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Xbox One review: Microsoft delivers a solid contender with unlimited potential

Xbox One Review

When Microsoft decided to focus the Xbox One marketing campaign around the console’s media capabilities, my main concern was that everything would work just well enough, and nothing about the console would stand out. If the Xbox One was going to be a living room media device and a cable box and a video game console, something would have to give. But Microsoft proved me wrong: First and foremost, the Xbox One is a very capable gaming device, and a worthy successor to the Xbox 360.

Fittingly, the first thing you’ll see when you unpack your Xbox One is the Kinect. This is the Microsoft’s big gambit — the $100 addition that is poised to become an inseparable part of next-generation gaming. Like everything else in the box, it’s huge. You could definitely pack a few Xbox 360 Kinect units inside the monstrous camera that will be watching over your living room for the next seven years or so. It’s a sleek device though; the original Kinect looked like a plastic toy, but the Kinect 2.0 is a much more innocuous addition to your entertainment center.

The console itself is much bigger than I had expected. There are those who have compared the Xbox One to a VCR, and I am finding it hard to disagree. In other words, you won’t be buying the Xbox One for its portability. The console features both HDMI in and HDMI out, as well as S/PDIF, IR out and ethernet ports. Additionally, there are three USB ports and a slot specifically for the Kinect.

When it comes to controllers, I’ve always preferred Sony’s layout, particularly the analog sticks, but there’s no denying that Microsoft built the definitive console controller for the last generation, and smartly has changed next to nothing this time around. No fancy gimmicks or added functionality — the only significant changes are the death of Start and Select (replaced by the Menu and View buttons) and the raised profile of the right and left bumpers.

I have to wonder if anyone at Microsoft actually held the controller before shipping it. Because of the raised bumpers, switching back and forth between shoulder buttons is noticeably awkward. There’s no way to quickly slide your fingers from the triggers to the bumpers, which is an action that many games require. It’s a minor blemish on an otherwise great controller, but with no fix in sight, Microsoft managed to manufacture a new problem.

I want to try and avoid many direct comparisons to the PlayStation 4 in this review, but the external power brick, exclusive to the Xbox One this generation, looks even more ridiculous now than it did eight years ago, especially when it’s sitting next to a camera smart enough to track your skeleton in a pitch black room.

Microsoft also includes a decent headset in the box and a 14-day free trial for Xbox Live Gold, which is just as necessary on the Xbox One as it was on the Xbox 360. Without a subscription to Xbox Live Gold, you end up losing a majority of the console’s functionality. Netflix, Skype, Internet Explorer, OneGuide, game recording and online multiplayer are all barred from users without Gold, a vast majority of what the console was marketed on in the first place. It’s not unexpected, just disappointing.

Setting up the Xbox One was a bit more cumbersome than I would have liked. The initial update took about 20 minutes, and once it had completed installing, a message appeared stating that something had gone wrong. It had to start from scratch, but everything went smoothly the second time through. The first game I installed, Call of Duty: Ghosts, took its sweet time as well. It was nearly an hour until enough of the game had installed on the hard drive to allow me to start playing. Things seem to be moving faster now, but it was enough of a delay to make me take note.

I always felt that the dashboard on the Xbox 360 was too cluttered. Popping in a disc and starting a game was never complicated, but getting around the Xbox Marketplace or trying to change settings was counter-intuitive. On Xbox One, everything is front and center. Your profile, active program and recent applications fill up center screen. The storefront sits to the right, conveniently broken down into categories, and on the left are your personal pins: a custom list of games and apps. It’s not quite as snappy as I would have hoped, but there’s a whole lot going on in the user interface.

Plus, you can talk to it.

Kinect is both a waste of time and an epiphany all at once.

I didn’t keep a tally, but I’d say at least 90% of my voice commands were understood on the first try, and I can only think of one or two occasions on which the Kinect heard the wrong command entirely. It feels silly to request things from your TV out loud at first, but once you determine which commands benefit your experience and which inconvenience you, you can start to strike a balance. Navigating the menu can occasionally be faster with voice commands than with a controller, though it’s certainly not a necessity, and I haven’t gotten tired of telling my Xbox to turn off yet.

Another of Microsoft’s media initiatives is the OneGuide. The Xbox One replaces your cable box altogether once the two devices are connected through the HDMI out port, complete with DVR controls, voice commands, and a list of favorite apps and channels. Switching between watching TV and playing a game is as simple as a voice command: “Xbox, watch TV” and “Xbox, go home” seamlessly swaps between the console’s two primary functions. Although the OneGuide and the voice commands aren’t going to convince any non-subscribers to get cable, an Xbox One could be a worthwhile addition to your cable subscription.

One feature that I have yet to find any use for is Snap. Any time you open an application or start a game on the Xbox One, you can “Snap” in an extra application on the right side of the screen. I was running around in Dead Rising 3, hacking zombies to pieces, when I decided to shout out “Xbox, Snap TV.” A small screen appeared almost instantaneously on the top right of the TV with a live broadcast of Friends while Dead Rising 3 continued to run on the left side.

Snap takes up about one-fourth of the screen, so to really make use of the feature, you need a sizable television. That said, I have no idea why you or anyone around you would want to watch a 7-inch TV screen or try to talk on Skype while you race loud cars around a track. It’s worth mentioning that I couldn’t find any way to control the volume of the Snap and the main application separately.

Snap is a neat idea that doesn’t seem to have any practical use, but there is no telling how developers might make use of the feature with Xbox One apps down the line.

Sadly, Twitch streaming was not ready in time for launch, but recording and sharing game clips is still an option. At any time during a game, you can say “Xbox, record that,” and the last 30 seconds of gameplay will be saved to the hard drive. You can then export that footage to Upload Studio and trim it down, record a voiceover, and upload it to Xbox Live and your personal SkyDrive account. It’s a great way to quickly capture a shareable moment without interrupting your play session.

You can also Snap the Game DVR to the side of the screen and record in longer increments. Upload Studio allows you to splice clips together as well, so if you always wanted to upload a montage of your greatest gaming achievements to YouTube but never had the hardware to do it, now is your chance.

Microsoft went all out for third-party applications. Skype and NFL are both major head-turners, even for the consumers less interested in the gaming aspects of the Xbox One. If the Xbox One is going to be an all-in-one living room device, these partners are going to be a vital part of the console’s continued success.

Finally, I can’t conclude this review without talking about Microsoft’s second-screen experience.

SmartGlass turns your smartphone or tablet into a controller for your console, and it’s ridiculously cool. It can also detect when a game launches and gives you the option to open a built-in companion app. Much like Snap, SmartGlass hasn’t been fully implemented into the software yet, but there’s enough potential here to get gamer excited.

The Xbox One is everything Microsoft promised it would be. It plays Blu-Ray discs, it replaces your cable box, you can navigate the entire console without ever picking up your controller, and best of all, you can still play games on it. The only problem is that, other than playing games, it doesn’t do anything of those things flawlessly. You will occasionally repeat a voice command three or four times, the UI will stick and freeze momentarily while the system tries to catch up, and games will crash.

But the Xbox One is a platform. It will grow and evolve in the coming years, and once Microsoft pins down the issues and spruces up the dashboard, the Xbox One might become the nucleus of the living room that it was meant to be.

Jacob Siegal is Associate Editor at BGR, having joined the news team in 2013. He has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience, and helps to lead our technology and entertainment product launch and movie release coverage.