the immersive sensations are continuously craved.

The D-pad has also undergone a fair amount of change. The often criticised ‘circular’ pad has been replaced with a four button configuration. The buttons handle very well and are firm, responsive and have a low profile (not much movement from when pressed to being fully depressed). The controller also utilises both invisible reflective technology and LEDs to communicate with the console and Kinect, which will make pairing controllers to players and consoles much easier.

As was the case with the Xbox 360’s controller, the battery life of the new Xbox One controller is simply exceptional. Having owned an Xbox One for 10 months, I have been able to put the controllers through their paces. One controller charge can last for well over 10 days of daily usage (one to three hour play sessions).

Overall the Xbox One’s controller is a fantastic evolution of what was already a great product, but it does have a downside. Unlike the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4, the Xbox One controller does not have a headset jack. Instead, it features a proprietary connector that requires an additional add-on in order for gamers to be able to use their headsets for online gaming chat.

On a side note, the Xbox One can also be controlled by mobile devices using the Xbox SmartGlass application, which is available for Apple, Android and Windows Phone users. SmartGlass allows gamers to use their mobile devices to control the Xbox One system in a variety of ways, from text input through to launching games, snapping apps, and if the game supports it, additional controls.


Games

Saving the best for last. After all, what would a game console be without video games?

Although Microsoft may have received a lot of backlash last year during the Xbox One reveal, which seemed to focus more on television than video games, the Seattle based company has made a series of policy and management changes since that time to better reflect the Xbox brand as one that has been created ‘by gamers, for gamers’.

A lot of passionate gamers in South Africa, and in all of the countries that were excluded from the initial 13 country launch last November, may feel like Microsoft have done them a disservice for delaying the launch of the Xbox One in their respective regions. Let me be the first to tell you that the Xbox One you will be receiving today is nothing like the console that was launched over 10 months ago. The wait has been worth it.

Courtesy of Microsoft’s superb software skills and techniques, the Xbox One has made leaps and bounds in terms of software usability and function. With dedicated forums focussing on user feedback and feature requests, the Xbox One gets updated monthly and has become an ever evolving device that caters exclusively for the needs and wants of you, the gamer. Furthermore, Microsoft has made great strides with the software development kits (SDK) for Xbox One over the last year, so much so that new multi-platform Xbox One titles are able to reach parity with Sony’s console (Destiny is a great example of this).

Courtesy of the delay, the Xbox One will be launching with a rock solid list of titles that includes exclusives like Titanfall, Ryse: Son of Rome, Dead Rising 3, Forza Motorsport 5, Killer Instinct, Kinect Sports Rivals, D4 and Dance Central Spotlight, as well as a variety of multiplatform titles like Destiny, FIFA 15, Minecraft, Watch Dogs, Battlefield 4 and many more. There are also a bevy of new Xbox Exclusives launching in the coming months, such as Sunset Overdrive, Project Spark, Forza Horizon 2 and the Halo: Masterchief Collection. It is certainly a very good time to be a gamer.

In addition to all of the launch games and upcoming exclusives, Xbox One also has access to unique services like Xbox Live Gold and EA AccessXbox Live Gold is similar to PlayStation+ in that the service offers access to online multiplayer, discounts on current games (up to 75% off) as well as a minimum of two free games per month, which you keep forever even if you are no longer an Xbox Live Gold member. EA Access works in a similar vein, whereby a small monthly or yearly subscription allows gamers to download a variety of titles from Electronic Arts, for a reduced rate, through the Xbox marketplace (to keep forever) or to download for free from the EA Vault (these games are tied to the subscription).

As is the case with most video games today, developers often push updates to games to fix bugs and improve gameplay. Unfortunately, this can create quite a burden on Internet connectivity. Gamers who are on capped or mobile accounts may find that owning a next generation console can be quite costly. The Xbox One is updated monthly by Microsoft, which is why a freshly opened console will prompt gamers to download a “day one update” that is around 800MB in size. Although most first party games will have most of the patches on disc, new patches may become available over time. More often than not, they can be quite large; Sniper Elite, for example, was released with a 10GB day one patch. Thankfully, the Xbox One does have a bandwidth usage monitor in its settings for those who do have capped accounts. Gamers who wish to go “all digital” this generation, like myself, will be in for quite a shock with most next generation games weighing in at a minimum of 20GB in size. If you do not have an uncapped Internet account, it is best to stick with brick and mortar game discs.


Overview [TL;DR]

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If I had written this review a year ago, after I had imported an Xbox One and when Microsoft was forced to rewrite the Xbox One operating system from scratch in order to backtrack on its original Digital Rights Management vision for the console, I am certain that the views I have expressed today would have been different. Almost a year later and after a variety of U-turns, Microsoft’s Xbox One is almost an entirely different console, one that I would be more than happy to recommend.

Although large, the sleek Xbox One unit fits in perfectly with any modern home entertainment system. The console maintains its Xbox heritage whilst remaining discreet enough to blend into the background, the way a good home entertainment device is supposed to.

Kinect 2.0 is a huge improvement over the original, but Microsoft’s recent decision to unbundle the device, and thus removing it from the core Xbox One experience, has bestowed the unit with an aura of uncertainty. This is a shame because the device really makes the Xbox One shine. Consequently, developers will now be somewhat less inclined to create games for what is now simply an “accessory”.

The Xbox One controller is one of the best video game controllers on the market. The battery life on the controller is astounding, it is super comfortable to hold over long gaming sessions and it just “feels right”. Microsoft have taken all that was great about the Xbox 360 controller and have improved on almost every aspect with the controller of the Xbox One. The only negative that spoils an otherwise fantastic controller is that it requires an add-on in order to enable chat with currently available headsets.

Microsoft has lofty visions for the Xbox One to become the entertainment epicenter of gamers homes. A year ago, this vision would have seemed like a pipedream. Today, the Xbox One is the only next generation console that can play digital content (MKVs) from an external drive or over a network as well as accept an input from a satellite decoder, all of this in addition to hosting a variety of entertainment applications, such as Netflix, Hulu and Xbox Movies and Music. Add in Kinect’s ability to control entertainment system devices (TVs and HiFis) and the ability to snap useful applications during gaming, and you have a games console that could, if you let it, be the entertainment hub that Microsoft has envisioned. I have and although not yet perfect, the system does an admirable job of appeasing my needs as a gamer and as someone who enjoys on-demand entertainment.

With well over 40 games available at launch, there is no shortage of video games for the Xbox One. Games for Microsoft’s new console are excellent, especially the exclusive titles, and are easily on par with titles available on PlayStation 4 (the recent SDK update has eased development on the console).


Conclusion

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There is no doubt that Microsoft has created a fantastic console for this new generation of gaming. The Xbox One is a console that not only plays games beautifully, but it also caters to the needs of gamers who enjoy on-demand entertainment and the ability to multitask without leaving the game.

Right now, there are not enough games for both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 to warrant gamers owning both consoles. So if you already have a PlayStation 4, it might be best to hang tight until there is an Xbox One exclusive game that you simply must have.

If you have been waiting for the Xbox One as either a natural upgrade from an Xbox 360 or simply to compare current console offerings, do not hesitate. It is a wonderful console that will not disappoint.