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2015 has seen Microsoft’s turnaround continue. What launched two years ago as an awkward mess of a console, too focused on establishing the Xbox brand as Microsoft’s living room Trojan Horse, is now a brilliant, competitive games machine with a growing library of equally brilliant games.
There are signs that the gaming public is responding, too, with the Xbox One outselling the PS4 in some key territories, including the US, during April and October of this year. With a line-up that takes in new Halo and Forza titles, plus a timed exclusive Tomb Raider now and new Fable and Gears of War instalments to come, the Xbox One is ideally positioned to have a very merry Christmas. The only question is how long the joy will last.
We began the current console cycle seeing the PS4 as dominant and the Xbox One as DOA. Now the general thinking is that the Xbox One has the best current games line-up, but the PS4 has the greater potential for the future. There’s some truth to this, but it shouldn’t be over-emphasised. Microsoft is still helping developers find new ways of eking more out of the Xbox One’s comparatively underpowered hardware, and the console still has some great-looking games ahead.
Related: PS4 vs Xbox One
One thing hasn’t changed about Microsoft’s console, and that it’s still a big old beast. In fact it’s a bruiser of spectacular proportions, built to handle heat better and work more reliably than the old Xbox 360 did, but looking huge next to the comparatively svelte PlayStation 4. At 333mm x 276mm x 78mm, it’s actually larger than some gaming PCs and the huge external power brick is – frankly – taking the piss. The Xbox One does seem more reliable than its predecessor, with no reports of widespread faults or dying consoles. It’s also quieter than you might expect, though not quite as quiet as the latest model Type-C PS4.
Eventually AMD will release a revised, less power hungry processor and Microsoft will house it in a smaller, more elegant case, just as it did with the Xbox 360 Slim. For now, the best you can hope for is one of the more attractive or eye-catching special edition consoles, though these tend to sell out fast.
The Xbox One beats the PS4 on connectivity, with two USB 3.0 ports on the rear and another at the side, Ethernet and optical audio sockets plus an HDMI input, an HDMI output and a dedicated power and USB connection for the ill-fated Kinect 2 motion sensor. You may need those USB 3.0 sockets, too, because beyond gaming peripherals like guitar controller adaptors and toys-to-life portals, you can also use them to boost your console’s onboard storage.
The 500GB of the original Xbox One fills up fast, while even the newer 1TB consoles won’t give you enough free space for ever. But where the PS4 demands that you switch out its hard disk to increase capacity, the Xbox One lets you connect a USB 3.0 hard drive to get more space. It’s a quick, affordable and easy upgrade, and actually seems to boost loading speeds in many cases.
The Xbox One and PS4 run on very similar hardware, but where Sony did everything it could to pack as much horsepower in its machine as possible – even switching from 4GB to 8GB of shared RAM at the last minute – Microsoft played things safe. The Xbox One’s AMD x86 APU has the same eight CPU cores as the PS4’s, and even runs them at a slightly higher speed (1.75Ghz to 1.6Ghz). However, there are only 12 GCN computing units on the GPU side of things, where the PS4 has 18, while the Xbox One uses 2133Mhz DDR3 RAM instead of the PS4’s lightning-fast 5500MHz GDDR5. 32MB of embedded high-speed ESRAM helps a little, but the PS4 still leaves the Microsoft console outgunned.
This isn’t just an ‘in theory’ sort of thing. Third-party games running on both platforms consistently run more smoothly, with more effects or at higher resolutions on the Sony system. Games like Metal Gear Solid V or Call of Duty: Black Ops III, which run at a full HD 1080p on the PS4, frequently run at 900p or 720p on the Xbox One. In some cases, developers are using clever dynamic resolution systems to squeeze down the horizontal resolution even further, degrading image quality (albeit very subtly) to keep frame rates up.
The effects are noticeable but not necessarily that hideously noticeable, and the good news is that Microsoft is doing its utmost to help developers squeeze more out of the Xbox One hardware and narrow the gap. What’s more, this year’s big exclusives don’t exactly look inferior or half-baked, and you can double that for next year’s titles, such as Quantum Break. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s much-huped and almost-as-much-mocked talk of leveraging cloud-based processing power is beginning to bear fruit. It’s already being used in Forza Motorsport 6 and Halo 5, and it’ll power destructible cities in next year’s Crackdown reboot.
Some people seem to think that the DualShock 4 is the best console controller out there, but we think that these people should take a deep breath and get a grip. The Xbox One’s standard controller is superior in nearly every way, with better ergonomics, a cleaner button layout, tighter, more responsive analogue sticks and a better D-Pad too. Given the choice between the PS4’s gimmicky touchpad and the Xbox One’s dual impulse triggers, which give you a brilliant rumble feedback when you’re firing off rounds or hitting the accelerator, we’d take the impulse triggers every time.
Microsoft has also now released its Xbox One Elite Controller, with incredible levels of customisation and configuration and an even higher-quality, pro-gamer feel. At £120 It’s just too expensive for most users, however, so only well-heeled hardcore gamers need apply.
In the bad old days of the Xbox One launch every review had to have an obligatory paragraph on Kinect. This year we’ll just explain why that paragraph is missing: because Kinect is effectively dead in the water. Nobody seems to be developing any games for it, and even Microsoft seems to have consigned it a voice control role, as if the high-tech 3D depth camera stuff was somehow an unnecessary add-on to the built-in array microphone.
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