So, Microsoft’s Xbox One has finally landed in South Africa (well, officially tomorrow anyway) after being missing from our shores for almost a year since its international release.
It’s hard to believe that the Xbox 360 is almost nine years old, so it was actually high-time for Microsoft to release a new console. The 360 was starting to show its age, so Microsoft had to do something that would appeal to today’s audience of super-connected, entertainment-driven consumers. What they have done is truly amazing, and it should keep gamers enthralled for at least another five or so years.
Without being drawn into the conversation of which console is the best, Microsoft has managed to develop a console that definitely provides some stiff competition for the likes of Sony’s PlayStation 4.
But the real question is whether or not you should get your hands on this brand-spanking-new Xbox. Our review below will hopefully help with that.
Beauty and the brains
Jokes aside that it looks like a VCR from the 1980s, the Xbox One’s design is actually very sleek. The Xbox One is considerably bigger than either of the 360s, but that is completely understandable once you know what is packed inside.
Looking at the One straight on, you will notice that the disc tray has been removed, and replaced with a feeder tray. That is a very good thing, as one of the first things to break or stop functioning correctly on the 360 was the tray. This is where you will pop in your games, but also your Blu-ray films as the Xbox One now supports Blu-ray playback. The disc ejection button is to the right of the tray, while the Xbox logo still serves as the On/Off button.
The back side of the unit houses all of the connections, such as the HDMI in and out ports, the optical audio connection, the Kinect plug, and where your satellite television will connect to the unit. It is all clearly labelled and easy to figure out, so you shouldn’t have any problems setting up the unit yourself. On the left side is one USB 3.0 port, and this is where you would update your controller and plug in external media storage.
It’s a kind of magic
Undoubtedly, the inside is where all the magic happens. When Microsoft said that you will be able to switch between applications rather seamlessly through multitasking, they weren’t kidding around. The One uses an 8-core x86 processor to keep track of everything that is going on – and it works.
You are really able to switch between apps by simply pressing the Guide button. If you are in the middle of a game and want to make a quick change in the settings or check something on YouTube, simply press the Guide button (which will minimize back to the dashboard) and open YouTube. Once you are done browsing, simple select the previous application and it will take you straight to where you last left it. There is no closing of apps before you can open another one.
To make sure things run as smoothly as they can, the Xbox One packs 8GB of RAM, and for storage it comes with a 500GB hard drive. While 500GB sounds like a lot, don’t be fooled: that baby will fill up pretty fast.
With better graphical capabilities, games are also much bigger in size than 360 titles were, plus each one has to be installed to the hard drive before you can play them, But here is also where the multitasking comes in: game installations don’t need to be 100% complete before you can play them, as the data for each game’s starting areas is installed first. This allows you to get into the action as quickly as possible while the rest installs in the background.
To sum up, it’s a combination of the Xbox One’s new eight-core processor, powerful graphics chip and ESRAM as well as the newly-created Windows-based gaming operating system that provides the One with incredible power.
I’ve got my eye on you
Let’s be honest: the first Kinect, while technically revolutionary, wasn’t that great. It had a number of recognition issues and its tracking left much to be desired. But Microsoft knew that, which is exactly why they have invested so much into developing Kinect 2.0
For starters, the camera is now 1080p, which means that video quality is a lot crisper when using Skype for video calls. To detect players seated in front of it, it uses what Microsoft calls Kinect Real Vision technology which uses three different vision modes to pick up movement and to distinguish between players: normal video, a thermal-type view and an Infrared night vision, greyscale image to see in the dark.
On the surface this might not seem impressive, but it means the Kinect 2.0 can pick up individual players in very low-light conditions almost without fail. Kinect 2.0 also picks up advanced 3D geometry, so it will also be able to detect if you are standing off-balance.
Why all the fuss?
Kinect has two primary functions: to detect gestures and body movement, and to recognize voice commands and instructions, and both of these it does very, very well. Scarily well, as it turns out.
For movement, the camera uses Kinect Real Motion technology that is now so accurate, it can detect and trace some of the smallest of movements, such as the clenching of a fist as opposed to an open hand. This comes in real handy when executing commands for apps, but far more so when playing Kinect-based games such as Kinect Sports Rivals as that sensitivity translates to a much higher degree of motion-sensing accuracy, which is what anyone playing a Kinect game needs.
As you might guess, Kinect Real Voice technology is used for the voice commands. This is one of the aspects where Kinect really shines, making use of a multi-microphone array. By simply starting a statement with ‘Xbox’ it will activate the unit, prime it for listening, and wait on the command to follow.
When the One is turned off, all you need to say is ‘Xbox On’, and if set up correctly it not only turns on your Xbox, but also your home theatre system and your television. The same goes for ‘Xbox, turn off’, which will turn off all three units.
Volume control on your home theatre system works on the same principle, where you simply have to say ‘Xbox, volume up’. It will turn up (or down) the volume by a previously specified amount, as well as completely mute all audio if the proper command is given.
By pausing after saying ‘Xbox’, all possible voice commands will display on the screen in bright green, so that you know what you need to say in order to get something done correctly. In theory, the entire Xbox One can be controlled by simply using your voice. But there is one problem for gamers who don’t live in a country with official language support: everything needs to be said with a slight American accent.
Launching apps is just as easy, as you say the wakeup command, followed by the full name of the app. It does get a bit tricky with game names, and since the entire name needs to be said, you can just image how confusing it will become to open Dead Rising 3’s ‘Super Ultra Dead Rising 3 Arcade Remix Hyper Edition EX Plus Alpha’, and you have to say the entire name without pausing, or making a mistake.
But imagine this scenario: you walk into your house, and simply say ‘Xbox on’. After waiting about five seconds for the One to come out of standby, you say ‘Xbox, go to YouTube’. Even before you have finished pouring a well-deserved
Whisky coffee, YouTube is ready and waiting for you by the time you get to the lounge.
While there previous Kinect didn’t leave a lasting impression, Kinect 2.0 really does take the console to a new level of immersion in a very real sense. We know it sounds clichéd to say this, but executing dashboard commands with your voice only really does feel like the future. That also goes for instantly recording clips without pausing the game, snapping apps to the sideline, or searching for something with Bing by simply using your words.
Your wish is my command
The controller is probably one of the most important pieces of equipment when it comes to console gaming. If the controller doesn’t feel comfortable or doesn’t react as you feel it should, the entire gaming experience can be ruined.
While there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the 360’s controller, Microsoft opted to change the Xbox One’s controller just enough so that it feels, looks and handles differently to its predecessor. If you were to look at both controllers in a side-by-side size comparison, you will notice that the One controller is not only smaller, but it’s also lighter.
In terms of design, a lot has changed since the 360 was first released in 2005 in the US. While the analogue sticks are still in the same position (with added indents and ridges for better grip), the directional pad has been flattened somewhat, instead of being raised like in the 360. By doing this, it feels a lot more natural to press, plus there’s less chance of pressing an unintended direction.
The Back button and the Start button have also been designed to be less prominent on the controller’s body (but still slightly raised), and the Guide button has been flattened a bit and moved further up. Picking up the controller, one of the biggest changes is the curving of the triggers. While it will take some getting used to, it’s a lot more comfortable to pull them, which helps with games where precision is necessary. To make things a bit more immersive, the triggers now also vibrate individually when braking, shooting or crashing when playing games.
The battery housing has now been moved inside the controller body, instead of protruding out, which will give your fingers a lot more room at the back when holding on to it. Speaking of holding it, there are sensors in the front of the controller that Kinect picks up, so that it can detect whoever is holding it (and sign them in automatically).
Update your… controller?
Almost every bit of technology these days needs to be updated, and the controller is no different. Going into the Settings page on the dashboard, you will be notified when an update for the controller is ready, which is done with a normal micro USB cable.
Party chats are still done by connecting the included headset with the controller, but don’t expect to be using your 360 gear for this. The One has a new, proprietary connector that resembles a micro HDMI. The new chat connector is actually pretty cool, as the mute and volume controls are on the base of the connector, making it very easy to reach.
Window to the soul
Not seeing the usual blades and tabs from the 360 for the first time can be a bit overwhelming at first, but once you get to know that One’s dashboard, everything will be running smoothly in no time. As with everything else, the dashboard has also been given an update, and it now resembles the Windows layout with flat panels.
The dash has been refined to tuck away the things that aren’t necessary and highlight those that will be used often. Scrolling to the left of the home screen is where all your pins will be. This is very similar to clicking on the button in Windows to view all the apps that are installed. Only a limited number of apps will be shown, but you can rearrange them and specify which ones to display.
Browsing to the right of the main screen is where you will find your friends and the activity feed. Here, you will see everything from what your contacts have been up to like earning achievements and posting recorded clips to who they recently made friends with.
To the right of the activity feed is where you will find the Xbox Store. This is where you will be able to buy add-ons, get more information on titles and download a demo or two. The One now supports pre-loading and pre-ordering, meaning that you will be able to buy and pre-order games digitally, download them before release, and play them on release day.
Most apps can be snapped to the side of the screen, allowing for multitasking of two different things. On the 360 you had to press the Guide button and navigate to your online party, where now you will be able to snap the party to the side of the screen for instant access. While a game is loading, you can snap YouTube and watch a video (with full audio) while waiting. In the settings page, you will be able to specify the volume mix between snapped apps and main screen titles.
To go into depth about the dashboard and how exactly it works would be a feature all of its own, but in truth it’s not that difficult to navigate around. But as we have pointed out before it is very closely integrated with Kinect as well, and an Xbox One without a Kinect sensor is only half a console since this time around it’s just so darn useful.
For instance, if a friend has a Microsoft account and has signed into your console before, every time your Kinect recognizes them they will be signed in automatically, which just can’t happen without a Kinect.
This is great, as this syncs all of their data with your console which means your friends will be able to pick up at your place where they left off at home, as all of their save game data in stored in the cloud. And you don’t even have to own the game: as long as the game is installed on your console, your friends will be able to play them at your house with their progress intact.
A small notifications button as also been added to the top left-hand corner, which when clicked on brings up all of your notifications, which includes when friends come online, any new messages you’ve received, if someone wants to start a chat or an achievement is earned.
Oh, before we forget. Whenever you see an on-screen notification such as a chat invitation or achievement being unlocked, you can hold down the Guide button and the One will immediately take you to a screen giving you more information about it.
Speaking of achievements, that page’s function as also been given a steady update. Instead of showing the individual achievements in-line, they are now displayed in squares with a game-related image and a description. If the game supports it, it will also give you a progress indicator to achievements you haven’t yet unlocked.
“Xbox, record that”
A new feature of the One is that you can record 30-second video clips of live gameplay. Besides for recording clips automatically when you do something epic, all that you have to do is say ‘Xbox, record that’, and it will save the last 30 seconds of gameplay. The recording is done with Game DVR, but saved clips can be edited in the Upload app, trimmed down for size, effects added and then shared.
Even though the Xbox One is launching almost a year after the initial release, South Africa is actually at an advantage if you think about it. While the rest of the world had to go through the growing pains of the fledgling console, we get one that is performing in tip-top shape.
The same can be said about the games available, as launch titles have notoriously been scarce with previous consoles. But South Africa is in the enviable position to have almost the entire catalogue of games released over the last year to choose from, save for a handful of games like TitanFall, which EA decided not to release in our region thanks to our under-performing internet connectivity.
Unfortunately, our bandwidth situation is still a bit of a problem. The Xbox One has been built with online connectivity in mind, and there is actually very little that you can do if you aren’t connected – besides playing games, that is. Since most of the data is stored in the cloud, things like achievements can’t be accessed.
And bandwidth will rear its ugly head even before you put your first game in the tray. Upon startup, get ready for a 700MB update, after which another 400MB will be downloaded to get the console up to speed.
Downloading games is another matter altogether, as they will download any patches first before installing, and games can’t be played if there is an update available. That might not seem like a problem, but games like Dead Rising 3 and Forza have updates in excess of 10GB, although Microsoft has promised us that those two games will ship at retail with all patches on the disc.
No system will ever be perfect but the One does a pretty good job of coming very close. There will naturally be slight niggles here and there, but to root those out Microsoft has allowed people to opt into the Dashboard Preview program.
Microsoft typically releases an update for the console once a month, and as part of a Dashboard Preview program, members get the update two weeks early. This allows Microsoft to test-drive the update on a few people who know what they’re getting into to see what needs tweaking. The Preview program also has a space for people to submit their ideas on what they would like to see, and a big number of the official updates that have rolled out since the international release have stemmed from the Preview program. So with that, it’s a constantly-evolving platform.
It would be rather nonsensical to harp on about how great the graphical performance of the One is, as it is largely down to the individual game developers to squeeze as much performance out of the console as they possibly can. But with that said, some of the titles have managed to make the most of the 8-core x86 processor and AMD’s Durango graphics chip.
Break it down
To break it down rather simply: the controller is one of the star features, as it feels a lot better in your hands than even the Xbox 360’s excellent controller, and it has precision triggers that vibrate. Kinect has been given a much-needed boost, and you would be robbing yourself of the complete Xbox One experience if you decide to get the Kinect-less version, as it lets you do so much extra that sets it apart from the competition. And then there is the actual bits that drive the One, the business end of the console: the dashboard and all of its nuances.
But can it TV?
Combine all these factors, and you have yourself undoubtedly one of the best consoles of this generation. So much has been added to make the gaming experience that much more enjoyable, but there are also features that make it a versatile media hub, including the option to watch TV through it.
While it doesn’t properly work in South Africa, you can still plug your DSTV/Top TV decoder or satellite connection into the back of the One and seamlessly swap between live television and the One’s interface without having to change outputs. This is done with the built-in HDMI pass-through. By saying ‘Xbox, go to TV’ (or vice versa) it will take you to whatever you want to watch. You just won’t have the same level of control over that TV-viewing experience that Americans do, nor all of the little extras like information on whatever sport game you are watching.
The Final Analysis
Finally, to answer the question of whether you should get one, it comes down to your personal preferences. If you like what you see in terms of the Xbox’s exclusive line-up, or you’ve heavily invested in unlocking Gamerscore, get the One. If you are in two minds, get the One anyway – it’s a fantastic console and a wonderful evolution of the Xbox 360, and you won’t regret buying one in the slightest.
If you want to see exactly what is in the box, have a look at Microsoft’s Larry Hryb unboxing one of the first units: