xbox one hands on review 02 640x406As people are getting anxious about getting their next-gen consoles in time for Christmas (a Nov 8 release was rumored, then it got debunked but although supply is said to be constrained), it is clear that most buyers will order theirs before we get the retail unit that we ordered last month. With that in mind, I thought that it may be useful if we did put together a hands-on review of the Xbox One based on our experience from E3 2013 and the demos of the hardware and some games that we got behind closed doors.

With Xbox One, Microsoft bets that it can go beyond traditional gaming and by requiring Kinect to be part of the base package, it hopes that developers will push Kinect development further since it can benefit all Xbox One users. Microsoft is also pushing for a better integration with TV services and with live TV. Although is this mainly a U.S thing at the moment, it could expand abroad, eventually. Let’s take a closer look at the Xbox One.

Xbox One Specs

Xbox One
CPU 8-core AMD “Jaguar” 1.6GHz
GPU 768 cores
On-chip memory 32MB eSRAM
On-chip bandwidth 109GB/sec to 204GB/sec “peak”
Memory 8GB DDR3
System Memory Bus Width 256bit
System Memory Bandwidth 69GB/sec
USB 3.0 Yes
Blu-Ray Yes
Storage 500GB not user removable
External Storage USB
Cloud Storage Yes
Networks Gigabit Ethernet, WiFi B/G/N
Bluetooth No
Region locked No

Let’s get it over with the specs: the Xbox One uses a PC-like architecture, with some specific tweaks, like the on-chip 32MB of eSRAM memory designed to boost the effective bandwidth. There are various numbers coming from Microsoft which say that at peak efficiency, the Xbox One could hit 192GB/sec of bandwidth (simultaneous reads+writes), but of course, this is a theoretical peak and we’ll have to see what will happen in real games, some developers are already talking about a “substantial” performance difference between PS4 and Xbox One, but we haven’t seen any data or evidence of “how” substantial this really is. The overall memory architecture of XB1 is not unlike XB360, and this has proven to work quite well in the past.

xbox one chip

Xbox One is powered by 8 AMD “Jaguar” X86 cores – no surprise there. Games can use more CPU cores than most apps as virtually all the heavy-duty work can be split in smaller tasks and offloaded to several CPUs at the same time. This is a great way to increase performance without pushing the chip frequency too high, since that would raise the internal temperature very quickly. Microsoft has recently announced more details about the Xbox One processor, to you may want to read our article if you want a bit more details in this particular piece of hardware.

The graphics processor (GPU) of the Xbox One has drawn some controversy, since it has 50% less raw horsepower than the PS4 GPU. Microsoft has increased the XB1 GPU frequency by a small amount, but it can’t compensate for the difference. How much this will affect the quality of games has yet to be determined, but Microsoft had to get some help from prominent developers to calm things down, at least from a PR standpoint. Yet, the question is very legitimate: since a lot of games are successful because of the high level of graphics quality, this could truly have some impact down the road. How much remains to be seen. Since many games and demos at E3 were running on PCs, we don’t have a complete picture of the console’s performance.

Xbox One Industrial Design

xbox one hands on review 05 640x425The Xbox One certainly has a very “boxy” look. I am personally not a big fan of it, and I’m not sure why it is so big, with an external power supply of that size, but I take it that beyond the initial reaction, it will be sitting on a corner of the room or in a piece of furniture anyway, so yes, it’s big, but it’s not a roadblock at all.

xbox one hands on review 08 640x425

Interestingly, there are no ports on the front (unless you count the optical drive as a “port”), but if you look in the back, there plenty of them.

  • HDMI In + Out
  • SPDIF
  • Ethernet
  • USB 3.0 (2X)
  • Power

If you wonder why there are two HDMI ports, it’s because the Xbox One can be used as a pass-through for your Cable Box, which ensures that Xbox One can display, or augment live TV shows and that you can use Xbox One to command many live TV functions. It remains to be seen how well the console can talk to the various set top boxes out there, but let’s assume that it works with the popular ones for now.

On the sides and on the back, there are huge cooling vents. It looks like Microsoft wants to make sure that the initial overheating issues that Xbox 360 suffered from would not happen here, so the cooling looks largely sufficient, if not overkill. Since E3 was super-noisy, I don’t know if the fan is noisy or not, but since the box is bigger, it could accommodate larger, slower and quieter fans.

We do know that Microsoft has worked hard to quiet things down, and this is probably why this box has so many exhaust vents. I expect Xbox One to be quieter, especially when you take into account that games will be launched form the internal storage most of the time (they are “ripped” automatically to HDD), so you won’t have to hear the optical drive’s motor.

Xbox One Controller

xbox one hands on review 06 640x425Microsoft has said that they make “40” changes to the Xbox controller and I have to say that it is better. The controller is still relatively big, but by now most Xbox gamers are used to it, and long gone are the days where people were making fun of the Xbox controller size (for reference, I’m wearing M-sized gloves). I think that the controller has a higher build quality and I prefer the new button shape as I found the old ones to be a little slippery and taller, especially when trying to do complex moves, Tekken-style.

The analog control on the Xbox One controller look much better and they have a micro-texture that provides additional grip. The D-pad remains smooth so that quarter-circle movements remain possible without ripping your fingerprints off each time you play Street Fighter. Here is how Microsoft pitches the new controller:

Off the top of my head, I can only think of improvements from the old 360 controller to this new one. What do you think?

Kinect 2

xbox one hands on review 01 640x384

Microsoft has made quite a bit of progress with Kinect 2. AT CES, the demos were very convincing that Microsoft had improved the speed at which Kinect reacts, but also the 60% larger field of view (FOV), which is now much larger and allows more players to be visible at once. The FOV also allows gamers to use Kinect in smaller rooms – a typical complaint, especially in countries where the average room size is much smaller than it is in the USA.

The new Kinect is powerful enough to record small details of your skeleton, like finger motion, smile and Microsoft has developed algorithms to figure out which muscles are stressed while you are moving or posing. For fighting games, it can also guess how strong your punches are. All this data could prove to be a treasure trove for the right developers."KINECT HAS A GREAT POTENTIAL, BUT IT IS NOT A SLAM-DUNK"  

At the heart of Kinect 2 lies new powerful sensors (Color and IR) that can perceive colors and depth much better than the first one. This is hardly surprising given the pace of innovation in electronics, but this opens up more possibilities and will give a chance to developers to come up with cool in-game features. For example, Microsoft had a nice demo in which Kinect could keep an eye on your heart rate by looking at minute color variations of your skin tone (this is probably derived from MIT research). Of course, this implies that the lighting conditions are good…

On August 12, Microsoft has confirmed that owners don’t have to leave Kinect turned on if they are not comfortable to do so. Obviously, this is not the ideal/optimal usage model from Microsoft’s point of view, but it’s up to you to decide. It has been speculated that this would eventually lead to a cheaper version of the base Xbox One, but so far, only the XB1+Kinect bundle is available for pre-orders.

kinect 2 action e3 2013 640x361

Kinect 2 in action during E3

Now, the real gamble for Microsoft is to take an initial loss in market share (due to the $100 difference in base price), to potentially gain apps that can “rely” on having Kinect. That’s a very important point, because as cool as the initial Kinect was (loved the dance games…), the developer adoption wasn’t great enough to make it a game-changer (Xbox 360 and PS3 are racing neck-to-neck). Right now, it is too early to know if games will really take advantage of Kinect in a massive and systematic way. For example, wouldn’t it be cool if you could communicate by military hand gestures with your (bot) squad in CoD Ghost or BF4? In the real world, there are things that developers need to take into account (crap lighting, stuff in the background, poor lighting…) and that makes this a tricky proposition.

Finally, there are the non-gaming apps, and voice control is something that Microsoft has been promoting pretty heavily as of late. There is certainly a crowd for that, and depending on how reliable Xbox One is from that point of view, we could see a case for it. How happy customers are with the level of control will determine if it is a “feature, or a “gimmick”. In the end, Kinect has great potential, but it is certainly not a “slam-dunk”.

Xbox One Games Line-Up

titanfall

One can argue that Xbox is more than a game console: it’s also a media/entertainment box. Yes, but… for one, if you live outside the U.S, things may not be that hot, especially around launch time, since most of the content licensing deals are for the U.S market.

Secondly, a lot of the content that people really want can be obtained either via a cheaper box, or requires a less-than-cool box with Cable/Dish/Satellite. Today’s video content is not a matter of technology, but a matter of business deals. That’s why I’m certain that success or failure of Xbox Ome will be determined by the quality and popularity of its games and not by its ability to display media content.

It is fair to say that cross-platform titles, especially when derived from a PC game, will be fairly close between Xbox One and PS4. The likes of Battlefield 4 or CoD Ghost will share the same content, and performance aside, they should offer a similar gaming experience.

It will be up to exclusive games to make a difference, and in that department Microsoft has things to offer. Forza Motorsport is one of those titles. It looks great and has built a loyal following over the years. Project Spark is a new concept that aims to put the creative control into the player’s hand. It looks great but it’s hard to tell if it’ll be a hit at this point.

TitanFall was once presented as an Xbox-only title, but may come to PS4 after all (wild rumor). It’s the FPS that seemed the most fun to me, thanks to the mix between controlling a Giant Mech Robot and/or play as a soldier on foot. And of course Halo is going to be a huge asset if it delivers. I’ve met a lot of people who would justify buying an Xbox One for that title alone. What’s your favorite Xbox One game? Link to the official list of XB1 games @ Microsoft.

Xbox One DRM policy and connectivity (180 degrees turn)

Fortunately, not long after the E3 Xbox One DRM policy debacle, Microsoft has bowed to user pressure and basically canned its policy of requiring users to be connected on a regular basis, and lifted the limitations around sharing discs. If you haven’t heard of that before, you can just ignore the whole thing and consider that Xbox One will have the same policies as Xbox 360. An Internet connection will be required only once during the initial setup.

Of course, this does not prevent game publishers to require an online account and things like that, but at least, this is not a system-wide policy so gamers can pick and choose based on their own criteria set.

Xbox One was originally scheduled to be region-locked, but in late June, Microsoft has made it clear that this is not the case anymore.  Don Mattrick, then president of the Interactive Entertainment business at Microsoft, said “there will be no regional restrictions”. For all the details about the Microsoft policy reversal read the official Microsoft blog post.

What about IllumiRoom?

This is a question that I have been asked *a lot*. If you’re not familiar with IllumiRoom, it is a great concept that Microsoft Research talked about: basically, one could connect a projector to an Xbox to project additional content in the roughly 5-7 feet on each side of the TV, to provide additional immersion.

I personally love the concept and I really wish that it would become a (high-end) product, but I’m not sure at all that it would be commercially viable. The amount of setup and calibration required, along with getting a projector and mounting it at some convenient location, makes it difficult to imagine that this would become a mass-market product anytime soon. Since you need some software support in games, developers may be skittish to add a feature that very few would use.

Yet, it is not completely impossible and one may think that Microsoft could add the functionality, to provide a cool bonus for those who can afford the setup. That would sure give a LOT of coolness in anyone’s room.

The official Microsoft stance on this is clear: “this is just research at the moment” they say. Would you pay and setup this? Drop a comment to tell us.

Conclusion

It’s fair to say that the initial debut of the console at E3 was very bumpy, but Microsoft has reversed its policies and basically given to customers what they demanded: the same policies that govern Xbox 360 games today. How this episode will affect sales, I don’t know, but I suspect that the negative feeling will eventually fade away if Microsoft can offer nice bundle and terrific launch games. This is exactly what Microsoft is working on.

With the always-on Kinect and the cloud initiative, Microsoft is going into uncharted territories, and they deserve some credit for that. the thing is: we can’t assess what will come out of this and what the value is to the consumer. It’s simply new and unproven.

"DO YOU WANT KINECT AND EXCLUSIVE TITLES? IT COMES DOWN TO THAT"  

I don’t think that the $100 for Kinect is excessive, but I know that a lot of people would have preferred to have the choice of using Kinect or not. You can look at this in two ways: some will think that Microsoft is forcing this on them (in this case, just go PS4), others will believe that Microsoft is taking a big risk to make Xbox much better down the road.

It’s probably a bit of a mix, but Kinect and Microsoft’s cloud initiative may pay big time down the road. It’s just that there is no certainty about that today when you’re going to make your decision to buy or not, so this will require a bit of faith. If you are already committed to PS4, I don’t think that you will change your mind now. If you’re on the fence, think about whether or not Kinect and Microsoft exclusive games like Halo are critical for you. In the end, it really comes down to that.

Filed in Featured >Gaming >Reviews. Read more about Microsoft and Xbox One.

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