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December 4, 2013

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Editorial: “10 Days With the Xbox One” Hardware & Software Impressions

by Master Pillow

In my last blog post I presented my impressions of Sony’s Playstation 4 but as it is only fair this week’s editorial is all about Microsoft’s Xbox One.  If you are a die-hard gamer the past two weeks have been a whirlwind with the launch of both next-gen systems and approximately 40+ games that all attempt, in some way or other, to showcase what the future of console video gaming is all about.  My impressions of the PS4 have so far been highly positive so let’s see if Microsoft can also hit a home run.

Like I also mentioned in my Playstation 4 editorial, this blog post about the Xbox One will not feature a numerical or star rating as I find that it does a disservice to both units as it is far too early to make a definitive judgment.  Both of these systems will evolve in a much shorter time frame than ever due to the fact that their Internet connections will make patching a frequent occurrence and it is not without precedent that this time next year we all could be experiencing completely different opinions as to how these respective systems function.

1.0 Physical Impressions
2.0 Xbox One’s User Interface
3.0 Upload Studio & Sharing
4.0 Oh, Snap!
5.0 HDMI-IN
6.0 Kinect 2.0 Voice Commands
7.0 Xbox One Controller
8.0 Xbox One Launch Games
9.0 So Should You Buy Digital or Physical Games?
10.0 The Xbox One is Ambitious but…
11.0 Wrap-Up

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1.0 Physical Impressions

The Xbox One is HUGE.  Let me repeat, “The Xbox One is HUGE.”  Seriously, this is the biggest console you’ve seen since the original massive-sized Xbox and it completely dwarfs its PS4 rival in every measurement.  In an age where Apple has popularized a product’s design aesthetic as a serious element to consider the Xbox One initially looks awkward, almost as if it had magically teleported itself from the early 1980s to the present day.  It has often been described as a kind of “better looking” VHS box and in reality that description is not far from the truth.

However, its massive girth is not really a detriment as the system really exudes a kind of American muscle car vibe, more or less being a more aesthetically sleek update to the original Xbox. Yes, the Xbox One is essentially a….box…but Microsoft’s designers have, at least, added subtle visual flourishes, much like what Sony accomplished with the PS4.

The Xbox One is made up of both matte and smooth plastic, giving it a kind of two-toned impression exactly like Sony’s console.  The top of the Xbox One is split into two halves, the first being made of that aforementioned smooth plastic and the other being slyly concealed vents.  With both the PS4 and Xbox One sharing this pattern of smooth and matte plastic it almost makes one suspect that the companies were colluding with one another to share similar design elements.

However, conspiracy theory aside, the Xbox One’s hugeness can be an issue just because, unlike the PS4, the unit cannot be propped up vertically.  By forcing the unit to lie flat the console really does take up a lot of real estate and those with cramped TV/Monitor setups are going to feel the pinch.  This problem is compounded by the fact that the Xbox One ships with Kinect 2.0 which is itself huge and must be placed either above or below your TV meaning even more area must be dedicated to the Xbox One and that’s not even taking into account the still massive external power supply.

The console is emblazoned with two Xbox logos one of which is barely noticeable situated on top of the unit right above the front-loading Blu-Ray drive while the other is much more overt in nature as it doubles as the console’s on/off touch sensitive button that so happens to exude a bright white glow when activated.  I can’t prove nor disprove the next impression but over the course of the past week I’ve noticed that this button is highly sensitive to even the slightest of touches as you can basically graze it with the lightest of glances causing the console to automatically boot.

Speaking of booting, the Xbox One was designed to be “always on” so it has two power settings.  The console can be set to boot and shut down exactly like the Xbox 360 meaning once the power button/off command is given that the system will shut down completely.  At the same time, the Xbox One has a kind of stand-by power mode which is highly recommended since it comes with additional functionality.  First off, in this mode, the console can quickly turn itself on since it is basically already functioning albeit in a low-powered suspended state.

This can be accomplished by touching the power button or by the new cool functionality embedded in Kinect 2.0 which recognizes your face and immediately powers the system on and logs you in.  When it works the result is actually somewhat magical/foreboding as you can enter your living room and cause the Xbox One to automatically turn on, log you in and, if you’ve set it up right, also switch on your TV and audio equipment.

It might not sound so grand but once you’ve experienced it in motion you can’t help but feel impressed at the relative ease in which Microsoft has built the console to be your primary entertainment hub that controls virtually everything in your living room.

Thankfully, the Kinect 2.0 requires much less space in front of its cameras to function meaning that players should encounter less issues with having a small enclosed space as opposed to Kinect 1.0 which needed a larger field of vision to function.  The actual Kinect 2.0 unit is still quite hefty in weight so make sure you place it on a stable surface or securely fasten it to a recommended Kinect stand.  The new Kinect does not physically move/tilt around like the original as everything is now done inside the unit’s new cameras as is the fact that you now get an amazingly clear 1080p camera feed which is perfect for Skype calls.

Nevertheless, while the Xbox One and Kinect 2.0 take up much more space than the PS4 it does come with some added benefits namely that it is incredibly quiet no matter what you do.  The original Xbox 360 was infamous for being as loud as a jet engine but the Xbox One is the complete opposite being virtually whisper silent.  You really have to see and hear it to understand this because, get this, the unit is still remarkably quiet even when it is spinning a Blu-Ray disc which is a huge difference from the PS4 which literally sounds like a screeching hyena when it is reading for the drive.  It might not seem like a big deal but it really is appreciated.

At the same time, it is easy to understand why the Xbox One is so large since it is obvious that Microsoft doesn’t want another unfortunate repeat of their infamous “Red Ring of Death” aka RROD that plagued the first generation Xbox 360 that led to the company taking a money bath to the tune of a cool $1 Billion USD.  Not to mention, the huge uproar that emanated from consumers and the detrimental press it generated must have done nothing but reinforce the impression that Microsoft was a company “out to lunch” with their quality assurance practices.

While the Xbox One still gets warm the very fact that you can tell that there is a massive fan immediately below the right-side of the top vents is reassuring as is the telling tale that the unit still ships with an external power brick that has, wait for it, its own frigging internal fan.  Yes, there’s a fan in the external power supply as well which once again should remind everyone that Microsoft is taking zero chances in having their equipment essentially melt itself to death.

Unfortunately, that external power brick once again forces gamers to devote yet more space to the Xbox One so really be mindful of your entertainment center and properly plan how much you need to clear in order to even setup the console.  Also, I’m not sure who decided that it was a good idea to place a strong light indicator on the power brick itself as improper placement will result in it basically illuminating your wall which is a huge problem when you require absolute darkness while playing games or watching movies.

Oh, if you need even more evidence that Microsoft is taking its past console woes to heart please note that each Xbox One even ships with a big black warning sticker located right below the Blu-Ray slot informing consumers to not turn/move the unit on its side when a disc is spinning.  Seriously, you would think this is common knowledge by now but alas it must not be as Microsoft once again is merely doing everything they can to not draw attention to the past where, you guessed it, some crazy gamers decided to arbitrarily flip their horizontal Xbox 360s vertically while a disc was spinning summarily resulting in a totally scratched and busted disc that would never work again.  Sigh.  Oh well.

2.0 Xbox One’s User Interface

Whether you call it Metro, Modern or just plain Windows 8-inspired there is little doubt that Microsoft is in the process of unifying its entire software and hardware portfolio with the same design aesthetic.  Anyone who has used Windows Phone 7/8 or Windows 8/8/1 will instantly be at home with the Xbox One’s new user interface that essentially turns everything into tiles of different shapes and sizes.

It might sound like common knowledge but if you like Windows Phone or Windows 8 you’ll love the new Xbox One UI but if you thought it all looked like different Lego blocks for no reason than chances are that you might end up hating this new interface.  As for myself, I love it since I’ve been using Windows Phone 7 from the day it launched when I bought my HTC Surround Smartphone.  Not to mention, I like Windows 8 anyways so the Xbox One UI feels like an extension of everything Microsoft.

The new UI is basically split into three areas the first of which is what you see when you initially boot up dubbed the home screen.  From here you can access your Xbox profile, game library, achievements and whatever game/disc is currently inserted into your Blu-Ray drive.  Scrolling to the left of the home screen are the new Pins.  This is where you can customize the links/tiles to all the games, features and apps that mean the most to you.  For instance, if you had a game library filled with hundreds of games but really only wanted the five newest ones readily available without having to open the game library and search for a specific title, you could Pin a link to them in this new area so that it is easily accessible.

You can add other pins like Skydrive, Skype, TV, Xbox Video or virtually any other feature or game here to personalize what is essentially your own start screen that you see when you boot into Windows 8 or Windows Phone.

Scrolling over to the right of the home screen is the new dedicated area for the Xbox store where you can purchase digital games, add-ons, movies or TV shows as well as Xbox music and applications. All of these elements can be found in the Xbox 360 UI but for now I’ll focus a bit more on applications.

I lamented in my PS4 impressions that the Sony app selection here in Canada was beyond woeful but thankfully the Xbox One is better if only by a small margin in terms of quantity.  So far the app store has some apps that are missing on the PS4 such as Machinima, YouTube and TED.  Apps like Twitch, Uplay and Netflix can also be installed.  In a rather odd move, Microsoft has not pre-installed any of its own applications at all meaning, out of the box, the Xbox One doesn’t even have things like Skype.  Instead, you have to download and install them yourself from the app store so make sure you go get Skydrive, Xbox Music, Skype and even the Audio CD Player and Blu-Ray player.

Why these core apps are not installed by default is beyond me as they are either must haves like the Blu-Ray player or essential Microsoft services like Skydrive.  Considering that Microsoft is in the process of unifying their services across all divisions it makes the decision not to pre-install them all the more baffling especially since you actually require them to take full advantage of the Xbox One console.

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3.0 Upload Studio & Sharing

The last app to mention is Upload Studio which is Microsoft’s answer to Sony’s PS4 share functionality.  Sony has made sharing screenshots and video an integral part of their system as evinced by their inclusion of the dedicated share button on all DualShock 4 controllers.  This can be done at any point in a game or in the UI.  One of the cool features of the PS4 is that is pre-records the last 15 minutes of your gameplay session meaning you have easy access to footage at your fingertips.

By comparison, Microsoft has taken a slightly different approach to recording video.  By using Kinect a player can give the voice command, “Xbox, Record that,” which prompts the system to save the last 30 seconds of gameplay.  However, if you require more you need to snap the upload studio/game dvr app during gameplay and then manually give the command to record video.  This method nets you five minutes of footage.

Nevertheless, don’t expect the final video to be crystal clear at high-definition as it is compressed meaning that watching it on a small screen will be fine but seeing it on a large panel will actually be a bit of a downer as the resolution and clarity are somewhat lacking.  If you really want to capture crystal clear video you’d best look into using a decent PC.

The upside to Microsoft’s solution is that Upload Studio comes with basic editing tools which enable gamers to crop, trim and add cool effects such as placing picture-in-picture footage of themselves taken from the Kinect camera.  Unlike Sony’s sharing features, Microsoft employs Skydrive so gamers can upload their edited videos to Microsoft’s on-line service for free.

However, one big oversight is that currently the Xbox One has no screenshot capabilities, an incredibly baffling decision considering that the system already saves video.  Also, one of the big social media aspects of both consoles is completely missing on the Xbox One namely, the ability to stream real-time gameplay to Twitch.  Microsoft has commented that this feature is coming early 2014 but its absence is sorely missed.

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4.0 Oh, Snap!

What makes these applications a bit different is that many of them now work with the Xbox One’s vaunted “Snap” feature that is essentially a funky term for Windows multitasking where you can split your screen into two areas giving you the ability to run two programs at once.  Windows 8/8.1 users who stay in the tablet Metro interface or those who have Surface tablets will immediately understand what this “Snap” feature does and how versatile it can be for productivity.

For instance, you could boot up Microsoft Word on one pane and then open Internet Explorer in the other giving you easy access to reference material on the web.  This is no big deal for Windows since it could do this for decades but this is a completely new feature for gaming consoles.    As such, you can now play a game while watching TV or surfing the Net and though many might question the worth of such a feature the fact remains that it very much works as advertised and can be applied to many different real-life scenarios to enhance your gaming experience.

So here is a real life situation you might encounter on the Xbox One:

  • Turn on the system from suspend through Kinect face recognition
  • Start up Forza Motorsports
  • Snap Internet Explorer to find hints on the game or to check your Twitter or FaceBook feeds.
  • Close Snap to make Forza into full-screen again.
  • Fast-Switch to Ryse: Son of Rome which you had suspended from the night before and start from where you left-off in mere seconds.
  • Snap Live TV like ESPN to watch NCAA Basketball March Madness to follow your sports teams
  • Keep playing Ryse in one pane while watching TV in the Snap Pane.
  • You notice that your team is about to take the lead so you command the TV in the snap pane to enlarge to fill the entire screen.  Doing so automatically pauses your game of Ryse.
  • Watch TV until your team wins and switch back to Ryse to play exactly where you left-off.

If that sounds exciting and even a little bit cool then know this – it is and it is something which totally differentiates the Xbox One over the PS4.  All along Microsoft has touted the Xbox One as the all-in-one solution to your entertainment needs and it is easy to see their vision in the above example as they have attempted to create a seamless experience where one can flip between TV, the Internet and gaming with either a touch of a button or through voice commands.  Once again, it needs to be experienced first-hand as the result is truly amazing and without lag.

That is not to say that the PS4 is lacking or is a bad console but that the visions of both companies truly are as stark as night and day once you’ve used both systems.  The PS4 is first and foremost a gaming machine only while the Xbox One is aiming for a more ambitious agenda in trying to be the mythical set-top box that is the true center of your entertainment universe.  I’ll talk more about this issue in a later blog post.

5.0 HDMI-IN

When you look at the back of the Xbox One the single biggest item that stands out especially against the PS4 is the inclusion of the HDMI-IN slot.  What is this?  To keep it simple it means that you can plug virtually any device into the Xbox One’s HDMI-IN slot so you can essentially use it while at the same time having the Xbox One’s UI and functionality available.

For instance, you can plug your Xbox 360, Wii, Wii U or even, gosh, the new PS4 into the HDMI-IN and play those systems.  Imagine playing Halo 4 on your Xbox 360 and then saying, “Snap Internet Explorer,” and all of a sudden the Xbox One’s UI takes over and splits the screen so that the video feed from the Xbox 360 Halo 4 game is running on the left while the right pane can now display your Twitter feed.  Yes, this in indeed possible with the HDMI-IN and it is a cool sight to see something like your Dreamcast somehow running on an Xbox One.  In fact, it is almost surreal.

However, this comes with one big caveat and that is that doing something like this results in a lot of lag as the signal coming into the Xbox One through the HDMI-IN experiences major latency.  In other words, get rid of that idea of seriously playing twitch games like Killzone Shadow Fall on the PS4 while hooked up to the Xbox One as the lag makes it next to impossible to control.

That said there is one major big deal here and that is TV.  Microsoft has designed the Xbox One to be THE entertainment hub so it fully expects you to ram your cable/satellite TV feeds into the unit which gives the console one of its major selling points: the ability to snap TV feeds onto the sidebar while playing games and subsequently switch between games and TV on the fly.  It works as advertised and anyone who has TV and doesn’t hook it through the Xbox One will be seriously missing out on the cool functionality that the console adds to the experience.

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6.0 Kinect 2.0 Voice Commands

It is here that we need to pause and take stock of what eventually became the butt of all jokes from diehard gamers, namely Kinect.  When Kinect arrived on the scene Microsoft painted a rosy picture of a hardware add-on that could turn your body into a game controller and at the same time create new and fascinating ways in which to interact with games.  The result was however, rather disappointing as most of the games specifically for Kinect ended up underwhelming, especially those marketed directly to diehard gamers.

At best these games worked as intended but never really made a convincing argument that motion controls were in anyway better than pounding buttons on the controller.  At worse, in games such as Steel Battalion Heavy Armor, the Kinect controls just DID NOT WORK at all resulting in a totally busted experience.  In the end the only two real break-out titles were casual game, Kinect Sports and the three Dance Central titles from Harmonix.  Admittedly, Dance Central was an amazing game but it was not enough to convince gamers that Kinect was the next best thing for consoles.

Kinect 2.0 is a whole different story although the final verdict is still very much in doubt.  First of all the voice commands are flawless as long as you calibrate the Kinect properly as well as use the system’s proper syntax.  Do not believe those flaky game review sites which say that the tech is still busted as it plainly is not as long as gamers are prepared for a bit of a learning curve.  Over the past week, Kinect has correctly recognized more than 95% of all my voice commands with the only instances of failure being when my voice wobbled or was simply not loud enough.

The voice commands give consumers a totally cool and seamless way in which to navigate through the entire Xbox One experience from turning the unit on and off to ordering it to go to the home screen or launch an app, everything works fluidly and without significant delay.  Those who are incredibly lazy or have huge entertainment rooms where the couch is often far from the TV will benefit the most here as there is now no reason to fumble with a remote or the game controller.  Playing a game like Battlefield 4 and then shouting, “Xbox, record that!” is all it takes to order the console to immediately save the last 30 seconds of gameplay into the internal DVR.

There’s something liberating being able to sit on my chair and say, “Xbox, Bing.  Star Trek,” and having the console pull up tiles for J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot movie and Star Trek Into Darkness which then can be purchased or rented.

Voice commands aside, the other major annoyance with the original Kinect was how flaky the system was in actually detecting motion as oftentimes it would simply fail to properly recognize anything that the player did.  Not so with Kinect 2.0.  While there is a complete dearth of Kinect games available for the Xbox One launch, Microsoft has placed a demo for Kinect Sports Rivals into the Store for free which allows players access to only one sport, namely wave racing.  After getting accustomed to the way the motion controls are set up it becomes clear that the Kinect 2.0 is properly recognizing whatever the player is doing as even small flicks of the wrist are picked up by the sensor.

Another excellent way in which to test the new Kinect comes from Microsoft Fitness which is available for free to all Gold members for a year.  This is basically Microsoft’s answer to Wii Fit except it uses real proven videos from famous trainers like Gillian Michaels or Tracy Anderson while tracking how close each user is coming to replicating the moves seen in the programs.  When Xbox Fitness is running the training videos play in the center-left of the screen while the right side is taken up by the view from Kinect showing your skeletal body.  As each move appears on the video Kinect essentially grades your form and provides you with a grade as to how well you are matching the videos.  It works almost flawlessly even if it is a little creepy watching your virtual muscles moving around.

There is no doubt that Kinect 2.0 is light-years ahead of its predecessor yet the big issue now is that Microsoft seems to be downplaying motion controls in its announced upcoming games.  With the exception of Xbox Fitness and Kinect Sports Rivals the only real game that players can currently purchase is the awful Fighter Within so we are going to have to see if Microsoft’s vision for its Kinect sensor will eventually bear fruit.

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7.0 Xbox One Controller

Put simply, the Xbox One controller feels very much like a minor iteration of the Xbox 360 controller which is not necessarily a bad thing but it is somewhat disappointing that Microsoft did not attempt a quantum leap in engineering or at least add more functionality much like Sony did with the PS4 controller.  Still, the Xbox One controller is no slouch and those who loved the 360 controller will feel completely at home with the new design.

The device feels incredibly ergonomically comfortable and the first thing one will notice is that it is a bit smaller in size as well as lighter in weight.  Its sides are curvier and the resulting shape seems completely natural.  Microsoft decided to move the central rounded guide button up as well as flattening it and instead of its sides glowing green the entire button now lights up bright white, the effect looking like light going through transparent plastic.

One of the bigger changes comes with the new, much improved, D-pad which doesn’t totally suck as the one on the 360 which was next to useless when playing fighting games.  Thankfully, the old mushy and inaccurate D-pad has now been replaced by one that is inherently more clickable and precise which will be a Godsend for those fighting game fans.  It is now much easier to pull off complex button and directional movements although one side-effect is that the D-pad makes sharp clicking sounds which can be rather annoying.

The controller’s one big innovation is the inclusion of new impulse triggers.  Each of the two top triggers now comes with internal vibration and though this sounds vaguely useless the result is anything but.  Playing a game like Forza Motorsport 5 will immediately put your fears to bed as the way in which they are utilized really provides a new avenue in which to interact with games that was not possible in the previous generation.  As you drive your car around the track each of the impulse triggers will begin to subtly vibrate to simulate each tire’s grip in relation to the ground.  You can basically approximate how much your tires are beginning to slip and it gives players feedback to modify their controls.

However, while the controller feels ergonomically excellent there are unfortunately, a few issues first and foremost being the rather odd design of the two top shoulder buttons.  In short, they take some getting used to and I have a feeling that many gamers coming from the Xbox 360 are going to need a significant adjustment period.  This is because the new buttons are constructed with a hinge mechanism right at the top of the button meaning anyone who places the tips of their fingers right on top of the hinge will find that pressing down does nothing as the controller will not register a push.  You now have to basically push these buttons on the sides and it really is awkward considering the Xbox 360 controller had no such issues.

At first I didn’t really notice this problem since the first few games I played on the system were Ryse: Son of Rome and Forza 5 both of which utilized these buttons but they only required players to make quick presses which the controller usually recognized.  It was only when I switched to Battlefield 4 that I encountered massive frustration as the right shoulder button needed to be continuously depressed to activate the high-tech binoculars.  What occurred for me was that I found my fingers kept pressing the wrong part of the shoulder button causing the binoculars to keep falling away.

In the end I had to mentally prep myself to ram my finger down properly to keep the button depressed and it was annoying when it didn’t work.  That said the design is not a game breaker as all it requires is for gamers to reorient themselves to the new hardware but it also makes one wonder just why Microsoft thought that they had to change them in the first place as this new configuration really offers no performance benefits.

Another odd issue is that the build quality for the entire controller is uniformly excellent except for the top of it where the new guide button resides.  The plastic here feels incredibly thin and cheap and much of that is due to the fact that the battery compartment lies directly underneath it.  The Xbox One does not have an enclosed rechargeable battery like the PS4 so gamers will have to buy batteries or the Xbox One play and charge kit.  This is no big deal but for some reason this solution makes the top part of the controller feel inherently hollow, a fact made more apparent if one taps their fingertips on it as opposed to the thick plastic that the rest of the controller is made of.  You’ll really feel that the top plastic is cheap when you press the new guide button, as on mine, it made a creaky noise and I could actually feel flex as the button depressed.  Not so hot.  Hopefully, this was just a minor defect in my Day One controller and not indicative of all of them.

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8.0 Xbox One Launch Games

Anyone who has been following the Xbox One and PS4 will obviously know by now that just about every hardware expert out there has deemed the PS4 the winner in terms of raw horsepower and potential graphical output.  On the surface of it all this is rather damning for Microsoft as most gamers will inherently gravitate to the more powerful system with the expectation that the games will run and look better.  While this is true everyone out there should take their blinders off for a moment and think back to every console generation that has come before as they will quickly realize that having the most powerful hardware does not guarantee that it will propel the console into an indisputable lead in terms of sales.

The past generations saw the vastly underpowered Wii take the world by storm and the generation before that saw the PS2 dominate worldwide while the more powerful Xbox wallowed far back in second position.  The original Playstation captured the world’s imagination but the Nintendo 64 was held back by its insistence in using the cartridge instead of CD-ROM.  Even before that the lowly Sega Genesis managed to wrestle almost 50% marketshare away from Nintendo whose SNES was clearly the better hardware.  All this proves is that having the best hardware is always great but it in no way automatically translates into console dominance.

What makes the hardware argument even more of a moot point at the moment is that pound for pound the award for the best visuals of any launch title undoubtedly comes down to only two games – Killzone Shadow Fall on the PS4 and Ryse: Son of Rome on the Xbox One.  This is just my opinion but I bet if you put both of these games side-by-side and not show the console that they are running on that passersby will be basically split as to which one is the more visually appealing.  I might even venture a guess that Ryse will win out by a slim margin. To have the Xbox One essentially tied with the PS4 for best looking launch game is not a small feat if one really believes the PS4 to be light-years ahead on tech specs.  Between Forza 5 and Sony’s Knack there is no competition either as Forza runs circles around the 3D platformer with super smooth 60fps and sublime lighting effects.

However, it is the multi-platform games that have some issues and inevitably make the Xbox One look weaker in terms of horsepower.  Call of Duty Ghosts simply looks better on the PS4 as does Assassin’s Creed 4 but it has to be said that the difference really disappears the smaller one’s TV screen becomes.  If you are playing these systems on huge 50+ inch screens then it doesn’t take an expert to tell that there is a distinct resolution advantage in the PS4 versions.  At the same time, while this sounds bad for the Xbox One, we really have to take this news with a grain of salt since we have no idea why the games look and work differently on both consoles.  I have no doubt that as time passes that developers will come to grips with both systems and show amazing performance improvements but it is next to impossible to predict just how “crippled” the Xbox One versions will be or if extra time with the system will enable the developers to close the gap.

Ryse and Forza prove that the system is no technical slouch and believe me when I say that there are moments in Ryse which will leave you gasping in wonder as it really looks as if it is running on a high-end PC with a fluid framerate.

On the strength of its exclusives, it is arguable that the Xbox One has the better launch line-up than the PS4 and I doubt anyone playing Forza or Ryse purely for the graphics will come away disappointed.  The rest of the line-up is extremely solid and although Call of Duty Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed 4 and Battlefield 4 seem to look a bit better on the PS4 the overall difference in graphical fidelity isn’t a total deal breaker unless you count yourself in that group that demands the utmost graphical perfection no matter what.

Bottom line, the gaming experience is incredibly similar on both platforms.  About the only launch title which really made me squirm for all the wrong reasons was Lococycle on the Xbox One but having one rancid game amongst the crowd is not such a big deal.

I’ve played through most of the launch line-up although it is going to take me ages to write reviews so hopefully I will have the time to put pen to paper for both the Xbox One and PS4 titles that I have completed.  Still, if you are going to buy a Xbox One you can’t go wrong if you merely pick up the three exclusives in Ryse, Dead Rising 3 and Forza 5.

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9.0 So Should You Buy Digital or Physical Games?

In my PS4 post I basically concluded that the answer to this question really depended on what type of gamer you are since power players who bought tons of games would seriously chew through the included 500 GB hard drive in a flash.  However, the question and answer as it pertains to the Xbox One is actually very different.

The Xbox One was always designed primarily as a digital-only device and only really had to change course after their disastrous E3 and reveal conference where the Internet rage basically forced them to get rid of their strict DRM and reinstate the buying and selling of used games through physical media, much like it has always been done in the industry.

The Xbox One user interface is designed with “fast-switching” and advanced multitasking in mind meaning that the engineers at Microsoft wanted gamers to be able to pause/suspend a game, go to another application like the Store or Skype and then, when finished, come back to their game where they left off.  This fast-switching works seamlessly and is really one of the system’s grand selling points over the PS4 as gamers can essentially move back and forth between multiple games, apps and even the browser in a flash.  The catch?  It only works as intended with digital games.   If you use physical games the console just cannot (obviously) fast-switch and multi-task between games because all of them require the disc to be in the drive.  Sure, you can manually eject the disc and insert a new one but that completely defeats the purpose of fast-switching since you are doing all the work.

Now, if the ability to suspend and start different games on the fly sounds cool — it is — but each gamer is going to have to judge if this feature alone is worth going all digital.  Remember, you still can’t sell or trade in your digital games meaning you are buying full price no matter what unless Microsoft has a sale or the game naturally drops in value as time passes.

Another fact to consider is that like the PS4, all the full priced games are now huge in size meaning that 500 GB hard drive is going to fill up in a hurry.  The PS4 allows gamers to replace the internal hard drives inside the console but Microsoft does not, instead they are focusing on giving consumers the ability to connect external hard drives through the Xbox One’s USB ports for additional space.  However, that feature is not currently available so gamers will just have to hope Microsoft adds this as soon as possible.

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10.0 The Xbox One is Ambitious but…

The Xbox One is indeed the more ambitious of the two next-gen systems.  Its deep integration with Kinect, its multitasking abilities to split the screen with snap and its HDMI-IN port that allows virtually any video feed to come into the system really stand in stark contrast with Sony’s PS4 which doesn’t really do anything more than play games.

It is, without a doubt, the mythical “set-top” box that the industry has been clamoring for since time immemorial – the one console to “rule them all” in terms of becoming the entertainment hub in your living room.

That said while Microsoft’s ambition is as obvious as the nose on your face the public flogging that they had to endure after their disastrous PR showing at the console’s unveiling and at E3 also betrays a sense of desperation.  We’ll never really know what the console could have been if Microsoft had stayed that course but as it stands the system we’ve got is certainly impressive albeit with a ton of caveats.

First off, while the UI is great and the Kinect integration really works as advertised there are a litany of small annoyances that, when taken as a whole, make the system feel as if it had been pushed out the door in a hurry.  The absence of Twitch streaming is a downer but so is the complete absence of taking screenshots.  There is currently no way possible to check on the system’s hard drive storage, a completely baffling oversight considering the console was initially meant to be a DRM beast with a heavy emphasis on digital-only gaming.

It reeks of what Windows Phone used to be in terms of managing storage space by including a category called “other” on the phone which gradually expanded in size like some rampaging virus until it took up far too much space.  Microsoft did not allow users a glimpse into what files were in this “other” folder and implemented a system where the phone would auto delete some of these items once space became scarce.

It’s a solution that did nothing but frustrate Windows Phone users and it seems a similar system is currently in place on the Xbox One where the system will auto-delete items as available space dries up.  That frankly sucks and it makes one wonder why Microsoft decided to do this considering storage management was easily available on the Xbox 360.

Another totally bizarre difference that really sticks out like a sore thumb between the Xbox One and the PS4 is in how games install.  The process is totally seamless and fluid on the PS4 where the game immediately begins to auto-install the first time a disc is placed in the tray.  Depending on the game the PS4 will actually allow players to start the game almost immediately and the result is an installation process that is easy and feels high-tech.

It’s a completely different story on the Xbox One. Placing a disc in the Blu-Ray drive does start the game’s auto-install but without warning the user the first thing it does is actually search online to see if there are any patches to download.  If patches are found you’ll have no choice but to download them first before the disc begins to install.  This doesn’t sound bad until you realize some of the patches are 6GB in size such as the one for Forza Motorsport 5.  What inevitably happens is that the patch begins downloading but the progress bar remains at 0% for ages, obviously, since the data is still coming down.  This means gamers will have to sit for an indeterminate amount of time waiting for the patch to finish and then the disc to install before seeing that progress bar inch up.

It is a totally inelegant approach to game installation and woe betide anyone who has a slow Internet connection as it can take more than one hour to install.  If the progress bar showed more details such as how much of the patch was downloaded it would have gone a long way into making the process more bearable but as it stands, users will be dumbfounded and many will come to the erroneous conclusion that the process is busted and attempt to force the system to proceed.  I really have no idea what Microsoft was thinking or if this slow install was some sort of left-over from the system’s original DRM plans but it needs to be rectified as soon as possible as it gives the wrong impression that the system is struggling or is slow as molasses especially when compared to its primary competition in the PS4.

As it stands, the Xbox One is bizarrely prone to crashing as there have been a few times that my games have not launched at all or have inexplicably just booted me back to the home screen.  I could understand if I were attempting to push the system by opening snap and tons of other programs at the same time but it usually occurred right after a cold boot when all I wanted to do was start Battlefield 4.  Again, I’m not sure if this is a result of the OS or with Battlefield 4 but this sort of crashing is obviously not a good sign even if it is a rare occurrence.

Then there are plenty of other little niggles such as Microsoft not bothering to include a power meter showing how much juice is left in your controller.  It might not sound like a big deal but just about every consumer will use such a feature from time to time.  Microsoft did program the controller to automatically disable the impulse triggers from firing when the battery is low but this information is not conveyed to the user at any point in time and I have no doubt a few consumers will probably think their controllers are defective until getting the smarts to change batteries.

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11.0 Wrap-Up

If the last section made it sound like the Xbox One has some issues the fact remains that it does.  However, when taken into consideration that the system is more ambitious one can certainly expect a few more niggles.  Being Microsoft there is no reason to suspect that they won’t get around to fixing these problems but I really hope their internal Xbox One teams are working around the clock to rectify them all as soon as possible.

There should be no reason to suspect that either Sony or Microsoft will take forever to patch their systems considering both have already received major updates.  It is not inconceivable that this new generation will see both companies continuously adding new functionality and fixing any minor annoyances much more frequently.

Microsoft has truly built a system that attempts to reach beyond the core gamer audience which is both a boon and a curse.  The strategy is completely opposite to that of the PS4 and there is no doubt that many diehard gamers will feel that the Xbox One does not specifically “talk” to them like the PS4.  This is partly Microsoft’s fault for having such a miserable PR disaster in their Xbox One unveiling but there certainly is a solution – keep pumping out games that gamers want.   It doesn’t matter if the PS4 has technically better hardware if you keep churning out titles that people want to play and even if the uproar over the DRM hasn’t completely died yet the fact remains that many will return to the Xbox family if they see compelling software that is not available on its rival.

At the same time gamers need to put aside the past few months and concentrate on what both systems have right now.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you take Killzone Shadow Fall and Ryse: Son of Rome and demo both to normal consumers I’d bet that the results as to which one looks better will be virtually the same.  At least at this point in time both systems have exclusives that push their respective hardware and that can’t be a bad thing for Microsoft especially since everyone says their tech is worse.  Obviously, if the PS4 is light-years ahead on the tech front it won’t take long for the difference to become more apparent but if history says anything it is that having the best hardware is no guarantee of success.

Microsoft might have shot themselves in the foot in unveiling the Xbox One but there is a lot to like with the final product.  When working, the voice commands and multitasking functionality are incredibly cool and add features that go above and beyond what is available on the PS4.  Throw in the ability to watch TV and its expanded focus on non-gaming assets such as Xbox Fitness and it is not hard to see how Microsoft could potentially win many of the same consumers that flocked to the Nintendo Wii.  Whether or not that pans out is too early to tell but at least the pieces are already in place.

Obviously, the Xbox One comes at a premium price of $499.99, a full $100 more than the PS4 but it doesn’t take a genius to understand that the difference rests solely with the inclusion of Kinect.  The only comment I will say to this is to try the device out in a controlled setting and not in the middle of a crowded shopping mall where the loud cacophony of sounds will probably cause the voice recognition to fail miserably.  I have had amazing success with the system recognizing every command I give although, it has to be said, there is a learning curve as you need to memorize the individual commands and their proper syntax.

At the same time, Kinect is much more than voice commands so the only way in which to test its accuracy is to play something like Kinect Sports Rivals or, even better, get in shape using Xbox Fitness.  Chances are that you’ll be impressed at how much better the experience is compared to Kinect 1.0.  Nevertheless, if none of Kinect’s features and added functionality appeals to you then it really devalues the Xbox One’s overall value unless the gaming library grows in leaps and bounds to include standout titles not available on the PS4.  Just remember too that contrary to Microsoft’s comments, you can decide not to hook up the Kinect at all and the system will function just fine albeit without all the Kinect added bells and whistles.

On the gaming side, the Xbox One launch titles are more to my taste and the exclusive trio of Ryse, Forza 5 and Dead Rising 3 easily trumps Sony’s Killzone Shadow Fall and Knack.  The multi-platform games all output in higher resolution on the PS4 but apart from Battlefield 4, I haven’t been able to do much of a comparison.  In terms of Battlefield 4 there’s so much going on at any one time that I really can’t tell much of a difference but I’ll leave the raw technical analysis to someone else like Digital Foundry since I don’t consider myself a tech guru.

At the end of the day, if you wake up on Christmas morning with either an Xbox One or PS4 under the tree you should be totally on cloud nine.  Both systems have obvious strengths and weaknesses yet if you are a gamer you should be elated as the launch titles are more than adequate.  Games like Ryse and Killzone do what they are supposed to by giving gamers a tantalizing glimpse into the system’s future at least in terms of visual splendor.

However, Microsoft has crafted the Xbox One to be much more than a gaming machine and once you have it all properly set up it is simply unthinkable to go back to fiddling around with a hundred remotes or even getting your lazy ass off the chair to change channels or games.  With your TV and entertainment systems all chained into the Xbox One you can conceivably turn everything on just by powering on your console.  Throw in the fact that the new Kinect works as an IR blaster and you can program all your remotes into the Xbox One to control as well.  It’s totally seamless and a highly liberating experience that has no peer.

Microsoft might have dug a massive PR hole in which to dig itself out of but they have designed a solid entertainment system that should please most consumers by providing them with an altogether futuristic experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else.  The hardware differential between the Xbox One and the PS4 might still end up biting them in the behind but for now Microsoft should at least be given kudos for delivering a compelling next-gen console.

I said it to Sony and I’ll replicate the message here as well: Good Job Microsoft.  There’s work to be done but the future looks bright.

© 2013 The Galactic Pillow

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