XBOX ONE Review: A Masterful Media Experience

Credit: Microsoft

The Xbox One is without question an amazing media delivery device. As the central component of a home entertainment center, it will dazzle in how you can now control your cable or satellite service with your voice or a wave of the hand. It will amaze when you can do two things at once, like check in on Monday Night Football while in the middle of a race in Forza Motorsport 5, all without even pausing your game. The Kinect does in fact work better (but not perfectly, more on that later), and the games (for the most part) look better, too. Overall, this is an impressive device, and a great media delivery system, that happens to also play games.

Kinect

Let’s start off with the new Kinect. The new iteration of Microsoft’s camera peripheral has showed notable improvements in every way. With a high-resolution wide-lens camera plus the infrared imaging system for stronger tracking, the Kinect can see more than the first version. In fact, with our tests in Xbox Fitness, we were able to have our full body in the shot and complete two full workouts with no issues of not being in view of the camera – and that was in a small New York apartment living room with only about five and a half feet between the couch and the TV.

Kinect for Xbox One
Kinect for Xbox One
Credit: Microsoft

Voice recognition has likewise improved. It’s not perfect, but Microsoft told us in a meeting (when we received the review unit) that the Kinect will actually learn the voices of the people in the household, and constantly improve its response. In about five full days of use, anecdotally it does seem to be working better, but that could also be from personal adjustment. Still, volume of the TV isn’t nearly the problem it was last go around, and the massively increased number of options with your voice is incredible. With “Xbox Select” you can read almost everything on the screen (readable text appears in green), and there’s very little you can’t do with the power of your voicebox. Oddly, the aforementioned Xbox Fitness, a program built for Kinect, is completely uncontrollable with voice commands.

The biggest shift here is in being able to control other devices with your voice, as well. The IR blaster that helps you control your TV, cable box, and receiver works great as long as your devices are in the open in the room, and the new Xbox One Guide hasn’t stopped being exciting to use. From “Xbox, On” turning on the Xbox One, the TV, and the cable box all in one go to “Xbox, Turn Off” doing the reverse, it seems Kinect has finally reached its promise.

There are some glitches, and it will take awhile to learn how to speak naturally, but clearly, to the new Kinect. The bigger issues come with the hand controls – they have too been refined, thanks to the better cameras, and have new functionality like zooming in on pictures and websites. Want to select something with your hand? Put your hand icon onto it, and point at it – much more intuitive, and much more effective. Sometimes, though, it’s just too damn sensitive. When you’re watching TV and stretch, or having a conversation with a friend who gets their hands going while talking, Kinect will often think you’re trying to control it, then bringing up its overlay and that annoying hand. Unlike voice, where you can simply say “Stop Listening” and it goes away, there’s no easy command for the hand – maybe Microsoft can add in a “Stop Watching” command in the future.

The Hardware

Credit: Microsoft

As for the main box itself, it’s definitely that: a box. It looks right at home alongside other components, but all told area-wise it’s taking up about three times the space of the PlayStation 4. The Xbox One has to lie flat, horizontally – this isn’t a console that can stand. That’s a design choice, as once again, it’s meant to be the “One Media Device” you need for your home entertainment system. A glowing white ball with a black X (and a matching one on the Kinect) lets you know the system is on. The blu-ray drive is slot-loading (no more crazy trays, finally) and sits discreetly, surrounded by two silver accents, one of which also serves as an eject button. On the back of the system are your various inputs and outputs – the HDMI pass-through (you plug your cable box directly into your Xbox One) is the biggest change here, with the standard HDMI out, Optical Audio out, Ethernet and power all present and accounted for. There are two USB 3.0 ports on back, a dedicated Kinect port, and one USB 3.0 port on the side.

It’s big, and built to look like a standard home theater component – and that’s what this device is. Nowhere is that as obvious as in the new “Watch TV” function and the Xbox OneGuide.

Xbox, Watch TV

With three little words (and after a little bit of simple guided setup, of course), your TV screen is displaying TV through your cable or satellite provider of choice. From here, you can change channels with your voice (or hands, or your Xbox One controller). From here, you access the Xbox OneGuide, which contains your full channel listing. You can also create a favorites list to make things easier to navigate – it’s just a handful of clicks or voice commands to knock that out, and have your 20-30 channels you actually watch at your fingertips. Subscribe to Hulu or Netflix? Those go right into your guide, too, under the “App Channels” section. Your own Xbox Video, Amazon Instant Video, NFL, Vudu, Redbox Instant, and more can also slide into that listing. While unfortunately so far (as far as Hulu is concerned – at press time Netflix hadn’t added into OneGuide) it only seems to bring in things like “Most Popular” or “Now Trending,” and not your own actual queues, but it still puts those apps right alongside your standard TV channels, integrating everything into one united listing. It is a thing of media beauty unlike anything I’ve experienced, and it works remarkably well. After five days, I’m not sure I know how I’ll watch TV without this. There are some functions, like the cable box’s DVR, that still require the now ancient-feeling remote control, but it seems certain that this technology will continue to evolve. Having this functional, having it work, and having it be intuitive and cool at launch is a real accomplishment, and something the Xbox One team can absolutely crow about.

Credit: Microsoft

Oh, Snap

And then there’s Snap. When you’re playing a game and want to check your scores in an app, in the old way of doing things you’d have to back out, select that app, check the score, back out, go back into your game, wait for it to load, and pick up at your last checkpoint. Or, you’d pick up your phone, laptop, or tablet at your side and check on there. Now, you just say, “Xbox, Snap TV” or “NFL” or pretty much any other app on your Xbox One, and it comes up in about a quarter of the screen on the right-hand side. Now, you continue to drive in Forza, or keep cutting down barbarians in Ryse while the Bears game audio plays in the background, and you have your little picture in picture. It’s especially great for things like halftime or period intermissions. Play for that 15-20 minutes, always keeping an eye on when the game is back on, go fullscreen when it’s back. The downside to this right now is that the audio is shared – it plays both audio streams, with zero independent control over either. Something to be worked on, for sure, but still didn’t make the feature useless, especially when playing a game that doesn’t really require a lot of audio like Forza. Still, it’s a design flaw, and one we hope gets fixed relatively soon – takes a potentially amazing feature and brings it down to simply cool.

Controller

The New Xbox One Controller
The New Xbox One Controller
Credit: Microsoft

Of course, with a new console comes a new controller. The Xbox One’s controller hasn’t drastically changed on the outside: you still have the Xbox button, the four face buttons, the offset thumbsticks, the bumper and trigger buttons. The d-pad is considerably more responsive, and the start and back buttons have been replaced by similar buttons that do about the same thing. The real changes are subtle – the face buttons are slightly closer together, the thumbsticks allow for subtler movement. The controller’s grip is also slightly spread out. Likely this was ergonomics research to make the controller more comfortable for long play – unfortunately, when you first try it out it will likely feel more uncomfortable. The other major addition is the added vibration motors in the triggers of the controller. When you brake, your left trigger rumbles. Fire a shot? Rumble in the right trigger. It’s honestly a bit distracting at first, but I can see how it will become something that makes games more immersive. The new bundled headset plugs into a special module at the bottom of the controller, with large, easy mute and volume up and down buttons built into the module itself. Conversation sounded considerably clearer than over the 360’s bundled headset, and worked great in both party chat and general multiplayer.

Conclusion

There is no doubt the Xbox One was designed with media in the forefront of everyone on the design team’s minds, and it shows in every aspect, from the layout of apps to the way everything centralizes on your customizable home screen and in the OneGuide. It does also make it easier to experience your games alongside that multimedia content, and while it was lower on the priority list, it also wasn’t an afterthought (as you’ll see in our continuing review coverage of the launch titles for the system). The Xbox One may not have the flash or compact size of other systems, but the inner workings, and the extension of Kinect into the rest of your home entertainment center, make it a true all-in-one device that will make gamers and media aficionados alike happy. It’s not quite so elegant on the outside, but the inside makes up for that in spades. It’s easy to recommend the Xbox One as an entrance into the next generation of not just gaming, but of home entertainment.

Stay tuned for more coverage of the Xbox One throughout the week and on into the future. This review was done using retail hardware provided by Microsoft.

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