- Some great games coming through
- A superb controller
- UI has improved dramatically
- Strong line-up of services and entertainment features
- Lacks the PS4’s game streaming features
- Struggles to match PS4’s performance at 1080p
We take a look at the Xbox One a year on
Talk about a turnaround: last year the Xbox One was widely portrayed as the loser of the latest console war. Seemingly designed more around Microsoft’s strategic objectives than, say, building the best machine for playing games, it was underpowered, overpriced and saddled with an expensive peripheral – Kinect 2.0 – that nobody seemed to want. For all its advanced features and functions, most reviewers agreed that it wasn’t as strong a package as Sony’s PS4. Judging by the sales – with roughly 14 million PS4s sold to the Xbox One’s 10 million shipped – most of the early adopters have thought so too.
Yet Microsoft won’t go down easy. It’s refocused the Xbox One message, with less distracting nonsense about TV, video and convergence, and more of an emphasis on games. It’s made Kinect an option rather than an integral part of the system and reduced the price. It’s made valuable system resources that were previously locked up by the OS and Kinect open to game developers, helping reduce some of the PS4 performance gap. Most importantly, it’s delivered the kind of games that will sell consoles in the key pre-Christmas season. If you’re more a jam today than jam tomorrow kind of person, then the Xbox One is arguably the stronger contender – and it’s future is beginning to look a little brighter all round.
Xbox One - Hardware
There’s no getting away from the fact that the Xbox One is a big, blocky chunk of black or white plastic. While the half-gloss, half-matt finish attempts to give the console a touch of glamour, but it’s more a functional design than a stylish one, and one that seems a step backwards after the svelte Xbox Slim. At 333mm x 78mmm x 276mm it’s noticeably chunkier than the PS4 (275mm x 53mm x 305mm) and to make things worse you have to find space in your AV setup for an external power supply that’s only slightly smaller than the monster brick supplied with the last-gen systems.
Microsoft’s main concern seems to have been heat and reliability – the bugbears that dogged the first few years of the Xbox 360. The Xbox One can still put out a fair bit of heat while under duress, but we haven’t had a plague of dead Xbox Ones during the first year on sale, and it’s almost silent while you’re not playing games, with only the slightest high-pitched whine. Noise levels increase when you’re playing games, but the Xbox One is actually quieter than its Sony rival; a big improvement on all but the last versions of the Xbox 360.
See also: Best Xbox One Games 2014
In terms of connectivity, the Xbox One goes beyond the PS4 with two USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet socket and an optical audio output at the rear, plus an HDMI output, an HDMI input and a dedicated power/USB socket for Kinect. The HDMI input is designed to handle a signal from an external PVR or set-top-box, and it’s now compatible with Sky HD, Virgin Media and most Freeview and Freesat boxes. We’ll look at this in a little more depth later.
Internally, the Xbox One is based on an 8-core AMD x86 APU that’s broadly similar to the one found in the PS4. In its favour, the Xbox One’s APU has higher clock speeds, with 1.75GHz CPU and 854MHz GPU against the PS4’s 1.6Ghz and 800MHz, and a 32MB ESRAM cache to smooth the flow of data between the APU and the 8GB of 2133MHz DDR3 RAM. Unfortunately for Microsoft, Sony tweaked its own specs for the better by cramming in a GPU with 18 GCN computer units to the Xbox One’s 12, and by using 5500Mhz GDDR5 RAM. This gives the Sony console more graphics horsepower and memory bandwidth to play with, giving it a very tangible technical advantage.
The most obvious result of this is that some key third party games, like Dragon Age: Inquisition or Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, still arrive running at a full HD 1080p resolution on the PS4 but 900p or even 720p on the Xbox One. Others run at the same resolution, but with a slightly smoother frame rate on PS4, while a handful – step up GTA 5 – feature more detail in specific scenes on Sony’s hardware. To make things more complex, developers are getting smarter about how they handle the disparity. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, for example, runs at 1920 x 1080 throughout on PS4, but shifts between the full 1080p resolution and a 1360 x 1080 resolution on Xbox One depending on the complexity of the scene being rendered.
Does this matter now? It depends. View games side by side and the PS4 version could look crisper and more detailed, while the Xbox One version might look slightly blurry. However, developers are finding better workarounds, and Microsoft’s decision to release system resources originally reserved for Kinect has given them a little more scope to increase resolutions or add visual enhancements. Overall, the proof is in the games. The big third-party titles still look great on Xbox One, and the best-looking first-party titles – Ryse: Son of Rome, Forza Horizon 2 – look unbelievable. Based on what we’ve seen of other upcoming exclusives such as Quantum Break, it’s likely that this trend will continue, even if the PS4 eventually pulls ahead later on in the lifespan of both consoles.
See also: Xbox One vs Xbox 360
Xbox One - Controller
The Xbox 360’s controller was widely regarded as the best console gamepad ever, and the Xbox One’s controller is even better. It’s lighter but still familiar in the hand, with a similar layout of sticks and buttons, though the triggers now curve slightly outwards and the bumpers are larger, with all four fitting more naturally beneath the fingers. The thumbsticks feel slightly tighter and more accurate and have a textured ridge around the pad for extra grip. The D-pad also feels more precise. We’re not sure why Microsoft has changed the Select and Back buttons to Menu and View, given that they have roughly the same functions in most games, but overall the Xbox One pad is a good refinement of an already fantastic controller. Speaking personally, I prefer it to the Dual Shock 4, though not everyone on the TR team agrees.
One thing we always liked about the Xbox One controller was its impulse triggers, with rumble functionality built not just into the body of the pad, but also the triggers. Sadly, use of the impulse triggers hasn’t been as consistent as we’d hoped. Forza Motorsport 5 used them brilliantly, as does Forza Horizon 2 to a lesser extent, while Halo: The Master Chief Collection gives them a bit of a workout. Otherwise, however, too many titles ignore the feature – a real shame when they can add so much to the feel and feedback of the game.
See also: Xbox One vs PS4
Xbox One - Kinect
No longer an integral part of the Xbox One system, Kinect now seems at risk of becoming an irrelevance, used more for recognising players and voice commands than honest-to-goodness motion controls. Kinect Sports Rivals wasn’t the Kinect-selling showcase Microsoft might have hoped for, and the only significant Kinect titles since have been Access Games’ D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die and Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved. The latter is a fine family game, but not the kind of thing that makes you glad you coughed up the extra £60 for the motion controller.
Technically, Kinect 2.0 has been an improvement on the first release, with more accurate tracking, better tracking while seated and enhanced performance in different rooms and lighting conditions. All the same, you can’t help thinking that Kinect’s time has come and gone, along with the whole motion control fad. Even Nintendo doesn’t seem to be interested in this stuff anymore, and it was a lot better at exploiting it than Microsoft.
Xbox One - Interface
Microsoft has released software patches and interface enhancements on a monthly basis, and the result is that the Xbox One’s UI is in a much better state than it was in a year ago. It still feels like the focus isn’t quite where it should be, with too much space given over to Microsoft’s stores instead of the games you already own, but the advantages of its Windows heritage are customisability – you can always pin favourite games and apps to the Home screen – multi-tasking and a great quick resume feature. Put your PS4 in standby and you have to wake it, sign in, load your game then load your save game before you can continue. Put your Xbox One in standby and all you have to do is sign in and press a button to start your game. You can carry on exactly where you left off.
The multi-tasking, including Microsoft’s much-vaunted Snap feature, isn’t quite so useful in a gaming context; most of us prefer to focus on the game we’re playing rather than take Skype calls or check the big match score on TV. Within an entertainment context, however, it’s a nice inclusion, even if most of us do roughly the same thing by sneaking a peek at a tablet or phone while something’s streaming on Netflix or iPlayer. Meanwhile, the speed with which you can flip from a game to an app to a settings menu remains impressive; it’s one area where Microsoft continues to keep ahead of the competition.
See also: Xbox One Digital TV Tuner review
If you have Kinect, voice remains the quickest and easiest way to get many things done, including launching apps and games or searching for content to watch. It makes using Internet Explorer just about bearable – though still much less so than browsing on a tablet – and being able to search for a movie across all your apps with a single voice search is a brilliant feature, even if you’ll now sometimes find two entries, with one for Xbox Video and one for, oh, Xbox Video and everything else. It still makes finding what you want that much easier.
Accuracy still isn’t perfect, and sometimes with embarrassing results, but it works pretty well most of the time, and over the past year we’ve learnt a sort of hybrid approach, doing the things that speech does best that way, then using the controller as backup when it gets things wrong or slows you down.
Microsoft loved to talk about TV when it launched the Xbox One, but support for UK services and hardware wasn’t one of the console’s strong points, with basic PAL incompatibility issues and problems with Freeview and Freesat PVRs and set-top-boxes. To some extent that situation is now resolved. Support for Freeview and Freesat hardware is much improved, and if your box isn’t supported, there’s always the cheap Xbox One Digital TV Tuner dongle. The OneGuide now works well with Freeview services as well as Virgin Media and Sky, and there are some nice features to integrate streaming services, not to mention Twitter. If you like Microsoft’s original concept of the Xbox One as the focal point of a home entertainment setup, then the Xbox One still has you covered.
See also: Xbox One vs PS4
Xbox One - Apps and Services
The Xbox One launched with a stronger set of apps than PS4, and it’s still got the larger selection. With Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Now TV, Wuaki YV and Blinkbox all supported, the major movie and TV streaming services are all covered, while the Xbox One has apps for iPlayer, Demand 5 and 4oD, leaving iTV player the only major UK catch-up service unavailable. What’s more, while there’s still no DLNA media player, the Xbox One now has Microsoft’s own compliant Media Player app plus a client for Plesk. Throw in the close integration with Microsoft’s OneDrive for storing and streaming photos, and you have a very capable media device, even if music services remain limited to Microsoft’s own Xbox Music.
Xbox One - Xbox Live
Xbox Live used to set the standard for console online gaming services, and in most respects that hasn’t changed. It’s handling of achievements, profiles and friends is still top notch, while its Avatars are the best thing Microsoft has every appropriated from Nintendo.
Microsoft has also done a fantastic job of handling video capture and broadcasting. You can still grab the last thirty seconds of action with a ‘Record That’ command, and many games still automatically save chunks for you to edit, finesse and upload later using the Upload Studio app. Throw in the seamless integration of Twitch streaming, and you have a console that’s almost perfect for sharing your best gaming moments.
There’s still room for improvement, though. Microsoft’s Game with Gold promotion isn’t the bargain that Sony’s equivalent Instant Games Collection has been, partly because Microsoft isn’t offering games across home and mobile console platforms, but also because Sony has consistently offered better games. Microsoft also hasn’t matched Sony’s streaming features, while any screen capture feature remains inexplicably MIA.
Xbox One - Games
Neither console launched with a stellar first-party line-up, and while the Xbox One had arguably the best exclusive title in Forza Motorsports 5, it was hamstrung by a foolish obsession with microtransactions and by the fact that third-party games consistently looked better and/or ran at higher resolutions on PS4. When people are buying a console primarily to play Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts, you don’t want yours to be the console that’s running them at a last-gen 720p.
Since then, things have improved. Titanfall was a fantastic multiplayer shooter and only playable on Xbox One and PC. Forza Horizon 2 is the best next-gen racer out there, and exclusive to Xbox One. Sunset Overdrive is exceptionally entertaining, and Halo: The Master Chief collection a glowing example of how to treat a classic game series with the respect it deserves. The last three will all help the Xbox One make Christmas sales.
Meanwhile, the situation with third-party titles is improving. Activision's Destiny, EA Sports' FIFA 15, the latest Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Ubisoft's Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Far Cry 4 do a pretty credible job of looking as good on Xbox One as they do on PS4, and while there are trade-offs in terms of resolution or frame rate, they’re easy ones to make. Buying an Xbox One no longer means playing noticeably inferior versions of the latest games.
Into the future, questions remain. The PS4 still has more powerful hardware, and as developers learn to harness it then the divide may open up again. And just as Microsoft will be pushing its studios hard to develop the most advanced games for Xbox One, so Sony will be doing the same with PS4 – and it’s teams will have more firepower to work with. All the same, with Halo 5, Quantum Break and the Xbox One exclusive Rise of the Tomb Raider sequel on their way, it’s going to have some strong titles to celebrate next year.
If you were ready to write Microsoft’s console off last year, prepare to change your mind. It’s a fine console with powerful hardware, improved software and a great set of apps and services, and the performance disparities with PS4 are becoming less of an issue, in the short term at least. Thanks to a strong line-up of exclusives it’s arguably the pick of the two consoles to buy right now, though in the long-term the PS4’s more potent hardware could still win out.
Read more: Best games 2014
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