The Xbox 360 that exists in 2013 bears little resemblance to the console that Microsoft launched in 2005. It’s so different, in fact, that it helps to think of the company’s new Xbox One as an evolution, not of the original Xbox 360 but of the one that exists today.
Over that eight-year span, the Xbox 360 underwent radical transformations. In 2008, the "New Xbox Experience" delivered an entirely new interface, customizable player Avatars, eight-player party chat and Netflix streaming, a first for video game consoles. In 2010, the first iteration of Kinect and the platform’s voice and gesture controls redefined the 360 once again.
That focus on entertainment never diminished the Xbox 360's gaming bona fides, however. Between first-party exclusives like Halo, third-party console exclusives like Left 4 Dead and timed exclusives like The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, the Xbox 360 never wanted for games. The Xbox Live Arcade program made games like Castle Crashers, Braid and Limbo into household names. Despite its investment in entertainment, the Xbox 360 was always a video game console.
But there was a sense that the Xbox 360's greater aspirations as a mainstream portal for entertainment were restrained by hardware created before our current age of streaming video, tablets and smartphones.
So when examining the Xbox One, it may seem familiar. This is what Microsoft has been working toward all these years, effectively showing its next-generation hand as early as 2008. While the Xbox 360 was upgraded, the Xbox One was developed in parallel, but as a beginning, not an end. And despite its familiar elements and concepts, the Xbox One still manages a genuine sense of wonder, all without losing sight of the strong gaming foundation the Xbox was built on.
The nicest description most Polygon staff could manage for the Xbox One's silhouette is "inoffensive" — there's no sugarcoating the console's lack of visual flair. Microsoft has created a system designed to blend into the other components of your home entertainment center, and it does that ... for better or worse.
The console lacks the profile and space-saving considerations of the PlayStation 4 — or even the original Xbox 360. Not only is the console larger than the original Xbox 360, but the new Kinect sensor is larger than the first one. Even the massive power brick from the last generation makes a not-so-welcome return.
It's quiet, and it runs relatively cool. But if you’re looking for subtlety, this is not the console for you.
However, given the Xbox 360's notorious reliability problems, it's a little reassuring that the Xbox One was given so much room to breathe. It's quiet, and it runs relatively cool. But if you're looking for subtlety, this is not the console for you.
Like the PS4, the Xbox One has gone digital-only with its audio and video — you'll only find HDMI and optical audio ports. For network connectivity, Microsoft has added a gigabit Ethernet port. It doesn't support 802.11ac, but the Xbox One does connect to 5 GHz wireless networks.
A single game can occupy as much as 50 GB — and that's before any DLC, expansions, or major title updates.
The Xbox One also features an HDMI input in the back. This is designed for the system's television capabilities, but it will actually work with any HDMI device. If you're as disappointed as we are by the lack of backwards compatibility this generation and want to keep an Xbox 360 or PS3 plugged in here, we've got some bad news: It works, but our most lag-sensitive editors wouldn't want to play that way.
There are also three USB 3.0 ports — two on the back and one on the side — that are currently only useful for charging controllers and connecting the imminent Killer Instinct Fightstick from MadCatz.
Lastly, unlike the Xbox 360, the Xbox One has a Blu-ray drive, meaning those of you with a soft spot for physical media won't need to keep a second device around. That drive is partnered with a 500 GB internal hard drive, where all games are installed. While that may sound like a lot of room, a single game can occupy as much as 50 GB — and that's before any DLC, expansions or major title updates. While unfortunately missing on day one, Microsoft has promised support for external storage after launch, a significant improvement from the expensive proprietary storage options available on Xbox 360.
Microsoft had the unenviable task of redesigning something that nobody thought was broken. The Xbox 360 controller was universally praised, so it shouldn't be surprising that the Xbox One controller is familiar. Improvements have been made to the triggers, which now feature rumble motors; the D-pad, which is now a cross; and the thumbsticks, which are now smaller and more accurate. It's a comfortable controller with a good amount of weight, and a great texture not only makes it feel more premium but ameliorates the gross, slippery feel following a long session with the Xbox 360 controller.
Not all the changes are home runs, though. The new bumpers split opinions at Polygon — some editors feel they're more difficult to click than the 360's shoulder buttons. When compared to moving the "Black" and "White" buttons on the original Xbox controller to the shoulders on Xbox 360, this modification seems superfluous at best and a detriment at worst.
We haven't been able to fully deplete a charge on our controllers in a week and a half of constant play.
The Xbox One controller features a more recessed space for the battery, as opposed to the outward bump found on the back of the Xbox 360's controller. By default, it uses standard AA batteries — while the rechargeable AA battery users on staff adapted quickly, others were nonplussed that there wasn't a rechargeable option in the box.
But you won't spend a lot of time worrying about batteries. We haven't been able to fully deplete a charge on our controllers in a week and a half of constant play. While the controller's micro USB port won't charge a pair of rechargeable AA batteries — that will have to be done separately, just like the Xbox 360's controller — it will disable the controller's proprietary wireless connection in favor of the direct wired connection. It's a small but valuable improvement from the Xbox 360 controller.
One of the most exciting additions to the controller is actually behind that unusually long battery life. The controller works in coordination with Kinect to monitor its use. When you put the controller down to watch a movie, it enters a low-power state. It’s a smart way of extending the utility of Kinect in a practical way.
When you put the controller down to watch a movie, it enters a low-power state.
The Xbox One also supports the Wi-Fi Direct standard for, well, direct wireless connections between devices. This kind of connection eliminates your wireless router from the equation, reducing latency and speeding up transfer speeds — which Microsoft is using for the Xbox One's new, improved version of SmartGlass (discussed later).
While the Xbox One's UI is a departure from the Xbox 360, it should be familiar to anyone who's used Windows 8. The colored tiles are easier to navigate than the multiple cluttered pages that made up the Xbox 360's dashboard, and there's a clear, easy-to-understand hierarchy.
The most immediate shortcoming of the Xbox One's UI is transparency. Lots of options are buried behind a press of the Xbox One controller's Menu button — like uninstalling games, for example, or pinning a game or app. Pinning is great, but it seems like a stopgap measure while Microsoft figures out some more intuitive form of library management. Our experience with the console thus far suggests that it will be needed — like the PS4, the game and app library is listed horizontally, though there are two rows of icons, at least.
The newly renamed Xbox Store may have a similar problem.
The Xbox One's store is much faster than the version found on the Xbox 360, featuring large game art and recommendations that are currently based on your Xbox 360 game history. But we're not confident that it will remain as easy or as fast to navigate once there are more than the couple of dozen launch titles available.
Our favorite addition by far, though, is the ability to skip entering codes for pre-order bonuses, DLC or other game downloads by scanning QR codes with Kinect. It's fast and convenient, and we never want to enter 25 characters using the on-screen keyboard again.
After spending time with the system, it's clear the interface and Kinect are deeply linked. There seem to be motion and gesture elements in the UI, but we weren't able to get them to function reliably, and using them never surfaces any sort of guide or instructional prompt. The motion and gesture control experiments with Kinect on the Xbox 360 seem to have taken a back seat to voice controls for now, and the vestigial bits in the OS are practically useless. Microsoft appears to be betting on speech-driven navigation with the Xbox One.
Microsoft appears to be betting on speech-driven navigation with the Xbox One.
It isn't perfect: Saying "Xbox" at certain times practically fills the screen with green-colored voice options, which can be distracting. Kinect demands full names of movies and games to start them, so you'd better get used to saying "Ryse: Son of Rome" instead of "Ryse." Cross talk was also an issue — when multiple people were speaking conversationally, commands often went unheard. Less an issue, but worth mentioning: There's a learning curve in understanding what works and what doesn't with Kinect. "Xbox off" is a no-go, for example. Instead, you'll need to say "Xbox, turn off" and confirm, for good measure.
The good news? Issues aside, it really works. In fact, the fastest way to navigate the Xbox One's user interface is via the incredibly robust suite of voice commands. The friction that limited voice commands on the Xbox 360 with Kinect is all but gone. Now you can order the system to go from one app to another from anywhere — whether it's to watch TV, start Netflix or boot up a game. There's little perceptible lag from finishing a command and the results on screen.
Kinect is also used for lots of little things throughout the Xbox One's user experience. Profiles support fast facial recognition for sign-in. Once a profile has a face associated with it, the console will sign that person in whenever they sit in front of the console — it even says hello. Controllers sync automatically based on who's holding them. There was a frequent sense of "holy crap" among Polygon editors regarding the Xbox One. We were constantly surprised by what the system could distinguish, by all the small but smart usability enhancements provided by Kinect. It feels futuristic and cool in a way that little else about the new consoles does.
Xbox Live has long been a competitive advantage for Microsoft, but Sony's recent enhancements to PlayStation Network have blunted some of that edge. In order to keep that advantage on Xbox One, Microsoft has embraced the cloud — a reported 300,000 servers have been dedicated to supporting everything from cloud-based saves to actual computational assistance. It's a big, somewhat opaque strategy that may take time to fully realize.
Like the PlayStation 4, the friends list maximum has been raised from 100. While Sony's maximum is now 2,000, Microsoft has opted for a still-massive 1,000 with one clever addition: followers. Instead of requiring two-way authorization, the Xbox One allows players to follow anyone's profile. Imagine Twitter, but full of your game activity. And not only can you have more friends, but you can actually hear what they're saying thanks to the inclusion of Skype's audio codec and a much higher bitrate for voice chat.
The new "Smart Match" system promises to improve the way matchmaking works on the system and, in our experience, it delivered on streamlining some of the most common actions. Joining a friend's lobby is as simple as clicking "Smart Match" in a game, and it's designed to help pair you with players similar to you. Even better, if you're in an Xbox party with a friend and they start an online match, Smart Match will send you an invite automatically. It's a small quality-of-life improvement, but it's welcome.
A notable disappointment is the absence of real-name support at launch. One of the PS4's most enjoyable enhancements has been postponed for Xbox One until an unspecified future date. Microsoft has also dropped social-network integration, which seems like a short-sighted reaction to the lack of users of the Xbox 360 apps. With the Xbox One far more qualified to support these features alongside games and entertainment, it's disappointing they're not here.
Also missing at launch is Twitch livestreaming support. While Sony revealed its console — and its streaming ability — first, Microsoft was first to specifically announce Twitch streaming support. Twitch, unlike other streaming video platforms, is gaming-specific and its inclusion in the PlayStation 4 already makes the feature feel mandatory. Twitch streaming is coming to the Xbox One "during the first part of 2014," but its initial absence is pronounced.
You can record and share gameplay clips using Microsoft's SkyDrive service, however. Saying "Xbox, record that" will capture the last 30 seconds of gameplay to your account. For longer clips, up to five minutes, you can go to the Xbox One's Game DVR app — again, either by saying "Xbox, go to Game DVR" or selecting the app from the home screen.
From there, you can access Upload Studio, trim and prepare your video and publish it to your Xbox Live account or, for sharing purposes, push it to SkyDrive. Once uploaded, you can grab the link, further edit the video or manually upload it to YouTube or share it manually across social networks, though it again rankles that there's no direct Twitter or Facebook integration.
Xbox Live now completely integrates cloud saves, which are universally synced. Even better, Microsoft has committed to unlimited storage for its users — though specific games will likely enforce hard limits on this end. These saves are automatic, whether you're an Xbox Live Gold subscriber or not. It removes the complication of selecting storage mediums or manually bringing your progress to a friend's house.
Microsoft has every intention of making the Xbox One the centerpiece of your living-room entertainment experience. And its first shots with the system are remarkably successful.
The television integration and One Guide work well as an augmentation to your existing cable or satellite provider. Navigating to TV shows and movies via voice commands — i.e., "Xbox, watch HBO" — is also great. These voice commands also justify the TV functionality of the console, making it so that the only time you'd have to pick up your TV remote is to watch things you have on your DVR.
Speaking of remotes: It may not be the most flashy bullet point, but news that the Xbox One will support universal remotes, such as Logitech's Harmony series, is very welcome, especially for users most interested in the console's entertainment features. The competition's absence of an infrared port or even basic support for its own Bluetooth remotes makes it a tough sell for households uninterested in using a gamepad to watch Blu-rays or Netflix.
Even if you're not interested in a universal remote, Kinect is more than happy to take care of turning things on and off for you. The camera is able to "blast" the room with infrared signals that can then, in turn, control your devices. This works even if your cable box is on the same side of the room as the Kinect. It also has the unfortunate side effect of introducing noticeable lag as the Kinect manually dials in the number for a channel, as well as surfacing a potentially confusing UI inside of a UI, as your cable box displays its new channel underneath the Xbox One's guide overlay. Anyone familiar with TiVo and its now 15-year-old model is familiar with this approach and that legacy speaks to the challenge of piggybacking on the cable companies' turf.
But awkwardness aside, jumping from game to TV and back again, or running TV in a picture-in-picture frame while playing a game, feels like a major step forward in set-top boxes and makes the Xbox One the obvious center of any living room that has one.
It's not just that Microsoft is more aggressively courting video content and providers with Xbox compared to the competition. With Xbox One's TV integration, their plan seems to be that you'll never need to switch away from the system for all the entertainment you're already consuming in your living room. It becomes a part of the television experience seamlessly and drifts into the background until you're ready for it — or, say, when you receive a game invite or Skype call.
Skype on Xbox One has the potential to be huge. Kinect's ability to find speakers in a room and focus the camera on them is really neat. And answering a call with voice commands is pleasantly simple. Skype will run "under" games or other apps, allowing you to continue chat via the Kinect mic or the Xbox One headset while performing other tasks.
All of this depends on the system's seamless suspension of in-progress games and apps. This makes swapping between functions of the Xbox One a pleasure, rather than a chore.
There are disappointments to be had. The Xbox One supports Play To streaming from Windows 7 and 8 PCs via DLNA, but there's no way to pull content to the system from a PC directly (though the Xbox One does support playback of almost any file your Windows PC recognizes as media, whether music or video). This is a major step back from the Xbox 360's robust local media playback capabilities. Playback from USB storage is similarly a no-go at launch, so ferrying a video on a thumb drive isn't possible on Xbox One yet. It is possible, however, to upload media to your SkyDrive account and view it from there — an example of corporate synergy taking precedence over obvious features.
Lastly, while HBO Go is expected in early December, it's missing the system launch. This alone might be enough to hold off on replacing the Xbox 360 just yet (especially if you're looking forward to, say, the Nov. 24 finale of Boardwalk Empire).
It's worth mentioning that every app on Xbox One — save for, bizarrely, Skype — can also be snapped to the right side of the screen in a mini window, either by pressing the menu button on the app, or saying "Xbox, snap [app name]." This ranges from pure novelty — watch Netflix while playing a game? Sure! — to more useful applications. Every web-based music service we tested — save Spotify (thanks, Flash) — worked in the Xbox One's version of Internet Explorer, and the snapped window will play audio simultaneously with the main window. As for the browser itself, it's surprisingly fast. Both this page and our PlayStation 4 review ran better there than they did in Chrome on the late-2011 MacBook Pro of one of our editors.
When you turn on your Xbox One, don't panic: from a cold, powered-off state, we've clocked the system requiring a minute or more to boot into the update screen (or the main home screen, if you've enabled power-saving mode and disabled the system's suspend ability). Once you've run your console and enabled suspend, things are much better: from power off to the home screen, we've measured startup at six to 10 seconds.
All Xbox One consoles must be updated as soon as they're turned on for the first time. Unlike the PS4, there is absolutely no available functionality for the system until that update is performed. At more than 1GB, you might be waiting a while. Once you've installed the update, Kinect will need to calibrate, though this process is significantly faster than a similar setup on the Xbox 360. You can then recover your Xbox Live profile, which is now as fast and simple as signing into your account's main email address. You can also create a new user.
Unlike the PS4, there is absolutely no available functionality for the system until that update is performed.
Regardless of which you select, you'll then be asked if you wish to use the Kinect sensor to sign you in automatically via face matching. We found this method to be extremely fast, and extremely reliable — as mentioned before, the Xbox One had no difficulty in discerning four Polygon editors simultaneously and signing them all in without error approximately 6 feet away from the sensor.
Microsoft wants you to take your Xbox One profile with you. If you have an Xbox One, say, at the office (you do, don't you?), you'd only need to walk into that room, have it recognize your face, tell it "Xbox, go home" and then load the last thing you were playing, picking up right where your save from home left off.
Perhaps a more realistic example would be playing a multiplayer game at a friend's house. You can activate your profile on their console and then walk into a room during Just Dance 4, get automatically logged in and start earning Achievements on your own gamertag. The Xbox One can handle up to six users logged in simultaneously, almost double the size of the average American family. At that point, you're probably running out of living room real estate.
All games must be installed to the hard drive, though, like the PS4, they can be played after a certain amount of data is written to the disk. This also applies to game updates, though the Xbox One is also happy to download them in the background.
Microsoft was early to the second-screen race, launching its SmartGlass app for smartphones and tablets only a month before Nintendo launched the Wii U. Unlike the Wii U, however, Microsoft hasn't made much use of the feature, only supporting nine games in its first year (though it did find more support across Xbox 360 entertainment applications).
SmartGlass on Xbox One actually requires a new app, available at launch for Android, Windows Phone and iOS, as well as Windows 8/RT. The biggest difference in the Xbox One's app is how it connects to the system. You no longer route through Xbox Live's servers, which communicate with the Xbox. Instead, your phone, tablet or PC connects directly to the Xbox One using Wi-Fi Direct.
The biggest difference in the Xbox One's app is how it connects to the system.
The most immediate result? Communication between your second-screen device and the Xbox One is significantly faster than with the original SmartGlass app. There's almost no perceptible latency between actions on one and the results on the other. This bodes well for potential second-screen implementation in games — immediate response could make your tablet device a viable alternative method of control.
Other differences are minor for now. You can pin apps and games to your home screen, which will carry over to your Xbox One when you return to it. You can also view friends' video shares through their profiles, and control the volume of your television or receiver via the Kinect's IR blasting capabilities. As with the Xbox 360 SmartGlass app, you can view Achievements, store pages and launch apps on the Xbox One through the app.
Several games support that feature to varying degrees. Battlefield 4 has a companion app with included level map. Dead Rising 3 goes the farthest with SmartGlass, integrating your smartphone with the game via SmartGlass if you let it. This sends mission briefings and such to you via calls, making your phone "ring" for notifications.
There's little reason SmartGlass couldn't act as a fully featured universal remote for your entire home entertainment system.
We're most interested in ways for Microsoft to take the SmartGlass functionality even further, both in games and elsewhere. The Xbox One can already blast IR commands to televisions and receivers. There's little reason SmartGlass couldn't act as a fully featured universal remote for your entire home entertainment system.
With both the PlayStation 4 and Wii U supporting second-screen experiences, we're hopeful that third-party support increases. Both platforms' adoption of widely available iOS and Android devices is smart and forward-thinking.
Bad news first: The Xbox One's hefty lineup of exclusive titles isn't without its misses. Crimson Dragon is a disappointing follow-through on its potential as a successor to Panzer Dragoon. LocoCycle is reprehensible in almost every way — it's racist, sexist, amateurish and monotonous. Ryse is beautiful but boring (and thankfully short).
But Microsoft has secured a comparatively large number of Xbox One-exclusive titles for launch, assembling a lineup with broad appeal. Dead Rising 3 is technically impressive and a fun playground, with bad writing and so-so controls — but running from hundreds of zombies across the hoods of cars feels like a truly next-gen experience.
The Xbox One is a hundred dollars more than its direct competition, and several third-party games run in lower resolution than they do on the PS4.
Zoo Tycoon is a flawed but compelling game with a surprising amount of depth. Powerstar Golf is a simple but delightfully approachable casual golf game, filling the hole left by Sony's missing-in-action Hot Shots Golf series. Killer Instinct is a pretty decent reboot for the long-dormant franchise, despite some trepidation about its business model. And Forza Motorsport 5 is the best of the bunch, a strong evolution for the series despite a reduced number of tracks and cars.
The Xbox One costs $100 more than its direct competition, and several third-party games run in lower resolution than they do on the PS4. Every exclusive title is beset by long load times. But Microsoft has managed to complement an otherwise competent collection of third-party releases with a strong lineup of games that are only available on Xbox One.
Microsoft has insisted it has the software gamers want. But it's also maintained that this generation is about more than that. It's repeatedly outlined a vision for a console based around entertainment, apps and connected experiences, tied together by Kinect, which has been met with apprehension by the enthusiast audience.
To be clear, Kinect isn't a fully realized product yet. Gesture support is functionally non-existent, and there's a lack of good examples of how Kinect can contribute to games. There are certain elements of Microsoft's strategy that are missing at launch, like support for Twitch streaming and HBO Go. And the console's television functionality impresses … if you watch television.
But in many ways, the Xbox One's bold direction for the future is well in place. The integration of voice controls and its media strategy are a boon to everyone, and the ability to run apps while playing games is something we now want on every gaming console we have. That it has a handful of strong, exclusive games at launch only supports its legitimacy as a gaming console and not just an entertainment hub.
The Xbox One is an impressive marriage of software and hardware that raises the bar in terms of what we expect from a living-room machine. Looking forward more than it looks back, the Xbox One feels like it's from the future.