Review: Xbox One

The Xbox One is the latest entry to the eighth generation of consoles. Does it deserve a place in your home entertainment setup?
 
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01 .Out of the box

Online-lead-FL-Xbox-One

Xbox One
Price: $599
Contact: xbox.com

4 stars out of 5

Though its release is “just in time for Christmas”, you’ll be hard-pressed to get your hands on the Xbox One, Microsoft’s new-generation games and media console. Pre-orders have already sold out, but if you hunt around you may still be able to get one from a retailer that has stock.

But is it worth jumping on board before the year is out? We spent a few days with the Xbox One to see how big an improvement it really is on its predecessor, the Xbox 360.

Surprisingly, the Xbox One bucks the miniaturisation trend by actually being larger than the 360. It requires a fair amount of space alongside your TV (and most likely won’t tuck under it). You’ll find everything you need to set up inside the box, including an HDMI cable, so often omitted from new devices. Unlike the 360, the Xbox One doesn’t have component output ports and relies exclusively on HDMI, so you'll need to connect it to an HDMI-compatible TV. Aside from the console box itself, you’ll also need space for the Kinect camera that now comes standard as part of the package (an optional extra on the previous generation).

Setting it up

Here’s a tip for Christmas – if you’re lucky enough to get an Xbox One under the tree, open it early because it can take several hours to actually get it set up and running. First you need to connect it to the internet, and with mandatory updates and game installations, the time between turning on the console and playing your first game could be several hours. (Of course, this will depend to some extent on your internet connection speed.) Before first use, the console needs to “authenticate” via a downloadable software patch, which, at several hundred megabytes, will take a sizeable bite out of your monthly data limit. 

Once your Xbox One is up and running, you won’t be able to dive head-first into the console straight away. Unlike the Xbox 360, you can’t actually just pop a game disc in the drive and start playing – you need to install the game onto the console first. This can take up to an hour or even longer, since some games are up to 30GB in size or more. The game actually runs from the console’s built-in 500GB hard drive, though the disc still needs to be in the machine for authentication (to prove you actually own the game). 

The waiting game

In most cases you can start the game once a portion is ready while the rest of the game installs – but this varies between titles. For example, we could start playing Just Dance 2014 from when it was 14% installed, while Call of Duty: Ghosts needed to be 54% installed before we could launch it. This delay can be a real bugbear if you’re itching to play your new games.

The initial mandatory day-one update also doesn’t have a progress indicator. You’re left in the dark as the install bar sits on 0% while the patch is downloaded from the internet.

Once the mandatory day one update is installed, you can technically use the Xbox One without an internet connection, but you’ll be missing out on some of the best features, including online game play and access to most of the apps. To get online, you’ll need to buy an Xbox Live Gold subscription, which costs $10.95 a month or $79.95 for the year.

If you’re buying an Xbox One as a gift, either set it up the day before or put some time aside on the day to work through the installation process. Also, make sure you have plenty of data left on your monthly internet download limit.

Getting aroundXbox-One-Controller

Navigating the Xbox One menu system is fairly easy even for somebody new to the console. The functional layout is designed to allow easy access to every feature of the console. The tile-based interface design is relatively free of clutter and easy to work out.

If you’re a Windows 8 user, the tile-based home screen of the Xbox One will seem familiar. It’s broken down into three sections – Pins, Home and Store – which you can navigate with a controller, motion sensing or voice commands.

The home screen is your central hub. It keeps your current location active – a movie, game or app – and visible in a large window, surrounded by your five most recent locations. This ensures you can quickly backtrack without having to dig around the console, but it can be a little confusing, particularly when games that can’t be launched without a disk are visible.

Alongside these shortcuts are your account settings, a list of all installed apps and games, and the Snap tool (see below). The app list is searchable, but you can’t break the contents down into separate categories. As the list of apps and games grows over time, navigating this menu may become more time consuming. 

Fortunately, if you have an app that you access regularly, you can add it to the Pins menu. Anything from movies to specific websites can be pinned to this quick-access screen and unpinned when you no longer need them. Alternatively, using the Snap tool, you can fix in place almost any app alongside the main program for quick switching. If, for example, you’re happy blasting away in Call of Duty and you want to check your Facebook status, you can snap the included Internet Explorer web browser app alongside the game. It’s a great feature for multitasking, and we found it didn’t seem to negatively impact performance. You can’t run multiple apps in the background or in full-screen without using Snap.

Using the handheld controller to navigate the menus is straightforward, but there are a few new features that won’t be immediately obvious unless you are a seasoned gamer. The traditional controller Start button has been replaced with a Menu icon, which opens a hidden list of options for each app. This is where you can find useful functions such as Quit, but finding this list via the Menu button is unlikely to be intuitive for most people. A clear option to close the game or even a dedicated button would have been more obvious.

 
 

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Xbox One Kinect 2.0 motion-sensing camera

The Kinect 2.0 

Microsoft has put a lot of work into making the Kinect 2.0 motion-sensing camera better than its predecessor. In most respects they’ve delivered on this promise. We found it to be noticeably more accurate than the original Kinect, and also better at working in low light. In practice, however, some features work much better than others.

Although you can navigate the menus and screens using the Kinect rather than the handheld controller, swiping your hands around the screen feels a little unweildy. Opening an app, for example, involves gradually pushing your hand towards the icon, but the response isn’t always accurate. We found ourselves frustrated with motion-sensing navigation and quickly returned to using the controller. The camera integrates a few genuinely useful new features, though, such as signing in via face recognition, or purchasing content online by scanning QR codes rather than typing in a 25-digit key.

Kinect can also launch apps using voice commands, but these don’t work all the time. You can activate most features using voice control, but you need to speak quite loudly and clearly to get a response. When the system does respond, it’s usually accurate. For most people, voice navigation won’t replace the controller, but it’s a fun addition.

Apps and media

Games aside, sometimes you just want to sit back and watch a movie or listen to music. The Xbox One is trying to be seen as a media hub as much as a games console. But does it live up to this promise?

There are plenty of general non-game entertainment apps and media tools available, including an online download and rental service, DVD and Blu-ray capabilities and streaming music/video services. Unexpectedly, the free software required for Blu-ray and DVD playback isn't installed by default – you need to install it from the app store. However, it can’t play 3D movies.

Possibly one of the most useful additions to the Xbox One is Skype, which makes good use of the Kinect camera. We found the picture and sound quality to be clear. The camera’s movement detection accommodates additional people who walk into the frame by automatically zooming out. The wide field of view can comfortably show three people.

Most of these media apps require an Xbox Live Gold subscription to access. There can also be extra costs for premium features.

TV or not TV?Xbox-One-Console

Two of the most highly publicised additions to the Xbox are TV capability and OneGuide, which operates as a TV guide within the console. Unfortunately it’s a bit of a moot point for Australians, as our electronic program guide (EPG) isn’t included. This restricts OneGuide to simply listing new content for entertainment apps. However, if you have a pay TV, set-top box or TiVo, you can run these into the console via the HDMI input and switch to them using the Xbox One controller.

SBS and Channel Ten already have Xbox One apps for catch-up TV, but the popular ABC iView isn’t yet represented. While these apps work as expected, their compatibility with OneGuide is inconsistent. Some list upcoming content while others can't provide any information, and some don’t appear in the list at all. Some of the best digital TV services such as Netflix are still unavailable in Australia.

Game play

As expected, the Xbox One is at least several times more powerful than its predecessor. Games show more detail, with smoother graphics and more simultaneous action.

You can now record up to five minutes of in-game footage while you're playing. We recorded a few clips and found them to be of good quality, without slowing down the console or hindering our gaming experience. Recorded footage can be edited using the free Upload Editor app from the app store, then uploaded for other Xbox One users to view.

Although it may sound like a lot of capacity, the inbuilt 500GB hard drive will fill up quickly,  given the amount of space required to install games. Sadly, there’s no way to see how much space is left on the drive, which seems to be a major oversight. You can view how much space each individual game is taking up, but this is a far cry from a disc management feature similar to what was included on the Xbox 360.

Online purchasing and parental controls  

Parents will be pleased to learn the Xbox One comes with comprehensive privacy controls that can be preset to filter out explicit content and block online purchases.

There are three default privacy settings – child, teen and adult – plus custom settings. Activating a password to protect these settings is optional, but we recommend it. Changes to these settings and online purchases using your credit card then requires that password. Note that if you choose to enter your credit card details, they will be permanently stored in the console.

CHOICE verdict

If you or members of your family are hardcore gamers, you’ll likely want an Xbox One. Top-line games look and perform better than on the Xbox 360. The ability to record and share in-game footage online is a welcome bonus for serious gamers. It’s a less compelling proposition if you’re just a casual gamer or looking for an all-round lounge room media box, but should become more attractive next year when more media apps roll out.

The Xbox One delivers on most of its promises and really feels like a step up in how we interact with video games consoles. The motion sensing has improved but still has a way to go before it becomes the default method of control.

Just keep in mind that the time between plugging it in and playing your first game can be up to a couple of hours, and will likely include more than 1GB of download data. If you’re buying it as a Christmas present for young ones, we recommend setting it up on Christmas Eve.

CHOICE will review the PlayStation 4 (PS4) when additional stock is available at retail.

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