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Xbox One: The launch unit verdict

By Andy Robinson on Wednesday 20th Nov 2013 at 5:00 AM UTC

This week marks exactly six months since that fateful day inside the Xbox tent on Microsoft's Redmond campus, when the now-departed Don Matrick kicked off one of the most unfortunate and sometimes disastrous console launch campaigns in living memory.

During that intensely busy half-year, Microsoft has amended and reversed policies to such an extent that it isn't clear what parts of its next-gen vision, if any, have survived the tumultuous transition.

The clear casualties of Microsoft's changes during its luckless console campaign are, for the most part, ideas that weren't even mentioned on that rainy day in Washington. Digital policies and online mandates, which the Xbox team hoped could meaningfully replicate the successes of Steam and Apple's iOS, are now footnotes in the company's history.

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Yet when finally left alone with the console, it's clear the Xbox One still comes good on that dream of an all-in-one entertainment box. As promised, Microsoft's machine combines content like no console before, with an impressive voice-controlled cocktail of gaming, video and internet applications.

Xbox One is a two-faced glossy-matte behemoth, constructed to live silently under your television for years, that multi-tasks episodes of Breaking Bad and the latest Deadmau5 album without any fuss. And the new Kinect, significantly improved on its limited and unreliable predecessor, proves naysayers wrong and demonstrates the true potential of 3D cameras.

But on launch day, that might not be enough. Microsoft wants to win the hearts and minds of the core gamer, and the final Xbox One still has some way to go before that ambition can be fulfilled.

For all of CVG's Xbox One game review coverage:


Xbox One boxed contents 1 x Xbox One console
1 x Xbox One controller
1 x Kinect sensor
1 x AC adapter
1 x HDMI cable
1 x Xbox One Chat Headset
1 x Xbox One sticker

Unit spec

Unit size: 27.4 cm deep x 33.3 cm wide x 7.9 cm high
Weight: 3.2kg
Media: Blu-ray, DVD, CD
USB 3.0 ports: Three
Ports: HDMI 1.4 out, HDMI in, IR out, power out, Kinect port, S/PDIF out
GPU: 853 MHz AMD next-generation Radeon based graphics engine
CPU: 8 core 1.75GHz AMD "Jaguar" custom processor
Memory: 8GB DDR3 + 32MB eSRAM
Storage: 500GB HDD + external HDD support
Network capabilities: Supports wireless connection (IEEE 802.11n), Ethernet x1


Form factor and design

Spend some meaningful time with the Xbox One and it becomes clear that hardware itself is designed to look more like an adult's entertainment device than a traditional games console. Its frame is broad and squared-off much like a Blu-ray player or home theatre box, the "dark chrome" is unassuming and disappears under your TV unit.

The console's top panel is divided into two halves; the left is plain with a gloss finish, while the right is dominated by an expanse of corrugated air vents. Despite these vents, which also add a noticeable hollowness to the unit, the console is wondrously quiet when running. Once a game is in, it is noticeably quieter than PS4, and significantly so when installing software.

Photography: Tech Radar

The console's face panel, usually the only part exposed in living-rooms, carries a welcome elegance. Replacing the traditional disc tray is an automatic slot-loading drive (similar to the PlayStation 3 and Wii's) and a small, silver Xbox Logo sits behind the glass touch panel on the bottom right. When powered on it shines a crisp yet subtle white.

Compared overall to the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One is undoubtedly the less attractive machine, no doubt because Sony has a 55-year heritage designing electronic consumer products. Both these next-gen consoles feel disappointingly cheap to handle (likely cost saving measures), yet when concealed in a TV unit, as intended, the Xbox One has the advantage of being quieter and is less likely to be prone to overheating.


Interface and applications

When the system is booted, a Windows 8-styled tiled interface greets you. It's the same Dashboard arrangement that Microsoft implemented on the Xbox 360, but this time designed from the ground up in parallel with the hardware. This evolved layout is more customisable, and can rearrange itself based on your ongoing consumption habits.

In the center, the main home screen features a feed of your six recent games or applications. On the left is space for tiles specifically chosen - or 'pinned' - by the user. This can be anything from a beloved game to a shortcut to the Achievements page. On the right sits three 'featured' tiles, chosen by Microsoft, as well as store navigation.

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On the top left of the screen lies the user sign-in options (up to six users can be activated at once) and a Notifications feed which displays system messages such as Achievement unlocks, downloaded content, Skype messages, etcetera.

Despite its simplistic appearance, the Xbox One Dashboard isn't at first as easy to navigate at the PS4's rigidly indexed XMB, with Microsoft burying popular content behind several screens of menus (a frequent flaw of the Xbox interface). Yet it is clearly an interface built with multitasking in mind, that rearranges itself quickly to juggle more than three applications at once.

A press of the Xbox button (or stating "Xbox go home" aloud) will pull up the full Xbox Dashboard. From here you can view your friends list, load up video apps such as Netflix and swiftly return to your game via the home menu or voice command.

"When applications mix via the Snap feature, the Xbox One experience begins to shine."

It is when these applications mix via the Snap feature, which embeds a second layer of content on a vertical strip at the right of the screen, that the Xbox One experience begins to shine. Activated via the home menu or the "Xbox snap" voice command, the secondary menu can display supported apps such as Internet Explorer, TV, Xbox Music or the Activity feed.

This allows users to browse the internet while watching Netflix, flick through Xbox Music tracks during a multiplayer game or simply set up a tiny TV feed for the significant other while you plough through a Battlefield 4 campaign level.

Disappointingly, it appears that both Skype and Twitch won't support Snap at launch (and the latter isn't arriving until 2014), which limits the day-to-day usefulness of the feature, at least for now.


Television

Tucked behind the Xbox One is an HDMI-In port, a small detail that could one day make a significant difference to the 'all-in-one' entertainment experience.

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The port allows your cable, satellite, Freeview or TV box (providing it can output at HDMI) to feed into the Xbox One, while the console's own HDMI-out can pass that up into the television. When your Xbox is switched on, live television suddenly becomes an essential app you can multi-task and combine with other services. Unfortunately, your TV feed won't work unless the Xbox One is switched on - even when on standby, your video signal will not display.

There are clear benefits of using the Xbox One with a TV feed enabled, providing you're okay with those new electricity bills. Users can switch between television and gameplay at an instant, or display both via the Snap feature. In the North America, the Xbox 'OneGuide' offers enhanced integration with cable boxes, by allowing users to flick through TV listings and change channels using voice commands.

Sadly, in every other territory including Europe, the Xbox One TV functionality is more cosmetic than transformative. In the UK, for example, running Sky HD through the console still requires the user to pick up the TV remote to change channels or view listings. Microsoft says it hopes to bring OneGuide to other territories in 2014.

Microsoft's TV proposition for users outside the UK - at least for now - is that their experience will be enriched by feeding cables through a high-powered console, ensuring it remains on while watching television, while still controlling the signal though the original device in the first place. It's not the most compelling pitch we've ever heard.

Perhaps more interesting for multiplatform gamers is the option to feed rival consoles into the Xbox One's HDMI-In port. It's possible to play PS4 or Wii U through Microsoft's new console, and still use all of the snap and voice command functionalities.


The controller

Though its predecessor was far from 'broken', Microsoft has spent more than $100 million rethinking and tweaking the Xbox 360 controller. There are, Microsoft, says, about forty improvements in total. Chances are you will only notice about a quarter of them, but that alone is enough to improve what many believe was the de facto controller of the last generation.

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Whilst paying respect to the familiar form factor of the original 360 controller, the Xbox One's pad is meaningfully more comfortable with small but welcome changes made throughout. Screw holes and seam lines have been removed and the 360's bulky battery pack has been absorbed inside the controller, complemented by a more balanced weight distribution.

Fans of twitch-shooters, platformers and fighting games will be especially pleased with the new d-pad, which is pushed flush against the surface, offering far tighter directional placement and a satisfying click. The analogue sticks have also been upgraded slightly, loosened just enough with better grip and minimised dead-zones.

"Xbox One's pad is meaningfully more comfortable with small but welcome changes."

The standout feature of the Xbox One controller is, in theory at least, its innovative force feedback. Microsoft has shrunk the 360 pad's rumble motors down to about one eighth their size and scattered them across the controller, meaning that vibrations can travel in different directions across your hands. The result is a more nuanced rumble sensation that can even be localized to, say, your right trigger finger. Even the early tech demos showed tremendous promise, with examples such as one trigger simulating the effect of recoil from an in-game pistol.

The current Xbox One games line-up does not highlight these force feedback features so effectively, however. We have sampled enough in the past to confidently anticipate this will, eventually, become a standout feature of the Xbox One controller.

Photography: Tech Radar

The potential of the Impulse triggers is, however, a reminder that there is no innovation of that scale anywhere else on the Xbox One controller. With no PS4-style touch-pad, or Wii U second screen to fuel ideas, Xbox One developers will have to search for innovation in other inputs - such as Microsoft's much maligned peripheral...


Kinect

Microsoft's decision to bundle a next-gen Kinect sensor with every Xbox One has resulted in several controversies, from mass-surveillance paranoia to (for those that think on more practical terms) the additional expenses incurred. Like with many parts of the Xbox One, Microsoft has bowed to the pressure somewhat, removing a previous requirement for the sensor to be connected at all times (you can now switch it off via the settings menu, or unplug it entirely).

Zoom

Kinect unit spec

Size: 24.9cm long x 6.6cm wide x 6.7cm tall
Resolution: 1080p
Microphones: 4 channel array
IR Blaster: Yes


However, Xbox One and Kinect will remain synonymous; at launch customers cannot purchase an Xbox One console without the advanced 3D camera bundled in. Many will, in the end, be pleased that Microsoft kept its resolve, because the sensor is the single most impressive element of the Xbox One system at launch. Like it or loathe it, Kinect performs in meeting the Xbox One's multitasking and motion control ambitions.

Under the hood, the camera technology has improved significantly, now carrying new and improved detection capabilities which allows the underlying software to measure muscle positioning and weight distribution of up to six players at once. The extra sensitivity is apparent when gesturing through menus in Kinect Sports Rivals Pre-season (a free demo available at launch) or Kinect Fitness.

With the sensor capably tracking fingers as well as hands, interacting with game content feels far more precise. The first Kinect was about flailing arms and legs, the new one is about grabbing invisible objects in the air and pointing to the sky.

The sensor offers a 60 per cent larger field of view compared to its predecessor, and this is also apparent during Skype video calls, when the camera will zoom close into your position on the couch during conversation and dynamically follow you around the room when you leave to make a coffee.

"Kinect is the single most impressive element of the Xbox One system at launch"

Unlike the original Kinect sensor, the Xbox One camera does not use motors and will stay static in the position set by the user. The camera can be manually tilted by hand, and a UI calibration tool - one of only two required to tune Kinect - will help setup the optimal angle.

But it's voice recognition, not motion control that, has made the furthest strides. Perhaps in response to the negative reaction to the Xbox 360's gesture-controlled menus, the Xbox One UI instead invites users to navigate content with audio commands, performed by stating "Xbox" followed by a command (hand gestures, however, still work).

When the Xbox One console is turned on, Kinect will identify the user, then sign them into their assigned profile. This works for multiple users - who can all be signed in at once - and swapping a controller to another person will automatically switch their profile to the 'active' one, assigning all unlocked Achievements and captured videos to their profile.

The Dashboard has been built to be fully flexible and operate under the user's voice commands. Voice control is not exactly a fresh idea, but this is the first time a games console can be extensively navigated without moving a finger or thumb.

As you can see in the video below, CVG's Andy Robinson is able to navigate Achievements, switch between games and television and easily snap the Activity feed using voice commands. It's intuitive, accurate and responsive.

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The downside of voice commands is not the technology itself, but the new language that users must learn. Kinect is surprisingly fussy when it comes to what it's listening out for. For example, "Xbox TV" will not open the TV app and, similarly "Xbox home" does not return to the Dashboard menu. Instead users have to use the specific commands "Xbox watch TV" or "Xbox go home" in order to trigger such processes. Even "Xbox switch off" or "Xbox off" is not recognised: users must learn the specific command "Xbox turn off".

Hopefully such issues will be ironed out over time, but at launch Kinect's voice functionality isn't quite as convenient as it deserves to be. During our review period we've witnessed numerous testers struggling to control Xbox One simply because they hadn't learnt the specific commands that Kinect requires. It indicates that, at launch, Kinect will be as much work as it is play.

What is useful, however, is that when Kinect's voice recognition is activated, all applicable menu commands are highlighted in green. Users can also use the command "Xbox select" to highlight possible voice commands on the UI.

Xbox One - The CVG verdict

Just like the PlayStation 4, Microsoft has crafted a games platform that builds upon long-standing conventions instead of reinventing them. For many, this homogeneity is exactly what they asked for, but whether old solutions can hold out for another decade is another matter entirely.

There are clear improvements that make the new Xbox stand out, just enough, from its predecessor. The controller has been meticulously refined, the visuals are expectantly better and the new multi-tasking interface is surprisingly excellent.

Zoom

But Xbox One is a console that feels like it's missing something. Granted, we all know what that is, considering the extraordinary reversals of its more disruptive philosophies. But, as with Sony's platform, there's a clear sense that this is a platform that has laid foundations that it can build on for a whole generation.

The new Kinect is like night and day when compared to its predecessor, and the entertainment-rich interface shows flashes of amazing potential, but on day one it's just that - potential.

Perhaps, especially towards the latter years of the current console cycle, we have been spoilt for choice with consoles bursting with various applications to keep users entertained. It will take a while for Xbox One and PS4 to catch up with that offering, but we're already excited to see what they provide beyond that.

"Just like PS4, Microsoft has crafted a platform that builds upon conventions instead of reinventing them."

For consumers who use Netflix and Skype as much as Forza, Xbox One presents an attractive multimedia offering this Christmas. But for core gamers, Sony's package is perhaps more attractive at the moment, with more visually impressive exclusives (Killzone and Resogun are not matched by anything currently on Xbox One) and the options to stream and share game footage straight away.

Whichever system you chose, neither will entirely fulfil the vision laid out in those bombastic press events earlier this year. The seeds of next-gen gaming have been planted, but they'll need time to flower before your $500 (or $400) purchase can bear fruit.