As the Xbox 360 aged, rumors swirled around Microsoft’s next-generation console. Would we see an Xbox 720? An Xbox Infinity? A Nextbox? All those rumors turned out to be wrong: On May 21st, Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One, set for release by the end of 2013. While the name was kept strictly under wraps, the Xbox One announcement confirmed many of the rumors we’d been hearing for months or even years. Those include live TV support, a new Kinect, upgraded specs, and a series of new next-generation games – but there are still loads of questions Microsoft will need to answer about the One before gamers will have a complete picture of its newest console.
Microsoft built on what made the Xbox so popular in the first place: streaming entertainment and major franchises like Call of Duty or Halo. The latter even got its own TV series. But it also focused on ideas that are becoming more popular across gaming platforms, like gameplay sharing, a full suite of apps, and more robust support for its SmartGlass mobile interface. Here’s everything we've learned about the Xbox One since Microsoft’s announcement.
Xbox One: game console meets set-top box
Unlike Sony, which has kept the PS4’s hardware under wraps, Microsoft had no qualms about showing off the Xbox One. The machine resembles a shiny black set-top box with a slot-loading Blu-ray drive, and it only works in horizontal orientation. Microsoft and AMD partnered to make the custom 40-nanometer chip with an 8-core CPU and GPU that powers the One. It has 8GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, USB 3.0, and 802.11n Wi-Fi.
The system isn’t just a game console, however. The One has good reason to look like a set-top box: it doubles as one. It features an HDMI pass-through so the console can sit between your cable or satellite operator’s set-top box and your TV. You can tune channels with your voice, use a TV guide directly from the Xbox, and multitask between gaming, TV, Skype, Internet Explorer, and more.
Microsoft also unveiled the new Xbox One controller with more than 40 "technical and design innovations." The biggest change, aside from "new ergonomics," is a set of triggers that will provide vibration feedback. The new controller also features an updated directional pad, new thumbsticks, and an integrated battery compartment. It’s designed to work closely with the new Kinect for player syncing and extra control options. Our own David Pierce got a chance to check out the new controller – and while it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience, the design shows Microsoft is thinking in new ways about the Xbox.
Controllers will cost $59.99 each, while a new headset will run $24.99. Your existing Xbox 360 peripherals won't be compatible.
A new Kinect is front and center
Bundled with every Xbox One is a brand new Kinect sensor. Microsoft’s major focus with the refreshed Kinect, for now at least, seems to be on voice controls, which never quite worked on the Xbox 360. Say "Xbox On" and your console will turn on, say "Go to TV" or "Go to Internet Explorer" and Xbox can take you there — it all worked very well on stage today. Yes, that means the console will always be be listening to you, even when it’s turned off, but Microsoft does say you can change that in the settings and it's unlikely the NSA will use it to spy on your person.
Microsoft says it has done massive upgrades on the microphone since the previous generation, allowing One to detect voices even in loud environments. It has also upgraded the Kinect’s camera. Using a 1080p wide-angle sensor, the camera can detect your gestures to help navigate Xbox One’s interface. It can also be used for Skype, and even detect your heartbeat. The Kinect’s final trick: recognizing the new Xbox controller for simple player syncing as well as adding "additional interaction" to games. Be sure to check out our hands-on with the new Kinect, and all of its heart-sensing, voice-listening, and motion-tracking sorcery.
A new UI that looks awfully familiar
New Xbox, new user interface, right? Well, we’d call the Xbox One’s UI more of an evolution of what we’ve seen before on the 360 and Windows 8. The homescreen should look familiar, but everything now has a more home theater-friendly black look. The big functionality improvements come with non-gaming features like the addition of a full TV guide (more on that below) and apps like Skype and Internet Explorer. Just like Windows 8, Microsoft showed how you can use "Snap Mode" to multitask on the Xbox One. For instance, you can watch a movie while leaving Internet Explorer open on the right side of the screen, or watch TV and play a game at the same time. Kinect-enabled voice and gesture controls allow you to instantly switch between these features. To handle all of this functionality, Microsoft is using three operating systems in the One: the Xbox OS, the Windows kernel, and a third that facilitates instant switching and multitasking. What does Windows actually mean for Xbox? Nobody seems to be sure.
Skype’s chance to own the living room
Naturally, Microsoft’s push for interactivity with Xbox One includes communicating with friends. To that end, the company debuted Skype for its next-generation console, allowing users to make HD video calls with friends using the Kinect camera. The service will support group video chats, picture-in-picture calls while you’re playing a game or watching TV, and voice control commands. The new Skype app was demonstrated on the Xbox One, but it may also be available for the Xbox 360 in the future.
Xbox Live evolved, but Gold's here to stay
Xbox Live has long been key to Microsoft’s gaming console plans, so it’s no surprise that the company has refreshed online service for the Xbox One. Xbox Live still has achievements and a premium Gold subscription (you'll need to pony up for multiplayer, Skype, and the TV guide), but there’s some new functionality, too. A new "Game DVR," another premium feature, will allow gamers to record, edit, and share gameplay videos, and players will be able to start playing downloadable games after installing just one segment of them. The "Smart Match" matchmaking system offers an estimate for when you’ll be entered into a multiplayer game — allowing you to watch TV on your Xbox while you wait. The features certainly go head-to-head with what Sony’s teased for the PS4, but with Gaikai streaming and Ustream integration the Japanese company may have the upper hand here.
What’s a games console without games? Despite the increased focus on entertainment features, Microsoft announced there would be more than 15 exclusive games coming to the Xbox One in its first year. Today it showed off a pair of them: an all-new Forza Motorsport game, along with Quantum Break, a title that blends live-action TV with gaming. It also paraded two of the world’s largest publishers, EA and Activision, to show off some of their franchises. EA announced Madden NFL 25, NBA Live 14, FIFA 14, and EA Sports UFC, while Activision was on deck to announce that Call of Duty: Ghosts will be coming to the console. Both EA and Activision also pledged to bring some exclusive DLC to Xbox One owners. Notably missing from the event was Ubisoft, but with E3 just around the corner, we expect to hear about a lot more games next month.
Of course, major studios aren’t the only story, and Microsoft could leave gamers wanting; the prospects for indie games on the Xbox One are murky at best right now.
Xbox One needs to call home every day (or not)
If you were hoping the Xbox One would offer backwards compatibility for your Xbox 360 games, you’re in for some bad news. Microsoft confirmed that it will not feature support for older titles, due to the Xbox One’s 64-bit x86 architecture, which differs from the PowerPC-based Xenon processor found in the Xbox 360. Still, Microsoft intends to keep selling the Xbox 360 alongside the One, so it should be able to get some more mileage out of its best-selling console.
While Microsoft originally said that players will have to connect the console to the internet at least once a day, and that used games would have to be approved and linked to online accounts, the company performed a giant about-face to keep the status quo. That means that just like with the Xbox 360, you'll always have to have the game disc in the drive to play a disc-based game, but you can put that disc in any other console to play it, and can use an Xbox One in places without internet service. Oh, and the game discs will be region-free. Joy!
Microsoft assimilates your set-top box
The Xbox’s streaming TV and movie options (including Netflix and ESPN) are already a major draw, and Microsoft it expanded that with full access to live TV through cable or satellite. The Xbox One will connect to a set-top box via HDMI and can overlay its own interface, including custom "trending" and "favorites" sections and a content guide. As expected, it also integrates SmartGlass capabilities. Perhaps the most intriguing feature is extensive voice control: the set-top box and TV can both be turned on using voice, and it’s possible to check listings, switch channels, or even switch from TV to other Xbox apps by speaking. These TV services will be US-only at launch, but eventually Microsoft plans to expand worldwide. Despite the interesting new features, the company has a long way to go if it wants to make the new Xbox more than another disappointing set top box.
Teaming up with the NFL
Sports remain one of live TV’s biggest draws, and it’s also one of the easiest categories to annotate with "second screen" options. To take advantage of this, an NFL partnership gives Microsoft the exclusive rights to create interactive experiences around its football games. Microsoft showed off a fantasy football overlay, which lets players see stats and player information on one section of the screen while a game played on the rest of it. SmartGlass isn’t getting left out: Microsoft also gets the rights to develop interactive tools for tablets like the Surface.
Spielberg brings ‘Halo’ to life
In its first attempt at original TV content, Microsoft and subsidiary 343 Industries will be launching a live-action series based on the flagship Halo franchise. Halo: The Television Series will debut on Xbox Live, and Stephen Spielberg is coming on board as an executive producer, though no other creative talent has been announced and details are sparse. It’s unclear whether the show will be exclusive to Xbox, and we still have no idea when it might be released.