After an eight-year run and 80 million units sold, the sun has officially set on the Xbox 360. Waiting in the wings is the new Xbox One, the third console from Microsoft.
The company has billed it as an "all-in-one entertainment system," with the idea that the One will control your entire television experience, seamlessly integrating streaming Internet media, regular cable TV and, of course, gaming -- without ever having to leave the Xbox ecosystem.
So does the ambitious experiment work? Yes and no.
The Xbox One system with controller and Kinect.
The first thing many people will notice about the One is how quiet it is when running. That silence is a substantial improvement over the loud whirring of the Xbox 360's fan, an uninvited noise that interrupted quieter gaming or binge-watching sessions. And in a welcome departure from the white of the original Xbox 360, which made any dirt or dust glaringly noticeable, the One machine sports a sexy black look. It's still quite large compared to the PlayStation 4, which was also released this month, and it lacks the portability of its smaller and lighter rival. But at least Microsoft finally caught up to Sony and added a BluRay player, completely leaving the Xbox 360's HD-DVD disaster in the dust.
The One's controller features mostly small but welcome changes. The D-Pad is more responsive, and the textured analog stick has thicker edges to give gamers a real grip -- especially important in fast-paced games. Two new impulse triggers offer precise vibrations to match gameplay action, adding an immersive layer to the experience.
The Xbox 360 controller (left) and the Xbox One controller (right).
For Windows 8 users, the Xbox One's interface will look strikingly familiar. The console's dashboard is now both simpler and more customizable, with three tabs functioning as the main points of navigation. The first tab features "pinned" apps that essentially serves as a list of favorites. The center tab is made up of your most recently used apps. And the third tab gives access to the store, where users can buy games, music, movies and other programs.
The pins have a nice flexibility to them, allowing individuals to save specific musicians on Xbox Music or TV shows on Netflix to their front screens. Other notable apps include Skype, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, ESPN, NFL, Redbox and SkyDrive for cloud storage.
A look at my personal Xbox One dashboard.
Owners of previous Xbox models will particularly enjoy the ability to explore the new console's dashboard while games are running in the background. That means no more having to cancel or reset your game just to return to the dashboard.
A lot of navigating around the One can be done with the Kinect, the motion- and voice-controlled device that drew the vitriol of gamers everywhere for being an unnecessary $100 addition to the system (and, many speculated, a possible NSA spying device). Much like the new One controller, Kinect can take over the duties of your traditional TV remote. It will log you in by scanning your face and then load your favorite apps and channels instantly, a slightly disconcerting but admittedly useful feature for an Xbox shared by different members of a household.
Using voice commands such as "Xbox, watch TV," "Xbox, mute" or "Xbox, watch CNN," you can control your TV without having to change inputs. The transition between the main One dashboard -- which you can get to by saying "Xbox, go home" -- and your television is very smooth and quick. I’d say such verbal commands have a success rate of about 80 percent, but that rate decreases in louder and bigger rooms. The same cannot be said for in-game commands, which work less frequently and feel a bit forced. Some extra commands, such as “previous channel,” would be nice (as would not having the TV shift to FOX News when you were looking for NFL RedZone).
Another verb gamers will have to learn is "snap." That command lets players designate one-quarter of their screens to a second app or activity. Saying "Xbox, snap TV" would bring up a television feed on the right side of your screen, where you could then choose what you wanted to watch. Services like Netflix and Xbox Music can also be snapped.
A game of "Forza Motorsport 5" plays while the NFL app snaps to the right side of the screen.
You can also snap a feature called "Activity," which offers a Twitter-like stream of what your Xbox friends are doing in real time. Now that Microsoft has upped the friend limit to 1,000, these feeds could get quite busy. Gaming buddies will appreciate the ability to snap a game’s waiting room, letting a party of friends do something else while they wait for others to join.
Speaking of friends, game rivalries can be taken to a new level with the One’s in-game DVR. Gamers can use the Upload Studio to edit gameplay clips with picture-in-picture commentary, voiceover and decorative skins before uploading the clips to SkyDrive, where they can be shared and watched again.
Snap is not without its problems. For one, there’s no way to control the layout of the material on the screen; it would be nice to have the two screens laid out in equal rectangles. The volume of the two snapped activities, however, is a 50/50 split, meaning you'll hear a little bit of your game, and a little bit of whatever else is playing. You can't opt to just listen to one thing. A Microsoft representative who demo-ed the system for me said this was “on the to-do list.”
There is lots of blood and carnage in "Ryse: Son Of Rome." LOTS of it.
Though a less powerful system on paper than the PlayStation 4, the One's graphics still shine. In “Ryse: Son of Rome,” the system’s biggest exclusive launch title, entire Roman armies fill the screen in booming cinematic war scenes, transitioning in and out of gameplay seamlessly. In “Dead Rising 3,” you’ll find no sense of slowdown, even as you mow down hundreds of zombies in a single frame with a leaf blower that shoots dildos. (Yep, you read that right.) During certain periods of driving my wood-paneled Hyundai in "Forza Motorsport 5," I could have sworn I was looking at an actual car. Forthcoming games titles include "Halo 5," "Titanfall" and "Quantum Break."
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So the Xbox One is a powerful machine with lots of intriguing ideas and improvements. But is it worth the $500 sticker price, not to mention the $60 per year for an Xbox Live Gold membership?
It really depends on your current needs. If their old consoles haven't gotten too much mileage, Xbox 360 owners may hold off for a bit and feast on the system's hearty back catalog and new games, none of which will be backwards-compatible with the One.
For home entertainment purposes, those with a more complex setup may want to research how the One could integrate with their needs. For families with a TV and a love of streaming content, the One's customizable profiles that let you pick and choose your favorite channels and apps will be useful.
Although the One has its flaws, it's important to remember where the Xbox 360 was when it started, and how far it's come. Microsoft will surely get feedback from owners and mold the One into a more perfect version of an all-in-one entertainment system. What they've got now is a nice foundation.