Xbox One review
The two factions of the next-gen console war have laid out their lines, Sony PlayStation 4 on one side, Microsoft Xbox One on the other. Only the lucky few, or very dedicated, will be able to afford both, continuing the gaming stand-off that's been running for over a decade.
The Xbox One, however, isn't solely about gaming. It's a games console in the traditional sense that the Xbox and Xbox 360 were, but the new Xbox is an evolution of everything that the Xbox 360 introduced.
It's about entertainment in a wider sense, it's about drawing all the strands together to give you one box, one system, one platform. The name, then, makes perfect sense: it wants to be the one box to rule them all.
In the course of putting a finger in every pie, however, Xbox One will face many challenges: gamers who don't like the dilution, TV fans who feel the same way, AV enthusiasts who are left scratching their heads over exactly how it all fits together, while having to accommodate all the app needs from gaming, to TV, to everything else.
But this is the first salvo in a assault on your living room. On day one, you're faced with a platform digging in for the future. This is the Xbox One.
From green plastic decoration, to off-white curves to flat black slab, the Xbox design has been through a number of phases. In its latest iteration, the Xbox One is designed to slot into place amongst your other AV boxes and peripherals and be almost forgotten. The design is subdued, with the only detail on the front being the glowing white Xbox logo when powered on and the detailing around the front-loading Blu-ray drive.
It's split between glossy and matte plastics, the former doing its bit to attract dust and fingerprints, so if your Xbox One is to be on display, you'll be running a cloth over it regularly to keep it looking its best.
The new Kinect that comes included in the box - unlike Sony’s PlayStation 4 Camera which is an added accessory - follows the same design, doing away with the curves and the cutesy motorised action of the previous sensor rig. It's now not only more capable technically, but more compact, including a screw mount on the bottom should you want to connect it to a bracket on your wall.
There's detailing on the top of Xbox One that conveniently addresses one of the important factors when you're packing powerful hardware into a box: cooling. Half of the top is slatted, as are some of the sides, which provides breathing space and you'll probably want to avoid stacking things on the top and blocking this up, as this is where the heat comes from once you start gaming.
There's also a clear instruction that Xbox One has been designed to sit horizontally. There's no standing it up on its end as you could with the 360 and that's because of the way that the Blu-ray drive works.
We get the feeling that the Xbox One console has almost been designed to be not noticed. It's not showy; it's not about the dramatic looks that the PlayStation 4 is more at ease with. It's designed to be integrated, to nestle in and make itself part of its surroundings.
Some have called it massive but it really isn't, that's a cheap shot. It's taller than your average set-top box, but measuring 335 x 280 x 83mm, it's not really huge. AV receivers are huge, Xbox One isn't. We'll admit that PlayStation 4 is more eye-catching, but external design is never going to be driving your purchasing decision when it comes to adopting a next-gen platform.
When it comes to physically plugging the Xbox One in, you're not overwhelmed with connections, so it's an easy and quick installation procedure.
The power brick is nicely designed to match and isn't as big as some have been in the past, so we could easily tuck it out of sight, even if the PS4 has managed to incorporate it inside for an even cleaner solution. Given that we've got a whole range of wires, plugs and other entertainment kit, an external power supply isn't a problem for us. We might call it a brick, but it's definitely smaller than a London brick.
There are the connections you expect on Xbox One, like the bespoke port for Kinect that also supplies power, there's an Ethernet connection in addition to Wi-Fi for that essential link to your home network. We opted for a wired connection, as routers can be inexplicably vague at times, but the Xbox One's settings will let you manage both types.
There's an HDMI out to connect to your TV, as well as the HDMI in which is where Xbox One is making one of its biggest plays, as it's here you can connect your TV set-top box, more on that later. There are also two USB ports and in the future it's here that you'll be able to connect external storage.
Part of the set-up process involves identifying your TV to the console, as well as your AV receiver if you have one, so that the Xbox One can learn how to control them.
We hooked it up to Samsung TV and after a brief test, Xbox confirmed it could talk to the TV. That means you can have Xbox adjust the volume or turn the TV on and off, which is more useful than you might at first think.
There is an optical audio out meaning you have a separate audio option aside from HDMI. We hooked Xbox One up to an Onkyo LS-T10 speaker base and found that Xbox One would happily change the volume for us via voice commands, too.
There will always be lots of different ways of setting up this sort of entertainment device. The settings menu lets you configure how your audio outputs will work, if you want stereo or DTS Digital Surround from optical, or stereo, 5.1, 7.1 or DTS Digital Surround from HDMI.
Power on the Xbox One and you'll be guided through the initial setup, including the initial download of any software update. Pocket-lint's console was part of the pre-release programme prior to launch, our software - and we've been through a number of updates - will be different to the packages delivered to the retail consoles post-launch, so we won't dwell on time or size, as it's different from the customer experience. Setup took about 30 minutes for us in total.
You'll be prompted to sign-in to your Xbox Live account and your profile is carried over from the Xbox 360 if you had one. You'll be able to scan back at your old achievements, your credits (or real cash as they are now) will be in place and your friends will be all present and correct, along with your avatar. You can also add other users, and Xbox One has been designed so that everyone who will be using the console has their own profile, including the children in your house.
Xbox One can use Kinect to recognise your face and sign you in automatically. It's an impressive feature and gives Xbox One that futuristic feel: you walk into the room, sit down, say "Xbox on", it fires up, you'll be recognised and signed-in to your profile.
Another person can then come in and be signed-in too if they are registered on your console, again through facial recognition. In fact, up to six users can be signed in and then you can switch between those individual user's profiles so that each can access their customised home screen when they want to.
If you want more security, you can set-up a passkey that needs to be manually entered to stop people accessing your profile.
Xbox One dashboard
The Xbox One brings with it a new interface. It's familiar in that it uses tiles and side scrolling in the same way as the old Xbox, Windows 8, Windows Phone and so on. We actually like it a lot, because it's bright and vibrant and from the central Home section, it's easy to return to what you were doing, as it's filled with the apps you were recently using.
To the left is Pins, a page where, like other Microsoft platforms, you can pin content you want to get back to, be that an app or a game. Over to the right you head into the Store. Through the Store you can access all the games, movies, music and apps that Xbox One is going to offer. You'll be able to download gaming titles, you'll be able to stream music and movies and get to new apps and services.
Interestingly, Xbox One arrives with few apps pre-installed. We had to install the Blu-ray player, for example, to let us watch movies and that applies to just about everything. There are lots of core functions, included on the platform, but don't be surprised if when you navigate to Xbox Music, for example, you're asked it download the app.
It might seem like the Xbox is shipping as a carcass, but using an app-based system like this means that individual apps can be easily updated without it being a system-wide update and it also means you only need to install what you will actually want and need.
Xbox watch TV
Before we move into any other features, we have to tackle TV. It's one of the big features of Xbox One as it tries to put itself between your set-top box and the screen you're watching it on. In doing so, Xbox One wants to be part of everything you do on the big screen.
It's also important to recognise what it isn't. There's no tuner here: if you use the tuner card in your TV for Freeview or Freesat (in the UK), then Xbox is out of the loop and you have no broadcast TV watching functions.
Connect the cables via HDMI, as we described above, and what you feed into the Xbox One comes out again as "TV". You have to have the Xbox One turned on, however, as there's no passive HDMI pass-through: if your Xbox is in standby, you can't watch TV.
We're sure that some will complain about the extra power you'll consume while the Xbox sits in this sentient state, but once you get to grips with what Xbox One offers, however, this won't be such a concern. It's bringing its multi-tasking skills and a huge range of functions to your TV in a way that's smarter than many "smart TVs".
The result is that dumb TVs - anything older than a couple of years - will now do just about everything a smart TV will. You'll have Internet Explorer browsing, Skype calling, apps galore, voice control and a whole lot more, all at your disposal because the Xbox One is now running the show.
When you select TV on Xbox One, you can watch whatever system you have connected - we used a Virgin Media TiVo box - and it behaves exactly as it did before. You can use the old remote, navigate as normal and there's no indication that you're doing it via another box once you're watching TV.
That is, until you start using the Xbox One's voice control, start snapping open your favourite website in a sidebar or quickly switching to Forza 5 when your other half leaves the room. This is integrated entertainment, remember, and you can flip from one to the other as easily as you change channels.
OneGuide: Taking TV further
One of the enhancements that Xbox One wants to add to TV is through the OneGuide. This is designed to cultivate your TV watching and give you one place to cast an eye over TV options from numerous sources. It's here that your app watching habits will help bring a new channel to life.
It's also here that Microsoft will be looking to integrate the information from your TV service - Sky or Virgin Media for example - so that you have an all-encompassing experience. However, at this time, this isn't available in the UK and it's not set to arrive until 2014.
However, if you're a fan of your current system - which could be YouView, Sky, Virgin Media or even just a Freeview HD PVR - then you will at least still get that full control experience, as it is at the moment. You'll still have all those functions that your set-top box offers.
The OneGuide, then, at launch, will simply keep a handle on the your app viewing to cultivate a new channel for you. Unfortunately, as we're at the very birth of Xbox One, we haven't been able to see this in action as the TV apps aren't all live yet. We'll update this review when it happens and we have a better picture of how the OneGuide works in the real world.
Voice control of Xbox One
We've mentioned voice commands a number of times so far. It was the wow moment of the Xbox One's unveiling, it's a centre point for Xbox One adverts and it even has a South Park sketch dedicated to it.
Voice control of Xbox One is comprehensive, it covers a lot of ground, giving you access to a full range of functions without having to use a controller at all. It might look like a gimmick, it might sound like a gimmick, but having lived with Xbox One, it really does make a lot of sense and it really does make navigation of the console much faster.
It's not always perfect and as with any other voice system - like Siri or Google Now - there will be occasions when it doesn't get it right. Part of this comes down to learning the system, getting the right commands and saying them so that Xbox One can hear. Happily, most of the time, we found that it worked for us.
It starts with "Xbox on". This will turn on your console and you can also have the Xbox turn on your TV or receiver at the same time. At the other end of the scale, "Xbox turn off" does the same thing, sending it all to sleep, which is really handy.
Of all the voice control functions, it's switching between tasks that's the most impressive and the most useful. "Xbox watch TV" is the command we've used more than any other, apart from perhaps "Xbox go home".
Then you can take advantage of other features of the console: "Xbox Snap Internet Explorer" opens up the browser in a side bar and "Xbox pause" will pause a video you might be watching, as well as pausing games.
One of the important things about voice control is that it can do things for you, as an entertainment centre, without having to use the Xbox controller. That's great for those that don't want to feel like they are using a gaming machine when they just want to watch TV.
Of course you can also search for things via Bing, Microsoft's search engine, you can launch your apps and if you're stuck for commands, just saying "Xbox" will bring up a list of options, "Xbox select" will highlight keywords on the menu and to launch an app, you can just say the name: "Xbox go to Zoo Tycoon".
READ: Zoo Tycoon preview
If you don't like it, can't get it to work, or don't like the sound of your voice, then the controller will do everything for you. Sometimes, yes, the controller is faster and easier. If it's in your hand because you're playing something, then switching home and selecting a new task is just as fast with buttons as without. But being able to say "Xbox pause" when the phone rings is really handy.
We found that other people could control the Xbox with commands, including children, although, strangely, it seemed to respond to our - obviously masterful - voice more often than others. Perhaps it's not what you say, it's how you say it. Or maybe it's our James Bond accent.
There are also a range of gesture controls supported by Kinect. You can reach out and grab to move the dashboard across, you can pull in the sides of a full-screen app to return home and you can reach out to push buttons. We've found that this is a little vague at the moment and we haven't had great success with gestures thus far.
Get set for gaming
Many will be buying Xbox One first and foremost as a gaming machine. As you'll probably have read, the Xbox One is equipped with eight-core processor, 853MHz GPU and 8GB of RAM. There's a 500GB internal hard drive for storage, with support coming for external drives, via the USB on the rear, in the future.
The hardware is perhaps immaterial as, some might say, it is what it is. This is the platform for next-gen gaming from Xbox and as we saw with the Xbox 360, what you get on day one and what you have a few years down the line is entirely different, because developers learn to get the most out of the hardware.
Games are delivered via download or on disc and in the process of reviewing the console, we've used both. Dead Rising 3, Zoo Tycoon, Forza 5 and Ryse: Son of Rome all on disc, with Kinect Sports Rivals, Kinect Fitness, Killer Instinct and Crimson Dragon via download. All need to be installed on the hard drive, but you don't have to install the entire game to start playing.
You'll see that the game starts to install, then tells you that it's ready to start playing and off you go. If you then remove the disc, installation will stop and a notification will warn you to the fact. If you've installed a game to play from disc, you'll need to insert the disc to play it. If you're playing a game and you remove the disc, your game will end and you'll return to Home.
From the games we've seen so far, both from preview events and from our time with our review console, we can happily say that the Xbox One will give you some stunning visuals. Forza Motorsport 5 is a delight with its 1080p 60 frames per second gameplay, something that Turn 10, the game's developer, has been very happy to highlight.
There's been some debate raging about the fact that not all games are 1080p, but in reality that doesn't matter: resolution doesn't make the game and we're yet to see anything that actually looks poor. Plus this is the very beginning, who knows what the future will bring.
No turning back
In some ways, the One's lack of back-compatibility is a boon, because you don't have that awkward situation where you're playing something that looked bad on your old console letting the side down again.
What we have seen, however, is some wonderfully smooth games and we're yet to spot any lag or tearing when playing. What we have noticed, is that you're still getting some fairly long loading times as you move through a game, which was something we didn't really expect.
Fire up an intensive game, like Forza Motorsport 5 and the Xbox One will start to kick out some real heat. It certainly gets warm under load and it doesn't run silently either: you'll hear the general hum coming from the console, with the fans running to keep things cool. As with other devices, your home entertainment setup may make this worse, especially if it has a surface to resonate against to amplify the noise of the console.
In practice, however, we can't say that the noise from the console was a distraction when gaming or watching movies. Mute the sound and you'll hear it, watch a silent scene in a movie and you'll hear it, but with many set-top boxes also having cooling fans and clicking hard drives, it's not something that we're worried about.
As for the games on offer around launch, Microsoft has a line-up of exclusive titles, mentioned above, in addition to next-gen versions of games such as Call of Duty: Ghosts. The gaming offering, just like the app offering, will steadily grow following launch.
A new controller
A lot has been said about the new controller for Xbox One. We only had one controller for review so we haven't had the chance to see how multiple controllers are followed around the room. However, Kinect can see the controller which is going to be great for keeping multiplayer games simple.
In the hand, the new controller feels great. It's a refinement of everything that was good before, but it's still very much the Xbox controller you know and love. If you're familiar with the former, then the new controller will just fall into your hands and go to work as it always has.
There's a whole range of tweaks, but we like that the battery is now integrated and not a lump on the bottom as it feels more spacious and there's more room for your fingers.
The buttons around the middle of the new controller have changed and a press of the glowing Xbox logo button will take you Home: it's a button you'll use a lot of the time. The two central buttons are for view and menu and both serve up contextual options in the dashboard or in games.
There's also the new "impulse" triggers. There's more opportunity for the controller to give you feedback during a game by vibrating the triggers under your fingers. Sometimes, it feels spot on, really bringing the on-screen action into your hands and making it more immersive. Other times it seemed that it was too much for the controller which was buzzing away, sometimes sounding like a wasp in a jar, or an old dial-up modem. So far we feel this feedback feature still needs to be harnessed better as the noise from vibration is a little irritating. Of course, you can turn it off.
Xbox record that
Looking to take the Xbox One social, there's a new in-built record feature. Simply saying "Xbox record that" will save a clip of the action, grabbing the last 30 seconds of gameplay. It's really easy to do in-game so that you can either then edit the clip and share it straight away, or come back later.
Clips are collated for browsing, and editing is handled by Upload Studio, a free app you'll have to download. Upload Studio has been considerably designed, giving you a quick and easy user interface that basically has no learning curve - it's that simple. But it's a powerful tool, letting you easily trim clips, stitch them together.
There are templates you can use, you can apply voiceovers and so on, so creating mini movies, tutorials or just bragging clips is going to be really easy. One of the features is sharing to SkyDrive - which is also integrated into Xbox One - from which you can share your clips to anywhere you like. The resultant video files appear as MP4 at a 1280 x 720 resolution.
Xbox go to Skype
Skype is one of the other great features of Xbox One. Microsoft is aiming to make the Skype experience on Xbox One the best of any platform and on day one, we have to say it works really well.
Skype will have all your conversations and contacts in one place in an interface that's familiar and easy to navigate. Calling is a real highlight, because we found the quality to be really high and those people we've spoken to via Skype agreed.
You can multi-task when using Skype on Xbox One, but it will end the video part of the call when you do so, so if you switch to something else you'll go onto voice only. You can then return to video and although we got a little lost at times, it's not too hard to figure out.
Kinect is also clever in Skype calls as the camera will track you around the room so you stay in frame. The wide angle of the Kinect camera means you'll be able to fit more people into view than you've probably managed before, a real bonus for families calling overseas and the like.
However, without a keyboard, messages are so slow to input that you won't want to bother and there's limit to the number of people you can call in a group: we tried a big team call and Skype said no.
There will be some introductory offers on Xbox One to get you calling, with 100 free minutes offered for the first six months, as well as free group video calling.
Xbox go to Internet Explorer
Xbox One comes with Internet Explorer so you can browse to your favourite websites. It's a fully featured browser, although there's no support for Flash which limits some video content online - BBC iPlayer for example.
Full voice control of the browser is in place, so you can tell it where to go, to scroll up and down and even to click on links. It's pretty good at picking out links and when it gets confused, it will put numbers on them and ask which one, which keeps it simple.
There are protections in place, so you can have your browser set to be child friendly in an associated profile, for example, but if you want to get something online onto your TV, this is an easy way to do it.
One of the headline features is the multi-tasking mode offered by Snap. This will let you open an apps in a sidebar, so you can keep your eyes on two things at once. Most of this can be controlled by voice, but we've found that once you have two things open, using the controller makes it all a little simpler.
That means you can be playing a game in one screen and have your eye on the TV, for example, or be playing music, if you have an Xbox Music Pass. You can also open up a browser window, perhaps to find film information, and we've found that responsive sites like Pocket-lint.com work really well in Snap.
You can use Snap at just about any point and it's really impressive to show off the Xbox's skills. However, we're yet to actually find a really good use for Snap: for film information we tend to use a smartphone, but perhaps whilst you're waiting for multiplayer games to start, it could be handy.
When Snapping TV we've seen some judder and a drop in frame rate: for many programmes this wasn't a problem, but we noticed it especially in HD sports that we watched.
Blu-ray experience, movie watching
Xbox One includes a Blu-ray player. Huzzah - let's have a cheer for that. Insert a Blu-ray or DVD movie disc and it will start playing, as it will with an audio CD. You get full controls via the controller and we found that discs loaded quickly and playback was nice and smooth.
You again get voice control, which is really handy for things like "Xbox pause" and "Xbox play". Those commands also work if you choose to stream a movie from Xbox Video, which we found to be very much the same experience as on the Xbox 360, with good HD quality on offer and the option to rent or buy in either high- or standard-definition.
There will be a range of apps offering TV and video services at launch or soon after - from Netflix and Lovefilm to 4oD - adding to the options you have for watching TV on your Xbox One. One missing from the list is BBC iPlayer, which UK users will probably find irritating. However, the BBC is pretty good at getting onto all platforms, it just takes a while to do so.
Network entertainment: DLNA
Looking to bring you more entertainment, Xbox One is a DLNA compatible device, although it currently only natively acts as a player. You can, for example, stream content from your phone to the Xbox One and it will start playing, but you can't initiate that from the console itself. That means it can't go off and find your network storage device to play movies or music you may already have.
To play video or view a photo slideshow you'll need the Xbox Video app installed and to play music you'll need Xbox Music installed, after that, it detects the incoming stream and opens as necessary.
We found streaming from the HTC One was straightforward thanks to that device's in-built sharing options, but we also used the Skifta app to do the same thing and there are many other DLNA apps and devices out there. Skifta will also let you stream content from server to console via your phone, so is an easy work around.
If feels like Xbox One is waiting for an app that will turn it around so it can fetch the content itself and become a powerful media streamer, as the ability to stream music or movies from a server elsewhere on the network is one that it should offer natively to give you more versatile media handling.
SmartGlass is the app that brings the Xbox One onto your phone, provides second screen experiences and some remote control functions. It's a separate app from SmartGlass for Xbox 360, and will be available on Windows Phone, iOS and Android.
Xbox One SmartGlass is much slicker than the previous version and we found it connected quickly, giving a tile-based home page that reflects what you've been doing on your console. Like the One's Home page, there's a current window at the top and recent, featured and pins down the page. You can use this as a remote control for your Xbox One, as when you tap on an item, it will open on the console.
You can use it to Snap items too, so from your phone, you can switch to a game, open Xbox Music and away you go. You can access details about your friends as well as send them messages, so you get to use your phone's keyboard, rather than having to mess around with the Xbox One's on-screen effort.
You also get to adjust the volume and mute, as well as getting swipe controls and access to the buttons found on the controller, so navigation of the dashboard is easy enough. Last of all, you can search for content using your phone and when you find something, press the button and Xbox One will navigate to that app, which is a great way to find things like movies or music. It even works across apps, which is handy.
A family affair?
The Xbox One pitches itself into the middle of your living room. It wants to be the centre of your entertainment attention, no matter what you're doing. It's a device that's going to be on the radar of all the members of your family, not just gamers, because it's a portal to television. Even if you're just tuning in for Strictly Come Dancing, you're going to be going via Xbox One.
As such, Microsoft says that everyone should have their own profile, including children. Profiles will enable a range of protections and restrict children to specific content, while the adults in the house can password protect themselves to stop purchases being made, or to restrict access to their accounts - which pushes the Kinect face recognition aside.
Setting up accounts for children is easy - if you want your kids to have a Microsoft ID that is - and then they can customise their Xbox experience too. There are settings to ensure that the content they are shown is appropriate for their age and that details aren't being shared and once you've set-up a child's profile, it's linked to your account as a parent, so they can't change the settings without your say so. They will also be able to ask permission so you can grant access to things.
However, there are some areas that you can get to without signing in, which could be a problem. We found that some downloaded games will let you play with sign-in (Killer Instinct, for example). Try to access this through a child profile and you'll be blocked, but without any sign-in, anyone can play, which sort of defeats the object of protection.
Fortunately, you can't access the browser without signing in, but just like any other Blu-ray player, anyone is free to play any discs.
So the real message is that, as with all things, parents need to be vigilant and explore what's available and what isn't, if the Xbox One really is to be a family affair.
The Xbox One marks the start of a new generation of entertainment, one that's centred around your big screen and one that wants to give you everything from gaming to music, to movies and more. It rolls in the internet, it brings apps and you get Skype video calling too, all packed into a bundle offering gesture and comprehensive voice control.
As it is, the Xbox One is a hugely impressive package on day one. The interface is well designed and it's easy to get around. he mixture of ways to interacting with the console - from controller, to voice to gesture - mean that you always have options. But it's not redefining everything: this is still Xbox and any 360 gamer will be right at home and looking forward to some great gaming to come.
There's a lot still to come for Xbox One, but as it is, we can't help marvelling at Microsoft's ambitions. Xbox One changes your TV experience, it realises that vision of having one central conduit that delivers your entertainment, no matter what the source. Even though we're yet to see everything fall into place, Xbox One is still an exciting addition the home. And it's a choice console for gaming, with exclusive titles like Dead Rising 3 and the forthcoming Titanfall hard to ignore.
READ: Dead Rising 3 review
There will be omissions, some might not like the necessity of adding another box to the TV loop, others will criticise its lack of native network media handling and others will slam the lack of day one apps. But this will be a long campaign and having lived with Xbox One, it feels like it's the evolution of the Xbox 360 and of TV that we wanted.
Xbox isn't just a gamers' console: it's a gateway to a multitude of home entertainment, pulling all the strands into one interlinked experience. The future is here and we love it.