Xbox One review: It’s a superhero who hasn’t quite figured out its powers yet

Chris Spags Founder and Editor

Upon coming home from work, I walk into my house and hang up my coat. During this process I say “Xbox On” and, as I pull off my sleeves, both my TV and Xbox One are now on, waiting for me to engage. These ten seconds and the ease of use perfectly sum up the beauty of Xbox One.

I’ve had my hands on a preview console since last Friday and the example above is one of a series of “Wow” moments that the Xbox One traffics in better than any console you’ve ever seen.

With the PS4 and Xbox One releases stacked within one week of each other, it’s natural to want to compare them. They’re both superpowered (early reports are that the PS4 might be a wee bit ahead on benchmarks). They’re both experiencing record pre-sales and sales. They’re both elegantly designed, albeit with the PS4 a bit more reasonably sized.

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Microsoft

That’s where the comparisons should end.

Xbox’s team is quick to point out that the Xbox One is for gamers first and foremost and, obviously, that’s the core functionality of the system. You can go from watching TV to playing a game in literally an instant.

But the PS4 is just a game console. It does that. It does it well. The Xbox One is infinitely more ambitious. When you show your mom the Xbox One, her mind will be blown. Ditto your husband, cousin, or dog. The Xbox One is not a fully formed product quite yet but it’s the game console of this generation best positioned to change the game. Xbox One has a chance to be your entertainment system’s centerpiece in a way no other gaming system has ever attempted.

The overall Xbox One experience

As I mentioned above, within minutes of seeing a demo or going hands-on with the console, there are genuine “Wow” moments. A call of “Xbox On” will turn your system and – once set up with your cable box’s HDMI cable fed into your Xbox One – your TV on in one swoop. Stand in front of the Xbox One’s camera and it’ll recognize you by your face log you in to your Xbox profile, and welcome you with a prompt of “Hi Chris” on the screen. Tell your Xbox One “Xbox Watch TV” and you’ll be watching whatever’s on your cable box within seconds. It’s genuinely impressive to see out of the gate and a true jawdropper for anyone who hasn’t read up on the minutae of every development detail of the system.

Of course, it’s not perfect. Though the version I tested was still a non-final release of the operating system, it’s safe to assume you may experience some of the glitches I did.


Chet Siegel, our girl who’s never played video games,
tries her hand at reviewing the Xbox One.

-If the Xbox One couldn’t understand a command I made, it would often lock up and give up responding to other new commands until I hit the “Home” button to seemingly recalibrate it.

-When watching TV, a great deal of smaller cable channels just don’t seem to register on the Xbox One’s radar; Xbox One knows HBO and even HBO 2. But ask it to go to HBO Signature or, for our spicy friends, HBO Latino and expect your Xbox One to sit there dumbfounded as to why anyone would ever go to one of those channels.

-My Xbox One still cannot understand how I say the phrase “Go to Skype,” opting to send me to its Dropbox-clone Skydrive every time instead. Overannunciation and even calibrating my Kinect again did nothing to help.

-As it stands, you’d basically have to reconfigure your home theatre setups to play nice with Xbox One. It can turn on the TV but doesn’t turn on my cable box or soundbar. It can turn on the TV but doesn’t think to turn it off when I tell the Xbox One to turn off (given that they aim to go hand in hand, there should at least be an option to connect that logic). If Xbox One’s software team steals every functionality from the famous Logitech Harmony remotes – basically customizable to other tangential products, easy to add in new devices (and it should be since the Xbox One controllers use IR, the technology your remote does), and intelligently laid out — it would make a TON more sense.

These little things can be frustrating. But at the same time, they are software problems. There could be a patch tomorrow that Microsoft releases that transforms the console into a perfectly tuned virtual assistant. But if you expect things to be flawless at launch, you may find yourself disappointed.

Gaming on the Xbox One

Unfortunately, we’re not able to talk about the games themselves in detail yet. Due to embargo rules for some of the titles I was hands-on with, it makes more sense for me to cover them all at more length in one swoop later this week (check back on Guyism on Thursday for my thoughts there). But tackling games like Dead Rising 3, Ryze, Forza, and NBA 2K14 was a pleasure. Without exception, each game is a massive graphical leap forward from the previous gen and, while gameplay may vary, they’re all noteworthy in different ways.

One big gaming-specific change on Xbox One is that, if you’re a diehard gamer, sharing gaming footage is easier than ever. Say “Xbox Record That” and you’ve got the last 30 seconds of your gameplay lined up and ready to go, either for editing or immediate upload, on Xbox One’s Upload Studio. The Twitch.tv streaming integration has been delayed but that’s something that should be of interest to a lot of the hardcore gamers out there.

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Microsoft

But there are also some dumb changes with games in the current version of the Xbox One OS. Specifically, a change to achievements drove me nuts. They pop up the same way as usual except instead of more details on the achievement appearing instantly, you then enter an app experience to see what you just accomplished. What was once one click is now three and can take an extra 30 seconds. I have to assume this’ll be fixed sooner than later but it was by far the least logical thing I saw from the system.

Each game packs a lot of power and graphical support, which is great. But the downside is that many games require an install to work. The good news? You can start playing after it finishes a relatively small percentage of the install. The bad news? With a game like NBA 2K14, I could only play a game with the Miami Heat versus the San Antonio Spurs until the game finished 100 percent installation, which took about an hour. For a story-based game like Dead Rising 3 or Ryse, that’s relatively fine since it’s a linear process. But with a sports game? Not being able to pick up and play would get very obnoxious very fast.

And I have questions about what the whole Install game means for the hard drive. A 500GB hard drive sounds like a fair amount now. But after 10 or 20 game installs? That space can evaporate fast unless obsessively managed.

As for the catalog itself, a pain point for both the PS4 and the Xbox One, it’s worth discussing. Is the initial launch catalog worth you buying the system immediately purely from a gaming standpoint? Probably not. But I’m comfortable saying that you won’t be let down by whatever launch game(s) strike your fancy. From what I’ve seen, there are no duds. Perhaps not any grand slam home runs, either, but hey, you’re buying in on a cultural event right now more than anything.

Xbox One’s app experience

As of press time, Xbox One just rolled out the majority of its entertainment apps including Netflix, Hulu Plus, NFL, and others so we didn’t have a ton of time to play around with them (how the NFL app works on a Sunday with my fantasy lineup was something I was particularly curious about, but that’ll have to wait until next week, unfortunately).

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Microsoft

But one thing that’s noteworthy about the Xbox One app experience is the way apps integrate with the games you’re playing and the TV you watch. Xbox One has a gamechanging functionality called “Snap.” The principle is simple: You’re playing NBA 2K14, let’s say. You tell your Xbox One “Xbox Snap Watch TV.” Within seconds, you’ve got the Knicks game on in concert with your current game of NBA 2K14 with toggling between items requiring only a double touch of the glowing Xbox One button in the middle of your controller. It’s an impressive experience and great for multitaskers who’ve been relying on an iPad or laptop to double down on their media consumption in years past.

As of launch, the vast majority of apps are tagged as “Snappable,” meaning you can use them in the Snap experience as you see fit. If you want to watch Grey’s Anatomy while you wait for a multiplayer game of Dead Rising 3 to start, you can keep the TV on in the middle with the game in Snap mode so that you can keep an eye on it until your game is ready to start. You can also pop up your NFL app during football games to keep an eye on your fantasy team (assuming it’s on NFL.com, next year should feature more integration from other fantasy providers) or Skype with friends while watching Breaking Bad or playing Forza. It’s a second screen without the second screen and it functions as well as you’d hope.

It’s another one of those “Wow” moments that I keep bringing up. In today’s world, being able to do a little bit of everything at the same time can be a real difference maker in these console wars and the Snap feature is one that is going to be revolutionary.

My overall take

I’m the type of guy who’s big on the idea of “cultural items.” I go to most Marvel movies opening weekend. I had little to no interest in the first Nintendo Wii but ended up waiting in line to get one on midnight of the release day from the Toys R Us in Times Square because I was drunk and nearby. And I would have absolutely gotten in on the Xbox One madness somehow if I weren’t fortunate enough to have gotten one through the Xbox PR team.

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Microsoft

Make no mistake: The Xbox One is a conversation piece. It’s not just high tech. It feels like you’re touching the future. If you show someone the Xbox One at your house, there’s a 50 percent chance they’ll want to buy one for themselves just because of how impressive it can be. But, like the headline says – the hypothesis graciously provided by my friend Tomas – it’s like the Xbox One hasn’t totally figured out the scope of its powers yet. It’s a couple software moves away from fully realizing that potential.

Despite that, this machine is primed to be the center of your entertainment system for the next 5-10 years.

Until it fulfills its promise as the next generation of entertainment, it’s a great gaming console with tons of potential. Should you buy it? There are three ways I’d classify potential buyers:

-If you’ve got the $500 to spend and are just looking for a fun toy that can enhance your TV experience some now and even more in the not-too-distant future…RECOMMENDATION: An automatic buy.

-Casual gamers, particularly those who qualify as a sports fan who didn’t buy NBA 2K14, Madden, or FIFA 14 for the current generation of systems…RECOMMENDATION: Worth it to buy.

-People who are into the idea of the Xbox One but are a little tighter on money and aren’t sure it’s a must have right now OR people who have been Xbox fanboy but were scared off by some of the initial PR backlash…RECOMMENDATION: Check out an in-store demo if you can or if you have a friend who bought the Xbox One at launch even better. There’s a decent chance it’ll win you over.

For everyone else, unless you’re a fierce Sony loyalist, I recommend just keeping an eye on where the Xbox One is in the coming months to a year. The console has a great chance to be a key part of an entertainment system and, honestly, it’s the most exciting tech product I’ve used since the original iPhone.

Microsoft’s Xbox One hits stores on November 22nd with a MSRP of $499.99.

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