The Xbox One is more than a game console. That got it into some hot water when it first debuted at E3 2013. There were accusations that Microsoft had shoved games to the side in favor of media features and cable integration - features that aren't even available outside of the US at launch.
While this may have been true about that particular presentation, we've found that the Xbox One itself achieves an admirable balance of gaming and television features, while keeping the former at the forefront.
What's in the box?
What a pile. An Xbox One purchase gets you the console and a Kinect, a power cable and adapter (aka the power brick), a decent headset, the headset adapter, an HDMI cable and controller with batteries. You'll also get a 14-day free trial of Xbox Live Gold.
Xbox One setup is more involved than on the PS4, but it's still not terribly complex. Along with power and HDMI, you'll also have to connect the Kinect through its proprietary cable.
If you plan to watch TV on the console (not available in the UK yet, sorry folks), you'll do so with an HDMI cable, through the system's HDMI-in port. You'll then need to run the OneGuide's setup, which isn't too complex. We'll get into that in the media portion of this review.
When you first switch the system on you'll be met with a setup wizard which will get you connected to the internet for that day one patch. It's around 2GB, and absolutely required before you can even get to the Home screen.
After that's done don't go unplugging your router just yet, at least if you want to play Blu-rays. Almost nothing is on the system by default, and while internet access is not required for single player gaming, there's a ton of functionality that still needs come down from the cloud.
Hop into the Store and get those downloads queued up. After that though, setup is complete. Now before we dive deep into the Xbox One, allow us to walk you through some of its big new functions.
Oh snap, the Xbox One's tiled Home screen is a dead giveaway that the interface shares some DNA with Windows 8. Its brought one of the unique features of the Metro UI to your TV screen in the form of app snapping.
Snapping lets you run two apps at once, giving a third of the screen to one app off to the right, and the rest to your primary engagement. It's a good way to do a little Internet Explorer browsing while you wait for a friend to join your game, but beyond that it can be straining on the eyes and clunky to navigate.
First off, on all but the biggest TVs, a third of the screen just isn't enough space to do much of anything. Having FIFA on one side and an actual live match on the other may sound intriguing, but in practice it's cramped and terribly distracting. Snapping is better left to simpler apps, like Xbox Music or a Skype call.
It's also a headache to execute with the controller since it requires multiple trips to the home screen. First to load up the primary app, then to back out and choose snap, after which you pick your secondary app.
Kinect does make things easier. You can simply say "Xbox snap Music" to get the side by side feature working. It's also much easier to just say "switch" for toggling between the two rather using the controller.
The biggest problem with Snap is that the interface relies on it too heavily for multitasking, and it forces you to give up visual real estate when you really shouldn't have to. For example, Xbox Music needs to be snapped in order to crank tunes while you play. Compare that to the PS4, which may lack a picture in picture feature, but lets its own music service run in the background, tucking the controls into the PS menu.
While it's impressive that the Xbox One's hardware is capable of juggling all this with a drop in gaming performance, it comes off as something you can do, but not something you'll actually want to do, at least very often.
Game DVR could be the end of gaming tall tales and "you had to be there" stories. With help from Microsoft's SkyDrive service, it lets you easily record and share your personal epic wins, besting the PS4's Video Share offering as the more open and YouTube-friendly recording option.
From the get go it's much simpler than third-party recording devices since it's built directly into the system. The best part is that it requires no setup or planning. If you just unleashed a brag-worthy killstreak in Call of Duty, simply say "Xbox record that" and a 720p recording of your last thirty seconds in-game is saved to the hard drive. You can also take a screenshot by saying, you guessed it, "Xbox take a screenshot."
If you're the type who plans ahead and would like to record a longer video, switching to Game DVR, or snapping it alongside your game, lets you record up to five minutes of gameplay. This is one place where Sony's system has the edge. The PS4 keeps a recording of your last fifteen minutes in gaming, letting you pull clips from that instant archive.
So while recording a clip longer than thirty seconds requires less foresight on the PS4, the Xbox One's SkyDrive integration makes for more robust sharing. Whereas the PS4 only lets you upload to Facebook or the PSN, SkyDrive delivers clips as edit and upload friendly MP4s.
Upload Studio also has a simple suite of editing tools, and allows you to record a voice over commentary. You can even use Kinect recording to place yourself in the video, picture-in-picture style.
You can also share clips on Xbox Live where they will appear on in your activity feed. Those feeds are rather buried though, so chances are your friends won't see it unless you give them a heads up.
While the Xbox One currently has no built-in live streaming capabilities to match the PS4's Twitch and Ustream support, we think players will appreciate having direct access to their clips, which greatly extends the possibilities of editing and sharing.
Smartglass is the Xbox's second screen experience. It was introduced on the Xbox 360 and lets you navigate menus and see system information on your tablet or smartphone.
The app is back for Xbox One, and does have improved functionality. You can now launch apps from the second screen, and several games now have companion apps. Dead Rising 3 lets you use your device in lieu of the in-game phone for ordering attacks and calling for back. You can even view the in-game map.
The best service Smartglass provides is a keyboard that's easier than the console's on-screen option. It's a great way to read and respond to messages. You can also type in URLs and operate Bing search this way, which is an excellent way to multitask. You can also use the OneGuide on Smartglass for TV control.
The Windows 8 Smartglass app has its own special features. You can throw a browser page from the console directly onto the screen of your W8 device.
Also, its online requirement, which threatened to lock up the system without a daily server ping, has been dialed way, way down. Out of the box, your Xbox One will need to download a day one patch before you even arrive at the homescreen. After that, you can cut the ethernet cable or smash your router; there's no further online connectivity needed for single player gaming.
While this functionality is not available to UK customers at launch, North Americans can use that HDMI-in to turn the Xbox One into a cable box. Using a built in guide, you can navigate channels and search for specific shows, using the controller or your voice via Kinect.
Xbox One also integrates streaming services that you're currently subscribed to, and helps you find what you're looking for across all options.
For example, if you want to watch The Matrix, search for the film, and the Xbox One Guide will tell you if you can watch on Netflix, if you own it on Amazon, show a link to buy it through the Xbox Marketplace, or give you a heads up that it will be on cable next week.