Beloved the world over for its comfortable layout and dependable Bluetooth connection, the Xbox 360 controller became a gaming gold standard. For the Xbox One, Microsoft has given it an overhaul, and it's mostly for the best.
Same goes for the Kinect. It never got the adoration of the 360's gamepad, and was often accused of being a gimmicky, "me too" by Microsoft after the Nintendo Wii kicked off a motion control craze (Sony had its own attempt - remember the PlayStation Move?).
This time around, Microsoft still hasn't built a lot of games around the Kinect. Instead, it's been integrated into the console's interface. While you can choose not to use it, you'd be missing out on some of the most surprisingly fun, but occasionally frustrating, features of the Xbox One.
The Xbox 360's controller was widely regarded as the best all around console gamepad. Its natural contours, well placed triggers and asymmetrical stick layout made it comfortable and the right fit for games of all kinds.
Moving from the 360 to the One, Microsoft has altered little about its signature controller. The most noticeable change is the new position of the Xbox button, which is now at the top rather than in the middle, making it harder to hit by accident.
Basically, Microsoft chose not to mess with a good thing and stuck to improving the existing design. It's now lighter, with a matte finish that feels sleek in the hand. The analog sticks are extra grippy thanks to textured rubber.
There's also force feedback in the triggers, letting you feel the kick of a gun or the rumble of off-road driving right in your fingers. Right now it's a bit of gimmick, but you never know what some clever developer might do with it.
Comparing the two side-by-side, we prefer the Xbox One's controller to PS4's DualShock 4. However, Sony's controller has a few features we wish Microsoft would had adopted.
The Xbox One is still using AA batteries for power, while Sony has been building a rechargeable cell right into its controller since the DualShock 3. Microsoft sells that functionality separately in the form of the Play and Charge Kit. At $30, it's asking a lot, since extra controllers are already $80 a pop.
The Xbox One's controller doesn't have any motion features, unlike the DualShock 4, which basically has Move built right in. It's forgivable since you have a Kinect, but we do think that the PS4's touchpad gives it an edge, both for casual gaming and manipulating big inventory screens.
Overall, the Xbox One controller is an improvement in every way except one: the shoulder buttons. The actions on the Xbox One's bumpers are less taught. It makes for a flimsier click, which is a real shame, since the One controller trumps the 360's build quality in every other way.
With the exception of that annoying flaw, the Xbox One has a really excellent controller. It's a pleasure to hold, the batteries last just as long as the last-gen version and making black the standard colour was a wise choice, since it won't discolour as readily as the 360's white model.
The Xbox One's Kinect is a combination camera and microphone. It lets the system see you, hear you, react to your commands or just your presence. It also has an IR blaster that can interact with your TV and other appliances.
While Microsoft has taken pains to assure the public that the Kinect is not required for using the Xbox One, ignore it and you'd be missing out. After all, it's going to be in the box no matter what; it's the reason Xbox One is $50 more than the PS4.
Physically, it's bigger than the Xbox 360's Kinect. It's wider, heavier, more rectangular and cannot be mounted to the top of your TV, at least not as-is out of the box. Also, unlike the 360's Kinect, it doesn't move on its own to keep you in frame. Microsoft has replaced that slightly unnerving feature with an optical zoom. The Kinect can be manually tilted, but you only need to do so during the initial setup.
There's a wizard that makes calibration quite painless and only needs to be repeated if you make major changes to your living room setup. The first time you run it you'll introduce Kinect to your face. Once seems to be enough, the Kinect was shockingly good at picking people out beneath glasses and facial hair.
Some checks do need to be repeated if you move the Kinect: making sure it can see enough of the floor and that the mic is tuned to hear you. The system will ask you to crank up your speakers so it can blast a few notes for a sound check. This makes sure Kinect can hear you over the TV. This whole setup process takes less than five minutes.
The Kinect sees you and hears you, letting you navigate menus with your voice or gesture commands. Being able to go from the first Home screen to your pins with a wave is nice, but beyond that the onscreen hand cursor is more trouble than it's worth. It's twitchy and doesn't recognise a "press" very well.
For voice commands, the Kinect's mic can reliably hear you over TV audio, but conversation and background noise gives it trouble. It's best used when there's little going on in the room besides playing Xbox. You also need to stick to rather rigid command syntax so it understands you.
Everything you say has to begin with "Xbox." "Xbox go to Forza Motorsport 5" will launch said racing game. It sounds simple enough but you'll find plenty of ways to trip over it. For example, saying play rather than go to, or Forza instead of the game's entire name. Kinect is no Siri when it comes to interpreting the way people actually talk.
A lot of the command phrasing isn't terribly intuitive either. For example, "Xbox on" turns on the system, but "Xbox turn off" switches it off. Forgetting to say "turn" or putting it where it doesn't belong usually results in no response from the Kinect.
Hopefully Kinect's voice commands will improve and become less rigid over time. Siri and Google Now have certainly come a long way. As of now, Xbox One's interface jammed with tutorials and lists of phrases; Microsoft knows there's a lot to learn and it's doing its best to compensate. See a full list of Kinect commands here.
Kinect makes a lot of basic functions convenient and fun. Pausing a movie, returning to the home screen and switching between snapped apps worked quite well. However, anything beyond simple commands can quickly get frustrating. Using it to navigate to specific channels in the OneGuide is fraught with errors.
The least reliable command is ironically the most basic. We frequently found ourselves saying "Xbox on" several times before the system would come to life. While it would sometimes snap to attention at first utterance, we never knew what we had done right, or wrong.
Also, while you can easily setup the Kinect's IR blaster to automatically power on your TV, it might be a good option to skip. If your TV is already on when you say "Xbox On," it'll turn it off. A lot of universal remotes have the same problem.
At its best the Kinect compliments the Xbox One's interface by giving you options. You can go between speech, gestures and controller input without even bothering to tell the Kinect "stop listening." The bevy of options is impressive, and amusing.
Don't think that the Kinect is ever not listening though. This thing can turn on the system, remember? It's basically in standby all the time. While we think that Microsoft has better things to do than monitor what people are up to in their living rooms, the idea of an always on microphone is a bit disconcerting in the era of the NSA.
You can opt of out of using the Kinect by simply leaving it in the box, but you can't opt out of paying for it. That's a shame for gamers that would rather put that $50 toward games or a spare controller, but at least it gives a developers a major incentive to design for it. The Kinect's install base will undoubtedly be larger than that of the sold separately, and comparatively underpowered, PlayStation 4 Camera.