Microsoft’s Xbox One is the clearest example of the firm’s belief that game consoles must offer far more than games to succeed in a digital world.
Even the device’s name, which is admittedly a bit discordant for the third model in the Xbox line, hammers that point home. The “one” hints at the fact that Microsoft is looking to unify home entertainment around its console and make a clean break with old expectations about what a console should be.
It certainly makes an impression. The box looks mammoth, and is bigger than its predecessor, the Xbox 360, and Sony’s competing PlayStation 4. Its beefy, almost aggressive exterior screams power rather than style. That’s not to say the console’s textured shell doesn’t look good, but it’s certainly not going to win any prizes for portability.
That’s probably fine with Microsoft, which has done everything in its power to indicate that this device should be the immovable foundation of home entertainment. Not only does the Xbox One come with a suite of available entertainment apps, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, the NFL, and ESPN, it also plays live television by way of a hookup to a cable box. Microsoft built in a programming guide, aiming to keep users from ever switching their TV input away from the console.
Users can pin their favorite apps to their personal homescreens, and the Xbox One will support up to 16 logged-in users at once. In addition to video apps, the Xbox One shows off its pedigree as a Microsoft product with its own branded music and video apps as well as SkyDrive for photos and Skype for videoconferencing. Skype, particularly, is an interesting and promising addition to the console; the app uses the camera on the Kinect controller and can follow users around the room and adjust its zoom based on how many voices it hears.
That’s certainly not the only trick the Kinect has up its sleeve either — in fact, it contributes most of the factors that may persuade consumers to opt for the Xbox One despite the fact that it’s $100 more than the PlayStation 4. Microsoft has built the entire console around its motion and voice controller, meaning that users can speak to the console to open apps, control video and even record games as they play.
The current Kinect is much more sophisticated than its predecessor and can log in multiple users simply by reading their skeletal structure or hearing their voice. The included controller is also much better at reading voice commands, although it needs to have things repeated on occasion. Users can get around a lot of repeats by going through a more in-depth setup for the accessory, but it’s still not 100 percent. That said, when it does work, it’s quick and easy — so easy that you’ll probably find yourself talking to your television out of habit, even when the Xbox is not on.
All of that is great, but the non-gaming features alone still can’t sell this device. So although it can be easy to overlook the Xbox One’s gaming capabilities, they’re still at its heart. And the specs are everything that you may expect of a next-generation console and well matched against newly released PlayStation 4. Xbox One graphics are smooth and fluid, with responsive game play and few glitches.
Microsoft does, however, arguably have a stronger launch lineup of games, bringing heavy-hitters such as “Forza Motorsport 5” and “Ryse: Son of Rome,” which shows the promise and limitations of the Kinect’s potential for gaming.
Even here, however, the real “wow” factor on the gaming front comes from the console’s ability to switch in and out of a game in progress. Players can pause to switch apps and come back largely without a hitch, or even opt to play a game while using another app to watch television, for example. As with the rest of the console, the gaming functions are most notable for how they fit into a larger picture of Microsoft’s vision for the living room.
Overall, the Xbox One boasts a stronger array of games than PlayStation 4, but that’s an advantage that probably will fade over time.
Its greatest utility — and justification for your extra $100— lies in its all-in-one entertainment approach rather than its games alone.
The Xbox One will go on sale Friday and costs $499.
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