Xbox One review: less Kinect and a greater focus on what matters

Two and a half years into the current-gen console war, Xbox One has changed massively

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For

  • Robust internal specs
  • Oodles of potential
  • Improved controls

Against

  • Hulking brute of a machine
  • Lack of killer launch titles
  • Eye-watering price tag
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Xbox One review

The Microsoft Xbox One doesn't just want to beat the PS4, it wants to be your 'input one' entertainment device. Check out our Xbox One review

Out of all of the participants in the forthcoming next-generation console war, the Xbox One has had the most to prove. Unlike the Sony PS4, which has been championed by gaming industry pundits and media alike, Microsoft's console met with outright hostility when it was first announced and in the months that followed it was one PR disaster after another.

WATCH:Xbox One S vs PlayStation Neo - which will win the next round?

Yet, over the past two and a half years, Microsoft has been performed a huge PR overhaul in a hope to build fan trust and entice new adopters heading for Sony's machine by default. The New Xbox Experience has excised the stain of Windows 8 and created a UI that's intuitive and rewarding to use, while the addition of cloud processing has helped Microsoft really close the gap that seemed so cavernous back in late 2013/early 2014.

Even the addition of Xbox 360 backwards compatibility - a feature Microsoft was adamant couldn't be done in 2013 - has helped refill the goodwill towards it.

The decision to no longer include Kinect as standard - a move that's effectively killed the peripheral dead - has helped Xbox One immeasurably. Considering it's also brought the base price of the console down (a figure that's fallen all the more thanks to a slew of price cuts since 2014), investing in Xbox One has never been more enticing.

WATCH: Xbox One Smartphone Concept video

Xbox One: Size & Build

The Xbox One certainly doesn't look as sleek as Sony's PS4. In fact, it's a big, hulking brute of a machine that bears more than a passing resemblance to a Betamax video recorder circa 1984. It's a 263 x 80 x 305 mm slab weighing about 3.2kg. Cast in 'Liquid Black', its top is split in half with a reflective surface on one side and a massive vent on the other.

Incidentally, this is a console designed to sit flat underneath your television set, with its Kinect sensor staring grimly out at the contents of your living room. Plonk it on its side and Microsoft won't be held responsible for your discs getting scratched.

WATCH: Xbox One unboxing video

Kinect slots into the back of the Xbox One, next to a series of ports including HDMI-in, HDMI-out, three super-speed USB ports, an Ethernet connector, S/PDIF for optical audio out and an added IR port.

The front-facing side has a disc slot – that will play Blu-ray discs, once the app is downloaded – a power stud, eject tab and a sync-tab for hooking up the one wireless controller the Xbox One comes packaged with.

Under the hood, the Xbox One is packing an eight-core x86 processor with an amped up 853 MHz GPU, 500GB of local storage, 8GB RAM with 32MB of eS RAM embedded memory. It also has wireless networking capability through its 802.11 wireless radio with built-in Wi-Fi support. It also makes barely a sound when you power it up.

Xbox One: Features

If all of this sounds intimidating, don't worry, setting this beast up is a doddle. Kinect, the power cable and – if you fancy watching live television through the Xbox One - most set-top boxes all slot neatly into the back. Once you boot it up, the console will ask you if you already have a profile. If you do, you'll need to go online to load it up. If not – or if online is an anathema to you – you can create a new one from scratch.

Online is easier, though. If you have a profile, you simply login with your password and instantly, your Achievements, save games, friend-lists and avatars are all ported across. It doesn't wipe your Xbox 360 gamertag – rather you now have gamertags on two platforms.

WATCH: Xbox One vs PS4 video

It also activates your Xbox Live Gold Status, if you have it. You can allow the Kinect module to link your physical appearance (if you're still using one) with your profile and that way, whenever you sit down in front of the console, it'll say 'hi' and then log you in. If someone was already logged in, it gives you the option of switching profiles. It even notices if another player is handed the controller.

You can also 'hold' the side of the screen to minimize the screen streaming entertainment, surf channels using voice commands and even program Kinect to start up when you say 'Xbox on'.

Xbox One: UI

The New Xbox Experience, introduced at the tail end of 2015, is the new way of using Xbox One and it's light years ahead of the Windows 8-based abomination early adopters had to endure for two years straight. The NXE is all about dividing all your content into four key sections - Home, Community, OneGuide and Store - with each one flowing much like a social media feed. Think of it like a rolling homepage with all the important functions on each tab accessible quickly with the minimum of fuss.

Games now have their own homepages known as Game Hubs - from here you flit between captures screenshots or video, see your Achievements and more. So the more you and your friend's play, the more populated these Hubs become. Players now have an increased friends cap as well – 1,000 friends – and can also follow other players, in much the same way that they would on Twitter.

The Store expands into four individual sub menus when selected - Games, Apps, Movies & TV and Music - and once again, everything is represented by large thumbnails with all the important functions (Use a Code, etc) are all front and centre. For those that love browsing digital titles, this clean and fresh UI is a godsend.

Community is Xbox One's equivalent of content feeds you find below each game on your PS4's UI, but instead gathered into one place. It's here you'll find all the user-generated content you could want - there's a strong balance between the progress of your friends (screenshots, recently unlocked Achievements and content curated from around YouTube and the wider community. If you like your Let's Plays, this is a great place to dive into.

OneGuide is, in the kindest terms possible, the ghost of Microsoft's integrated TV dreams focused into a new streaming-based hub. If you don't fancy browsing the Store, you can access Xbox One's library of rental films and TV, as well the most popular content from around the top streaming apps out there (Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, etc). There's a real Amazon/Netflix vibe here with the content layout - hey, if it ain't broke!


Finally, there's one of the - if not the - best addition to the Xbox One UI - the Panel. Accessible by flicking the left analog stick on the Home tab or by pressing the Xbox button while in-game, the Panel is the one-stop access point to your console's main features. From here you can see which of your friends are online, access messages, view Party Chat and change settings. Such a feature was sorely missed in the launch version of Xbox One and its inclusion makes all the difference today.

Xbox One: Kinect

There's a good chance if you're reading this review anytime after the initial first few months of launch that you don't have access to a Kinect sensor, but we'll round up its functions and usability because we're thorough like that. The Kinect sensor has been re-vamped since its first introduction on Xbox 360. It can now monitor heart-rate and muscle density meaning the virtual drill-instructors on the Fitness App will be doing players more good than ever.

Kinect also comes into its own on the video calling in Skype. Not only does the sensor produce a streaming video of the player at a pretty reasonable quality, but if they get up and wander about the room, the camera will track them.

The sensor's fidelity and spatial requirements have been vastly improved – players no longer need to stand so far back from their TV set – although players may find themselves having to repeat the odd voice command.

READ: Xbox One vs PS4: Next-gen showdown

Kinect can also track more players; up to four players can jump into a Kinect game now, and the sensor's facial recognition technology can differentiate between them.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that Kinect is better able to filter out intruding lights and sounds.

Unlike the previous iteration, the new Kinect module can work in almost pitch dark and isn't interrupted by lights angled towards it. It's also able to differentiate between the players voice and sounds coming out of the TV's speakers.

Xbox One: Controller

At first glance, the Xbox One's controller looks like a dead-ringer for its predecessor. Dual thumbsticks, face buttons, shoulder bumpers, D-pad and twin triggers are all where you'd expect to find them. But pick it up and play with it and the improvements become apparent.

The triggers feel smooter, the D-pad and shoulder buttons feel more responsive and the twin-sticks meld snugly to the player's thumbs. The pad overall feels more molded to the player's hands and the smooth surface is svelte to the touch. Instead of a Start and Select button, you have an Apps and Menu button, but they serve the same purposes in-game.

The most notable improvement are the rumble-filters beneath the controller's casing that give players a sense of immersion the Xbox 360 didn't have physically.

Much has been made of the control pad's re-design, but believe the hype; this controller is a marked improvement on its predecessor. It's build quality still feels a little plasticky, but it's analog sticks are of a high quality when compared to easily frayed sticks on the PS4's DualShock 4.

The Xbox One Elite Wireless controller, designed for pro gamers and the most hardcore of hardcore users, rounds off the Xbox One peripheral roster. It's reassuringly heavier than the standard version and comes with a stack of extra analog sticks and D-pad faces to customise your pad. There are even a pair of steel paddles that fit onto the back to give you even more controls. It's expensive - retailing in the £129.99 range - but it's a must for pros who want to build a pad scaled around their competitive playstyle.

Xbox One: Games

At launch, Xbox One didn't have the best selection of games, but in the years that have followed some real crackers - both exclusive and multiplatform - have hit the console, bolstering its ever-expanding library.

Halo 5: Guardians is easily one of the best and a must for new adopters. Integrating one of the best single-player campaigns into the series' most robust multiplayer offering, Halo 5 is a shooter fan's dream land. Forget your Call of Duties - this is the real FPS paradise.

The game receives a constant stream of new and free content updates, with fan favourite game types such s Grifball being patched in to give players the game they want. Add in the most customisable version of map editor Forge yet and you've got one attractive package.

READ: Best Xbox One games: The ultimate list

If you're in the mood to plunder some treasure, Rise of the Tomb Raider is the title for you. Sony can keep its now retired Uncharted series - Microsoft has the rebooted Lara Croft embarking on her most ambitious journey since Tomb Raider 2 on the PS1.

Okay, it's technically meant to be appearing on PS4 at the end of this year (Microsoft signed a one year exclusivity deal with Square Enix) but that doesn't tarnish this action adventure for a second. From its opening vistas to the climatic finale, the rebooted series has finally found a balance between grand climbing sections, semi-open world exploration, gunfights and environmental puzzles.

Tombs - a feature lacking in the 2013 predecessor to RotTR, despite the word appearing in the game's title - are also back and huge in scale. These are a joy to tackle and provide brilliant upgrades that will make all the difference to your treasure pilfering ways. Exclusive or not, this game needs to be in your collection right now.

If you love you're racing, then you can't go wrong with Forza 6 or spectacular spin-off Forza Horizon 2. For the driving and racing purists, Forza 6 takes all the things Forza 5 did so well and ramps up the quality even more. With so many cars and tracks, and a robust career mode to boot, it's a car fetishists wet dream.

Forza Horizon 2 offers a far more accessible experience, but that still feels inherently Forza. Open-world like its Xbox 360 predecessor, this exclusive title heads to the countryside of Italy and offers all the street racing, car collecting, rep bulding madness you'd expect from the series. Cool, colourful and uttering addictive, Forza Horizon 2 is another must for racing veterans and newbies alike.

If you're looking at multiplatform titles, we'll keep it simple. The open-world stealth and espionage of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is incredible. Look past its convoluted story and you'll find one of the most rewarding sandboxes ever designed.

If you're even a teensy bit into RPGs, The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt is a must-have. The final instalment in The Witcher finale (but still accessible to new players), you'll find the most beautifully crafted single-player RPG world since Skyrim. Play this game right now.

Finally, there's Dark Souls 3 - with PS4 players enjoying the blood-soaked exclusivity of Bloodborne, Xbox One players were crying out for a bit of Miyazaki mayhem and we got it in Dark Souls 3. Punishing, deep and utterly intoxicating, DS3 will make you scream in frustrating but it'll make you pump your fist with self-congratulation more than any other game (well, maybe except Trials Evolution).

Xbox One: Verdict

Like its nearest and dearest rival, the Xbox One is absolutely loaded with potential. While it may have struggled in both user confidence and PR status in its first 12 months, Microsoft has done a confident job in cutting away the dead flesh of previous errors.

A shadow of the console it unveiled at E3 2013, the Xbox One is still better for it. It's now faster, more powerful and boasts enough base features to make even Sony look over its shoulder. PS4 may be selling more units, but the Xbox One is snapping at its heels with every passing month.

Xbox One release date: 22 November 2013

Xbox One Price: £229.99