Consoling
Xbox One

By Jorge Figueiredo - December 15th, 2013

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At this point, I have spent about as much time with the Xbox One as I did with the PS4 when I wrote about my impressions of Sony’s new console. If you’re hoping to read about my take on Microsoft’s marketing strategy, what my answer is to the question “which console is better?”, you’re out of luck. That piece is currently being written and will be published soon. Having a console battle was not my primary motivation when I pre-ordered both of these systems back in June. The piece that you’re reading right now is simply about my overall impressions of the Xbox One so far. In a nutshell? The console is great! Is it perfect? Not yet – but it is just the beginning of the product’s life cycle. It will be interesting to see what Microsoft has in store.

Over the last few months, I had been given a few opportunities to check out the Xbox One in action – and I even got the chance to try it out. Those kinds of product demos are fun, but they are also difficult because the main comparative (that is, the previous gen console from the same manufacturer) is not present to measure the differences between the then and the now. Even without the presence of an Xbox 360, though, it was pretty clear to see that the Xbox One was a better-performing machine, so you can imagine my excitement when I finally got my Day One edition Xbox One on, well, day one. When I placed it on the console shelf, I could more easily compare it to my Xbox 360 “slim” edition. I was actually a little bit surprised that it was larger than its predecessor – but after some thought, I suppose that the size is to give the innards some extra volume to allow heat to dissipate. As sleek as the 360 is, it can’t hold a candle to the elegant design of the Xbox One; smooth curves have been replaced by a more polished, almost cool industrial look and the Xbox One runs much quieter compared to the 360. The green lighting motif is gone, replaced by the purity of white on both the console and the controller. This unit is definitely made to belong in your entertainment center without being offensively different.

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This magic is included in the package.

Inside the machine resides a fairly powerful CPU and graphics processor which work together to get the job done. This is all partnered with a 500 GB hard drive that gets filled up pretty quickly. I remember when 500 GB used to be a lot of room – but now, with the size of some of these games (you’re looking at up to 50 GB a pop, here, folks), 500 GB really isn’t that much – especially when you consider the fact that the console can record real-time game-play clips. Here’s hoping that Microsoft comes up with an external storage solution (or allows the user to replace the HDD without voiding their warranty). Up on the screen, the UI looks a lot like Windows 8 (which I really like); everything is laid out horizontally and it is intuitive. You can navigate the menu using the controller, your voice, or your gestures. A section exists that functions as a “bookmark” list, of sorts, so you can pin your favourite applications to this space for easy access whenever you like. The UI also allows you to leverage the processor’s power to “snap” things to the side of the screen. Thus, you could theoretically watch TV and surf the internet at the same time. I was actually surprised at how well it worked, but I don’t think I have really pushed the system that hard yet. Another surprise? Boot-up takes less than 15 seconds.

Other than the disc opening (yay Blu-ray!), there are no ports on the front of the Xbox One. There is a USB 3.0 port on the left side (close to the front), and the back is essentially all digital connections. There is an HDMI port for output to your receiver or TV, as well as an S/PDIF port for audio (if you don’t want to use the HDMI connection for some reason). There are also two USB 3.0 ports on the back, a proprietary port for the Kinect 2.0 camera and an RJ-45 port (E1000). An interesting addition is the HDMI port for input, allowing you to hook up your set-top box for television-based services (I didn’t try this functionality out, as I don’t have digital cable service). This port can also be used to input anything that has an HDMI output, and it even allows you to snap the input stream from the other device; but there is a slight lag when using it. For the record, the Xbox One can connect to 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz bands – but it does not support 802.11ac.

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The UI is pretty slick.

The second generation Kinect camera is definitely awesome. It feels like the future when you walk into your gaming area and speak the command “Xbox on”, which prompts your entire home theater system to spring to life and your Xbox One changes the profile to match whoever is commanding it (provided that a profile was set up for said person ahead of time). That’s one of the cool things about the Xbox One: you can link it to your television and receiver, allowing the console to turn them on when it powers up; it will also turn it off when it’s ready to power down. I’m hoping that they extend the number of supported receivers in the future (I have a “surrogate” model selected), and that they allow you to actually change the settings of your receiver (I have more than one console, so chances are that it is not set to the correct input). Kinect does a great job at detecting bodily motion (it can track up to six people), and seems to be much more accurate. It’s pretty clear from the Kinect view (you can have Kinect show you what it sees while you in the settings menu) that this second generation version detects a lot more of your room and does a lot more with the ambient light. There is still a latency issue (and I’m not quite convinced that it can detect bodily stress points directly) – but it’s much faster than Kinect version one and does a better job detecting a lot more in its massive field of view. One of the coolest aspects of Kinect is that it can be used as a substitute for entering gaming codes for downloadable content: all you need to do is hold up the QR code for your Xbox game or app and Kinect will scan and your Xbox One will download the content.

Voice recognition is decent – far better than voice commands on the Xbox 360. Still, I find that while the Xbox One understands me well enough, there are times when it seems to be completely off the mark with my requests. Also, the command structure is very odd. You say “Xbox on” to turn the unit on, but to turn it off you have to say “Xbox turn off”. The additional word is not a big deal, but not all app functionality can be accessed with a single voice command – some require a “gateway” command of “going to” the app first before you can do something with it. Saying “Xbox” will usually bring up a handy guide that shows the most common commands, which is handy. Sadly, Kinect has trouble detecting commands when more than one person is talking, too. I was trying to start Forza Motorsport 5 while my wife was shouting something up to my daughter form an adjacent hallway. Even though my wife had no profile, the Kinect sensor couldn’t understand me. Of course, it hasn’t been that long since launch, so I expect that there will be refinements coming down the pike. It is pretty cool to be able to navigate pretty much everywhere just using voice commands – including moving from within one app to another.

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Meet a very solid controller.

I have played a few games on the Xbox One and I have to tip my hat to Microsoft – this thing has rocked every game so far. I haven’t really noticed too much performance weirdness while playing, which is pretty impressive for launch titles. The new controller feels better than the previous console’s device (which is pretty impressive). The weight is nice, and the feel of all of the buttons and sticks is tighter as well. Even the Kinect-integrated games work really well, and are very enjoyable. This speaks to good things for the future of the console if this is how the current games are performing. YouTube also works well, scaling to hi-definition within a few seconds of play (I wish I could do voice-based search commands). I used Skype with a friend of mine from West Virginia, and it was pretty amazing. The Kinect camera followed my movements and captured my voice perfectly. Performance was quite stellar compared to my last experience using that application on my PC.

I do have a few beefs with this console, though. My complaints are really nothing major – just some griping about things that I didn’t expect. The first thing that bugged me was the fact that there is a power brick – and it’s fairly big. My console shelf has both the Xbox One and the Xbox 360 “Slim” on the same side (one is on a wire shelf above the other), so shelf real estate is pretty much entirely spoken for with both of these consoles in close proximity to one another. I find it hard to believe that there is no way to incorporate that power source into the Xbox One itself. Of course, this decision was probably made to keep the inside of the Xbox One as cool as possible – the last thing Microsoft needs is another “red ring of death” scenario on its hands.

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Snap apps to the side while you play. Record your games! Thanks Microsoft!

Another beef that I have is the smoothness of some of the notifications and menus on the console. I was playing Zoo Tycoon when I first noticed that the achievement notification animations were slightly choppy (while the game itself was not). It’s not really a huge deal, I suppose, but with all of that vaunted horsepower, one would think that a simple animated overlay wouldn’t be choppy. I was ready to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, thinking that perhaps it was meant to look that way – until I booted up and found that the main menu was chugging (and it does this from time to time). I’m hoping that this is temporary, and that there are a ton of processes running in the background that haven’t been optimized yet – and that some downloadable updates will fix this. It’s not game-breaking (because the games run just fine); however, it just takes away from the overall experience.

Make no mistake; the Xbox One is all about an all-encompassing entertainment experience for the user. Between the television functionality, the full Kinect integration and the modular OS and interface, this console is geared to make your entertainment center a fun place to hang out in. At the moment, it could still use some polish, which isn’t surprising given how high the previous console generation raised the bar. As a final note: I’m looking forward to trying out some of the TV integration soon. I’ll write about that experience when it happens!

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