The Xbox One’s interface was previously a love it/hate it kind of thing. In fact, you could easily do both at the same time. On the one hand, it was clean and the tile-based design looked great on a big-screen telly. On the other, navigation and organisation were messy, the social aspects seemed unconnected and it wasn’t quick enough to get you to your games and media content.
Now, Microsoft has replaced it with a new experience based on Windows 10. It loads faster, your most recently accessed content sits at the top, and all the stuff related to that game is just a click away. Click the right trigger and you’re taken straight to your pinned games and apps, while your friends list, messages and notifications are easily accessible from the new side panel. You can still get to the games, music and movies in the Store, but flogging you content and services no longer seems like the most important thing. Suddenly, the Xbox One feels like what it should have been all along: a games machine.
The Kinect-powered voice controls still work, of course, making it easy to find a movie, take a screenshot or capture game footage. Meanwhile, the OneGuide remains a key part of the package, enabling you to view and explore the week’s TV through a connected set-top-box or the USB Freeview HD adaptor. You can already pause live TV and we’re promised recording features next year too.
The new software’s benefits extend beyond speed and ease-of-use, with the major one being backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 games. If you owned a digital copy of a game you can download it and play it on your Xbox One, while supported discs will simply play when you insert them. The tech actually made its debut with the Rare Replay collection, and while some much-loved titles aren’t yet supported, you can now have another crack at Fable 2, Fallout 3, all four Gears of War games, Mirror’s Edge, Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed 2 and DiRT 3, not to mention many more.
For a long time, Xbox Live sat proudly as the king of online gaming services, but it’s had stiff competition recently both from PlayStation Plus and Steam. Microsoft has fought back, and the Game with Gold program has seen the likes of Rayman Legends, Assassin’s Creed IV, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition given away free. That makes Xbox Live an even better deal.
Microsoft has also taken big strides forward on the apps front. Netflix, Twitch, NowTV, BBC iPlayer, All 4, Demand 5, YouTube, and Amazon Instant Video are all in place, along with Microsoft services like Skype, Groove Music and OneDrive. The Xbox One also hosts EA Access – EA’s service which combines free games, cut-price bargains, early demos and limited preview access to the latest titles. Get it and, along with Games with Gold, you could probably get away without buying any games at all.
There’s one other app worth mentioning, though it doesn’t actually run on the Xbox One itself. Download the Xbox app for your Windows 10 laptop or tablet and you can control your Xbox One remotely, or even stream games directly from your console to your device’s screen. To make it work effectively you need your Xbox One networked through Ethernet to your router, but do so and you can stream games at very reasonable quality with manageable lag. We occasionally use it to sneak in games of Forza 6 or Gears of War while the TV is in use.
Games are the best reason to buy any console, but that goes double for the Xbox One. Sure, joining the Microsoft team rather than Sony means putting up with a reduced resolution when you’re playing Call of Duty or even the odd spot of jerky performance in some games, but the recompense comes when you can play Halo 5, Forza Horizon 2, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, Forza 6 or Rise of the Tomb Raider – all fantastic games that you can’t play on PS4. Of course Sony has its own exclusives, but it’s hard to get too excited about The Order: 1866 or really anything bar Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection or Bloodborne, and only one of those is really a mainstream hit.
That’s great news now, but what about the future? Well, how about Quantum Break, Fable Legends and the next chapter of Gears of War? How about a new Crackdown with larger, destructible cities (at least in multiplayer), the fantastic-looking ReCore, Scalebound or Halo Wars 2? Microsoft still needs to convince us that the Xbox One is tomorrow’s console, not just today’s, but we’d be surprised if the Xbox One well runs dry during the next few years.
Related: Best Xbox One Games 2015
It’s amazing to think how Microsoft has managed to transform the Xbox One from a no-hoper to a hit in the last two years, chiefly by concentrating focus on the thing that mattered most: the console’s games. If you don’t want to play the likes of Halo, Forza 6, Rise of the Tomb Raider or Gears of War, then the PS4 remains our games console of choice, but providing the graphics gap in third-party titles keeps diminishing and the first-party titles keep on coming, the Xbox One is a fantastic gaming platform.