Microsoft didn't mean to take over your living room. When it launched in 2005, the Xbox 360 was just a device for games — "the Holy Grail of gaming," in the immortal words of MTV's Sway. It would show your pictures if you plugged in a thumb drive, but it was designed to be the best way ever for gamers to play.
Slowly but surely, the emphasis changed. The 360 kept getting more and better games, but it also got Netflix, and Hulu Plus, and HBO Go. In 2008, Microsoft even overhauled the Xbox interface — turning it from the old side-scrolling "blades" interface into something that looked more like the Zune and Windows Media Center, and more recently into something that looks a lot like Windows 8. Media apps became more popular on the 360 than multiplayer gaming, and Microsoft began talking about how “Xbox” didn’t just mean games anymore.
Microsoft put two and two together and came up with the Xbox One. The new $499 console is still very much a gaming device, but it's more than that: it's a sprawling, ambitious attempt to be the most important thing in your living room for the next decade. Microsoft wants a reason to put the Xbox controller in the hands of everyone in your household; to be the first thing you see when you turn your TV on.
Xbox, convince me.
In the stack
If ever there were a triumph of function over form, it's the Xbox One. It's not attractive by really any definition: it's a big, black box about the size of an old-school VCR and with about the same amount of design flair. The One is 13.1 inches deep, 10.8 inches wide, and 3.1 inches tall, and with only an capacitive Xbox logo power button and a disk drive on its face, an untrained eye might confuse the Xbox One for your Blu-ray player or cable box.
That appears to be the point. The One isn't designed to stand out, like the sharply angled PlayStation 4; it's designed to disappear into the stack of black rectangles next to or underneath your television. The PS4's light pulses as it turns on and glows as you use it, while the One just sits in the shadows hoping you don't even notice it's there.
A glossy, piano-black plastic covers half the Xbox One, next to an angled plastic grille. The grille's not there for show: it's a vent for the device to pump out the hot air generated by its considerable internals. The One mostly runs cool and quiet thanks to the huge vent — cooler than the Xbox 360 by far — but put your hand near the console and you can tell when it's working.
There's a single recessed USB port on the left side of the console (which is clearly meant to be used horizontally, not vertically, and every design touch reinforces that), but most of the One's ports are on its back. There's a power cable, which connects to the massive power brick that unfortunately remains an Xbox mainstay. There's HDMI out (from the Xbox to your TV), HDMI in (from your cable box), two more USB ports, digital audio out, Ethernet, and the proprietary jack for the Kinect. The button for re-syncing your controllers is on the left edge, next to the optical drive. The Xbox One has quite a bit going on, but there are useful guides on the box itself to help you figure out what's what.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, there's no contest: Sony's is the better-looking console. But drawing attention isn't always the point, and indeed the Xbox One slipped right in between my cable box and my Pioneer receiver without ruining the feng shui of my living room. It's as if Microsoft is trying to sneak, unnoticed, into living rooms around the world — hoping by the time we figure out it's there, we're already hooked.
The Xbox One is meant to hide, but you can't miss the Kinect
The Kinect, on the other hand, is the bumbling best friend that trips and blows the Xbox One’s cover. It's supposed to go next to, or in front of, or on top of your TV, and it's enormous — nearly 10 inches wide, and 2.6 inches tall. It's not particularly visually arresting, just a black box with a glowing white Xbox logo and a camera lens staring you dead in the face, but there's no way you won't notice the Kinect when it starts looking at you. And it's always looking at you.
New box, new controller
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Microsoft spent $100 million developing a new controller for the Xbox One and ended up with something almost exactly like the gamepad that came with the Xbox 360 eight years ago. It's practically the same exact size in every single direction, only a half-ounce heavier, and all the buttons are in the exact same places. Even the analog sticks are the same distance from the ground.
There are a few subtle, meaningful improvements to the new gamepad, though. From the face buttons to the directional pad to the very seams in the plastic, everything looks and feels more precise than ever before. The analog sticks are now exactly 2.5 inches apart and rimmed with an extremely grippy rubber material that practically guarantees your thumbs won't slide off. There's a new cross-shaped directional pad and shoulder buttons that click instantly when you apply pressure, and better still, Microsoft has completely replaced the squeaky, cheap triggers of the Xbox 360 gamepad with a new set that's silent and buttery smooth. The new Start button — now known as "Options" — has also been moved farther away from the X button so you don't accidentally press it while you’re frantically bashing zombies or other such party fouls.
Microsoft changed a few things, but didn't change what makes the controller great
Even the controller's vibrating motors have been improved: one of the headline features of the Xbox One controller is the "impulse triggers," which are basically miniaturized, localized versions of those vibrators which can provide haptic feedback on cue. Now when you fire a gun, you can feel a distinct kick in your right hand. When your car takes a corner hard in Forza, you can feel the traction of the tires — or lack thereof — in your fingertips. It's pretty cool, though it can be jarring in the wrong places. It’s also a bit noisy.
Cosmetically, the battery box no longer sticks out the bottom of the Xbox One controller, since the compartment has been integrated into the frame. The Xbox Guide button has been moved northward into a new glossy plastic region at the top of the controller that encompasses the triggers, shoulder buttons, and a standard Micro USB port to juice up the optional rechargeable battery. Sadly, Microsoft hasn't abandoned proprietary ports altogether — the controller's new headset jack is proof of that — but that's par for the course. In almost every way imaginable, the new Xbox One gamepad is as good or better than its predecessor.
And yet, there is one difference that might ruffle a few feathers here and there. For all the company's care not to change the fundamentals, Microsoft did distort the ergonomics of the controller a tiny bit. An integrated battery box and raised crescent-shaped palmrest mean the controller’s grips aren’t as clearly defined as they were on the Xbox 360 controller, and there aren’t quite as distinct places for your fingers to grasp around back. Whether that’s a good or bad thing will probably depend on the shape of your hands, though: while I felt it didn’t fit my hands as well as the Xbox 360 gamepad, another Verge editor told me he preferred the feel of the Xbox One gamepad because the battery box no longer blocked his fingers.
Yet while the Xbox 360 controller was undeniably the gold standard for gamepads and the Xbox One gamepad is even better, the PlayStation 4's DualShock 4 gives it a run for its money this console generation. Battery life is much better on the Xbox One’s controller, which works with the Kinect and goes into a low-power state when not in use — I haven’t had to change its AAs yet — but Sony’s is more comfortable, less proprietary, and has a few more tricks up its sleeve. We have to hand it to Sony for more than catching up.
But Sony has to compete with two Microsoft controllers now: the gamepad isn’t the only input device that comes with the Xbox One.
The Xbox One is not a particularly easy console to set up. After you hook up your TV, your cable box, your Kinect, and your wireless gamepad, you have to download a mandatory day-one update, sign into Xbox Live, and wait for the console to install a game before you can play anything at all. You'll need to invest even a little bit more time if you want to do anything else. Want to play a Blu-ray disc? Skype with a friend? Upload a video clip? There's an app for that — an app you'll need to download because there’s virtually no functionality baked in.
But the hardest part of setting up the Xbox One is simply getting used to the console's user interface. Where Sony's PlayStation 4 gives you a simple scrolling list of everything on your console — a visual paradigm that, while possibly cumbersome, immediately makes sense — the Xbox One is a smorgasbord of colored Windows 8-style tiles in seemingly arbitrary locations.
There's a lot to set up, and a lot to learn
The focal point is the home screen. The largest of its nine tiles is a live preview of the latest game or app you've used, and under it you'll find the last four apps you accessed before that. To the left, there's a link to your friends list, with your profile and Gamerscore; to the right, small tiles for the disc currently in the drive, a link to a list of all your apps and games, and the Snap command. If you scroll further to the right, you’ll get to the Store screen with dedicated sections for games, apps, music, and movies, and if you go further to the left, there's a space for you to pin up to 25 pieces of your favorite content. At the very top of the screen there's a single unified notification bar that keeps track of alerts and messages, as well as the icons for each player currently signed in to the console.
Basic navigation is easy enough, once you know how it works. You go to the store, download something, and keep browsing while you wait for it to install. Once installed, you can play a game full-screen, pop right back out to the home screen with a tap of the big Xbox button on the controller, snap another app alongside it, and then jump right back into your game exactly where you left off. The Xbox keeps a running log of everything you do, so if at any point in the process you want to go back a step or five you can just keep tapping B to do so. If you get stuck, which you will at first, just tap the big Xbox button to head back home.
It's not a particularly quick interface, but it works, and Snap is extremely cool. By snapping the appropriate app alongside, you can watch a video, browse the web, or even consult a game's manual without ever leaving your game — true multitasking on a game console. With a lot of button presses and a little bit of trial and error, you can go from a relatively empty home screen and app tray to one filled with a personalized collection of recently opened and favorited programs that follow you wherever your Xbox Live account goes.
But if you use the Xbox One the way Microsoft intended, you might not be pressing buttons at all.
With the Xbox One, Kinect is everywhere
That’s because every Xbox One comes with Microsoft's new Kinect, a powerful camera and microphone array designed to turn you into the controller and to replace buttons and joysticks with gestures and voice commands. With the Xbox 360, Kinect had a minimal role in the interface: you could wave your hands to painstakingly swipe through pages of app icons, and you could issue voice commands to select a limited number of menu items on-screen. With the Xbox One, Kinect is everywhere.
Forget logging into your Xbox Live account: after a few sessions, Kinect will do that automatically whenever it sees you in the room. (It even excitedly greets you when it finds you.) Forget remembering where in the interface you left a game: say "Xbox, Go to Dead Rising 3" from anywhere in the operating system, anywhere at all, and you're playing as soon as the game loads. Say "Xbox Bing" and the name of a movie, and the console will find it for you and take you to a place to watch. Say "Xbox, record that" after you do something spectacular in a game, and your travails are captured for all the world to see. Browsing the web on a television is also far better with Kinect at the helm — while you can't dictate URLs with your voice, Internet Explorer will now recognize commands like "Browse to The Verge" and even let you click on links when you say them out loud. To some degree, the system will even teach you the commands itself: say "Xbox" or "Xbox Select" anywhere in the interface, and the Xbox will highlight things you can say in green text until you close the menu once more with a "Stop Listening" command.
The upshot is that you can go anywhere, do practically anything in the user interface with your voice alone — when Kinect works as it should. When Kinect works, it completely makes up for the Xbox One’s obtuse visual interface, because you don’t need to think visually anymore.
But Kinect doesn’t always work. It’s simply not reliable or flexible enough. Often, I felt like I spent more time screaming at the Kinect to follow my commands than it would have taken to just pick up the controller. I begged, I pleaded with the device to do what I wanted in the most commanding yet humble tone I could muster, and on many occasions it indeed felt like I had the robotic butler of my dreams. Most of the time, though, it felt like my butler was a little hard of hearing.
There are two distinct ways the Kinect fails, and the first feels inexcusable. Many of the voice commands are extremely rigid, to the point where you need to memorize a list of exact phrases to be able to use them reliably. If you want to go to an app, for instance, you need to start by saying "Xbox go to." But if you want to go to Bing, that structure doesn't work. The correct command is "Xbox Bing," because Microsoft expects you to unquestionably understand and accept that "Bing" should be a verb. If "Xbox on" turns on the console, why doesn't "Xbox off" turn it off? Because "Xbox turn off" is the proper command, and you’ll need to memorize it. If you’re a Redbox Instant subscriber, get used to calling it "Redbox Instant by Verizon," because the Kinect won’t accept anything less. You can't say "Xbox play Forza," you have to say "play Forza Motorsport 5." There are dozens more examples like these.
If "Xbox on" turns on the console, why doesn't "Xbox off" turn it off?
More worrying is the fact that even if you utter the proper command at a reasonable volume, the Kinect might not recognize it. I repeatedly recalibrated the Kinect for my room's audio profile, tried moving it to a new position, and tried changing my volume and tone, but voice commands were hit and miss no matter what I did. Sometimes nothing happens, sometimes a screaming child brings up the Settings menu for no reason in the middle of a game. Yelling doesn’t help; nor does whispering or speaking slowly. It just feels purely random, hit and miss with no rhyme or reason. Kinect for the Xbox 360 wasn’t remotely as powerful as the new Kinect, but at least it worked reliably. Until or unless Microsoft makes the Xbox One as reliable, expect to scream at your console — and to get no response part of the time.
There is another way to use Kinect, too: with your hands. Simply raise a hand up to the screen, hover over any tile, and push forward to select an app. Close your fist to grab the screen, and you can drag it to scroll much the same way you’d swipe across a touchscreen. In Internet Explorer, you can even "punch" the screen with your fist or pull it away to zoom. Unfortunately, it’s even more finicky than the voice commands: sometimes I couldn’t get it to recognize my hands, and often I selected something I didn’t mean to.
If you're not interested in using Kinect, or at least not willing to deal with missed commands, you can indeed turn it off. You can turn off the microphone, the camera, or both from a dedicated Kinect page in the settings menu, or simply unplug the peripheral completely for maximum privacy. Of course, then you’re stuck navigating a Windows-like interface with a controller. Even if you have to try two or three times to get the Kinect to recognize your commands, it’s still faster than the alternative.
While there is no backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 games, the Xbox One does carry over your Xbox Live account and its friends. There’s an activity feed where you can check out what everyone is up to on either console, actually, but it’s located behind a profile menu that you’ll rarely think to check (which is fine, you won’t get that much from knowing how many hours ago your friend started playing Dead Rising 3). You can send text messages from the Xbox One to your 360 friends, but you can’t record or listen to voice messages — that’s just something Microsoft nixed.
Kinect Voice Chat works surprisingly well
Party voice-chat works at the system level, so you can talk up anyone regardless of what games or app you’re using. Kinect does a surprisingly good job of filtering out TV noises, although from 8 feet away you can sound either distant or over-amplified. Still, for the luxury of talking without a headset — at the risk of your roommates being heard — it’s a good solution. If you want to have a more private conversation, Microsoft’s proprietary Chat Headset is also included in the box. It’s an inexpensive wired device with a mono earpiece, but a reasonably handsome one, and it gets the job done. Audio is only on par with the Kinect you’ll already own, but it’s worlds better than the headsets that came bundled with the Xbox 360 controller.
Perhaps the coolest social feature of Xbox One is the ability to record and share the insane things that happen when you’re simply playing. While Microsoft didn’t manage to get live-gameplay streaming support at launch — that will arrive in early 2014 — you can already capture and edit small video clips, and it’s about as easy as can be. Whenever something crazy occurs, just say "Xbox, record that" to immediately capture the last 28 seconds of whatever you saw on your screen. You can actually obtain up to the last five minutes of gameplay by snapping the Game DVR app instead, if you need more footage, though there's no way to record voice chat.
Then, pop on over to Upload Studio to trim your footage down to size, add voiceover, or make a cameo appearance yourself by taking a video selfie with the Kinect. It’s about as barebones a video-editing solution as you can possibly imagine, but it’s also fast and intuitive. In just a few minutes, you can edit, render, and upload your creation to SkyDrive and Xbox Live with a few button presses and a couple flicks of the analog sticks.
You can’t keep videos private, by the way — everything you upload is shared with the Xbox Live community — but if you use SkyDrive, you can take your video wherever you want after the fact. You can download a copy and re-upload it to YouTube or the like, as long as you don’t mind that Microsoft tacks on an outro with the words "Created on Xbox One" and an annoying chime.
[Update: You actually can keep videos private, but it's an all-or-nothing proposition. Buried deep in the settings menu are options to block uploads, or block certain groups of people from seeing your shared clips. You can't block videos on a case-by-case basis, though, and if you block uploads to Game DVR, you also block them to SkyDrive.]
Three USB ports and nowhere to go
One thing you won’t find on Xbox One at launch is any kind of local media-center functionality. Much like the PlayStation 4, you can pop Blu-rays, DVDs, and audio CDs in the drive, but the device doesn’t support any kind of USB external storage. There isn’t a single place in the interface where you can access such a thing, even if it does eventually arrive. In fact, there doesn't seem to be anything you can do with the console's USB ports right now — no keyboards, no USB audio, nothing whatsoever. You can indeed stream some media from a Windows 8 PC using the "Play To" sharing command, view some pictures and videos through SkyDrive, and there’s a pack of apps you can download to get your streaming television fix, but when it comes to media the Xbox One is really nothing like a Windows computer.
It’s more like a set-top box.
The Xbox One’s TV integration is one of its biggest selling points, and it’s potentially very cool. By routing your cable box through the One, you can get game invites and Skype notifications while you’re watching your favorite shows, and you can snap live TV to the side while you’re playing games. The Kinect can fire off infrared commands to control the basic functions of your cable box and TV, letting you use your voice to search and browse the new One Guide, which features streaming services like Hulu and Netflix listed as "app channels" alongside regular channels.
But while the ideas are great, the execution just isn’t there. For starters, passing my TiVo through the Xbox One darkened the picture and stripped the signal of its Dolby Digital audio encoding, taking away surround sound. There’s a beta option to transcode Dolby into DTS or PCM audio, but it didn’t seem to work for me, and Microsoft says it might cause additional video distortion with some cable boxes until it’s out of beta. If you have a home theater system, this is an immediate deal breaker; I wouldn’t let the Xbox One near your cable box until it can pass the signal unmolested.
If you have a home theater system, this is an immediate deal breaker
If you’re willing to accept the changes to audio and video quality, using Xbox TV is fine in extremely simple scenarios, but you’ll run in to strange dead ends, overlapping interface elements, and unintended behaviors all over the place. Microsoft decided against building HDMI-CEC control since so few cable boxes support it, so you’re stuck with the Kinect as an ultra-powerful IR blaster. (You’ll have to buy a cheap IR cable if your cable box is in a cabinet or otherwise out of the Kinect’s range.) The Kinect is the best IR blaster ever made, but it’s still a clunky IR blaster: you’ll see your cable box’s interface every time you change channels, and the Xbox doesn’t actually know what your cable box is doing or how to control it directly, so nothing works if you’re on your cable box’s menu screen or DVR listing. Speaking of the DVR, there’s just no way of watching recorded shows using the Xbox One, so you’re back to your cable remote and the cable UI. Same with On Demand — the Xbox just doesn’t know about it, so you’re back to the cable box UI.
All of that leads to some extremely confusing moments — unless you exclusively watch live TV, you simply can’t watch TV through the Xbox without switching back and forth to your cable box UI multiple times. This is the inherent reality of trying to fake TV integration by using an IR blaster, and nothing about the Xbox One indicates Microsoft has done a better job of pulling this off than Google did with the Google TV.
The features that Microsoft was able to build are equally half-finished. The One Guide itself is nice, but it’s also not exactly fast — scrolling fast through the listings will quickly land you on a blank page that has to repopulate. And Microsoft’s vaunted "app channels" aren’t really integrated into the TV listings; they’re on a separate tab. It would be much more interesting if Netflix was listed right next to HBO and Showtime.
Microsoft also hasn’t had time to figure out the complicated dynamics of bringing personal applications like Skype and SkyDrive into the shared space of the living room. Do you really want everyone in your house to know when you get a Skype call — and potentially be able to answer it even if you’re not in the room? Do you really want game invites to pop up while you’re watching Homeland with a group of friends? It feels like the Kinect should be doing a lot of work sensing when you’re out of the room, in the room alone, or in the room with others, and managing all of this more intelligently. Bits of that intelligence are present, but not in nearly enough volume to really make the experience work seamlessly.
a little bit more complicated, but not a whole lot better
Lastly, it’s strange that turning on the Xbox doesn’t immediately drop you into watching television — you have to open the TV app every single time. It’s not a huge problem, but it’s a totally new second-step in the core experience of watching television, and over time it becomes a silly hassle. It’s a design decision that encapsulates the entire Xbox TV experience: it’s a little bit more complicated, but not a whole lot better.
Windows in your TV
Microsoft won't come right out and say it, but the dots aren't hard to connect. The Xbox runs an operating system that it says "repurposed" a lot of Windows 8, on the same x86 architecture as virtually every Windows 8 PC, with plenty of power to run every app in the Windows Store and many more besides. For all it currently is, there's one more thing it could be: a Windows PC.
Albert Penello, Microsoft's senior director of product management, says that the company simply hasn't gone down the app route yet; there are policies, guidelines, and requirements necessary for bringing the Windows experience to your television, he says. But as developers are already making clear, turning a Windows app into an Xbox One app is really, really easy. There's currently a gaping hole where there will one day be an app store for the console, and that's going to be really interesting.
A few good apps, but a store waiting to be filled
The few PC-type apps that do make the switch mostly do so to great effect. Having all your SkyDrive photos and videos immediately accessible on your TV is pretty great — not to mention a nifty workaround for the Xbox One's lack of local media playback. (You can also stream content from your laptop or desktop to your Xbox, in an AirPlay-inspired bit of wonderful simplicity.) And Skype is a fantastic experience, thanks to the Kinect's high-res camera that follows you around the room and its impressively sensitive microphone. Chatting with family and friends while sitting on my couch felt really natural, and became very normal very quickly — but again, Microsoft needs better multi-user support here. I want to get Skype notifications while I watch TV, but I don’t want my mom getting them.
Those apps should whet the appetite of developers, but even Microsoft’s not quite committed to showing just how versatile the One can be. For now, the Xbox One's app ecosystem is just like the 360's. Netflix and Hulu, Amazon and HBO Go, apps for the NFL and ESPN and for Fox and FX. All the apps look good and work well, with much shorter loading times than on the 360, which has started to slow under the weight of its upgrades over the last couple of years. It feels like the beginning, like Microsoft's only opened the door to a giant world of possibility. Why shouldn't Evernote be on my TV, showing me all my clippings and notes? Why is there no way to see my Instagram feed, or my Twitter stream, or the weather? All of those are almost certainly on Microsoft's roadmap, but for right now Microsoft's great synergetic plan for Windows goes mostly under-utilized. Microsoft’s just built a system that does everything the Xbox 360 did, only better.
The game is still king
"Like the 360 only better" is a bit of a theme for the Xbox One, at least on day one. Even the launch titles for Xbox One eerily echo the 360’s sequel- and franchise-rich launch. That’s not surprising: game selection at launch tends to run the gamut of genres so that there’s something virtual for virtually everyone, regardless of taste and age range. The Xbox One is launching with 22 games overall, most of them very familiar. As we said with the PlayStation 4, there’s comfort in picking up a controller and knowing the mechanics, but it also means what’s "next-gen" about the console isn’t necessarily obvious at first blush.
Even if you buy a physical disc, all Xbox One games require installation. You can indeed play games while they install, and they start installing as soon as you pop the disc in the drive, but it takes a lot longer than on Sony's new PlayStation: it took 19 minutes for Call of Duty: Ghosts to install 54 percent of the game, at which point it allowed me to start playing. And even with the installations, load times aren’t any better than last generation. We still had to contend with tedious load screens for most of the games we played — it took more than a minute and a half to load Dead Rising 3 from the home screen, much longer than anything on the PS4. This much waiting feels even more ridiculous as the Xbox gets ever more powerful.
A few good launch games, but these won't be the Xbox One's best
And make no mistake, the Xbox One still only downloads one title at a time. Games can be "ready to play" before they hit the 100 percent installation mark, and you can pause or cancel downloads that are getting in the way, but if you’re downloading a big game, you’ll still need to find something else to do while you wait for it download gigabytes upon gigabytes of content.
Once you fill up a sizable fraction of your hard drive with an Xbox One game, what’s the payoff? When you compare the same exact game across different consoles, there’s a clear difference between Xbox One and, say, 360 or PS3, but compared to the PlayStation 4 it’s more or less a wash. Some games look and play slightly better on PS4, some on Xbox One, but really you’re getting a similar experience.
However, Microsoft exclusives like Forza Motorsport 5 and Ryse: Son of Rome are true cinematic spectacles. They’re gorgeous games that really look next-gen and won’t take a lot of training for someone to jump in and play. Forza, especially, doesn’t feel like a launch game built for an unproven console — the attention to detail is phenomenal, and there aren’t really any performance issues we saw. Ryse, meanwhile, is essentially the movie Gladiator with simple controls and a focus on narration and dismemberment.
On the other end of the technology spectrum, Dead Rising 3 eschews visual fidelity to instead focus on making the Xbox One an undead-manufacturing powerhouse — and it’s actually really impressive just how many individual zombies can be on screen without a hit on performance, and how much mayhem you can cause.
And then there’s Zoo Tycoon, a reimagining of a classic simulation game that’s somehow the most adorable thing we’ve played in the last few years — it has literally brought people in The Verge office to tears, it’s so cute. Admittedly, that game isn’t for everyone.
When the Xbox 360 launched, it had an impressive variety of Xbox Live digital titles — 10 in all, including the critically acclaimed addiction Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, which was an old-school arcade game you could pick up and play for either a few minutes or a few hours. Of all the launch titles, digital and physical, that’s the one major genre Microsoft didn’t check off its list.
Killer Instinct comes close in an update to the classic fighter, but there’s a major learning curve that can be off-putting. (Killer Instinct is also notable for its business model — download a "demo" with one playable character, purchase additional characters in a bundle or a la carte. It’s not an inherently bad model for consumers, but it’s definitely something we suspect will be more prevalent this console generation now that the platforms support it.)
Both in terms of graphics and gameplay, the Xbox One and PS4 are more or less equivalent. Where the Xbox experience differs is the Kinect. Despite its impressive power, it’s currently just a better version of the 360’s implementation when it comes to games. Kinect-exclusive titles fall into two very predictable categories: full-on fitness trainers, and fitness trainers masked as arcade games like Just Dance and Kinect Sports Rivals. Xbox Fitness is actually a great demonstration of how eerily accurate the new Kinect sensor is — and it's something I’ll be using, a lot, as long as my roommates are far, far away from the house.
The Kinect is really where the Xbox One's gameplay separates itself
Kinect’s most interesting use is as additive functionality, which you’ll see in a majority of the launch titles. You can shout commands to your army in Ryse or to your friends in Dead Rising 3, or lean and peek around corners with your head in Forza 5 and Battlefield 4. Zoo Tycoon is the best example yet: it’s much easier to say "view animal," for example, than it is to highlight an exhibit and drill down to the status screens. Want to hang out with lions? They’ll mimic your hand waves, your ear scratching, even your winks. Get close enough to the glass and your reflection will show up.
There’s already a fair amount of good gameplay on the One, but here’s the most exciting part about launch games — they almost certainly won’t stand the test of time. The best years of both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are a ways off. Twelve months from now, the library for both consoles will almost certainly be more fleshed out, and the best games could take even longer.
The longer developers play with these consoles, the better they’ll understand the new platforms. That means shorter load times, better visuals, and more chances to be creative with all the power these new platforms have to offer.
Just in case the Kinect and a controller weren't enough, you can also control many of the Xbox One's features using the SmartGlass mobile app for Windows 8, Windows Phone, Android and iOS. As with just about every aspect of Microsoft's new console, the app is similar to what's already available on the 360, but with a few new features of varying utility. SmartGlass lets you view basic information like messages, achievements, and friend activity on the second screen. It also allows you to launch companion apps for games that have them — Dead Rising 3 in particular has an extensive companion app with some features exclusive to the second screen. After you get a cellphone in the game, you can use your real phone in place of the in-game phone to access a map of the city and receive missions over the phone; you can also look up items on the map, get text messages and gameplay hints, call a friend to help you fight off the zombie horde, or even request an airstrike from your phone.
You can also launch games and apps via SmartGlass, both in full screen and "snapped" view, which isn’t that useful in practice. In theory it means you can launch a second app like Skype without having to exit the game you're currently playing, but in reality the process takes about the same amount of time whether you use a smartphone or a controller, and it’s faster to use Kinect when it works. However, SmartGlass can also serve as a touchscreen remote control for many apps, and that comes in particularly handy with Internet Explorer. While touchscreens are far from the best way to type, they're certainly preferable to an Xbox controller, and SmartGlass is the easiest way to write out URLs and scroll through webpages on the One. With the Windows 8 version of SmartGlass, you can even tap a button to open the same page you’re viewing on the Xbox on your laptop or tablet as well.
The blueprints are all here
When Microsoft says it's building a console for the next decade, it's not lying. Where the PlayStation 4 is designed to simply become an ever-better version of itself, the Xbox One is poised to turn into an entirely different, entirely unprecedented device. It may not only supplement, but replace your cable box; it could have a rich, full app store; games are only going to get better, more impressive, and more interactive. The blueprints are all here. Virtually everything Microsoft is trying to do is smart, practical, and forward-thinking — even as they've undone some of the Xbox One's most future-proof innovation over the last few months, Marc Whitten and his team at Microsoft have clearly kept their heads in the future.
But nearly everything that could be great someday isn't great right now. The Kinect is an incredible piece of raw machinery and engineering, but it's not implemented well into games, nor does its voice control provide a truly fast, seamless way to navigate the operating system. The TV integration is an awkward hodgepodge of menus and overlays and dead ends. There's a massive opportunity for Windows apps to turn the Xbox into something no one could have imagined, but it's as yet gone unexplored. Some of these are easily solved problems, but others — cable integration in particular — are a much steeper uphill climb.
Today, the Xbox One is a great gaming console with a few great games — Zoo Tycoon and Forza are both excellent, better than anything currently available for the PS4, and Dead Rising is a blast even if it’s flawed. Whether or not the Xbox is better than the PS4 is entirely subjective: if you're committed to buying a console this holiday season, buy the one with the games you want. It's too soon to make a call on almost any other feature. Don't buy an Xbox One expecting to immediately throw out your entertainment center.
The Xbox One is here for a decade. If Microsoft can deliver on all its promises in that time, it will have built a console truly worthy of Input One — but that's a big if.
Photography by Michael Shane