Xbox One review - One year on, BBC iPlayer finally added
XBOX ONE KINECT
Microsoft was adamant that Kinect would be an integral part of the Xbox One - so much so that it initially bundled the depth-sensing camera with every console. The company has since backtracked on that decision, following an outcry with gamers about the increased price versus Sony's PS4, lack of games that supported the system and performance impact Kinect integration has on the console in general, but anyone that picked up a console in the first few months after launch will find a Kinect in the box.
Bigger than the original Kinect, with a black finish and angular lines that match the console, it's the first thing you see when opening the box and forms part of the initial set-up process.
Get used to this staring back at you - Kinect is heavily integrated with the Xbox One UI
The camera detects the number of people in the room, automatically signing in profiles as it recognises faces. If you download the free Xbox Fitness app, it can monitor you while you exercise, using a combination of RGB and infra-red cameras to monitor small details like flushed cheeks to estimate your heart rate. It also redeems QR codes, which is far easier than typing in 25-digit numerical codes to redeem Xbox Live subscriptions or digital downloads - it takes less than a second to detect a code, having activated it almost as soon as you raise the card to the camera lens.
It's more than just a camera, however. Microsoft says Kinect's microphones are precise enough to isolate your speech from across a room, even with game audio in the background, although a Chat headset does still ship with the console. In our experience, we still got some in-game feedback from our online friends when playing Killer Instinct, but for the most part speech was clear and of a much higher bit rate than the Xbox 360.
Most of the Xbox One launch games support Kinect in some way; Forza 5 can track your head movement to move the in-car view as you lean left and right, while Ryse: Son of Rome lets you command your fellow soldiers with voice commands. Dead Rising 3 lets you shout at zombies to get their attention, distracting them from your fellow survivors if they get into trouble. Third-party launch games FIFA 14 and Need for Speed Rivals let you use Kinect to navigate through the menus, while NBA 2K14 will actually penalise you with a technical foul if Kinect catches you swearing over a bad call.
However, these small touches are by no means groundbreaking, and apart from a handful of titles developed specifically for Kinect there's nothing we've seen that makes us feel it is a crucial addition to the Xbox One. The second wave of Xbox One titles haven't used Kinect to any real extent, either, so if you're torn on whether to buy a console with or without the camera, we don't think you'll miss it if you opt for the cheaper version.
XBOX ONE INTERFACE
Booting up the Xbox One takes a while. Out of the box, it takes well over a minute, which feels like a lifetime compared to the Xbox 360. Once you activate the Instant On function, the console resumes from an energy-friendly deep sleep in just a tenth of the time. This speed is present throughout the operating system, letting you jump from a game, to the Xbox store, to recorded video clips and back into your game without having to reload.
Logging in to your Xbox Live account takes seconds with Kinect, so the first thing you see is the home screen
The tiled Xbox One interface takes several visual cues from Microsoft's Windows 8 desktop operating system, with simple yet colourful icons and a grid-based layout which is well suited to big-screen use. Kinect voice commands are heavily integrated into the system, so you can get to pretty much any game, app or menu without having to reach for a controller.
You can say "Xbox" at any time to get a brief overview of available voice commands. Any text highlighted in green can be spoken and Kinect will recognise it, although it doesn't pick up on shortened versions - this means you'll need to say "Forza Motorsport 5" instead of "Forza 5", or "Ryse Son of Rome" instead of "Ryse".
Most commands make sense; "Xbox Snap" will split the screen into two, letting you have one app running in the background while you play a game or watch TV. "Xbox Record That" will save the last 30 seconds of gameplay as a video clip which can then be watched by your Xbox Live friends. Others, however, are slightly more obscure. Saying "Xbox On" will wake the console from standby if you're using the Instant On power saving mode, but you'll have to say "Xbox Turn Off" to power it down again.
Once you lean the right commands though, it's often faster than using a controller, as Microsoft has oddly decided to bury some apps, menus and settings in counter-intuitive places. The Xbox UI also has support for gesture commands, although these don't work quite as well as voice commands and Microsoft has stayed oddly quiet about their inclusion. The March update makes it possible to disable Kinect hand gestures when watching video, as they were all too easy to activate accidentally.
Saying "Xbox" will highlight every onscreen command in green
Pinning apps to the home screen puts them in easy reach, but to do so requires a press of the menu button and there's no on-screen prompt to do so. The list of installed apps is arranged horizontally, and quickly builds up; the amount of scrolling required to find your games could prove cumbersome after a year of installing new titles.
These two rows hold every app and game installed on your console - it will quickly build up into an epic list
We're already beginning to experience this effect, as almost everything has its own app. You'll need to install a specific app to play Blu-ray films as there's no in-built player, meaning there's no way to play films at all until you take the console online. It takes around 6 seconds to load a 2D film, so it at least reads discs quickly, but there's no auto-resume function. Audio CDs have their own separate app too, and there's currently no support for 3D discs.
There was no native DLNA client at launch, which meant it wasn't possible to browse through multimedia files on a networked PC or NAS device as you could with the Xbox 360. Instead, gamers had to rely on a DLNA media server like Skifta to push files to the console, which then switched between the Xbox Video and Xbox Music apps depending on what content you try to play. These were confusing ways to handle multimedia considering Microsoft's insistence that the Xbox One is a hub for all your content, so it was much appreciated when an official DLNA-compatible media player was released in October. You can use it to play files over the network, including the sometimes tricky MKV file format, or play content directly from a USB flash drive.
XBOX ONE TV AND GUIDE
At launch, the new console came off badly when comparing on-demand services to its predecessor. Netflix, LoveFilm and 4OD were all present, but there was no BBC iPlayer, Sky Go, Now TV, Demand 5 or BlinkBox - meaning early adopters were forced to hold onto their Xbox 360s if they wanted to continue watching on-demand video from those providers. The March update added Twitch, the gameplay streaming app initially promised to arrive at launch that lets gamers watch other players or stream their own gameplay straight to the web.
Thankfully Microsoft and its partners have stepped up their game, so one year on Xbox One owners now have access to BBC iPlayer, Now TV, Blinkbox and Demand 5. Some are fully featured catch-up services, but others are early releases that are missing features; most notably, iPlayer is lacking any kind of Resume Playback function, although the BBC is expected to update the app at a later date with the feature.
We're still waiting for Sky to add Sky Go support, which is particularly troublesome for Microsoft as rival Sony managed to secure 'TV from Sky' (essentially Sky Go by another name) in December.
The Xbox Store got off to a slow start, especially where on-demand video apps are concerned
TV integration is arguably the Xbox One's killer feature outside of games. Once connected to the console, you can use your Sky, Virgin or YouView box just as you did before, but with many added benefits. You can see notifications and invites from gaming friends, have a Skype conversation in a Windows alongside live TV, or even bring up a web browser there.
The Xbox One isn't fussy about what devices it displays through the HDMI passthrough port, happily accepting 720p, 1080i and 1080p signals. That means you could connect a PC, smartphone, tablet, digital camera or camcorder, but we expect for many the obvious choice would be another games console. You can technically hook up an Xbox 360 to finish those final few last-generation titles like Grand Theft Auto 5, or go crazy and connect a rival console like the Nintendo Wii or Sony's PS3 or PS4. However, be aware that the Xbox One introduces a significant amount of latency to the input signal that could make it difficult to play your games. It varies between consoles and games, but the average appears to be between 150 and 200ms - combined with any controller and TV lag and you could be looking at nearly half a second between input and on-screen action. This would be largely irrelevant for turn-based strategy games like Civilisation 5, but fast-paced twitch shooters like Call of Duty could be a nightmare to play accurately.
Most people will therefore stick to using the HDMI passthrough with a set-top box. Microsoft finally added UK support for the OneGuide unified program guide with the June firmware update, which brings your set top box's TV channel listings to your Xbox One for browsing programmes and setting up recordings from the console. You will also be able to put content from streaming services and even YouTube subscriptions alongside TV content and recordings. It's a slick system that would appear to be a no-brainer for Xbox owners, but convincing the rest of the family to abandon a familiar remote control in favour of an Xbox One controller or Kinect voice commands might be a challenge.
One issue that came to light at launch is that any TV or video signal passed through the console, but particularly panning shots and live sports, looks juddery on a UK television. This is because the Xbox One was originally locked to a 60Hz output, while UK TV runs at 50HZ. The Xbox One has to then repeat every fifth frame for two frames to make up the difference, resulting in juddering. Thankfully, Microsoft fixed this issue with the first major dashboard update in early March, meaning there's no reason not to wire up your Sky, Virgin or Freeview box to the console.