A console of compromises.
At CES in 2001, Microsoft boldy unveiled its first gaming console, the Xbox, putting the desktop software giant in direct competition with Sony, a successful hardware company with a proven and popular line of gaming consoles. In a market dominated by Japanese manufacturers, the Xbox immediately stood out. It was massive, and featured forward-thinking components like an internal hard drive and integrated Ethernet. Exactly one year later, Xbox Live came to life and ignited a digital revolution of downloadable content and broadband-fueled multiplayer. For Microsoft, there was no looking back. In 2010, it took another stab at innovation with Kinect, the sophisticated camera array that promised full body motion detection and speech recognition. Sadly, due to strict lighting and space requirements, on top of middling software integration, original Kinect failed to deliver on its full potential.
Then, along comes Xbox One, and with it, Kinect 2.0. Microsoft’s next-gen console relies heavily on the new Kinect and an 8 core CPU for voice-controlled multitasking. Its HDMI passthrough port allows for advanced cable and satellite TV integration, and Kinect’s IR blaster and face recognition promise a seamless, personal TV viewing experience. It’s also, of course, a gaming console first and foremost, but by requiring all users to pay for a Kinect upfront, Microsoft’s messaging and direction has led to confusion over its priorities. The ultimate test will be whether the additional functionality adds to the gaming experience, or detracts from it.
Superficially, the Xbox One looks like more than an average gaming console. It’s big and glossy, and likely to dominate any device in your home theater setup, save a high-end AV receiver. Unlike the Xbox 360, the Xbox One has to remain flat, a caveat Microsoft has attributed to both ventilation and the Xbox One’s slot-loading drive, but it’s an unfortunate limitation given the sheer size of the console. The Kinect camera isn’t small either, and though it’s optional, omitting it from the setup removes a lot of Xbox One’s definitive functionality.
The Xbox 360 controller earned high praise during the last console generation, and Xbox One’s controller retains many of that controller’s positive aspects. The layout is mostly the same, except that the Xbox guide button is now known as the home button, and has been moved higher up on the controller. Similarly, the start and back buttons have been renamed to the menu and view buttons, respectively. Disappointingly, the bumpers, RB and LB, are too stiff towards the center of the controller.
Less obvious features of the Xbox One controller reside within its matte-black exterior, including vibration motors for each trigger and infrared emitters that work in conjunction with Kinect to provide motion controls in place of embedded accelerometers or gyroscopes. Though there’s little evidence that this inclusion will have a meaningful impact, the force feedback in the triggers has already been put to good use in games such as Forza Motorsport 5, where they inform the players understanding of road conditions and traction, or loss there of.
Every controller can be used in a wired or wireless fashion thanks to the addition of a micro-USB port. You get the best of both worlds, though you still need to provide your own AA batteries for wireless functionality. There are rechargable battery packs for Xbox One controllers, but they aren’t included with standard retail units, and must be purchased separately or in a special controller bundle.
The third key piece of Xbox One hardware, the Kinect 2.0, is easily the most interesting of the lot. Now, with lax space requirements, additional high resolution sensors and improved speech recognition, the Kinect of today is a vast improvement over the original model. The Xbox One operating system can respond to dozens of voice commands through Kinect, allowing you to manage multiple windows and tasks, and you can even use it to adjust the volume on your TV, or better, turn your entire entertainment setup on with the utterance of “Xbox On.”
The caveat here is that you have you speak with the right cadence and tone for the Xbox One to respond accordingly. It's up to you to learn the best way to communicate with it, but even after a few weeks, it quite often fails to work the first time everytime. That said, there’s nothing quite like it when the Xbox One manages to consistently respond to your commands. Switching between TV, Skype calls, and games, without picking up a controller or changing inputs on your TV, feels new and exciting. The first time the Xbox One tailors itself to your voice, showing only your content and friends, it leaves an impression that won’t soon wash away. That is, until the next time it fails to work.
Thus is the dilemma in regards to Kinect. It has a lot of potential, and is designed with the future in mind, but if it isn’t consistent, people will quickly revert back to using the controller for navigation. Who in their right mind wants to yell at their TV, repeatedly commanding, ”Xbox. Bing Assassin’s Creed?” Considering that Microsoft is leaning so heavily on these features to sell the Xbox One, it’ll be interesting to see how they can improve it down the road. At launch, it’s still a bit too underwhelming and inconsistent to be considered a triumph for the troubled Kinect line. Unfortunate, given that the Xbox One costs $500, in part due to the mandatory inclusion of the camera.
The guts of the Xbox One are the product of a collaboration with processor giant AMD, resulting in a hybrid CPU and GPU, known as the APU. The 8-core CPU module, based on AMD’s Jaguar line, boasts a 1.75 GHz clock-rate. With multiple cores on hand, the Xbox One can simultaneously handle tasks in the fore and background, resulting in a new level of console-based multitasking.
On the same chip as the CPU sits a GPU based on AMD’s Radeon technology, and here is where the Xbox One’s architecture gets interesting. Like the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One comes with 8 GB of RAM, but it's the slower and cheaper DDR3 variety, compared to the PlayStation 4’s GDDR5. To account for the Xbox One’s lackluster memory bandwidth, calculated at ~ 68 GB/s, Microsoft opted to include 32 MB of hyperfast ESRAM on the APU, taking up valuable space that would otherwise have allowed for a mightier GPU, in order to offset the slower speed of DDR3.
On one hand, the inclusion of ESRAM helps speed along simple non-gaming tasks. On the other, its presence on the APU has effectively neutered the GPU’s potential. For such a critical component of a next-gen gaming system, this is odd. The ESRAM acts as the middleman between the DDR3 modules and the APU, and it helps to boost memory speeds a bit, but even so, the combination isn’t enough to match Sony’s GDDR5-packed PlayStation 4. This may not matter to customers wooed by the Xbox One’s extra-entertainment features, which Sony can’t begin to match, but for anyone who values gaming performance above all, the Xbox One is at a disadvantage in terms of graphics capabilities from a raw numbers perspective.
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For technical reasons relating to multitasking and the limitations of Blu-ray drives, every Xbox One game has to be installed to the system’s internal hard drive. At 500 GB, there’s room for a lot of games, and the operating system features dynamic storage management to mitigate running out of space, but like the last generation, storage needs inevitably grow over the course of a console generation.
Sadly, Xbox One users are not allowed to upgrade the internal drive to something faster or larger. Even if you void the warranty and physically replace the hard drive, your new drive won’t work without the necessary security sectors from the original drive. Microsoft promises that support for external storage is coming down the road, and while that’s a good option to have, external hard drives are a clunky last resort. Ultimately, customers should be allowed to replace hard drives, and it’s a shame to see that this isn’t a feature of the Xbox One.
Once again, Microsoft has excluded Bluetooth from it’s console, relying instead on Wi-Fi direct, a standard that enables Wi-Fi devices to connect with each other without the need for an access point in the middle. It’s a useful feature, but rarely used, and the result is that most devices for the Xbox One will likely come directly from Microsoft. Elsewhere, the Xbox One Wi-Fi radio uses the 802.11n standard. The good news is that it takes advantage of modern frequency bands in the 5 GHz range, resulting in an increase in range and signal strength, a feature that Sony failed to include in the PlayStation 4.
The back of the Xbox One reveals a range of interesting and useful ports. Of course, you’ll find the standard Ethernet port, HDMI-out, two USB 3.0 ports, and an optical audio connection, but most interesting are the infrared-out and HDMI-in ports. They are unusual for a console, but key to the Xbox One’s extended media functionality. Most importantly, the HDMI-in port allows you to watch TV through your console, working in conjunction with the Kinect to provide an unusually personal experience.
Truthfully, almost anything you plug into the HDMI-in port on the Xbox One will function within the console’s TV app, but Microsoft has designed features for use explicitly with cable and satellite boxes. Once you connect either to the HDMI port, you can choose your service provider and navigate the channel guide directly on the Xbox One. It communicates with your cable or satellite box using the Kinect’s infrared blaster for a seamless blending of television and gaming in one device. The Kinect’s ability to detect who’s in the room, and specifically who’s talking, allows for the creation of personalized channel lists, a feature that will prove invaluable for families who watch a lot of TV.
Xbox Live, the online service that made Xbox a household name, returns with the Xbox One, once again requiring people to pay a fee for online gaming and media streaming. The good news is that the Xbox One is tightly integrated with SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud service, allowing you to share content between your Xbox One and PCs, including gameplay clips and pictures. This ties into the Xbox One’s ability to record, edit, and share gameplay clips.
With the Kinect, you can easily capture a video of your last thirty seconds of gameplay by saying “Xbox. Record that.” The resulting clip is then uploaded to your SkyDrive. The downside to this whole process is that you are required to go to a PC in order share the video with others. With the discrete Game DVR app, you can manually access the last five minutes of gameplay with tools to edit and abridge your footage with audio or picture-in-picture video commentary.
Being able to share your gameplay clips with the internet at large is enticing, but the need to access a PC in order to do so feels cumbersome and ultimately detracts from the experience. As desired as this feature is, it pales in comparison to the ability to stream live video content, a feat Microsoft promises will come to the Xbox One in the near future. Here, Sony has Microsoft beaten with direct support for Twitch.TV and Ustream right out of the box.
Taking everything into account, the Xbox One has impressive potential, but it’s disappointingly unrealized at launch. The increased performance of the new Kinect affords the console a unique blend of special features and innovative player interaction, though it’s inconsistent and unreliable. Elsewhere, the Xbox One lacks the power of its competitor, the PlayStation 4, due in part to an unusual combination of RAM, and the difference is tangible, with many launch games running at 720p on the Xbox One versus 1080p on the PlayStation 4. On the plus side, Xbox One and Kinect improve the TV-viewing experience by conveniently integrating it into a console. In this regard, the Xbox One offers a valuable next-gen experience if you value television watching as much as gaming. Unfortunately, the Xbox One is designed around that unique feature set, ultimately forcing gaming-focused consumers to make compromises if they decide to make the leap.