After playing on the Xbox One for a few days – my review

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So… I am now an early adopter, or turning out to be one.  I typically haven’t jumped on the consumer electronics band wagon fast in the past.  I still don’t have a 3D TV (and don’t have plans to buy one), no Chromecast, no Roku, I have Blu-Ray in a HTPC (but never use it) but got it 3 years after the format came out, and got a Apple TV after the Gen 2 was out.

For game consoles, I owned a PlayStation 2 only when they went to the slim design years after the launch (and when GT4 came out).    I went to an Xbox 360 2 years after its launch when they added HDMI into the console and the first hardware revision.    I did upgrade from the White XB 360 to a slim model, and added the Kinect over the years, and the platform just kept getting better and better. 

The new (no longer next) gen consoles have a huge hill to climb to get to the refinement that the Xbox 360 and the PS3 set the bar for, lets see how the XB1 did.  

My Xbox One.

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I preordered my XB1 months ago and received a Day One Edition console, extra controller, and a copy of Forza 5 LE on launch day.   I wrapped up my work for the day, pulled the XB 360 out of my entertainment center, and threw in the XB1 and got to work.

Hardware Install:

The biggest struggle for me to install the new console was to get the power brick out from behind my entertainment center from the 360 and replace it with the XB1 power brick.   I believe the connector is the same between them, but I didn’t want to see if the XB 360 power brick worked with the XB1. 

Everything else plugged in as it did before from the XB 360. 

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The Kinect for the XB1 is a big deal, both in capabilities, and physical presence.   The cable for it is a thick and kind of stiff, using a proprietary USB 3.0 connection on the back of the XB1.   It is long enough to let you place the Kinect a good distance from the console easily.   There are few mounting options right now for it (for a wall or TV), they are all coming out in the next couple weeks.  I have a TV mount ordered.   Until then, its sitting below the TV right where my XB 360 Kinect was.

Looks:

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There has been a lot of comments around the internet about the looks/size of the XB1.   It is a big beast, and does resemble an old DVD or VHS deck.    But the clean simple lines of the box look awesome around your other electronics gear.  In the above picture, you can see it hiding behind the grate on the left side.  Looks pretty clean in there.

Unlike the previous gen, where the PS3, and the XB 360 stood out in your living room, the XB1 is stealth like.   Besides for the glowing Xbox symbol when being used, it could be anything else in your entertainment stack.   

The square design makes connecting cables, and finding ports easy and it fits into any cabinet that can hold your receiver or other game systems.

The Xbox Logos light up on the Kinect and the console itself, but they change intensity based on ambient light.  If the room is dark, they are almost off.   If the room is bright, they are bright.   I find them almost invisible when watching TV and not distracting at all.

The Kinect has 3 dim red areas in the middle that you can barely see (cameras can see them clearly though).  Those are the IR emitters for the Time of Flight 3D camera.

There is another small white LED that comes on when the Kinect is using the video camera, this lets you know, its actively using the camera.

Initial Setup:

Say what you will about Microsoft, and their fumbled marking at launch, there is one key thing MS has going that Sony does not.   They know how to have an infrastructure to support a big launch.     Everyone heard of the PS4 server issues, downtime, and high load problems at launch.  New games being unable to download initial updates, multi player rooms being slow to respond, etc…

MS was planning for this a year in the making, with their massive Azure data centers lined up to support the launch, I haven’t read or experienced ANY slowness, or system availability issues at launch.    At 4pm on the launch day (which should be a pretty high load time for the network), my Xbox One connected, and downloaded the initial update (550Mb) at the max speed my internet connection could consume it (30Mb/sec).    I was downloaded and up and running in minutes.

The menus and initial setup is extremely quick and easy on the console, with a couple clicks the new Kinect could ID me, and log me in automatically.   No complex setup like the XB360 required for its Kinect.  From what I gather the login info is obtained via the 3D sensor not the video sensor!  Which is a pretty amazing technical feat.

I then went and setup to download all the apps I want on the Xbox that were available.   By default the XB1 is an empty shell, no apps, no capabilities.   You need to download all the apps you want (Skype, Blu-Ray player, Netflix, Xbox Music, SkyDrive integration, etc… ) .  These all downloaded at equally fast speeds and were all down and ready to go in minutes.

The system never prompted to import friends lists, gamer score, etc…  It didn’t need to.   Once I told it who I was and logged in with my LiveID, everything was just there.   I guess in the background there is a one time, and one direction account upgrade that happens, but you never see it.

The Xbox One Experience:

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Out of the box, one thing is clear – nothing is the same.   The concept for the box like tiles are familiar to Windows 8, or Xbox 360 users, but that is where the similarity ends.    Everything is different from a control and usability standpoint.   This starts off a bit frustrating, but ends up being extremely fast and impressive overall.

I had to watch the tutorial videos to figure out what Snap meant,  what voice commands to use,  how the multi tasking worked, and how to switch between functions quickly.    After 5 minutes, I was a XB1 pro (kind of…).

Home Button

In the XB360 the Home Button/Xbox Button  was your universal control button.  Hit it to do anything.  It does NOT do that in the XB1.   It is now a true home button that just takes you to the home screen in the XB1.   From there you either use voice commands, or options to do other functions.    The big difference in the XB1 and the 360 is that you can do this while the game is in the background, paused and waiting for you.    No need to exit the game to go and Skype, or watch a movie.    

The change in function for this button does make me a little disorientated around the system.  I was used to hitting that, and quickly seeing my friends list, or going to messages, invites, etc…   Now its a few more steps, but as I get used to the XB1 I am sure I can do it even faster with the new UI.

Snap

All Multitasking in XB1 is based on the snap feature.  Being able to snap multiple apps on the screen at once.   I could be racing in Forza 5, and see NFL scores next to it.  I could be skyping with a friend, and surfing the web next to it, etc…

With the game pad, doing the snap stuff can be a little cumbersome, but with voice commands its SUPER easy and fast.     This is/will be the killer UI aspect for this console.  It’s very very nice.

Kinect Voice

Lots of reviews talk about the Kinect voice recognition being iffy at launch.   We’ve had to say a few things multiple times to the console to make it do its thing, but generally it works about the same as the 360.   With the processing power, and much higher end system behind the Kinect I can only assume it will become much smarter as time goes on.

There is no voice training for the console, it just works out of the box (as much as it does at least).

Kinect Video

The simple way to put it, is that the Kinect RGB camera is fantastic.  The optics give it a big distortion free almost 180 view of the room, and at a VERY clear 1080P resolution.   Where the old Kinect was… crappy for video, the new one is pretty incredible quality.    That’s all there really is to say about that so far.

Kinect Login

Without much setup other than one option checked off when you setup your account… it knows you.    It knows you good enough that when walking into the room while Kate was watching Netflix, something popped up “Hi, Joe!”.   Creepy, and awesome at the same time.     With the 360 you had to go through a big song and dance to get it to sometimes correctly ID you.   The XB1 is just transparent in how it does it.

XB1 Controller / Game Pad

There have been lots of news about how MS invested 100M$ to develop the new game pad for the XB1.  In the end it looks/feels/ and works almost the same as the 360.   Which isn’t bad, as the 360 game pad is largely regarded as the best one ever made.

The new controller is an exercise in refinement.   It does feel a little different, but still good.  Those of us very used to the 360 game pad, may notice the hand feel is slightly different, but close.    There is no more start/back buttons, They are now used for menus and various commands.

The new  “Impulse triggers” work in FFB motors into the triggers.  This may sound like a gimmick, but for Forza at least, its truly nice!   You can feel the brakes, you can feel the wheels slip under power.   Very intuitive and easy.

There are IR LEDs in the front of the controller that work with the Kinect so the Kinect knows when you have a game pad in your hand and who has which game pad.   Unlike the PS4 bright lights on their game pads, the XB1’s are invisible.

Game Pad Audio

This isn’t as much an issue as it is an unfortunate change with an upside as the platform matures.   With the redevelopment of the game pad, came the loss of a standard 3.5mm headphone/headset jack.   Now it is a proprietary mini connector that looks like a mini HDMI or something.   To get audio out of this digital connection requires a converter/adapter. 

Only audio device supported right now is the included Xbox Headset.   But this connector is supposed to support high bit rate 7.1 surround sound out of the controller.  Many head sets are coming to support this.   Full support is due January 2014 for surround sound headsets and a chat pad with this connector.

TV

I don’t have cable, so I cant say if the TV integration is good or bad.   All I can say is from what I can see in the console, it would be VERY nice to be able to have my TV shown at the tap of a button, or go between a game and TV easily.    Lack of any DVR functionality or support for TV DVRs IMHO is a non starter.    Until the console can support that I wont have anything to do with it.

Support for OTA HD USB receivers, and doing in-box DVR with an external HD would make the XB1 the ultimate entertainment device for many people.   Maybe down the road… who knows?

The Cloud Console

MS has said at launch 300,000 dedicated Azure servers were made available not only to the content streaming service, but for game calculations, and the whole cloud concept for the console.

One big area MS is going to be pushing Sony on is the cloud integration.  MS has a capability that out matches almost any other company on earth when it comes to cloud capacity and capabilities.   They are building the Xbox around Azure and cloud back ends to support games that are more intelligent than ever before.

A lot of that comes down to developers leveraging that.   I have seen in Forza Motorsport 5 that the AI drivers are a whole different league of realistic now, all based on the cloud back end that catalogs every driver, styles, habits, etc…. and makes the people you race against seem real.

The future for the cloud integration is bound to be awesome for those who have an internet connection 😉

The Problems:

All is not great in the XB1 world though.   Many significant things have changed for the worse in terms of coordinating games with friends. 

Invitea friend to a game? Nope.

In the Xbox 360 you could invite any friend to a game without being in a party or room together.  You could invite friends from in games.  You could join MP games with your friends who were already playing.   Not any more.   Or not yet at least.

The entire invite system and multi player system seems to be missing or broken.  You can only invite players into games who are in a party room with you already.    You cant invite from a game (any current games) it seems, and the options for finding games with friends from the Xbox button screen on the 360 are gone on the XB1.

This is something MS can fix easily, and one of those early adopter issues.   If it is not fixed, it will undermine one of the key things that made Xbox Live so strong, and gained it the reputation for being the best multi player gaming network around.

 Change for the sake of change

Some changes MS made around the social/friend functionality, have made it much harder to make sense of achievements.   There is no simple list of achievements, what is out there, what you’ve done, etc…  You can see the latest achievements in a list of last ones earned by your friends, but its all noise and not that useful.

I am not sure why MS made these changes, because I don’t think they scale good at all.  Most other things in the OS seem to be built to scale, and be more flexible across multiple social platforms, apps, tools.  But this is one area I cant see it.

Learning Curve

With nothing being exactly the same as the well known Xbox 360, the console is definitely going to take a bit to get used to for veterans.   But for people who are new to the console, they will also struggle to quickly work though and get the most out of the console.

There may be more issues with the console I haven’t seen yet, or experienced.   There are lots of small things that I miss from the Xbox 360, but the more I use the XB1 I figure out the way MS wants us to work with the console now vs what we did before.

Conclusion:

The Xbox One is big.   Both physically, and with what it wants to be.   This is not a game console.  This is something that wants to be everything, and also plays games.   

The TV integration that was so hyped, is great, but limited in actual value for those who don’t have cable TV, or those who use DVRs.

The Multitasking and snap features in the OS are the core of the future for this platform.  It’s clear Microsoft’s 30 years of experience doing OS level multitasking, and its deep knowledge of virtualization (The enterprise grade Hyper-V Kernel is the backbone of the Xbox 1 as it handles both the console OS and the game OS in the box) has made this platform very smooth. 

The ability to snap between apps quickly and with voice commands out of the box so easily will unlock this platform into something far more dynamic than the Xbox 360 or any other console has been before.

For multiplayer gaming?… A work in progress.   Which is weird because Microsoft’s Xbox 360 was an incredible game machine, it was easy to use, easy to do social gaming, and easy to scale.    With the Xbox 1… they seem to have gotten a little lost on some features.   They may be back soon… but who knows.

As for gaming performance, I have only played FM5 so far, and the graphics are… awesome.   The physics and cloud integration with games change the whole concept of single player gaming.   In FM5, the  Driveatar concept powered by Azure makes single player more like Single+ player, or multiplayer light.    You get interactions with AI players based on your friends driving styles/skills/habits.

These cloud based calculations are a game changer for some games.  I can only imagine how this will translate to future FPS games that can focus on a dynamic AI based on your skills, tactics, etc…   Same with RTS or MMO games.

I am sure there is going to be a TON of changes for this platform in the next 12 months.   Existing problems will be addressed, new growing pains will surface, either way, this platform is poised to grow and evolve over time more than any previous generation.

 

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