A decade has passed in using the Xbox 360 in our homes across the globe, the unit that sold more than 80 million units since its rushed launch in 2005, in an attempt to beat the competition. The unit had greater success in the US over its rival. But unlike many gamers of yesteryear, users have become accustomed to a console that’s more than just a gaming machine and more of an entertainment console as a whole. In September 2014, Microsoft finally launched the Xbox One in South Africa, almost a full year after having launched in six regions initially, and almost the same amount of time has passed since the launch of the PS4, to which we cannot avoid drawing comparisons against.
At the annual E3 some ten years ago, in mid-2005, Microsoft launched the then next-generation console, Xbox 360, which when you compare the design, specs, and gaming performances, of the last iteration of the unit (say 2013), has little to no resemblance of where it started. And this is where we find ourselves with both the Xbox One and PS4 consoles. And this is where we start.
FoS has finally managed to get our hands on the review unit of the Xbox One an extended waiting period. Ironically, even though we gave away the console in a competition way back in October 2014, we weren’t that lucky when it came to the actual review cycle.
Build and Design
At first glance, the Xbox One comes across as simplistic, almost if it was designed not to offend anyone, with little room for stylishness and verve. Be that as it may, it gets the job done while still being able to slot into the gap now left by your discarded, shelved, or hand-me-down Xbox 360. I find the design appealingly simplistic. There a no apparent protrusions from the unit, which is split into two textures, one-half with a smooth, glossy finish, while the other with matte black vents. The white, backlit Xbox logo is positioned on the front right side of the unit, which also doubles as the capacitive power button, with the Blu-ray drive off to the left of it. Microsoft has finally come around to the drive slot, moving away from the open/close tray we saw on the 360.
Unlike the 360, or PS4 for that matter, the One does little to save on space. Not only is the unit bigger, measuring 80x275x333mm, it isn’t able to be positioned vertically, at least not in its design. Given the heating issues that the 360 contended with at the start, I’d say Microsoft erred on the side of caution in the way its setup, allowing the unit to breathe much easier, but that’s no real excuse given where we left off with the 360. On the positive side, the One runs almost silently when in use, apart from a few disk cycles when reading. Another waste of space in this regard is the position of the single USB 3.0 port, on the left side of the unit. This means that if you wish to utilise the port occasionally, you will have to leave some room to manoeuvre.
Moving to the rear of the Xbox One, you’ll notice that Microsoft has opted for an all-digital system. What you’ll find is an Ethernet port for LAN connectivity, Kinect port (proprietary), two further USB 3.0 ports, HDMI in, HDMI out, and SPDIF optical audio. Using any of the three USB 3.0 ports gives users access to a wider variety of peripherals, including external HDDs and flash drives, keyboards (both wired and wireless) and almost all other types of USB peripherals. The HDMI in offers another interesting feature, acting as a passthrough port. This allows users to connect another HDMI device to the Xbox One, such as your DStv, gaming rig, smartphone or tablet, or even your previous Xbox 360. If you wish to use this feature, be sure to pick up an HDMI hub, which allows you to connect two or more HDMI sources into one. Essentially, all your HDMI devices could then pass through the Xbox One to your TV or monitor. The only downside to this, however, is that the passthrough is not active while the unit is not powered on; not even in instant-on mode. If you do have the HDMI hub, it may be easier connecting the Xbox One to that, but then you don’t get all the UI benefits of the former method, which we’ll discuss later. While there are wireless options on the Xbox One, it is limited to Wi-Fi, with no Bluetooth support; even the controller uses Wi-FI.
Originally planned as more of an entertainment system first, and gaming rig second, Microsoft quickly recanted this statement after the E3 2013 announcement of the Xbox One. Subsequently, what is left behind in the UI is as a result of this plan, and the unit is better for it. When you’re not gaming, users can easily turn the device into their primary entertainment system. As discussed in the previous section, users can connect their set-top boxes (such as DStv) via the HDMI in. The UI allows you to quickly switch between any apps on your device, whether you’re playing a game, watching a movie on the media player or even watching normal TV. The addition of the Snap feature allows the split between screens whenever you wish. Not too similar to PiP on TVs, but more resembling the multitasking split screen on Windows 8, while using Snap you can easily play your games while keeping up with your TV programme in the snapped window, or simply bring up a specific game app, like that of Forza Motorsport 5, which provide hints and other status updates.
Connecting the console to my home Wi-Fi network meant that a whole lot more features were added to it. Using Wi-Fi direct from my smartphone meant that I was able to throw any video from it to the Xbox with a simple click of the button. It was impressive at time the one-click solution working almost instantly and without too many failures. Using the Xbox SmartGlass feature is supposed to open up the console to a lot more streaming via Wi-Fi direct, but as it stands, these features still need to be ironed out. Using YouTube’s streaming was a lot easier to use, which didn’t require any setup at all, apart from a once off selection of the console when used for the first time. I would suggest that using the YouTube app on your smartphone is a whole lot easier when browsing for particular videos then when trying to use the onscreen keyboard and controller to type.
The biggest problem in using the User Interface is not having a Kinect v2 sensor. Again, as originally planned, Microsoft wanted to pair the console with Kinect and not allow prospective buyers the option of a decoupled payment option. Eventually the company yielded to public demand, but I can assure you once you’ve seen the Kinect in action, you’ll be kicking yourself for not having bought the bundled deal. But we’ll get to the Kinect v2 and its list of features below. It’s difficult to summarise the UI without the discussion of the Kinect, so we’ll do that further down as well. Also, note that an update to the UI and other features will be available from March.
The development team had to face a challenging problem when it came to redesigning the Xbox One controller. The biggest problem they faced is that the Xbox 360 had one of the best controllers around, with very little to complain about. The end result of the remodelling is a more simplistic look, but ultimately the same feel in your hand. While the looks and feel may be similar, a few features have been added below the surface to improve performance and user experience.
Instead of the standard rumble pad, the triggers have also been fitted with motors of their own. The D-pad has been slimmed down to resemble a cross and not the circular button with protrusions as before. The thumbpads have been reduced in size for easier movement. Both the D-pad and thumbpads were designed to improve accuracy when used. The biggest change on the controller is the Xbox logo/home button, which sits separately from the rest of the buttons. Gone is the globe-like button. What’s left is a flatter, smaller button, which also glows white, as with the console’s power button. The menu and settings buttons a placed below the home button, as opposed to adjacent to it as with the 360 controller. At the back of the controller it is noticeably flatter where the battery pack used to be situated. The batteries now sit inside it compared to almost separately on the previous controller, which appeared as a giant bump. As with the previous console, the microUSB port doesn’t allow users the option to recharge their batteries. This still has to be done separately, outside of the controller. The port, however, can be used to switch to wired mode while your batteries are being charged. Frustrating? Definitely.
The biggest adaptation of the controller is its integration with the Kinect. We’ll, again, touch on this in the Kinect section, which appears next.
Having received the Kinect bundled alongside the console as part of the review package, setting it up was a trivial matter. Simply plug the cable into the allocated port behind the console, and you’re all set. That is, unless you wish to fine-tune the performance, which is what I did anyway. Oddly enough, without realising it, I sat in a dark room with only lights from the HD monitor, as I traversed the Kinect settings menu. To my surprise, it all seemed to operate without any glitch. The reason? The Kinect sensor includes an almost night-vision camera, which you can test by selecting the “what the Kinect sees” option. Once the facial recognition software links your face to your signed-in profile, the Kinect will automatically detect you whenever you enter the room, even while another user is currently using it. I often freaked myself out by wondering around the house in the dark leaving the unit in TV mode, only to return and the Kinect recognising me, then displays onscreen, “Welcome Back Evan.” As was the earlier rumours and worries, even before launch, it does feel as if it’s watching you, even when you’re not online.
One of my favourite features with the Kinect is the voice command system. After a quick setup and changing to the “instant on” setting, you can power on your Xbox, as well as traversing the menu, with a simple command, “Xbox, On.” Before giving any command to the system, you have to use the words “Xbox” as a trigger to start listening. As stated earlier, the UI was designed around the Kinect. Before initially setting up the voice command, I found myself lost trying to get to apps and other features from one screen to the next. Using the voice command option, it only takes a few words and you’re able to effortlessly switch between windows and apps without too much thought. The biggest concern I had with voice commands is learning all the commands there are, but, as time went on, I found myself sticking to only a few main windows, such as the Media Player, TV, and game modes. After a week, I found myself only using the controller to play games, opting to use commands for almost all other features. It is worth mentioning that the voice command system extends beyond that of controlling the console, and can be used to control your TV and set-top box as well. This is provided that the units are well-established brands, which can be chosen from the settings menu when setting up these features. If indeed it is, users can adjust the volume, change channels, and even record programmes with another simple instruction. Alongside the voice command system, the Kinect is also able to pick up hand gestures. I found this really annoying after some time, as all it aims to do is give you an unnecessary workout without doing as much result at the end.
When playing certain games, the controller actually works in unison with the Kinect by tracking user movements, as well as the controller movements. The trick here is figuring out the sensitivity of moving your head, as well as the controller, most of which change the view, which can make things a little trick when you’re in a tight spot, and have the camera pointed in the wrong direction.
While I enjoyed the Kinect v2 addition on the Xbox One, it isn’t without some glitches here and there. As much as the voice command system made life easy for me, there are two aspects when using it that frustrated me, that of turning it on, and turning it off. These two commands required me to speak louder or move closer to the sensor to register, while almost all the other commands could be spoken out more than 5m away. Another issue when using voice command is having to recite full names of folders and games. For example, to play Forza from anywhere requires the user to say “Forza Motorsport 5.” It gets worse when using the Media Player. While switching to the app isn’t an issue, the annoyances arrive from selecting the media storage. Having default names like Sony_8GU_flash, requires me to utter the words “Sony, 8, G, U, flash.” If you think that’s annoying, wait until you have to select a video you wish to play. Figure out how to play the following: Alexander.and.the.Terrible.Horrible.No.Good.Very.Bad.Day.2014.720p.BluRay.x264.mp4. And yes, you have to include the dots. After presuming that this will be an issue, I eventually changed the name of my flash drive, created one word folders, and then chose to “Play All” once inside that folder of the video I wanted to play.
For many, games are an important part of the Xbox One’s capabilities. I specifically left this section for last because it has fuelled quite a bit of debate over the past year. After the initial launch of both the PS4 and Xbox One, it was evident that the former was winning the race when it came to graphics performance of games. As time went by, Microsoft released a number of firmware patches along the way. Not only did these patches fix a few bugs and glitches, the gaming performance increased as well. In most cases today, the outputs are on par with that of the PS4, with no difference at all for leading games. But like I said at the very beginning, the Xbox One v1, as it were, is not the end product, and will definitely take on numerous iterations in software month after month, and eventually even a few hardware tweaks. If the Xbox 360 is an example to go by, gaming performance will become better over time, on both next-gen consoles, as developers are able to eke out more performance with a few optimisations of their own, along with a few DirectX and graphics enhancement from the developer themselves.
The Xbox One has specs very similar to that of the PS4, which include a 1.75GHz AMD APU, a combination of both the CPU and GPU made up of two Quad-core modules, a 500GB internal storage, and 8GB DDR3 RAM with 32MB eSRAM. The only real difference is that Sony makes use of 8GB of DDR5 RAM, which surpasses the performance on the Xbox. That being said, the Xbox leaves 5GB of its RAM for developers to use for games, whereas the PS4 permits only 4.5GB. We’ll be able to judge the two side by side once Microsoft, Sony and the game developers have further optimised both consoles for ultimate performance. Currently, I doubt either company is able to boast best results as yet.
I re-iterate my point that the Xbox One was intended to be a fully-fledged entertainment system. Even after almost 6 months since the launch of the unit on the shores of South Africa, many of the online streaming services have been left inactive due to services not yet being offered here. While the optimisation of using the Xbox One as a hub for all your gaming and television requirements does exist, it hasn’t yet reached its full potential. Being able to control your entire living room through the Xbox One seems like a not too distant reality, and with the inclusion of services from outside of South Africa will only integrate the Xbox further.
The problem I have with the Xbox One, and PS4 for that matter, is that I’m not in the market for gaming console, especially being an avid PC gamer. I never ingrained myself to the idea of playing FPS without the use of a mouse and keyboard. But, after spending a brief time with the Xbox One, coupled with how well it integrated into my living room and peripherals I had already setup, I wouldn’t mind investing in a console. Once a few more services have been opened to the South African public, and game enhancements are there for all to see, I’ll be back to test the waters to see if it was merely a simple itch or more monkey on my back that needs to be calmed.