When Xbox One was introduced a year ago, Microsoft sold it as a next-generation game console and media center. Since then Microsoft has expanded availability and added new features on a monthly basis, and now you can actually play Blu-ray movies, access your media files from a NAS and download many of the apps that were promised at launch. At launch, Xbox One had very few of the media features so we waited a bit to do a full review.
So let us examine how Xbox One performs as a game and media center, now that the last element has finally arrived in its intended form.
Xbox One is bigger in every way. It is taller, wider and deeper. The 360 had soft curves but the One is all square and straight lines. The design may be conservative, but it looks a bit more "2014". Still, it is certainly no design winner.
The material is plastic and the black coating makes the One easy to hide between Blu-ray players, receivers and other media boxes. The plastic feels a bit cheap but the One still feels solid. The choice of material has not changed much from 360 as it used the same type of plastic.
You will instantly notice the big vents. Except from the front, every side of the console has big vents that let the hot air out. The vents enable the One to remain silent even when enjoying Blu-ray, Netflix or games. In your tests, Xbox One remained silent for 95% of the time and the vents never get real loud.
The Blu-ray reader dominates the front of the console and because of how it has been designed you cannot place Xbox One vertically, only horizontally. Still, we appreciate the added Blu-ray drive.
Xbox One supports the DTS and Dolby codecs, and even DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD is supported. The Blu-ray will of course output 1080p, and there is also support for 3D Blu-rays.
On the left side you will find an USB 3.0 port and on the back side you will find two additional USB ports - still 3.0. On the back you will also find HDMI in and out which is used to connect a TV set-top box. Additionally, there is optical out and Ethernet, even though Wi-Fi is integrated.
On the back side you will find also a weird little port. This port is used to connect Kinect. However, since Xbox no longer comes bundled with a Kinect you do not need it. I think it is a shame that Kinect is optional, but I will come back to that later. Lastly, there is a Kensington lock which you might find useful.
A hardware upgrade
If you already own a Xbox 360 you may have noticed that the graphics have not improved significantly the past few years, meaning that Xbox One’s improved hardware is a welcoming and important update. AMD has been chosen to develop the new hardware.
Specifications: 8-core 1.75 GHz CPU Jaguar GPU 853 MHz with DirectX 11.1 8GB ram 500GB HDD Blu-ray and DVD HDMI port
The result is prettier graphics, faster navigation in the menus – and no noticeable lag. Most games even load up quicker. However, when leading tracks and maps the One is not faster than 360 since all textures and graphics in general have improved.
As an example, I timed the load-up of Forza 5. It took 39 seconds on the One and the 27 seconds on the 360 for the same race track in Forza 4.
As you can see, the One does not have not blazingly fast loading times, simply because of the fact that it uses an "old" traditional hard drive. A new and much faster Solid State Drive would help fix that problem. However, SSDs are very expensive and especially if you want 500 GB. An Xbox One with 500 GB SSD would probably cost at least $100 extra.
So why not just make a One with a smaller SSD? Well after installing five games we had used up around 30% of the hard drive capacity, so forget about having 25 big titles installed at the same. A 265 GB SSD would just feel so very unsatisfying. For comparison, GTA5 takes up 44 GB, Far Cry 4 takes up 27GB and most other games come in at around 25-60GB.
It was not possible to measure power consumption during our test, but Extreme Tech has already done that. As you can see, the new Xbox is very power consuming, even when watching Netflix and Blu-ray.
Xbox One has a neat standby function that enables the console to start in just 3 seconds, but it comes with a cost; 18 watt in standby. If you compare power consumption to PlayStation 4 the Xbox hits a slightly lower number, ut it is a shame that Microsoft has been unable to reduce power consumption further.
A modern interface
If you already own a 360 or Windows 8 PC it should not come as a surprise that Xbox One has an interface based on "tiles". Tiles are colorful squares that function as icons or covers for apps and games.
The user interface is generally nice and Xbox One looks and feels more modern compared to 360. It also has some new features. Xbox 360 showed one home screen at the time.
Xbox One continues in the same path, but in the right and left sides it teases more content from other home screens. Furthermore, the new user interface has less unused space, giving you more information without any sign of clutter. The tiles are smaller on One and that makes perfect sense since most TVs are bigger today. The 360 tiles on a 55-inch TV was just too large. A lot can happen in 9 years, so Microsoft has obviously decided to optimize the One for today’s TVs.
Microsoft has made a feature called "snap" that enables you to run apps in a picture in picture mode. If you are the type that loves to watch Netflix while browsing this feature is designed with you in mind. However, you cannot adjust the size of each screen so Internet Explorer or a Netflix movie will therefore often appear too small.
When snapped, apps can use three-quarters of the screen, but you cannot switch around when apps are snapped into place. In Windows 8 the snap function works great, but in One it is limited and not that useful. Microsoft surely needs to redesign it.
Microsoft has had better success with another feature that most gamers will appreciate. Traditionally, you would download the entire game before you could start gaming. Well, not anymore. Most games are bigger and better now and even though we have faster internet connections it still takes a while to download a 35 GB game.
Microsoft has created a feature where you can start playing after a short period. The Xbox only needs a partial install. I made a few trials and usually the game has to be 75% finished before I could start playing, so it is not a miracle, but a great feature nonetheless.
A third practical feature is not new but hugely improved. I am talking about SmartGlass, an app for your smartphone or Windows 8 PC. The main purpose of SmartGlass is to act as a remote for your Xbox One. SmartGlass for 360 was often slow and unstable.
The app selection is still limited
Luckily, SmartGlass for Xbox One has been improved and now works like charm on iOS, Android and Windows Phone. On all three eco-systems, the design and functions are similar, meaning you do not need to invest in a Windows Phone to get the latest and greatest from Microsoft.
When searching in Internet Explorer things get much easier with a keyboard and with the SmartGlass app you have it, which makes browsing on a big screen a breeze. Unfortunately, you do not also get a keyboard in every app. Too bad.
SmartGlass can even be used during games to bring up more information or to see friends’ gamer scores. In other words, SmartGlass has many feature, depending on the app or game you use it with. It it integrates with movies. Speaking of movies, Xbox One has been around for one year now and by now you would expect to see almost every major streaming app.
Sadly, that is not the case. More people are looking for ways to "cut the cord" and replace traditional TV channels with Netflix and other services. Just know that Xbox One is not the right option yet. However, it has some apps and the quality is generally great.
HBO Go was recently added. Other apps include Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go (just added), Amazon Instant Video, CinemaNow, Crackle, ESPN, Hulu Plus, VUDU, MLB.tv, TED and others. A full list is available here. While this is great for US owners, we have to say that the international app store is rather weak. Netflix will obviously work in every country where it is available, but very few local services are available outside the US. Depending on your region, this might change how you view the Xbox One as a "media center".
YouTube is top notch The YouTube app looks modern and in many ways like the menus on the One. It loads up big cover photos of the most popular videos. Browse a bit around and you will find genres such as Music, Sports, games and movies.
When logged in you will also find your playlists, recommended stuff and the channels that you are following. All the things that you know from a PC or smartphone. You can like, dislike, and add videos to playlists or follow channels. For some reason, you cannot share videos, probably because there is no Facebook or Twitter app, but everything else is there.
When playing a video you can still browse playlists or the channel and see related videos without having to pause the video. When pressing the Y button on the controller you can search for videos. This is very handy, but using a controller as a keyboard is not a great solution. Luckily, you can your SmartGlass app or the YouTube smartphone app that you can pair with the console on youtube.com/pair.
There are many ways of controlling the YouTube app and using your smartphone is super neat, but not really a new thing in 2014. Another thing you would expect in 2014 are videos in full HD and proper sound quality. The Xbox One delivers, and it automatically selects the highest quality options for videos.
If you press the home button on the controller or media remote YouTube will keep playing in the background while sound is lowered a few dB.
If you "snap" the YouTube app you are still able to control the YouTube app, but the functions are limited to "next", mute, pause and a go back to full screen button.
Netflix is as expected The Netflix app has always been a slow starter. Unfortunately, the same is true on for the Xbox One version of Netflix. Every time you want to watch Netflix you have to wait at least 20 seconds for the app to power up. But when inside there is no lag and the movies start playing with almost no buffering time.
As always, Netflix is designed with big cover photos that are categorized in genres like drama, romance and so on. Because Netflix categorizes movies and TV series it is easy to find what you are looking for. Are you looking for a specific movie or actor you will be delighted to find that the search function is great.
However, when using search in SmartGlass you will not get a keyboard on your smartphone. It is simply not supported yet so you have to go through everything with the controller or remote.
Netflix on Xbox One delivers Full HD and 5.1 Dolby surround is supported whenever possible. Xbox One has no support for 4K since it has no HEVC decoding. It may be powerful enough to still do it (via software decoding), so in the future Microsoft might add it through a firmware update, but no guarantees.
As always, Netflix is great for TV series lovers, as it automatically starts playing the next episode until there are no more episodes. It supports subtitles and Netflix automatically picks you from where you left the last time.
All in all, the quality of most apps is great. The major issues right now is the poor selection. US owners have far more options than in most other countries, but even here Xbox One still lacks many services after one year on the market. Notable music streaming services such as Spotify are missing, too.
A media center with Blu-ray & mkv
The 360 never got a Blu-ray player because it was launched 7 month before Blu-ray was ready. Thankfully, the Xbox One has a Blu-ray player. Next year, a new Blu-ray technology with Ultra HD support will be available, but the One will not get the upgrade. But Xbox One likely will not get the update, so the story will repeat itself.
Still, Blu-ray is great. Microsoft has a different approach to Blu-ray compatibility. Before you can play your favorite movie you will need to download the Blu-ray app. The same goes for CDs or if you want to access your NAS. It is a bit of a hassle but is enables Microsoft to fix any bug from day to day without having to release a full software update for the entire Xbox system.
The Blu-ray app is very straight-forward and has the functions that you would expect, wrapped in the design language of the Xbox One. If you use the "media player" app you can access your network hard drive (NAS), but it never loaded all my movie cover photos and the design looks a bit old-school with a basic folder structure.
On the other hand, the Media Player app found my NAS straight away. No need to do a search or anything. It is very efficient and fast.
If you want to stream a movie from your Windows 8 PC you can use DLNA and your PC and Xbox are on the same network it works almost like Apple’s Airplay. Xbox One is a very stable and efficient media player, and with Netflix, Blu-ray, and an integrated media player it does offer some great value. The only thing missing is a larger app store. One is also completely silent – even in games. The only major downside is the high power consumption.
As a music box it is a different story. Xbox One has no Spotify app and has no support for FLAC files. If you are OK with Xbox music and mp3 then you are covered.
Xbox One is also a game console
We have covered the most important media features and apps but Xbox One is obviously also a game console. Many other reviews have already looked at the game aspect, where we have focused on the media functionality, but let us quickly go through gaming on Xbox One.
Currently the selection of games it quite small but Xbox One has a few exclusive titles such as Forza 5 and Ryse: Son of Rome. The graphics are certainly better than the 360 but it is not a totally different experience.
The improvements can be seen around edges, lightning and in huge gaming environments where the draw distance is far better. Game developers pushed the 360 ti its limits and hopefully they will be able to improve games for One the same way they did with 360 over the years.
We do not see the full potential of Xbox One right now, but GTA 5 and Far Cry 4 already look promising. So far, Forza 5 most demonstrated improved graphics in regards to lighting effects.
I will not engage in a Playstation 4 versus Xbox One discussion here. It is ultimately your decision, and I can assure you that both deliver improved graphics. Unfortunately, none of them deliver real "next-gen" gaming experiences. Both are still just consoles with a controller. The SmartGlass app adds some extra information and Kinect is improved, but there are no new ways of interacting, no new ways of gaming, and no must-have upgrades.
Microsoft will probably continue to release new Halo and Forza games to, but we hope that they will also create new series. Personally, I look forward to the thriller game Alan Wake, Quantum Break and Titanfall, and I think Microsoft needs more new game series if they want to be the number one choice for gamers.
A better controller
Xbox 360 had a superior controller to PlayStation 3 and the ergonomics were amazing. Luckily, Microsoft has used this foundation to improve the Xbox One controller even further by using great materials and by adding a few new features.
The controller is more accurate and there are now Force Feedback in the buttons, which is a really great improvement as it can simulate lots of different things in racing or action games. You can also connect a headset to the controller.
The controller even has a new gyrosensor, which means that you can shake or move the controller, which is already being utilized in some games. In Dead Rising 3, a zombie game, you sometimes have to shake off aggressive zombies by shaking the controller. A simple but effective detail.
However, one issue has not been fixed. It still takes several seconds to turn on the controller.
Kinect and more
Just as on Xbox 360, Kinect is optional on One. Microsoft actually wanted to ship every Xbox One with the Kinect, but after facing the wrath of fans and non-fans Microsoft changed their bundling strategy.
As a result the One got cheaper, but it also means that only a few games, including some childish sports games, take advantage of the Kinect. That is a shame because the Kinect 2.0 is so much more powerful and accurate compared to the old Kinect.
If every Xbox One came with a Kinect, Microsoft would surely encourage developers to create new gaming experiences and change the way we experience games that would feel more next-gen than the current approach. Right now, we mostly see improved graphics.
I am aware that not everyone agrees, but the end result is that the new generation of consoles lacks the new input methods to unleash the true creativity of game developers.
Despite it being optional, the new Kinect offers some benefits over the old Kinect. It will automatically recognize your face and log into your account, even if more than one person is sitting in your couch. That is a cool feature. Kinect will also let you voice control your Xbox One, but at the moment it only works with a select few languages. Still, it works very well and it recognized most commands without issues. It can open apps, search for things and much more.
When comparing Xbox One with PlayStation 4 the major difference is the current game selection and accessories. One is more of a media center, and the media remote and TV tuner are statements from Microsoft.
The media remote looks like a modern TV remote. It is small and only has a few buttons. You can use it for powering on the console, navigate menus and start apps. The remote is optional and available for $29, which I believe is money well spent if you are planning to use the box for more than just gaming.
The remote has motion-activated backlit keys, so when you lift the remote off the table the keys will light up, which is a great when watching Blu-rays or Netflix in the evening. The remote is not made from plastic, but instead a rubber cover that gives it a quality-feel.
If you are watching Blu-ray you can use the remote to play, pause, rewind and skip to next chapter. The remote also works in apps, so you can use the same apps in Netflix, HBO Go, YouTube and so on.
Another great feature for movie lovers is that the remote has an infrared transmitter so no waiting time like with the game controller. Some of the buttons on the remote can even be programmed to control your TV or AV receiver, meaning that when the One powers up your TV starts as well. The set-up process is very easy and straightforward. The biggest problem, at least for us, was locating the settings to activate all this great stuff. A quick guide or something like that would help.
Xbox One is in many ways a great device. All those things that made the Xbox 360 great, such as SmartGlass, media apps and graphics, have been improved on Xbox One. It finally has a Blu-ray player and the console is very quiet in use, which is great when you want to use it as a media center. At the moment the app store selection is fair in the US, but very weak everywhere else. This could change in the future, but we probably need to see Windows 10, and the unified app store, in shops before it happens.
As a media center Xbox One is a quite competent device
As a gaming machine we found very few surprises. Xbox One is an evolution over the 360 and offers very few new must-have features, which is real shame. However, from a gamer’s a gamer’s perspective PlayStation 4 does not offer many new things either, at least not right now. There are no groundbreaking new input methods or new ways to experience games, only better graphics, which is why I am somewhat hesitant to characterize the new consoles as true "next-gen" gaming.
This means that Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will mostly compete on price and exclusive games, instead of new features, new gaming experiences and new input methods. The graphics are certainly better but is that alone enough?
On the other hand, if you are looking for a gaming console that doubles as media center Xbox One is a quite competent device. It now has a built-in media center app that even plays .mkv and it offers apps and 2D/3D Blu-ray playback. I really wanted Kinect to be a thing, but unfortunately it is not unless you want Wii-like kids and party-style games. Save the money and spend it on the media remote and some new games instead.
Combined with the SmartGlass experience, the One is a better media center overall than the PlayStation 4. The latter has better hardware on paper, but the same was true for PS3 and in the end we saw only minor game-related differences between the two. However, Sony is currently selling far more PS4s than Microsoft is selling Xbox Ones, which could have effect on future game releases. As a gamer that might be something to consider.
So which one do you choose? It depends on what you want, but if you want it to double as a media center, Xbox One is probably a better choice right now.
Apps is an evaluation of the app catalogue and the quality / user friendliness of the apps Features is an evaluation of the built-in functionality and how useful it is, as well as build quality User experience is an evaluation of user friendliness and the general use of the box, including the remote control Total score weighted as: 40% Apps, 30% Features, 30% User experience. All scores are calculated based on a moving maximum target, defined by what we currently consider the best on market. It is then presented as a percentage. This means that a score will fall over time as new and better media boxes set new standards. This allows you to compare scores across years. A score of 100% in a given category means that it is consider the best available media box in this category to date.
Fast hardware Kinect 2.0 Great controller & remote Blu-ray & .mkv support Nice user interface
Not many apps No suprises here Bad music center Power consumption