Where Sony offers a solid video game experience with minimal non-gaming frills, the Xbox One turns things up to 11 with better games, a more fully realized living room entertainment experience and surprisingly solid Kinect functionality. While things may change over the lifetime of this console generation, at the launch it's no comparison: Xbox One is vastly superior to the PS4.
Much has been made about the size of the Xbox One, which is of course exacerbated by the additional bulk of its external power supply and Kinect sensor. These criticisms are valid in that the Xbox One is considerably larger than the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox 360, and depending on how you place the device, you may have some issues. Those with high-end stereo equipment—I'm told they're out there—will note that the Xbox One console, at least, is no bigger than your typical receiver or other component, however, and I think the styling of the device is attractive and living room friendly, except for the horribly-bright white Xbox logo light on the front. That's the last thing you want while watching movies on your HDTV.
I described the Xbox One controller adequately in Xbox One: Controller Matters, but the short version is that this controller took everything right about the Xbox 360 controller and improved on it. The only downside is that it comes with AA batteries and you'll probably want to snag a play and charge kit—not to mention a second controller—at additional cost.
The biggest surprise, and it's a good one, with the Xbox One is the improved Kinect sensor. And it is much improved. It works in much smaller areas—right now, I'm about 4 feet away, no issues at all—and in darker areas. It can sense multiple people at once and correctly sign them all in. Its voice control functionality, described in Xbox One: Voice Control and Xbox One: "Xbox, Record That" actually works and is thus suddenly transformative. With Xbox One, Kinect has gone from laughing stock to future-leaning. It's fascinating to see this finally work properly.
That said, I'm still not sold on the gesture stuff. And I've yet to spend any time with the Kinect-based Xbox Fitness or other Kinect titles. I will do so soon. But voice is Kinect's killer feature. Clearly.
(Check out Xbox One First Impressions and Photos for more photos of the console.)
While the Xbox One, like the PlayStation 4, is at heart a traditional video game console, it also does a much better job of integrating with the living room and working in ways that are just unavailable elsewhere. You can walk into your living room, say "Xbox, on" at a normal level and the console—and, if you configure it correctly, your HDTV and stereo—will wake up, the Kinect will "see" that it's you, display a jaunty "Hi, Paul!" message and provide your customized Dashboard experience. This all happens in a matter of seconds, and it's magical.
If you're familiar with Windows 8.x, Windows Phone or the Xbox 360, the Xbox Dashboard is instantly familiar but at turns simpler and confusing. (I wrote a bit more about this in Xbox One: Dashboard.) It's a panoramic experience, meaning that the display you see on-screen is only part of the full Dashboard: You can also pan left or right from this main, or Home, screen and view other groups of tiles.
To the left, you will find the Pins. These are items—games, of course, but also entertainment apps, individual movies or TV shows, web sites, and more—that you save, bookmark style, because you wish to access them frequently. You can't otherwise customize tile placement on the Dashboard, but it seems handy enough for now, and I'm curious how it will hold up over time.
To the right of Home, you'll find a small Featured group—not pure advertisements, yet, as on the Xbox 360, though I sort of think that's inevitable, but rather some informational links, which is useful, and then the Store group. This provides access to the Xbox One's library of games, movies and TV shows, music, and apps.
In many ways, the Game Store, in particular, is lacking, but it's still better than what's available on the PS4 and the rest of the Store—movies and TV shows, music and apps—is dramatically better, especially if you've bought into Microsoft's digital media ecosystem and use these services—Xbox Music and Xbox Video in particular—on your other devices. I do.
As I wrote in my review of the Sony PlayStation 4, the single biggest common innovation on these two new-gen consoles is multitasking, and that feature works similarly between the Xbox One and PS4. But as I noted in Xbox One: Multitasking, Microsoft's console one-ups the PS4 by adding a Windows 8-like Snap capability that lets you run two apps/games side-by-side. It's a bit limited as you might expect, but
The net result is that the Xbox One Dashboard seems more full of content than does the PS4 home screen because it is. There's more there there, if you will, with far more entertainment options. And it's also more customizable, with a Pins area that helps segregate the things you really like to do more often. You can also customize the color scheme, though you really have to dig to find that option.
While the launch game library for the Xbox One isn't particularly inspiring—"Ryse: Son of Rome" is dreck, and games like "Forza 5" and "Dead Rising 3," as their names suggest, are simply better-looking versions of more of the same—there are some game-related capabilities that really do put Xbox One over the top. As with the PS4, the games will come.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is, um, kind of a dog
Multitasking, of course, is huge. You can Skype with friends while gaming, pop into the Dashboard as needed, jump-start an Xbox Music-based soundtrack, whatever, all without losing your place. This capability, like Kinect voice control, is transformative.
Xbox One multitasking: Call of Duty Ghosts with Xbox Music snapped on the right
Xbox One includes a cloud-based Game DVR feature that lets you record your gaming sessions. This will be of interest mostly to hard-core gamers, of course, as with the Upload Studio app which lets you edit and share those videos. But the ability to go back and record the previous 30 seconds in any game—as discussed in Xbox One: "Xbox, Record That"—will be fun for anyone. It perfectly captures that awesome and unexpected moment in a game, and lets you store it for posterity. It may be the Xbox One's single best feature.
With this console, of course, you have your choice of retail discs, as on the Xbox 360, or digital game downloads. Each comes with some compromises. With a disc, for now at least, you must insert the disc to play the game, which I find to be a huge inconvenience. But with digital downloads, as noted in Xbox One: Game Downloads, you need to download massive 30-40 GB games, and then there's no way to resell them if they stink. (Cough. Ryse.)
I think the benefits of the digital downloads outweigh the problems, and you can see in newer, Xbox One-specific titles that the downloading is intelligent and you can get into the game before its completely downloaded. This will improve over time.
An interesting transformation occurred over the lifetime of the Xbox 360: The console was used more often for entertainment services—Netflix, Hulu Plus and so on—than for gaming. So the Xbox One, like its predecessor, was designed with this dual use in mind, and the availability of many, many entertainment services at launch is one of many advantages this console has over the PS4. All the obvious services are there, of course, but you also get the NFL Network, Xbox Music and Xbox Video (read Xbox One: Xbox Video for more), YouTube, Crackle, Vudu, and many, many others.
With the inclusion of a Blu-ray drive, the Xbox One can of course play Blu-ray and DVD movies. I like the player better than the version in the PS4 and find it less confusing to use with a controller. But of course, the Xbox One also provides voice control, which is even better still.
One of the real oddities on this console is that the entertainment experiences can supply Xbox Live achievements. I actually think this is a terrible idea, since they all promote being a couch potato. But it's amusing every time one of these achievements pops up. I've gotten some for pinning a movie to the Dashboard (both Xbox Video) and just for launching the app (Amazon Instant Video), for example. Please.
The Xbox One also comes with basic Microsoft apps like SkyDrive—discussed in Xbox One: SkyDrive—and Internet Explorer, which looks and works much like the version in Windows 8. These kinds of integration points are of course obvious and important for people who are firmly invested in the Microsoft ecosystem.
Like the PS4, I get the idea that the Xbox One hit some arbitrary schedule date and had to ship in order to make it into consumers' hands in time for the holidays. And what this means to users of this system is that it is in many ways incomplete. In fact, anyone familiar with the Xbox 360 won't have to look too hard to find fairly obvious missing functionality.
The biggest issues, I think—and this is true of the PS4, too, for whatever that's worth—are related to digital media playback. You can't connect a USB-based hard disk or device and play whatever content is on there. You can't connect to PC- or home server-based network shares and play the content there either. Play On Xbox, one of the Xbox entertainment platform's best features, is unavailable, as is Miracast support. But Play To, curiously—which is DLNA-based—does work if you want to stream content from a PC to the console.
As we must so often with any consumer electronics gadget, the discussion here eventually turns to the price. And it is here, most painfully, where the Xbox One starts to fall apart. Microsoft sells only a single version of the console, for an incredible $500, and that is a heady price to pay for a video game machine and entertainment device. There's no reason to beat around the bush: It's too expensive.
At the current price, the Xbox One will sell only to hardcore Xbox fans and anyone else who simply must have the latest and greatest immediately. But this price level is unsustainable, and I recommend that most people who are interested in this console, passingly or otherwise, wait until the inevitable price drop in 2014.
Two factors combine to help me arrive at this advice. First, there are no truly great Xbox One launch titles, none that would warrant you needing to jump onboard right away; the best games on the Xbox One are also available on the Xbox 360 or elsewhere. And second, many of the Xbox One's best features—like its wide array of entertainment services—are also available elsewhere, including devices like the Roku family of products, all of which cost under $100.
One price-related issue I took exception with early on was Microsoft's forced inclusion of the Kinect sensor, which raises the price of the console by about $100. And while I'm coming around to the notion that this new Kinect may be worth the premium, the best part of it, voice control, could have been largely accomplished without requiring the $100 external sensor, though that device does probably provide advantages since it can be positioned according to the needs of your room.
Anyway. It's too expensive.
Like most Apple products, the Xbox One is basically review-proof, especially at its current heady price. But I can say this with confidence: If you simply must get a new generation video game console right now, during the launch season, the Xbox One is both superior and a better overall value. Like the PS4, it provides an excellent video game experience with a great new controller and multitasking capabilities. But it surpasses the PS4 in its ability to do two things onscreen at once, in its far more voluminous entertainment capabilities, and in the oh-so-simple HDMI pass-through, which puts the "One" in Xbox One.
If you can wait, do so. Prices will come down, and the console will be an even better value. For those that can live without some of the Xbox One's new capabilities, a current generation Xbox 360 with a sub-$100 Roku will provide all the gaming chops and entertainment services you'll need for at least the next year. At some point, of course, the advantages of next-gen game titles running on these devices will start to tilt the balance. But it will be a while, so there's no rush.
Put simply, if you're choosing between an Xbox One and a PlayStation 4, the Xbox One is the better value even with the higher price tag. It's just does that much more. But if you're unsure about whether you need this new technological marvel right away, then you're not ready yet. Wait until next year.
Highly recommended, but for that price tag.