Xbox One review
The Xbox One is more than a games console - or at least that's what Microsoft wants people to think. The company has invested a huge amount of resources into the multimedia features of its latest console, which could arguably make or break the Xbox One in the eyes of gamers and set it apart from Sony's PS4. We've pitted the two next-generation consoles against each other in a separate article, but here we'll be putting the machine under the microscope to see if Microsoft has delivered on its promise of a console that will become the centre of your living room.
The next generation starts here - according to Microsoft, anyway
XBOX ONE DESIGN
There's no escaping it; the Xbox One is huge. It dwarfs the PlayStation 4, as well as both previous-generation systems, and could rival some AV amplifiers for the space it will take up underneath your TV. The angular lines, lack of physical buttons and combination of glossy and matt plastics give it an imposing, almost monolithic appearance.
Simple. Understated. Massive.
The design gives the internal components plenty of room to breathe; after the notorious Xbox 360 Red Ring of Death issue, Microsoft has taken no chances with the Xbox One when it comes to heat. An oversized CPU heatsink and fan, positioned directly below a massive exhaust vent, should ensure the console doesn't overheat even after hours of continuous gaming. It was barely audible when setting up the console for the first time and we struggled to hear it even after a full day of testing. Temperatures never exceed more than 50 degrees centigrade, whether you're watching TV or playing games.
XBOX ONE SPECS
After Microsoft revealed it was using semi-custom AMD Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) for the Xbox One, Games consoles have never looked closer to desktop PCs in terms of hardware. The two quad-core Jaguar processor modules in the Xbox One, which each run at 1.75GHz and are paired with 8GB of DDR3 memory, should be significantly easier to program for than the PowerPC-based CPU used in the Xbox 360.
Plenty of space inside. Image courtesy of iFixit - because we weren't brave enough to open up our console
Sony has taken a similar approach, also opting for an eight-core Jaguar APU and 8GB of RAM for the PS4, but both companies have made their own adjustments to AMD's reference design and taken wildly different approaches to graphics memory. The Xbox One relies on 32MB of fast-access ESRAM to quickly buffer textures into the slower DDR3 memory, which according to developers is more complex to program than the PS4's faster GDDR5 RAM. At launch, this has led to a resolution and quality disparity between the two consoles in certain games, but we expect the gap to narrow as developers get used to the Xbox One's quirks.
Anyone expecting the jump in visual quality between generations to be huge will be disappointed; although the realtime reflections on Forza's cars, particle effects in Killer Instinct and resolution bump in multi-platform games are all welcome improvements over the Xbox 360, nothing we've seen to date has blown us away.
Not the most convenient place for a USB port if you'll be putting your Xbox One in a TV cabinet
The slot-loading Blu-ray optical drive is a logical upgrade to the Xbox 360's DVD drive; the extra capacity has allowed developers to use bigger textures, increasing detail in games without needing to ship multiple discs. However, games aren't read directly from the disc; they must be installed to the 500GB internal hard disk; and with retail games approaching 50GB in size, it won't be long until that disk is filled. At launch there was no way to use external storage devices with the console, but Microsoft remedied this with the June update - when plugging in a USB hard disk with 256GB or more free space, the console will prompt you to format it to an Xbox-specific file format. Unfortunately this means you can't continue using it as external storage for a PC, but it's a lot easier than replacing the internal hard disk.
The disk isn't user-replaceable without voiding your warranty and at launch there was no easy way to manage the files on the disk - instead you had to separately enter each game's dashboard menu and delete the install files from there. Microsoft fixed this with the first major Dashboard update, making it possible to at least check how much storage space you have left from a single location. The Xbox One automatically saves your game progress to both the console and to the cloud, so you can access your saves from other consoles.
XBOX ONE PORTS
In order to avoid spoiling its minimal front face, Microsoft moved all the ports to the rear and left-hand side of the Xbox One. Analogue outputs have been dropped altogether in favour of HDMI, with a digital optical S/PDIF for hooking up older AV amplifiers. There are actually two HDMI ports; one to output video to your TV and a second to receive pictures from an external source - most likely a TV set-top box. At launch, the digital optical output could only manage stereo audio, although Microsoft finally got round to adding surround sound in the March firmware update.
The HDMI input is perfect for your Sky or TiVo box, but is too laggy to feed a PC or other games console into
There are two USB3 ports on the rear, as well as a third on the side of the console. This isn't as convenient as the front-facing ports on the Xbox 360, especially if you plan on putting the console in a compact TV cabinet. Although USB keyboard support wasn't included at launch, Microsoft has since remedied this with the first Dashboard update.
You'll also find the proprietary Kinect port and an IR blaster input at the back. The Xbox One will be able to control your set top box, to change channels and the like; this will usually be done with the Kinect, which has its own powerful IR emitter, so the IR blaster is simply a backup for those whose setups don't make this practical.
You have the choice between wired Ethernet and wireless 802.11n Wi-Fi for getting online; you'll need to pick one, as the console is useless without a day one update from Microsoft's servers.
XBOX ONE CONTROLLER
The Xbox 360 controller was widely regarded as one of the best controllers ever made, so Microsoft has been careful not to change the formula too drastically for the Xbox One. The new controller has the same offset analogue stick layout, four face buttons, two triggers and two shoulder buttons, but the start and select buttons have been replaced with menu and multi-tasking buttons respectively.
The smooth textured plastic creates plenty of grip and the contoured shape comfortably fits your hands
Despite being similar to its predecessor, numerous little changes make a world of difference. The new four-way directional pad is much more precise than the 8-way 360 D-pad, which was arguably its weakest feature. Individual rumble motors in the new 'impulse triggers' add force feedback directly to your fingers. A smaller dead zone and greater resistance to movement make the analogue sticks feel incredibly responsive. At launch some gamers called the new sticks too twitchy, but a firmware update created in part with input from Titanfall developers Respawn Entertainment reduced this effect, smoothing out controller movement. This is most noticeable in fast-paced first person shooters, but the refined controls also make a difference in driving games like Forza 5 (see below).
The Micro USB port can't charge the AA batteries, but plugging it in will save battery power
The battery compartment is now recessed within the controller, rather than protruding outwards as it was with the Xbox 360. Microsoft has opted for AA batteries rather than a built-in rechargeable pack, and these can't be charged via the micro USB port so you'll want to buy the optional Play-and-Charge battery pack to avoid constantly buying replacements. It was missing at launch, but the Xbox Dashboard now shows you how much battery power you have left in the player one controller - unfortunately additional icons aren't added as subsequent controllers are paired with the console.
You'll also need the optional headset adaptor if you want to use a third party headset with the Xbox One. Unlike the PS4, which has a standard 3.5mm audio jack that will work with just about any wired headset, the Xbox One only supported official accessories at launch. You have to go through a convoluted process to upgrade the controller firmware to support third party headsets too, although this means your expensive Xbox 360 headset will now work here too.
Overall, the controller feels superior in almost every way, which is a major achievement given the 360 pad's pedigree.