The Xbox One is a formidable console. It’s got a heap of excellent exclusives, and its interface is getting better and better as Microsoft improves upon it.
But with the Xbox One S now on store shelves, should you still consider the original Xbox One?
In a word, yes, and there are couple of reasons why you should do so.
The first reason is price. With over a hundred pounds separating the two consoles, those on a budget stand to save a significant amount of money by opting to by the One over the One S.
Yes, you’ll be sacrificing some of the advanced features like 4K output, but if you don’t have a 4K TV then there’s little reason for you to bother.
You have even more reason to stay with the original Xbox One if you’re a fan of Microsoft’s Kinect, which divided opinion when it was included with every Xbox One upon the console’s initial release.
The reason for this is that the One S doesn’t include a Kinect port on its rear, meaning that you’ll have to buy an adaptor if you want to use your camera accessory.
Meanwhile the Xbox One is now a true multimedia hub, close to what Microsoft always promised it would be.
It’s a next-gen games console, a TV companion and guide (compatible with Sky, Virgin, BT, Freeview and Freesat), a media streaming centre, a Skype phone, a Blu-ray player, a pizza delivery machine and more.
We might have expected some tweaks to Microsoft’s design of the Xbox One, coming up to two years in its lifespan, but it has stayed faithful to its design. There’s no slimline version or hardware update on the horizon just yet.
We do though have a new 1TB version of the Xbox One; a sensible move given the size of a modern game install. How big was The Witcher 3?! Dang…
Companies like Nyko, PDP and Power A have come along to offer additional products like intercoolers and clip-on charging stations, but Microsoft’s rock-solid design has stood the test of time so far.
The first thing you’ll notice about the console when you get it out of the needlessly elaborate packaging is what an absolute beast it is. It measures 274 x 79 x 333 mm, making it longer and taller than a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox 360.
You don’t need a tape measure to figure that out though, the thing just looks huge and it’s not exactly a looker when you see it up close, either.
Its size and girth harkens back to the original Xbox, an imposing black plastic beast covered in black plastic ridges. Microsoft seems to be throwing back to that design, bringing back the all black and the ridge-covered aesthetic.
Its massive size and black rectangular construction evoke thoughts of an eighties VCR or a stereo tuner from the nineties. Its imposing bulk begs to be hidden away, with just its slot loading disc drive exposed, little white Xbox logo glowing in lonely TV cabinet darkness.
For a console of this size, you would at least expect for the power supply to be built inside the unit. But as with the Xbox 360, that’s not the case. The external power brick is large and contains its own fan. This, at the very least, offers a quieter console unit than Sony’s competing console.
Given the overheating problems the 360 suffered from it’s no surprise to see Microsoft going overboard on keeping things chilled. Especially with its vision of an always-on console.
It does, however, make the PS4 look even more elegant, which is a lot smaller despite having an internal power supply.
Flip the machine around and you’ll see a plethora of ports. It has all your standard nodes: ethernet, HDMI out, power, S/PDIF (commonly used for optical audio), dual USB 3.0 ports and an IR out.
Additionally, there are two proprietary ports, one for hooking in the Kinect, and a HDMI-in, which is how you feed the Xbox One a TV signal from a set-top box. There’s also a third USB 3.0 port found on the system’s right side.
The HDMI-in can function as a passthrough and allows any old HDMI signal in, but this introduces a lot of input lag, making it no good for hooking in another console. So if you were thinking of running an Xbox 360, PS3 or even a PS4 into the Xbox One in order to save HDMI ports in your TV… forget it.
That’s not what it’s for.
What’s in the Box?
An Xbox One purchase gets you the console, a power cable and adapter (aka the power brick), a decent headset, the headset adapter, a HDMI cable and controller with batteries. You’ll also get a 14-day free trial of Xbox Live Gold.
Depending on your choice of edition, you may or may not get a Kinect in there too. This isn’t always explicitly clear on the packaging, so make sure to read up on your options if you do want one. Your bundle may also pack-in titles such as Halo: The Master Chief Collection or The Witcher 3.
So far there have been a few special edition coloured consoles, such as the white and a gunmetal grey (with squiggly Titanfall decals), with more expected in the coming holiday period.
The Xbox One’s setup is more involved than on the PS4, but it’s still not terribly complex. If you bought a Kinect, you’ll have to connect its proprietary cable along with power and HDMI.
If you plan to watch TV on the console, you’ll need to supply a second HDMI cable, through the system’s HDMI-in port. You’ll then need to run the OneGuide’s setup, which isn’t too complex. We’ll get into that in the OneGuide portion of this review.
When you first switch the system on you’ll be met with a setup wizard which will get you connected to the internet for that initial patch. It was a sizeable initial download upon release, and with multiple firmware updates since then, you can expect it to take quite a while. It’s also absolutely required before you can even get to the home screen, so make sure you have both a working internet connection the first time you turn it on, as well as a cup of tea, some snacks and maybe a pillow.
Kinect 2.0 began as a statement, one of Microsoft’s many challenges to the existing console model. However, as the Xbox One itself reneged on its promises of always-online functionality, the Kinect began to look more like a boondoggle, a remnant of a discarded design philosophy.
Ultimately, Microsoft seems to have agreed, ditching the console camera/microphone/box of magic from new models of the console. On the whole, that’s a shame, as the Kinect is a truly fascinating, if frustrating, piece of kit.
From design perspective, the Xbox One’s version of Kinect is a whole lot bigger than its predecessor. It’s also designed to sit in front of your TV, rather than perched on top of the screen like the PlayStation Camera. That’s because its field of view is now so large that it doesn’t need to sit up high, meaning you no longer have the original Kinect’s unnerving habit of moving to find you across a room.
Just like the system itself, it has a white light up logo on its right side. Dull red lights from its IR blaster intermittently glow when it’s active.
The underside of the Kinect has rubber feet that provide a firm grip. It’s not going to fall off your entertainment center any time soon. It can also tilt up and down, with enough range of motion that there shouldn’t be any trouble finding the right angle for your living room.
But, given that Kinect has been dumped as an intrinsic part of the console, why mention it at all?
While it’s no longer deemed necessary, Kinect’s still woven into the fabric of the UI. In fact, its built-in voice commands are probably the best way to navigate the console at this point (more on that in “interface”, below).
Games themselves use it sparingly at this point (although a couple of indie games, Fru and Nevermind, look to be using the peripheral in some hugely inventive ways), but on the whole I’d recommend those with an extra chunk of change indulge in one from the start.
Kinect bundles tend to run at around £50 more than those without, while the Kinect unit itself retails at around £130.
In terms of set-up, the camera takes around five minutes to calibrate, finding the right angle and learning both your voice and performing a sound check. After that, the system becomes spectacularly good at recognising users, even signing in anyone who’s tied their face to an account as they enter the room. Its ability to recognise gesture commands (used to swipe between menus or act as a cursor) is a little spottier, however.
In terms of vocal commands, the Kinect will recognise TV noise, but if there’s background chatter, it will start to struggle to hear what’s being said. For British readers, it’s also worth pointing out that, initially at least, anything other than received pronunciation may prove incomprehensible to the software.
Commands are hugely varied. Saying “Xbox” is the prompt for Kinect to begin listening for a command, after which you can switch the console on and off, navigate menus, activate and Snap apps or control individual functions of programs, such as controlling media players. It’s also strict on what needs to be said to perform any of these functions.
You “go to” games rather than “play them”, for example, and must say “Xbox on”, but “Xbox turn off”.
I wouldn’t holding out much hope for Microsoft instituting a more accommodating list, but if you learn the existing one well enough (the console has an exhaustive tutorial page) it becomes a truly useful feature, alongside the added extras of having a built-in mic for online play, a camera for streaming and access to some of the stranger games coming to the console in future.
Xbox One’s central menu has all the hallmarks of Windows 8‘s Metro UI, a mosaic of reactive tiles separated into four broad sections: pins, home, friends and store. Home is what you’ll see when you switch on your console, or return to when you press the menu button on your controller.
Dominated by a tile of the app you last used, still running (even if you’ve turned the console off, given the console’s standby mode default), it’s surrounded by a series of recently-used programs, your games & apps library, featured adverts and the Snap start-up function (more on that below).
Swipe left and you’ll find your pins – apps you want to keep permanently accessible. This functionality runs deep: you can pin individual shows or even a TV channel.
Swipe right and you’ll find the relatively new friends section, which gives easy access to your own profile, a friends list, recently played games, an activity feed (updated to allow for comments on other people’s achievements or shared clips) and a Gamerscore leaderboard.
Finally, the store panel offers fairly cluttered access to games, apps, movies and more, which, in sadly now-traditional Xbox style, prioritises huge adverts over easy navigability.
All of these screens are simplified to the point of being unhelpful. It’s a UI so clearly built around access to Kinect that buying a console without one actually makes finding the things you need actively difficult.
“Settings”, for example, is hidden within the games & apps menu. If you can’t just bark “Xbox, go to settings”, you need to go to the home screen, hit games & apps, then navigate to the apps page, scroll over any number of downloaded content to get to it, before actually doing what you wanted to in the first place.
All of this may soon be moot however, as there are rumours of a full UI redesign to come in tandem with the release of Widnows 10, which will interact more closely with Xbox One. But for the buyer right now, it’s worth realising the difference Kinect makes.
You can’t accuse the interface of being sluggish, however. The console turns on extremely quickly, because it rarely fully turns off, rather going into standby mode, allowing for background downloads and multitasking to continue.
Loading times are a question only of your own internet connection speed, even when switching between whole apps, or running two simultaneously with Snap. It may be flawed in design, but in performance it can hardly be faulted.
Snap is perhaps Xbox One’s standout feature, letting you use a third of your screen space to run a second app in tandem with your main focus. Either say “Xbox, snap [app name]” or double-tap the controller menu button and press up on the D-pad, and you’ll be able to choose from many of the console’s apps that would otherwise require fiddly switching to get working.
TV or streams, Twitch broadcasts, Skype, achievements and parties can all be viewed, set-up and organised as you play a game or watch something else on the remaining section of the screen. The resulting black bars that come from retaining main screen resolution are an unfortunate necessity of how Snap works, but you will come to ignore them.
Most interestingly, certain developers are now making games that can be played fully in Snap mode. Mobile smash Threes! and the Pac-Man like Nutjitsu can both be run on the small side of the screen.
For all its ambitions of becoming a true media hub, the Xbox One is a games console first and foremost, seemingly built around aiding the increasing number of living rooms that see interactive entertainment gracing the big screen more often than TV or movies.
Its home screen is packed with ways to play, share and (perhaps more so than anything else) buy games, not to mention indulge in gaming pursuits while you perform unrelated activities: playing as you use Skype to call disgruntled family members, or keeping one eye on a Twitch stream as you watch TV.
Inside the big black box, Microsoft has included an AMD processor with an impressive of speedy 32MB of ESRAM and 8GB of low-latency DDR3 memory. Standard models come with a creditable 500GB mechanical hard drive, although all games, disc-based or not, now require an installation, so that will fill faster than you might think, especially when compared to last generation consoles.
A new version of the console, announced just before this year’s E3, packs a hefty 1TB hard drive inside it.
The Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare special edition was the first to introduce the console’s terabyte hard drive, but now it’s becoming a standard for the higher-end model.
Those game installations can provide a small speedbump to playing the game you’ve just bought, more so than on PS4 in most cases. The disc copy of Madden for Xbox One needed six minutes to reach 25% installation before letting us on the gridiron. The PS4 version needed two minutes, and an additional minute to download a patch before online features were enabled.
While it’s not a major problem in and of itself, it’s worth taking into account that games are beginning to add major content downloads alongside the installation, simply to ship on a single disc. Halo: The Master Chief Collection requires a 20GB patch simply to access its online features.
I doubt this will become standard, but with day one patches becoming more and more common, I recommend reading up on individual games to avoid any “I want to play now” frustration.
Despite its powerful innards, much has been made of the Xbox One’s inferiority to PS4 in terms of graphical capability. Most notably that comes in the native resolution of mutliformat games. Early third-party games tended to output at 1080p on PS4, and 720p on Xbox One.
This has been improved on a tad, although not completely.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Metro Redux both run at 900p on Xbox One compared to the PS4’s 1080. Ubisoft even attempted to end the debate by capping Assassin’s Creed: Unity at 900p on both consoles, although the resulting furore means I very much doubt this will become standard practice.
It’s a minuscule difference to all but the most trained eyes, but more worrying is how certain games include clearly more detailed lighting and textures on PS4. Grand Theft Auto V, for example, loses some environmental detail on Xbox One.
Of course, all of this is in aid of performance, and it’s not in vain. Games are almost universally smooth, with short loading times. To the console’s credit, the notoriously troublesome Assassin’s Creed: Unity ran far better on Microsoft’s console upon release than on other platforms.
With advancements already being made, and Microsoft’s decision to drop Kinect in favour of optimising processing power, it’s not outlandish to suggest that the gap will be closed even further as the console ages. The Widows 10-timed update to the Xbox One’s OS may bring in some performance improvements via the development of DirectX 12 on the PC, but probably not enough to make a huge difference. There are already parts of DX12 in the console’s DNA.
Right now though I simply can’t say that it matches the PS4 for sheer graphical heft just yet.
That said, as far as the games themselves are concerned, Xbox One began to outstrip PS4 for exclusives by the end of 2014 and that has only been extended through 2015.
Microsoft’s E3 Xbox event was a highlight of this year’s show, packing nostalgic fan-service, like the awesome Rare Replay bundle, long-awaited sequels like Halo 5: Guardians, massive exclusives like Rise of the Tomb Raider and impressive-looking new IP like Recore.
Added to the likes of Gears of War 4 the library of console-exclusive games on the One is currently stronger than PS4. Although the Wii U, while less powerful, retains the most critically acclaimed exclusive line-up.
Y’know, Mario and all that.
That’s not to say the One’s own games haven’t included any hiccups. One of Microsoft’s tentpole releases, Halo: The Master Chief Collection arrived in a disastrously poor state, and remains fundamentally broken in many areas.
The game, which comprises Halos 1 – 4 remastered with updated single and multiplayer portions of the FPS classics, has been plagued by matchmaking issues since release, leading developers 343 Industries to offer huge chunks of upcoming DLC (including the entirety of Halo: ODST) as free downloads to placate disgruntled owners.
2015 looks to be a critical year for the console, particularly with regard to its competition with PS4. Sony’s console is looking sparse on exclusive content this year, so the holiday season really is there for Microsoft to win on the games front.
Halo 5, Fable Legends and Rise of the Tomb Raider (a timed exclusive, but an exclusive nonetheless) will provide strong AAA competition on Xbox One.
[email protected], the console’s indie release programme, will start to produce some underground hits too. Cuphead, SuperHot and Smite and more should start to offer some competition with PS4’s traditionally stronger indie catalogue, while Microsoft’s work to snare many PC ports as console exclusives should help prevent PS4 from getting any more enticing.
With more and more of the third party industry solely interested in multiplatform releases, choosing between exclusive line-ups rests on one or two games. At this point, Xbox One offers the superior choice, but buyers deciding between Sony and Microsoft’s offerings might be better served by looking at what will be out in six months time.
For the One’s part, this year will see most of Xbox’s best-loved franchises (perhaps with the exception of the new Gears of War, although that remains a possibility) receiving a new installment. If it’s familiarity you’re after, this is the choice.
Microsoft has also announced some impressive new gaming-centric features/services too. Xbox Game Preview is set to operate like Steam’s Greenlight and Early Access programs, allowing developers to get early versions of their games out to the paying public to aid in both their development via testing and feedback and also in terms of finance for the smaller devs with big ideas.
There will likely be issues, such as Steam’s had with utterly broken or never-finished games harvesting people’s money, but it will give independent developers much more access to the console crowd.
Then there’s the added bonus of backwards compatibility.
It was one of the surprises of this year’s E3, with Phil Spencer taking to the stage proclaiming “we wont charge you to play the games you already own!” The software emulation isn’t exactly full backwards compatibility but at launch there will be around 100 titles accessible, with more being added on a regular basis.
There’s a list of the most requested games here. Obviously Red Dead Redemption is top…
The idea will be that you put your 360 disc in the drive for authentication then you can download the Xbox One compatible version to play on your new console with all the social and multitasking features it offers.
It’s a testament to Microsoft’s sterling work on the Xbox 360 controller that the One’s standard version is merely an iteration (not to mention that Nintendo’s Wii U Pro Controller openly acknowledges its excellence by nabbing the design almost wholesale).
While slightly chunkier, and with a grippier matte texture, the basic design remains almost identical. Asymmetrical sticks lend themselves to most games and the various contours have been shaped specifically to help you play for frankly dangerous lengths of time before getting the controller cramps of old.
Unfortunately, that unchanged design still means you’ll need a steady supply of AA batteries to keep it running, unless you buy the overpriced charge-and-play kit. However battery life is substantially better than the PS4’s quickly-drained Dual Shock 4 as a result.
What changes have been made tend towards minor improvements. The menu button has been shifted to the top of controller to stop accidental presses, and the sticks have been surrounded with what feels like kevlar, a perfect addition for twitchier games.
The new Impulse rumble system, which was introduced to early testers by simulating the feeling of a heartbeat in the centre of the controller, has barely been used besides offering the feeling of some arcade lightgun-like force feedback on trigger pulls. It’s something of a gimmick, but a pleasant one, although it does seem to have resulted in triggers that feel a little flimsy when used normally, especially when compared to the 360 equivalent.
It’s an improvement in almost every other way, however and, for my money, the best controller of this generation of consoles. While it lacks the Dual Shock 4’s more advanced features (touchpad, motion controls, etc.), it’s simply a better fit for the hand. Microsoft has even been issuing intermittent firmware updates specifically for the controller, meaning its responsiveness has been improved since launch.
Microsoft is also set to release a new Xbox Elite Wireless Controller in October. With a sky-high price tag (£130!), extreme customisation, accuracy and paddle switches, the new controller is designed to offer the perfect adjustable controller for any game type.
Check out our hands-on review here.
Much of Microsoft’s early coverage of the Xbox One centred on its ability not only to play your games, but act as a go-between for almost every other function you’d want your home entertainment set-up to include.
What’s emerged is perhaps not quite what had been promised, particularly outside of the US, but it’s been improved regularly and hugely since launch, with monthly system updates offering more and more of what owners demanded.
As a media machine Xbox One is fairly fiddly and compartmentalised, with multiple apps to download as and when you want them. But it’s certainly better than any other console on the market, and possibly more versatile than a few dedicated services might like to admit.
Blu-ray and DVD playback
A must for the console, disc format video needs a specific app to run (although you’ll be prompted for this the first time you pop in a non-game disc). After some initial hurdles – the console had to be updated to run 50Hz playback for UK TVs, and the picture quality has been improved with patches – disc playback is now hassle-free and a good alternative to most dedicated players.
Anyone familiar with the Xbox 360 DVD functions will recognise the bare-bones, but eminently functional strip of options that constitute the console’s playback menu. It’s a neat way to combat the lack of a dedicated remote, but you can also use SmartGlass to turn your phone or tablet into a remote. Or you can use Kinect voice commands to control much of the experience, although there’s no way to navigate menus using the camera’s microphone at this point.
Add to that the patched ability to play 3D Blu-rays, and the fact that Xbox One’s standby mode and multi-tasking means you can switch app or turn off playback entirely and return to precisely the point you left, and the console’s an extremely competent player.
DLNA and Plex
Personal media streaming is becoming more and more important to consumers and, following several updates, Xbox One is becoming more and more adept a machine at performing the task.
USB playback has always been available, and has been improved with the addition of support for many more file formats, including MKV, which was clamoured for at release, and has still not been added to PS4. But it’s network streaming that sets the console apart.
DLNA has been a robust addition to the console and, in my experience, is a truly excellent feature. Currently, there are two apps that can perform the job. The superb Plex, a service that organises your photos, music and videos into a pretty, Netflix-alike library, is a small download and of minimum fuss to set up. To use it on Xbox One at this point, however, you need to take up the Plex Pass premium subscription service.
Your free solution is the console’s own media player app. It’s a far less elegant addition, with an ugly menu system, and requiring you to download several different apps just to play the various file types. It’s also clearly designed for interaction with Windows 8. I had to bypass several niggly obstacles just to connect it to a Windows 7 PC. All of this said, once set up, performance is snappy and of good quality, proof that the DLNA architecture is sound.
With further updates, the opening up of Plex to non-paying users, and the recent announcement of Windows 10’s interactions with the console, you should expect to see media streaming become even better as time goes on. Those willing to put up with some hassle will find a functional player already there.
Another beneficiary of Microsoft’s constant updates has been the Xbox One’s app store, particularly when it comes to streaming programs. After a slow start, most major services are now available to download, with many more promised.
From wide-ranging offerings such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, BBC iPlayer, 4oD and YouTube to niche-interest services like WWE Network, Crunchyroll, GoPro Channel or Vine, there’s little missing to the average user. One notable omission comes in the form of Sky Go, a much-loved service on 360, but Microsoft continue to promise that it’s on its way.
It’s worth pointing out the Twitch app in particular, which offers a no-fuss way to both watch the thousands of live game broadcasts and set up your own, using Kinect as both camera and microphone, while Snap lets you watch your hopefully burgeoning chat window as you play.
Plus, while you use all of this, you can quickly switch to the Domino’s Pizza app to get a mid-stream meal, if you’re lazy enough.
When it first launched, the Xbox One’s potential as a media device was very much a work in progress. Especially if you live outside the United States, as it was only on its home turf that the Xbox One’s OneGuide feature worked, allowing you to use the Xbox to work with and control your TV set top box.
The recent Xbox One system update for Europe, though, has finally introduced the OneGuide to a number of European territories, including the UK.
Getting yourself rigged up with the OneGuide for this is pretty straightforward provided you have a compatible set-top box. First you need to pipe your box into the Xbox One’s HDMI input, then head into the Xbox One settings menu and choose the TV and OneGuide option.
From here you can tell your Xbox what TV service you’ll be using – Freesat, Freeview, BT Vision, Virgin Media and Sky are all supported – and whether you want it to track your viewing history.
You can also clear/refresh the OneGuide’s content, clear your viewing history, and state if you want the OneGuide to hide standard definition versions of channels available in HD.
The facility to have the Xbox monitor your viewing habits is there, of course, so that it can over time offer you an experience more tailored to your specific tastes, focussing on the sort of content you like the most.
Wide broadcaster support
The list of broadcasters supported is surprisingly long. From a UK perspective the key ones are BSkyB (HD and standard definition), BT Vision, Freesat, Freeview, and Virgin Media.
Once you’ve got the OneGuide set up, you can then opt to have the Xbox control whatever cable or satellite box you’ve got connected to it. Handily if you’ve already set up your TV provider the Xbox One will automatically select the most likely remote control code for your hardware, sending out a power off/on command to see if that works with your set-top box.
If it does then that’s it; you’re ready to use your set-top box with your console. If it doesn’t, the console keeps cycling through on/off commands until it gets to one that works.
We tested the system with Sky, Virgin and Humax YouView/Freetime boxes without any issues, and Microsoft assures us that the vast majority of Freeview and Freesat set-top boxes will work with it too.
I was also pleased to see that the Xbox One can additionally take control of your audio receiver if you have one – a welcome touch given how closely integrated such a receiver may be with your video sources.
Refreshed refresh rates
Another key option now available in the Audio & Video subsection of the TV set-up menu that wasn’t there at launch is Refresh rate. This defaults to 60Hz, but I strongly recommend you switch it to 50Hz if you don’t want your pictures to suffer nasty judder.
Alongside this refresh rate choice is the option to choose stereo or surround sound audio.
Before finishing set up, it’s worth heading into the Display & Sound setup menu and checking that you’ve got your TV resolution set to 1080p if you have a full HD set, that you’ve got the Allow 50Hz refresh rate box ticked, and that you’ve got the colour space set to TV if you’re using it with a TV rather than a PC monitor.
Now you’re all set up, what does the OneGuide bring to the table?
The OneGuide in action
Choose the TV app on the Xbox One homescreen to start watching, and your set top box’s pictures immediately appear. Accessing the guide is then a simple case of either pressing the menu button on the Xbox One gamepad, or if you’ve got a Kinect connected, saying “Xbox, show guide”.
This calls up an electronic programme guide similar in basic appearance to the one you get with digital TVs these days, with a vertically scrollable channel list down the left, and horizontally scrollable lists of current and upcoming programmes stretching off to the right.
Of course, as the Xbox One is passing through a direct signal from your box, you can also simply use the box’s own remote control to look at its built-in EPG.
But highlight a programme in the OneGuide and you get a nice HD graphic from it, along with information about the show and, if it’s a programme currently showing, a large green bar visualising how much of the programme has elapsed.
Choose a current programme from the listings and like magic your Xbox One will deliver the right channel number to your set-top box. Choose an upcoming programme, and a window pops up offering you the chance to rate the programme (worthwhile if you want the Xbox to learn your preferences), see season details information on the show you’ve selected, and see the available upcoming imminent showtimes for the episode you’ve selected.
In some cases there’s also a ‘Ways To Watch’ column, showing video streaming platforms carrying the programme you’re interested in.
Some channels additionally provide a ‘You May Also Like’ section to the right of the showtimes list, highlighting three shows connected by genre or cast to the content you first selected.
You can select certain channels to be your favourites on the OneGuide too, to provide a streamlined listings experience.
As well as being able to select full TV Listings and Favourites, the OneGuide options screen lets you access ‘App Channels’.
The options available here include YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Xbox Video, Twitch, Wuaki.tv, EuroSport News, OneDrive, Machinima, the TED lecture channel, and even the Upload Studio where you’ve got stored your greatest Xbox gaming moments.
It’s a bit puzzling that you only get some of the available on-demand content providers here – for instance, there’s no Demand 5, no Netflix and no Blinkbox.
But it’s good to see in this day and age the Xbox giving streaming apps more or less the same weight in its OneGuide interface as broadcast fare.
Considered overall, the OneGuide is really quite clever, giving you a much more ‘joined up’ content-finding experience than you could get with a typical set-top box EPG – especially the integration into the EPG of ‘also likes’ and alternative on-demand viewing options.
There is one rather glaring limitation of the OneGuide system, though. Namely that if you select an episode on the OneGuide that isn’t showing live, you don’t get the option to set your connected TV receiver to record it, despite your Xbox One being able to issue commands to that receiver.
When you think about it this is an inevitable limitation. After all, you’re using the Guide on your Xbox not the guide on your TV receiver, so setting that receiver to make recordings from your Xbox would involve the console somehow being able to open up the receiver’s guide, track down the right programme, and issue a record command.
Of course, Xbox could argue with some justification that it’s no great hardship picking up your TV receiver’s remote and tracking down in your receiver’s own listings an interesting broadcast the Xbox has discovered for you.
But surely the whole point of the OneGuide is that it should offer a unified, one-stop TV experience.
We can’t help but think that after a few times of having to juggle two remotes and two EPG’s just to set a recording many people may just decide to go back to keeping their TV and gaming/multimedia experiences separately.
Another potential problem for the OneGuide is that TV viewing tends to be a whole family activity rather than a personal one.
Everyone in the house is familiar with using their TV as the starting point to their TV-viewing experience, whereas in most households using an Xbox One will certainly not be second nature.
In other words, while people not familiar with the Xbox One might appreciate some of the extra functionality the OneGuide offers, they still likely won’t ever want to bother with the extra effort required to use it. Even if you fork out £20-£30 for the pretty much essential Xbox One media remote.
Having mentioned the media remote, though, I’d hoped that the Xbox One’s much-vaunted Kinect might go a long way to making the OneGuide more intuitive to use.
After all, in theory you can use it to issue voice commands so that you barely have to touch the joystick or optional remote. Supported OneGuide voice commands include ‘Xbox, Watch TV’, ‘Xbox, One Guide’, ‘Xbox, Favourites’ and the ability to switch to a show or channel by name.
While this all sounds great on paper, despite calibrating the Kinect umpteen times for every member of the household, the Kinect’s ability to respond to commands accurately – if at all – is far too flawed and inconsistent to be usable.
While you might be happy to be patient with Kinect in other areas, if you’re going to leave behind the zippy interface of your Sky box, you’re going to want the same speedy experience.
However, I’d estimate that the voice recognition system failed to respond at all or failed to correctly recognise a OneGuide command, especially when trying to tell it show or channel names, at least 60% of the time.
This leaves you feeling frustrated and, as you bellow the same instruction at the console for the fourth time, a bit of an idiot, frankly.
It doesn’t help that the voice command system responds pretty sluggishly at the best of times, denying you that ‘instant response’ that’s so important with any control system.
In short, trying to use your voice to control the OneGuide is more or less a non-starter, more likely to have you tearing your hair out than marvelling at the arrival of a brave new world of TV interfaces.
One possible solution might be to run your broadcast receiver into an HDMI splitter, sending one signal direct to your TV and one to your Xbox One. That way family members not comfortable with the Xbox One can still use the TV as before, while getting the benefits of the OneGuide on the occasions where you think they’ll come in useful is no more complicated than choosing another input.
But this is more expense and hassle, of course, and so it’s a solution that probably won’t curry favour in most households.
Moving on to other parts of the Xbox One’s media credentials, Microsoft’s recent move to shift video streaming services outside of its Xbox Live Gold subscription ‘walled garden’ is hugely welcome.
It’s long seemed nonsensical and unfair to force people to subscribe to Xbox Live just to access their Netflix or Amazon Instant accounts that they’re already paying for.
Live has been the gold standard (pun fully intended) for console online services since the original Xbox. An almost peerlessly stable and fully-featured offering that almost single-handedly helped turn Xbox from niche concern into commercial behemoth.
Its third iteration is perhaps its biggest test so far. Still a premium subscription, but now one that locks off the majority of the console’s content, it needs to prove itself as a truly worthy service, almost to make the entire console a worthwhile purchase.
While anyone can connect their Xbox One to the internet, it takes a Gold subscription to make most of its many menu options start working, not to mention cease the barrage of adverts for the service the dashboard will throw at you until you sign up. That said, an existing 360 Gold account covers both consoles, so upgrades will be sorted out of the box.
Party chat, Game DVR and all online games require payment to access but, for the most part, that feels like a fair price to pay. With PSN now a premium service, direct comparison reveals the One’s online efforts to be superior. It’s a more stable service for a start, without Sony’s all-too-regular downtime. Matchmaking’s fast across dedicated servers, and cloud computing is being used to help upcoming games like Crackdown “outsource” much of their processing, resulting in better looking, better performing games.
Party chat, long Xbox Live’s secret weapon, has suffered, however. While being a Snap-able app should make it even handier, for some reason Microsoft’s app-agnostic chat and invite system is now a buggy mess. Parties regularly fail to set up or simply refuse to recognise voice chat. It’s a significant problem, especially given how fundamental the service was to 360. I’d expect coming updates to combat this, but don’t expect a totally smooth ride.
The most significant addition to Xbox One’s version of Live, however, is the Games With Gold service. A straight copy of PSN’s Plus scheme, this offers four free games each month (two on Xbox One, two on Xbox 360), not to mention weighty discounts on many games.
The scheme doesn’t have quite the hit-rate of Plus just yet, but with brand new games like #IDARB launching as a free download, and 75% discounts on big-hitters like Titanfall, I can see it becoming as essential a monthly destination as Sony’s equivalent and as much a reason to pay for Gold as anything else.
Game DVR and media sharing
A major focus of both Xbox One and PS4 has been in embracing the world of mass sharing, both on social media and video playback sites like YouTube. Where PS4 offers a neat functionality in its share button menu, the One offers both a less comprehensive, yet in some respects more accommodating, take on the idea.
First off, Xbox does not yet let you take and share screenshots, a baffling decision, given the PS4 gained immediate popularity (and exposure) on Twitter because of the feature. Microsoft has promised that the feature will arrive in 2015, but there’s been no more specific announcement than that.
With regards to video content, the built-in Game DVR feature will save the last 30 seconds of gameplay footage if you say “Xbox, record that” to your Kinect (or double-tap the menu button and press X, for those without the camera).
Clips are sent to the Upload app, a one-stop shop for everything you and your games capture. Here, you can share clips with friends, or showcase them on your public profile. Certain titles, like Kalimba, even automatically record the 30 seconds around you unlocking an achievement
Clips can either be uploaded directly to YouTube (best performed by downloading the official app, which has the feature built-in) or sent to a OneDrive account through the Upload app, where they can be downloaded and edited on a computer, perfect for YouTubers who want to perform complex edits without the need for faffing around with a USB drive.
For the more casual video sharer, Upload Studio, yet another app, can be used for very simple editing, effects and voiceovers if you only want to make small changes, or stick multiple clips together.
The 30 second reaction recordings are both less versatile, and a little more manageable than PS4’s 15-minute equivalent, although I have to say that capturing too much is more satisfying than the numerous times the One’s short clips have just missed the moment I wanted to share.
If you’re expecting to want to record something, you can use Game DVR to manually record a chunk of gameplay, but given that most stand-out gaming moments come out of nowhere, it’s something of a clunky solution.
That said, the clips themselves are comparable to the PS4’s efforts (i.e. not particularly high in quality, but perfectly serviceable), and when it does work in your favour “record that” is a far more immediate feature than the share button.
Key to almost every section so far is Microsoft’s near-constant updates to the console, which have turned a relatively under-featured launch console into a far more appealing prospect a year or so later. I might have balked at updating regularly in the past but the ability to have the Xbox One download updates in standby mode (easily switched on in the settings menu) means I’ve rarely had to wait to play.
While it’s fair to say that much of the work done has been to fix obvious problems (with a fair bit still outstanding), it would be unfair to say that Microsoft has simply been patching up holes. Many of the One’s best updates have come from left field, such as extra media streaming file formats, and turned some of the console’s features into the best in the market.
Given Sony’s relative reticence to make changes to the PS4, it’s easy to see the coming year bringing the Xbox One up to speed with much its rival’s current advantages, and outstripping it in others.
Add to that Microsoft’s proven interest in and reactions to fan feedback. Its UserVoice petitions site, where fans suggest features that could be added, and the Xbox Preview Programme, which rolls out updates to a select group of users early, to catch any final bugs before release, mean it could well be seen as the most owner-focused console yet released. With enough consumer weight behind an idea, Microsoft can quickly and easily institute it.
Perhaps more than anything else, Xbox One is a hallmark of how internet connectivity can alter user experience. It might not be the revolutionarily demanding web-box Microsoft initially wanted it to be, but Xbox One still wouldn’t be what it is now without that direct line to Redmond, constantly pumping in new features and fixes.
From expensive, muddied beginnings, we’re now faced with an affordable console with great games, a damn-near comprehensive set of media playback options, and the kind of extra features you’d have been calling “futuristic” a short while ago (background video calls while watching TV on a games console streamed from a laptop, for instance).
Xbox One still faces challenges, not least in proving that it can match up to the PS4 in terms of gaming power in the long-run, but it’s already proved that it can overcome many of its problems. I’m inclined to think it can keep the run going.
But what of the console I have now? Well…
First and foremost, I’m finally starting to believe that Microsoft is making the all-in-one entertainment box it promised.
As a games console, the Xbox can boast some of the best exclusive new-gen games yet released, with many of its upcoming exclusives bound to follow in their ancestor’s critically-acclaimed footsteps. Its online service remains the most stable around, and is matching PSN for generosity now, too.
It has the best controller on the market and an improved one coming this Autumn, and (whisper it) a peripheral in Kinect that could yet still offer some as-yet-unseen experiences.
At the same time, its bevy of apps and updates have made for a console that feels future-proofed. It’s ready to offer those with the time a console that can seamlessly switch between TV, subscription streaming, local streaming, broadcasting, gaming and communicating with not even the touch of a button, just the sound of a command.
These two sides mesh in a responsive architecture that can handle any number of simultaneous processes, offering even the most hyperactive media consumer a machine that can handle their demands, not to mention offer multiple ways to fulfil them. There’s something unique happening here.
More than anything else, we struggle with the fact multiformat games continue to underperform.
While improvements have been made, it’s becoming increasingly worrying that Xbox One may simply be incapable of matching the PS4 for power when it come to gaming.
Similarly, Microsoft’s focus on entertainment as a whole has led to a few niggling problems on the gaming side. The continued lack of a simple screenshot function, fiddly Game DVR options and intermittent party system all point to a company that seems to be showing its priorities, and ignoring what it see as less important fixes.
Ditching the Kinect as an intrinsic piece of the console experience may offer some extra processing power, but it leaves holes elsewhere, not least in a UI that was clearly designed with voice commands in mind, and suffers hugely for losing them. Not only that, but those who have shelled out for Kinect will likely never see improvements to the voice commands, or mainstream uptake of the technology that made the camera interesting.
And, of course, the year-old problem of the console looking like a functionless Betamax player remains. It’s something you want to hide away in a cabinet rather than the standalone media centrepiece it should be.
It’s a problem that may never be fixed, but it shouldn’t have been one in the first place.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Xbox One is that it will probably never be “finished” in the true sense. That’s not to say it will never function properly, I expect many of my problems with the console will be dealt with come the end of the year, but that Microsoft seems willing to continue with updates, add new ideas, alter others and keep tinkering forever.
This is practically a different console to a year ago, and with more updates, a wealth of games and perhaps even a wholesale UI change in the offing, it could be yet another, more accomplished one come 2016.
There’s a good chance that it will never match PS4’s performance focus, that its multiformat games will always suffer a little, but the combined strength of Xbox Live’s sheer reliability and a wealth of ideas that sit alongside the console’s gaming functions make it something a little different to a straight games console.
Purists will naturally balk at that. The PS4 is, after all, “for gamers, by gamers” but those interested in their tech may just find something a little more interesting in Microsoft’s ever-evolving creation.
Those simply after a machine that meets their modern living room needs will find much to love here, too. It’s a machine that can take almost anything current trends in watching, communicating and gaming can throw at it. That it will more than likely handle anything future trends can throw at it too is its true strength.