October 20, 2014 Update: a lot has changed for the Xbox One since its release. We've recently updated this review with information on the October system update. Original review by Alex Roth.
Meet the Xbox One, Microsoft's one console to rule it all - video games, TV, music and movies, everything you do in the living room short of sitting down. You name it, the Xbox One does it.
It's a plan of great ambition, and possibly fractured focus. Is Microsoft taking on too much with one system?
That was the general reaction at E3 2013 when the Xbox One's cable TV integration and always on Kinect were revealed, all for a price tag that turned out to be $100 heavier than the PlayStation 4's. Sony went on to arguably win the show with some excellent counter-programming.
On November 22 the Xbox One pushed through the bad buzz with a launch lineup padded with installments from familiar franchises. Games like Call of Duty: Black Ops, Dead Rising 3, Assassins Creed: Black Flag IV and NBA 2K14 made sure the early adopters lined up at midnight would have something to play.
The real question is this: can the Xbox One overcome the mixed messaging, the now-canned 24-hour online dependence and the other potholes that had it stumbling out of the gate, and allowed Sony to win E3 2013 with some sharp counter-programming?
And can it live up to the legacy of the Xbox 360? For long stretches of the last console generation, the Xbox was king. While the Wii was everywhere, and millions of gamers and AV enthusiasts eventually picked up a PlayStation 3, for a while there the phrase "let's play some Xbox" was almost interchangeable with "let's play some video games."
It was the console that brought Xbox Live into maturity, setting the standard for the online experience on a gaming console. It taught couch gamers to tolerate the tech support look of a headset in exchange for voice communication, and that you get what you pay for: a year of Xbox Live Gold might have cost as much as a game, but the service was more robust than Sony's PSN.
We've recently seen Microsoft's master plan at E3 2014. More exclusives are trickling in like Sunset Overdrive, Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Forza Horizon 2, but we've yet to see a definitive reason to buy Microsoft over Sony in this console generation.
But updates are coming fast and furious. Microsoft has recently released the major October update that sees improved Snap and Friends functionality as well as support for DLNA streaming and MKV files stored on an external USB drive.
The Xbox One will now cost $399 without a Kinect in the US and just £330 in the UK if you have your eyes on one of the three new holiday bundles.
The first thing you'll notice about the Xbox One is what an absolute beast it is. It measures 274 x 79 x 333 mm, making it longer and taller than a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox 360. You don't need a tape measure to figure that out though, the thing just looks huge.
Its size and girth harkens back to the original Xbox, an imposing black plastic beast covered in black plastic ridges. Microsoft seems to be throwing back to that design, bringing back the all black and the ridge-covered aesthetic.
When you first take the Xbox One out of its box, you'll notice an eyesore of a sticker next to the Blu-Ray drive, asking you to kindly not move the system while a disc is inside.
A good warning, as that can damage a spinning disc in any system, but an ugly sticker - luckily it comes off nice and clean. We also have a hard time imagining that gamers will be moving their hulking Xbox Ones very often, especially since the system is also not designed to stand on its side.
It's massive size and black rectangular construction evoke a stereo tuner from the nineties. Its imposing bulk begs to be hidden away, with just its slot loading disc drive exposed, little white Xbox logo glowing in lonely TV cabinet darkness.
Flip the machine around and you'll see a plethora of ports. It has all your standard nodes: ethernet, HDMI out, power, S/PDIF (commonly used for optical audio), dual USB 3.0 ports and an IR out. Additionally, there are two proprietary ports, one for hooking in the Kinect, and an HDMI-in, which is how you feed the Xbox One your cable or satellite signal. There's also a third USB 3.0 port found on the system's right side.
The HDMI-in can function as a passthrough and let any old HDMI signal in. There is a slight input delay though, which puts the kibosh on dreams of playing PS4 or Wii U games through the Xbox One.
You can't talk Xbox One without bringing up the new Kinect.
The first thing you'll notice out of box is that the new Kinect is a whole lot bigger than its predecessor. It's also designed to sit in front of your TV, rather than perched on top of the screen like the PlayStation Camera. It's too big and, presumably, delicate for that.
Just like the system itself, it has a white light up logo on its right side. Dull red lights from its IR blaster intermittently glow when it's active.
The underside of the Kinect has rubber feet that provide a firm grip. It's not going to fall off your entertainment center any time soon. It can also tilt up and down, with enough range of motion that there shouldn't be any trouble finding the right angle for your living room.
As of June 9, however, the Kinect is an optional peripheral rather than a mandatory pack-in. Buying an Xbox One without a Kinect not only saves you $100 off the sticker price, but also frees up an extra 10% of processing power in certain games that was reserved for image processing.
Opting out of the Kinect experience, however, may hurt the next-gen reputation of the system.
Taking away that or keeping it away from the cable box makes the Xbox One feel more like an Xbox 360 2.0 rather than the future of gaming.