Last November, Microsoft released the Xbox One. Six months later, the console has gotten a bunch more games and a hefty software upgrade. Microsoft has also decided to sell the Xbox One without the Kinect sensor. Halfway through its first year on planet earth, it's time to revisit our evaluation of the Xbox One.
Last fall, I reviewed the Xbox One and found it to be an interesting, ambitious console that wasn't quite ready for prime time. At launch, was the Xbox One a must-own console? The Kotaku verdict at the time: Not yet.
To sum it up:
I admire what Microsoft is trying to do with the Xbox One, and I'm rooting for them to give their console that final push to get it to where it needs to be. The whole thing is almost there. The Kinect almost works well enough to get me to use it all the time. The TV integration is almost smooth enough to make me plug it into the heart of my living-room setup. Multitasking almost works well enough to get me checking the internet while I play games.
The skeptic in me says that while many technology manufacturers seem hell-bent on making the next great convergence device, technology tends to diverge. New devices are more likely to take on a role we didn't know we wanted (e.g. people now own a smartphone, a laptop and a tablet) instead of pulling together multiple roles we didn't realize could be combined. Successful convergence devices like the iPhone will forever inspire others to swim upstream, attempting to replicate a one-in-a-million success. Will our living rooms ever be governed by a single device? And if so, will that device be the Xbox One?
I wrote that review after spending an exhausting week and a half testing a couple of Microsoft-issued Xbox Ones to the best of my ability. Now, after six months more time using it, I have a significantly more refined view. I've spoken with dozens of friends and professional peers about how they use their Xbox Ones, and read through our readers' recent stories about their own experiences. Here's where we're at.
Six months in, the Xbox One still raises as many questions as it answers. What is Microsoft's vision for this thing? Is it about the cloud, or online gaming, or is it about Kinect? Is it for watching TV, or as the company's more recent messaging seems to suggest, is it now all about gamers and games?
It's only natural that some unanswered questions remain, of course—no game console achieves its every goal in the first six months. All the same, Microsoft has yet to put forth a coherent vision for the Xbox One, nor have they clearly articulated why it's worth spending hundreds of dollars to own one.
First things first: I've lost faith in the Kinect camera. I'm sick of hollering orders at my TV, and have been annoyed by the camera far more often than I've been served by it. There are so many small problems, and they add up to become a very big problem. It takes too long to recognize me and sign me in. It can't hear me well enough, and there are few things more annoying than when my girlfriend and I are taking turns shouting "Xbox, Pause" at a movie as the pizza guy knocks on the door. There's a lag between when I say something and when the console acknowledges it, and that lag is long enough that I usually start repeating myself even as it's reporting that it heard me the first time. And while voice control is bad, gestural control is far worse; it's so weird and inconsistent that I can't believe Microsoft even included it.
Back in November, I wrote:
A week and a half with the thing is enough to have me wondering: Do I really want this to be the primary way I interact with my entertainment center from now on? Am I going to be talking to my console at all hours of the day and night, sternly using my Kinect Voice at 2AM while the rest of the house is sleeping?
At this point, I can safely answer both questions: No.
Microsoft appears to have lost faith in the Kinect as well. They've already announced a cheaper Xbox One that will ship sans Kinect, meaning that game developers working on Kinect games no longer have a guarantee that every Xbox One owner will be able to play their game. That in turn significantly reduces the incentive for anyone to actually make games that require Kinect, and that makes it even less likely that this unusual device will ever find the software support it'll need to become more than a neat but inessential accessory.
It's surprising how quickly that all turned around; I wasn't expecting Microsoft to make the Kinect optional this early in the Xbox One's life cycle. But so it goes. Microsoft had their shot, and they failed to convince people that the Kinect 2.0 is fundamentally different than Kinect 1.0 was on the Xbox 360. That is: an interesting oddity that never quite manages to distinguish itself either as an indispensable tool or an irresistible toy.
I was glad that the Xbox One controller hewed close to the already-good design of the Xbox 360 controller, but back in November I said I had doubts about some of the changes Microsoft had made. The thumbsticks felt too tall, the triggers too loose, and the shoulder buttons too awkward.
Six months later, my opinion of the Xbox One controller has significantly improved. I've grown to like the feel of the thing in my hands, including the contrast between the solid controller and those wiggly triggers. Many hours of Titanfall have helped me get a sense of just how good the Xbox One controller is for first-person shooters. It's enough of an improvement that if and when Microsoft finally makes the controller work with PC games, I'll switch.
I remain uncomfortable with the thumbsticks; they still feel too loose and stilt-like for my liking. But even then, I'm getting more and more used to them, and I really like the material they're made out of. I still don't like the new shoulder buttons as much as the old ones, and that might never change. But while, as I complained in November, the raised battery compartment on the controller does make it more difficult to swap out batteries, the issue is largely moot. The Xbox One controller's battery life is astonishing, and my controllers have gone months without requiring new juice.
Overall, my opinion of the Xbox One controller has significantly changed for the better. Good job, Xbox One controller!
While my opinion of the controller has improved, my opinion of the Xbox One operating system has, uh, dis…improved. I like it less than I did.
The many-squared OS still feels robust, but months of use have actually revealed it to be a good deal frailer than it appeared. On top of that, the things I initially didn't like—the fact that it's a pain to navigate without your voice, that you can't tell which apps are running and which ones aren't, that you can't see much drive space you have left—are mostly still problems, though a recent software update made it possible to see how much space a game is taking up.
It's still too cumbersome to navigate the friends list, or tweak settings, or organize your "pinned" favorite apps, or perform any of a number of other basic functions. It's not impossible, of course, but things that should be one- or two-step operations take three or four steps, especially without the Kinect. Furthermore the Xbox One OS is noticeably laggy, which is odd for an operating system that's been custom-made to work with a single piece of hardware.
I'd expect that sometime after the Kinect-less Xbox One comes out, Microsoft will significantly overhaul and streamline the Xbox One OS (let's not forget how much the Xbox 360 OS improved over time). It'll all start with the June update, which adds a number of features both large and small. Hopefully things will continue to improve from there.
I remain baffled that Microsoft promoted the Xbox One's "snap" multitasking as heavily as they did. When playing online I'll sometimes snap my party (carefully muting and then un-muting my chat microphone before I do), but the snap screen is even laggier than the generally laggy OS, and always feels uncomfortable to use. Other than for party invites, I more or less never have cause to stick an unresponsive, inferior version of an app over whatever game or app I'm viewing. Better to just switch between apps, like I do on my phone or computer.
I was surprised at just how much I liked (and continue to like) the Xbox One's dedicated media remote. I stream a lot of video through my Xbox One, and as a result I use the media remote more often than I use the controller or Kinect. I still use the Kinect for big operations—"Xbox, go to Hulu Plus"—and then will use the controller to navigate within each app. It's become such an integral part of my Xbox One usage that it really should have come bundled with the Xbox One, not sold separately for $25.
As promised, Microsoft has added Dolby support to the Xbox One's optical audio output, meaning that those of us who use Dolby-enabled surround headsets can get the most out of our gear. They've also released a headphone adapter for the Xbox One controller, which allows people to plug their third-party gaming headsets into the controller for chat.
In testing, I've found that the chat from my Astro A50 headset is much more scratchy than the chat from my Xbox One headset or from Microsoft's stereo headset, but it's nice that I can finally use my A50s to play multiplayer games on Xbox One. Headset support should have been included on day one (and shouldn't require an extra audio adapter), but it's good that Microsoft has finally added it.
The Xbox One is a monster. It's simply too big. It takes up an entire shelf in my entertainment center, all the more conspicuous for how relatively little I use it compared with my other devices. At some point Microsoft is almost certainly going to release a much smaller "Xbox One Slim." Our first-gen consoles are going to look dumpy and ridiculous by comparison.
Come with me, the Xbox One sings, and you'll be in a world of pure imagination.
After "Xbox, pause," the thing I find myself saying the most to my Kinect is "Xbox, record that." It's an intuitive command that I never forget to use, and more often than not the recording time is a perfect match for the moment I wanted to catch. (Of course, some button or button combination would work equally well.) If only accessing the video file were as easy as recording it…
Editing a video clip and preparing it to share with my friends, unfortunately, is pretty much a nightmare. That's because the Xbox One's Upload Studio software, while a valiant first attempt, has miles to go before it's as usable as it needs to be. While I understand Microsoft's desire to get everyone using their own built-in video sharing service, there's really no acceptable reason why the Xbox One can't immediately and automatically upload all video clips I record to my SkyDrive and let me edit and share them on my computer. The Xbox One makes it very easy to record good gameplay clips, but far too difficult to actually do anything with them.
I'd love to be able to say "Xbox, screenshot" and snap a screenshot of whatever game I'm playing. Even better would be a combination button-press to do the same. Even better would be if the screenshot was then automatically added to my SkyDrive account. It's 2014, Microsoft. This stuff should be standard by now.
As is usual for the first year (or two) of a console's lifespan, there aren't enough games for the Xbox One. And really, the console's not doing so bad in this regard—there are already a fair number of good games for the system. Launch standout Dead Rising 3 has gotten a substantial amount of post-release downloadable content, and new games like Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare and Super Time Force have been a whole lot of fun.
The not-on-PlayStation Titanfall has certainly been the most successful game on the Xbox One. However, the Xbox One didn't even get the definitive version that game, which ran noticeably more smoothly on PC and without the Xbox One version's ugly screen-tearing. It's still a super fun game—I play more or less exclusively on Xbox One—but it raises an eyebrow to see that the blockbuster game most closely associated with the Xbox One runs noticeably better on another platform.
And so we look to the future: Sunset Overdrive looks really promising. We know there's a new Halo game coming, and we've heard that HD remasters of the first four Halo games are coming as well. And of course there'll be plenty of multiplatform games like Destiny and Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Past that, we'll have to wait for Microsoft to throw down the gauntlet at E3. I sense that they know they have a lot riding on this year's show, and that their newly anointed Xbox chief Phil Spencer is going to show up with something to prove. But as with so many other aspects of the Xbox One, we'll have to wait and see.
The Xbox One is less of a sure thing than ever, and it's therefore even easier to tell you to hold off.
Most consoles get better year after year, so even Microsoft's stormy Xbox One launch couldn't diminish my optimism that eventually, their bulky new-gen console would be worth buying. The last few months have been strange to behold, however. Microsoft has been publicly painting a moving train, patching a long list of flaws as they go.
In a way, that inspires confidence. But it also raises questions about how the console came out with so many issues and whether the folks behind the Xbox One, once they finish fixing problems, can move forward more gracefully. If they can, the Xbox One—or, more likely, the inevitable Xbox One Slim—will be a must-have. As it stands, it's not there yet.