Xbox One Review: Living Room Magic Punctuated by Frustration

Xbox on.

Those two words have become the modern-day equivalent of “open sesame” in my living room, working like magic to instantly power on my television, my cable box, my surround sound system, and my Xbox One.

I’ve had the console for two weeks now, and I still get a tech-nerdy tingle every time it happens. And that’s the Xbox One at its best: a voice-activated entertainment hub that truly is more than just a videogame console.

But…

There can’t be an honest discussion about Microsoft’s new system without that conjunction.  I marvel at the responsive, accurate voice controls and seamless media center integration, but scratch my head in bewilderment that the console seemingly has no clue what DVR is – the core television access point for a significant portion of today’s audience.

I love the added control SmartGlass brings, but I wonder why I can’t use it to type in searches using my tablet keyboard in Netflix, Hulu, Vudu and other entertainment apps. Yep, despite all the impressive voice and second-screen tech Xbox One is packing, you still have to slowly, painfully punch in a Netflix search for “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” with your controller. And that’s no fun for anyone.

It’s also a good summation of where the Xbox One is at launch: moments of magic punctuated by hair-pulling frustration.

The Hardware

The Xbox One Console and Kinect

After the hair-dryer-loud, heat-sensitive design of the original Xbox 360 proved to be a billion dollar red-ring problem for Microsoft, the tech giant clearly went for function over form with the Xbox One. The Xbox One is, quite simply, a black box. A surprisingly heavy black box.

That said, I actually like the way the minimalist, square design looks on my media shelf. There is only a single, small round X logo on the face and “XBOX” in small script on the top left-front corner, so the design never screams “VIDEO GAME MACHINE” at you. Which is nice when, in my case at least, you have to convince your wife this thing actually belongs in your living room.

Kinect follows the same aesthetic –more square and squat than its rounded predecessor — and it pairs nicely with the console without taking up too much space. There’s also a 9’ cable to connect it to the Xbox One, so there is plenty of room to have the console way down on the bottom shelf and Kinect all the way up on top of your flat screen.

Power it up and aside from the small front X logo glowing white (and a matching white logo on the Kinect), you’d never know the Xbox One turned on. This console is whisper-quiet, so much so that the only time I’ve heard it is when the optical disc drive is spinning during a game install. As far as I can tell, you’ll never hear the Xbox One’s fans, and that’s nice to know after the jet engine known as the Xbox 360.

What’s in the Box?

Along with the console itself and Kinect, the $500 standard edition Xbox One box includes:

  • 6’ HDMI cable
  • Xbox One Controller with two AA batteries (more on this in a bit)
  • Mono earphone headset with microphone
  • Fourteen-day Xbox Live Gold membership

Your Xbox 360 headset, either the one made by Microsoft or one of the many third-party offerings, won’t work with the Xbox One (at least not at launch), so it’s a good thing MS threw in the headset. It follows the same design as the headset included with the 360 (plastic, over the head half loop, mono earphone with connected mic that can swivel), but it’s a bit more sturdy feeling than its predecessor.

I did note that the headset felt a bit tighter on me than the 360 model, even when fully loosened. I compared it to the old headset, and sure enough, it doesn’t expand quite as much. So if you’ve got a large cranium, like me, you likely won’t be as comfortable with this model, at least not while you’re breaking it in.

Microsoft also rejiggered how the headset connects to your controller, ditching the 3.5mm jack for an HDMI-like plug. The result is a more secure connection that makes it much tougher to accidently yank out. The new connector also features redesigned volume and mute buttons. Gone is the tiny switch and wheel, replaced by three simple buttons that are much cleaner and intuitive, and there is a tiny light on the mute button that lets you know it’s actually on.

Most importantly, it works great. It’s an audio upgrade over the 360 version – likely because of the improved connection, and I’ve never had any problem hearing or being heard. The mono design still makes it a less-than-optimal gaming headset, but if you’re using it simply to communicate with your friends, it will do the job admirably.

The Controller

Sigh.

Microsoft throws in two AA batteries because the Xbox One controller does not come with a rechargeable lithium ion battery pack or the cord that facilitates its recharging. Huge, unforgivable omission by MS here and a clear business decision to get you to shell out an additional $25. Thank you for making me feel like I should instantly give you more money to properly enjoy your $500 console, Microsoft.

Aside from that travesty, the controller itself is a nice upgrade over the Xbox 360 version. The new peripheral is slightly more compact overall, and the twin thumbsticks have been adjusted to be slightly tighter, making movement feel less loose and more concise. The sticks now rumble (it’s actually more of a buzzzzz) along with the rest of the controller as well, adding to the overall in-game experience.

The more compact design also brings the triggers and bumpers closer together, making it more comfortable for those of you who prefer to play middle-fingers-on-triggers, pointers-on-bumpers style.

For most of you, the most notable change is in the D-Pad. Microsoft ditched the horribly inaccurate circle-with-direction-overlay design, opting instead for a much more responsive straight D-Pad. It works great and is a huge improvement.

Overall, these are enhancements, not an overhaul, but unlike Sony’s PlayStation controller, an overhaul wasn’t necessary.  For my money, the Xbox controller is the best in class, and it just got better… at least after you spend $25 on it to add the battery pack.

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4 Comments on Xbox One Review: Living Room Magic Punctuated by Frustration

Mike

On December 6, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Sooooo, no mention of the really weird annoyance of having to say “Xbox, turn off” instead of just “Xbox off”? Every other shorthand command is a one word addition to xbox, but not off…its just dumb.

matthew

On December 6, 2013 at 11:21 pm

I can’t believe Microsoft are still making controllers battery operated just to bleed an extra few bucks from customers. It would make more sense to include a built in battery pack or at least just a rechargeable pa k and cable. Its juat as bad as when I had to go and buy a remote sensor for my original xbox because I couldn’t use my contrller to navigate my dvd. *SIGH*

jon

On December 9, 2013 at 10:04 am

i really don’t understand y people want a built in battery, i would have been extremely pissed if i had to plug in my controller every time the battery died. I’ve had rechargables as long as i can remember, for everything, and it’s so much more convenient to just change batteries then to feel outdated by having the controller plugged in.

alabtrosMyster

On December 10, 2013 at 6:46 am

I wonder how this console can seriously claim to be the center of any living room while not allowing you to stream your existing MP3s and movies to it? this is just not serious (same goes for PS4… which I own) in this regard both new consoles are, for as long as this is not patched, seriously backward… in therms of media consumption I get more mileage out of an Ouya with the community port of XBMC on it than with either of these machines!

But what really killed the xb1 for me was its relatively weak game performance compared to the PS4…

xbox go home!