Xbox One review: For gamers, yes, but you'll like it too

Microsoft's audacious assault on your living room is delightfully innovative yet unrefined.

"It's a Trojan horse!" they said. When Microsoft released the original Xbox in 2001, the company dominated the computing world, and common wisdom held that its console was going to use games as a gateway to conquering your living room. In the end, the Xbox was just a games machine. The Xbox 360 was also called a Trojan horse, and although it eventually proved to be a popular way to watch Netflix, it too was primarily just another games machine.

With the Xbox One, Microsoft isn't even bothering with the wooden-horse trick. The new console is a Trojan army, blatantly marching on your living room, carrying a banner that reads, "We are here for your TV!"

Made for a new era

When the Xbox 360 hit the market in 2005, we lived in a different world. Twitter didn't exist. Facebook was solely for college students. The iPhone was two years away. App stores? Xbox Live Arcade was one of the first, but the idea that you would download every app for your device from a unified online store is a relatively new thing, made commonplace by hundreds of millions of smartphone sales.

The Xbox One is, to its core, made to live in our new consumer-electronics era. It's an era in which we don't just watch TV, we tweet about it. We don't just play games, we share videos of our best moments. Nearly everything has an online component, and computers don't even have disc drives anymore. We live in an age in which talking to your phone's built-in assistant is so two years ago.

The Xbox One aims high. It promises to be your always-on living-room hub that plays nicely with your cable box, runs the latest and greatest games, streams, shares, and makes video calls. That it succeeds at all is somewhat amazing, though in some ways Microsoft has bitten off more than it can chew. The Xbox One is a truly next-generation device, enjoyable by a wide audience without alienating the core enthusiasts, but its software lacks polish and refinement.

TV is more than cable

Maybe you don't have a cable or satellite subscription. Maybe you're a cord-cutter, and you get everything from Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Instant Video. Those apps and more are nicely integrated into the Xbox One environment, though it leaves me wanting more.

"Xbox, Bing South Park" brings up a list of all content related to the TV show. (Yes, like an uncool parent desperately trying to relate to teenage kids, Microsoft insists that you use "Bing" as a verb instead of "Search," thus making both Bing and Xbox less cool.) Select an episode, and the Xbox One shows you all supported services where you can watch it.

There's something almost magical about saying "Xbox, go to Netflix" and watching it flip right over without ever bringing up a menu or fiddling around with the remote. When you're done watching House of Cards, you can say "Xbox, play Forza Motorsport 5" and be right back in the middle of the track where you left off, with no loading screens, assuming that Forza Motorsport 5 was the last game you played.

Although show titles tend to trip up the voice recognition quite often, repeating yourself a few times still proves to be faster than typing in show names with a remote or gamepad.

The initial lineup of streaming services has some notable holes. HBO Go is "coming soon" but not yet available. YouTube is the biggest missing link, but streaming music services such as Pandora and Spotify would be most welcome, too.

The Xbox One gracefully serves as a target for DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) "play to" functions, streaming photos and playing music or video over your home network with ease. But here, too, Microsoft has work to do. The console is not a DLNA "pull" device--it can't search your network for DLNA servers and browse the content on them.

The games are definitely next-gen

Let's talk about the games--the real reason most consumers who have their eye on this console will part with $500 for it this holiday season. The Xbox One delivers a thoroughly next-gen experience. Forget all that fanboy nonsense of the past few months about native rendering resolution and such.

I've played half of Ryse: Son of Rome, and it is both more fun than expected and an arresting visual spectacle on a par with the best the PlayStation 4 has to offer. Forza Motorsport 5 is the sharp, clean, smooth racing sim a next-generation launch title should be. Dead Rising 3 is impressive in its scope, and I didn't notice any crippling slowdown when mowing down hundreds of zombies. It's miles beyond what any current-generation console could hope to pull off.

Full reviews of the Xbox One games will have to wait, particularly since it's so difficult to get a handle on multiplayer while using the prerelease Xbox Live environment. I think it's safe to say that anyone with reasonable expectations for next-generation console launch games will be quite happy with the Xbox One roster.

A note on game installs: Yes, every game needs to be installed to the hard drive. The speed at which this happens varies, and in the current preproduction environment, I don't think I'm seeing the same download speeds you'll experience on the real Xbox Live network after launch. Many games are "ready to play" while they're still downloading or installing off the disc, but the wait time to get to that point varies widely from one game to the next.

Game DVR is neat, and terribly flawed

Microsoft's "Game DVR" feature is fantastic. Just say "Xbox, record that" and it grabs the past 30 seconds of gameplay (which is really the past 5 minutes of gameplay automatically trimmed to 30 seconds, but you can extend it to 5 minutes easily).

The best part is the way this feature is integrated into games. The games I played would often surprise me by saying that a game clip had just been created, right after I did something cool. "Oh yeah," I'd think, "that would be a really cool clip!"

The problem is, the quality is awful. The problem is not the resolution or frame rate of the recorded clips (720p, 30 frames per second). It's the bitrate and encoding parameters. The road in Forza Motorsport 5 turns into a blur of artifacts. Every ounce of detail from a Killer Instinct match disappears. I've been told that the bitrate is somewhere around 1.5 megabits per second, but the clip I saved to SkyDrive was about 30 megabytes for a 1-minute clip, or about 4 megabits per second. Microsoft desperately needs to change the encoding settings for this feature--it's making the games look like garbage.

A world-class controller

The new controller--which takes the well-loved design of the Xbox 360 controller and refines it further--is terrific. It's a little smaller, with more-precise and more-responsive sticks, a vastly improved D-pad, and buttons that are a little closer together and easier to press. The triggers have their own rumble motors, which is really effective in some games and gimmicky in others.

Unfortunately, there's no obvious way to learn how much charge your controller has left. That seems like it would be good information to have. The good news is, I played all weekend--easily 20 hours--on the included pair of AA batteries.

The new headset is better, too. It's more comfortable and adjustable, with better sound quality. It clips to the bottom of the controller via a proprietary plug, and although the connection seems annoyingly large at first blush, it's a godsend. The plug has large, unambiguous mute and volume buttons that you can't miss in the middle of a heated gaming match, yet it stays entirely out of the way of your grip.

That HDMI input

I tried plugging the HDMI-output cable of my DirecTV box into the Xbox One's input, and then setting it up as my cable provider in the settings screen. I also have an Onkyo receiver between the Xbox One and my TV.

I can walk into the room and say "Xbox, on," and the Xbox One will wake from its low-power slumber, turn on my TV, and turn on my receiver. It will automatically recognize me and log me in. If my fiancée walks into the room, it automatically recognizes her and logs her in, too.

I can say "Xbox, watch TV" and it kicks over from whatever I'm doing to show the output of my DirecTV box (or whatever else is plugged into the HDMI input). The voice-controlled "OneGuide" channel guide is nice, but I almost never look at my channel guide to see what's on. I do find some value in saying "Xbox, watch Comedy Central," causing the Kinect camera to work like an IR blaster and immediately flip my DirecTV box to channel 249, or saying "Xbox, watch HBO" to hop over to channel 501. It's faster and easier than using a remote.

But the Xbox One doesn't know what recorded programs are on your DVR, and can't program it. The console can't access all the on-demand menus and content. So you can't ditch your remote; you can only use it less often. For someone like me, who never watches live TV, the real benefit of this TV integration is quickly and easily switching from watching TV to doing something else (like viewing Netflix or gaming) without changing inputs and turning on other devices. It's a real timesaver.

I also ran the PlayStation 4 into the HDMI input, and it works just fine. I didn't play much, but passing the PlayStation 4's video signal through the Xbox One didn't produce any extra latency.

Kinect is a vast improvement

The new Kinect is leagues beyond the Xbox 360's Kinect. It's smaller, it works far better in dim light, and it has a much easier time tracking a tall guy like me in a tiny San Francisco living room. For the most part, the camera is a great addition to the system, and it's probably a good gamble on Microsoft's part to force the Kinect on everyone, even if that decision makes the Xbox One cost $100 more than its primary competitor.

But the device still needs refinement. What's that saying again? Eighty percent of the time, it works every time.

Once you learn the proper commands (I keep wanting to say "log in" instead of "sign in"), voice control works great. Except when it doesn't. The console correctly understood me eight or nine times out of ten, but the small percentage of the time you have to repeat yourself is still frustrating. Pressing a button works 100% of the time--that's the standard that other interface methods must live up to.

Many of the voice commands are faster than buttons and menus are, even if you end up repeating yourself. On balance, the Kinect stuff is very cool and honestly quite useful, but I imagine that most users will use only part of what's there.

I should mention that you can also navigate the Xbox interface by holding up your hands and grabbing, pulling, pushing, and sliding things around, Minority Report--style. This approach is slow and annoying. On rare occasions, the Xbox One thought I was trying to control it with hand-waving gestures when I was just taking a sip of my drink during dinner. It popped up controls and a ghostly hand on the screen, interrupting the TV show. It should have an option to turn all this hand-waving-navigation stuff off, but it doesn't appear to include one.

A dearth of detail

The settings are fairly basic. You have no way to see exactly how much storage all your games and saves and downloadable content are using up. You can press the menu button in your list of games and apps to get the installed size of a single game (and an option to uninstall it), but that doesn't tell you how much space you have left on the 500GB hard drive.

There's just no way to see at a glance which games take up the most space so you can know what's best to delete when you need to make room for something new.

You also can't see, for example, your download rate or time remaining. Notifications tell you when apps were updated, but not necessarily what those updates contain, and notifications don't appear when a system update has taken place.

I imagine that customer demand will force Microsoft to add such features to the Xbox One in the first round of patches.

Social sharing...or lack thereof

Regrettably, the Xbox One doesn't let you share your game videos very easily. You can't stream live to Twitch or Ustream. You have no way to post anything you do to Facebook or Twitter. In fact, in a day and age where TV shows and commercials display hashtags, the complete lack of social integration on Xbox One is conspicuous.

You can save your game clips from Upload Studio (the free app that edits clips you save in Game DVR) to SkyDrive and then do whatever you want with them, from your computer or smartphone. That's a welcome feature, but a lame cop-out considering the absence of any social integration at the system level.

Also, you get no systemwide feature to take high-quality screenshots, which seems like a huge oversight. In this regard, a voice command may be too slow...might I suggest tapping the Menu and View buttons simultaneously?

Quiet, power-efficient, always connected

Microsoft really doesn't want you to turn your Xbox One all the way off. For starters, the console takes an eternity to power on when you do (about 40 seconds or so). From standby mode, the Xbox One is live in less than 15 seconds. My receiver and TV take about that long to turn on, but it's still a little disappointing that the console doesn't wake up more quickly. In the standby state, the Xbox One will download game and system updates and the like, and is virtually silent.

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