Hardware review: the Xbox One

18 mins read
Review by Nick H. 

After plenty of build-up over the last half year, both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One have finally released. We took a look at the PlayStation 4 last week, and you can see our review of it here. Now that we have had a chance to put the Xbox One through its paces, it is time to share those early impressions.

The Console

The box itself had decent heft behind it upon opening it up and getting it on the shelf. In some ways it resembles the Xbox 360 Elite. It is black in colour with discs inserted on the left side of the unit and the power button (where the Xbox logo resides) on the far right. Taking some more cues from the Elite, the right top of the unit and the sides have a sort of grated ventilation design to them, which does help to keep the box cool. Those of us who experienced the notorious Red Ring of Death on the Xbox 360 a time (or three) will probably appreciate this larger console with better vents. After running it for about six straight hours, the Xbox One was kicking out some quite hot air, but it never felt as hot as the original Xbox 360’s did.

The console itself will do very little to stand out from anything else in your entertainment centre as it is fairly large, very square with a glossy black finish. Discs are inserted and ejected from the front without the try the Xbox 360 had, more akin to the PlayStation 3 and 4. It runs very quietly compared to my 360. I ran them at the same time next to one another and from my spot on the bed I could not hear the Xbox One at all over the 360 Elite.

The back of the box has a good number of ports, but they are all clearly labelled. The most confusing is probably the HDMI in and out, since they are obviously the same size. The output is for your television, while the input is an extension of Microsoft’s desire to see their new console integrated into your living room. The scenario it will likely be used for is for your cable/DVR box. To this end it works very well. That being said, personally I probably will not use the Xbox One for this functionality. I have concerns about running my $500 investment an extra two to six hours a day to while watching television when I already have a perfectly good DVR that can do the same job and will not cost me anything to replace if it breaks down. That just feels like extra mileage I do not want to put on the system, though it gives no indication that this will be a problem.

The Kinect

One of the biggest differences between the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 is that Microsoft forces the inclusion of their camera solution, which is largely responsible for the $100 difference between the two consoles. It is clear Microsoft is invested in the Kinect, which is part of the system set up. Getting it hooked up is just the matter of a single cable to the back of the console. Then you need to position it in a logical spot where it can see the people in the living room effectively. I am in a fortunate spot in that my living room is just about perfectly sized and arranged for the Kinect.

I never owned a Kinect for my Xbox 360. I always thought the technology was interesting, but because it came along later in the console’s life cycle I was worried that developers would have a hard time rallying around the hardware. After all, why invest additional research and development in something that might have a very limited install base? I think the inclusion of the Kinect as part of the Xbox One makes sense, just like the motion controls of the Wii. Certainly developers will not always make use of it, nor should they feel as though they have to shoehorn it into their development cycle. That being said, game developers who do want to explore that path know that the hardware is in everyone’s house and they will not be limiting the audience for their innovation.

Of course, none of this pans out if the Kinect falls on its face. Thankfully it was more hit than miss in our use. Titles like Zumba Fitness World Party do an excellent job of tracking body movement and allowing you to navigate game menus with your hands and voice commands. This will create a challenge for developers though, as the Kinect is very exacting in its voice commands. For example when you are telling the Xbox to go home, it works almost flawlessly. Telling it to resume a game is sometimes a mouthful because you cannot just say: resume Zumba. Instead you need to say: Resume Zumba Fitness World Party. A little more forgiveness would have been nice on that front.

As expected, enunciation is the key. I am much louder than my oldest daughter. As a result Kinect never misunderstood me when I told it to return home. Several times my daughter had it mistake her for ‘slow’ instead of ‘home’. We did not realise that until we were in a specific menu in the achievements and it said in the upper right corner of the screen that ‘slowness’ could not be used at this time. We also have a house with a lot of ambient noise. We have a family of five, with five cats and a train that regulars the tracks somewhat near our house.

None of these microphone shortcomings are terribly unexpected. This is relatively new technology and there will be limitations, but I suspect environment and voice volume will be big factors in your success using the Kinect.

Motion tracking seems to work well. I think the funniest moment we had with it was when my oldest daughter, shortly after we had set up her account but not actually logged her in, walked past the television to get a glass of water, and the system logged her in automatically as it just got a profile glimpse of her on the way by. That was a funny ‘wow’ moment for the three of us in the living room at the time. The camera did an excellent job of picking us out by facial recognition in the living room and tracking body movement in Zumba. The technology is not perfect, but it did spawn several very cool moments along the way that left me excited to see what developers will do with it in the future.

The controller

There are a lot of similarities between the Xbox One and the Xbox 360’s controller. After all, why try to reinvent the wheel? Of course some changes are expected, and in this instance I am not sure they were all successful. First the complaints. The trigger buttons feel just a bit softer to me than I am used to from the 360 controller. The bottom edge of the controller is also angled and less rounded. This could make longer playing sessions uncomfortable depending on just how hard you hold the controller. Because the triggers are also much wider now, they run somewhat flush to the nearby bumper buttons, making those bumpers a little harder to distinguish at first – but you do get used to them.

There is plenty to like about the design as well. The controller still operates off of two AA batters – which suits me fine as I used rechargeables on my Xbox 360 controller. The profile is a bit slimmer, without the battery box hanging down on the bottom. The Xbox One controller is also lighter than its 360 counterpart. The thumb sticks are a little narrower than the Xbox 360’s analogue sticks. They also have a ridged texture to the outsides of the pads, providing some nice grip during more intense sessions. I prefer the wider profile of the 360 sticks, but the Xbox One’s feel just fine. The directional pad is no longer a circular disc of disappointment but actually a four way cross with a nice ‘clickiness’ to it that should server fighting game fans far better than the Xbox 360’s offering.

The modifications to the rumble feel good, and at first I wondered how that might impact the battery life. That concern proved to be unfounded as I kept the controller on during my entire first day of use and it still showed full bars. I get the feeling this guy will truck along for days, if not weeks, at a time.

The Installation

Microsoft said it would have an impressive array of servers in place to help with network stability, and that appears to have been the case. Day one I was able to download games, install the patch, see my friends and leave messages without a hiccup despite what must be heavy day one traffic loads. Updating it with my existing Xbox profile was quite easy, and I like the additional layers of security right off of the bat (as I had been hacked once in the past on my Xbox 360, with thousands of Microsoft points spent on FIFA stuff that got sent to someone Microsoft said they could not trace back then).

Much was made of the need to have the day one update applied, but I had no issues getting it to sync up with my wireless network and the initial patch took me about seven minutes was all. The very first time I started it up, I could see where some people might be concerned. If you do the same and see a large green screen with the words Xbox One lingering, it is just part of the initialisation process – do not worry. It will pass after what seems like two or three very long minutes. After that start up and shutting down are quite snappy.

The Operating System

This operating system shares a lot with the Xbox 360 and Windows 8 menus. They are very blocky, with information spread out between a few different overarching menus. To the Xbox One’s credit, I saw a lot less advertisements than on the 360 dashboard, and things do feel better organised as a result. Using the Kinect to navigate does make things a bit easier, at least when it is recognising what you are saying and provided you know exactly what phrase to shout at it.

Finding friends, notices and messages is quite easy. The ability to use QR codes or jumbled messes of numbers and letters was a clever use of the Kinect I fully support. There is a bare minimum of customisation options – you can choose what colour scheme you would like and there are updated profile picture options, but that is about it.

This was a system that many felt was going to be all about the televisions and leave gaming by the wayside. It is clear that there is a general entertainment focus here, but things like Hulu and Netflix are found on pretty much all video gaming systems now, and are welcome additions that just add value. I have no problem with Microsoft putting resources to other forms of entertainment as long as the gaming portion of the equation holds up.

I do have concerns about eventual clutter. After several game installs, it feels as though the game library could get a bit cluttered. Also, the operating system chews up a good deal of the 500 GB hard drive storage. I cannot help but feel these systems should have launched with a least 1 TB drives. After about ten hours I was already down to about 225 GB in space. I predict this is going to be an issue sooner than later.

The Verdict

The launch titles feel decent, with some variety out there ranging from dancing with Zumba, racing with Forza and simulations like Zoo Tycoon. While the retail titles feel strong, there is a lack of intriguing download-only games at this point, but these are the growing pains of a new console. The visuals and speed with which games load and menus operate are early signs of what is the come from the hardware, but most of that potential will be realised as developers become more familiar with what they have here.

The required Kinect integration feels like it was a good move by Microsoft, making the integration feel natural and not like something that is just tacked on at this point. Set up went quick and easy, and the overall impression the Xbox One has left me with is a very positive one. The early days are about baby steps though. A decent launch line up, a smooth experience with the network and some solid hardware choices might not make the Xbox One a day one buy for everyone, but the future looks bright for the console.

– Nick H
 US Editor
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