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Plugged In

Review: Xbox One delivers solid gaming, awkward interface

Plugged In

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Xbox One (Microsoft)

Microsoft won a lot of praise this summer by quickly addressing gamer criticisms of the Xbox One after its June unveiling at the E3 game convention. Unfortunately, as the launch date approaches, it's clear that the wide scope of the changes announced created a time crunch, leaving little time for the team to polish the console's features.

The result is a system that often feels half-baked. While it's easy to see where Microsoft wants the Xbox One to be, it's not quite there yet.

To be clear, the Xbox One - which goes on sale Friday for $499 - is far from a disaster. It works well on many levels and excels on others. But it falls short on some of the key promises Microsoft made in the rollup to the launch.

(A quick disclaimer: the system we reviewed saw several software updates over the course of our trials. While the final one was said to be 'near final,' there could be some minor differences between our experience and what you will experience at home.)

[ Related: Yahoo! Games PlayStation 4 hands-on review ]

Setup

Xbox One wants to be more than just your gaming system of choice: it wants to be the hub of your living room. That's a lofty goal, and it presents unique challenges. While setting up the PlayStation 4 was a fairly simply affair, installing the Xbox One requires a substantial time investment.

First, there's the mandatory system update. Then you'll have to set up Kinect, running a series of tests so it works optimally. Up next: you'll have to decide on your power option settings – “instant-on,” which just puts the Xbox One in sleep mode when you shut down, or “energy-saving,” which turns it off entirely.

Want to hook your cable or satellite service into the system? That's going to take a few more minutes. And if you're going to use the system's Skype functionality, you'll have to download that app and log in to your account.

In an optimal environment, this will all take, at minimum, 30 minutes; but be prepared to spend an hour or more getting the system ready to go before you're able to dive in with a game.

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Ryse: Son of Rome (Microsoft)

The gaming experience

Like the PS4, the Xbox One requires that games be saved to the hard drive. And as with the PS4, the system's 500 gigabyte hard drive is worrisomely small. The system reserves 120-140GB of space for the operating systems, updates, etc., leaving players with as little as 360 GB to store games.

But whereas games load quickly on the PS4, there are notable delays in getting them up and running on the Xbox One. Dead Rising 3, for example, took nearly a full minute from the time we selected it to the time we were in game. That's not the speed Microsoft promised from its next generation.

Get ready, also, for in-game purchase options to become part of your console gaming experience. While that's nothing new for free-to-play titles, it was a bit confounding to see in the $20 downloadable version of Crimson Dragons - and downright infuriating in the $60 Forza Motorsport 5.

The Xbox One is a godsend for multitaskers and those with short attention spans, though. Switching from a game to television to an app and back is a snap - and whereas the PS4 only caches two activities, you can juggle several with Microsoft's console. For those who truly want to split their focus, snap mode lets you have two functions (i.e. a game and a YouTube walk-through video) open simultaneously.

As with the rest of the next-gen machines, digital distribution is integral to the Xbox One. Microsoft vowed early on that players would be able to launch a game before it had finished downloading, and the final product holds true to the letter of that promise -- though falls a bit short in living up to the spirit.

Yes, you can play a game before it has downloaded every line of code. However, you're still going to have to wait a fair while. Drop those illusions of instant gratification, especially with hefty titles like Forza.

Kudos to the company, though, for having a very diverse lineup of first and third party games. 23 titles at launch is nothing to sneeze at.

And how are those games? Critically, like any collection of launch titles, it's hit and miss. From a graphics standpoint, the tempest in a teapot of the PS4's 1080p vs. the Xbox One's 720p definition of “high definition” is something most people won't notice. And some games, like Forza Motorsport 5, boast 1080p visuals with stunning results.

If you're looking for a next gen title with a real 'wow' factor, though, Forza's about as close as you're going to get. And when put against, say, Gran Turismo 6 on the PS3, the leap doesn't seem so extreme. (Give it time, though. There's plenty of room to grow in these machines. Remember: this was considered bleeding edge when the Xbox 360 launched.)

The games we tested run very smoothly on the Xbox One. Multiplayer was still in early prototype, but the system's Smart Match functionality pitted us with players of comparable skills. As it finds that person, you can continue playing the single player campaign. It's a good alternative to sitting in a game lobby waiting for someone to appear.

Also, in games where it's supported, it was nice to be able to ping a friend watching television and lure him into a game of Killer Instinct. It's too early to judge whether Microsoft has aced the multiplayer experience, but early signs (and the company's track record) are certainly positive.

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SkyDrive (Microsoft)

Going social

Social functions are less a core component of the Xbox One than they are in the PlayStation 4, but the system still does an adequate job of integrating those into gameplay. Rather than automatically recording 15 minutes of gameplay, the Xbox One caches just five minutes.

Where Microsoft advances things, though, is in the capture process. Simply tell the system "Xbox, record that" and the Xbox One will store the video. It's seamless (assuming the Xbox understands you - but more on that in a minute). And you're not required to post the clip immediately, meaning you don't have to exit the game you're in the middle of enjoying.

Saved clips can be uploaded to your SkyDrive account, letting you post them wherever you'd like - including YouTube, something the PS4 can't currently do. While it's an extra step to go through SkyDrive, it's one that opens up several social avenues not currently available to Sony customers. (That said, tight integration is always preferable to extra steps.)

The Xbox One comes up short on livestreaming at launch. A last-minute announcement that Twitch integration won't be coming until some time in 2014 further underlines how rushed development was on the system - and forces Microsoft to cede, at least temporarily, a growing market segment to Sony.

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Xbox One's controller (Microsoft)

Controller and Kinect

The Xbox One's controller could be a point of heated debate among gamers. The Xbox 360's gamepad was best-in-class; improving upon it was going to be tough.

Is it better? Probably not. But it's nearly as good - and it does grow on you. The positioning of the thumbsticks and buttons feels natural, and the addition of haptic or “rumble” feedback in the thumbsticks itself (as opposed to merely the controller’s base) is such a nice touch you wonder why no one thought of it before

The Kinect sensor will likely garner its share of controversy. Not only is it responsible for the $100 price difference between Microsoft's system and the PS4, it's a technology of which gamers have been -- and remain -- skeptical.

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Kinect (Microsoft)

The Xbox 360 version of Kinect was full of untapped potential. Xbox One's Kinect fulfills some of that promise, but has yet to live up to Microsoft's full vision.

Voice commands, for instance, are hit-and-miss affairs. You'll often have to repeat yourself, and the system’s grasp of language often seems tenuous. When we told the system "Xbox... Play Dead Rising 3," it called up the Xbox Music app. When we repeated the command, it asked us what we'd like to rate the music app.

That's when we resorted to navigating to the launch tab using the controller.

You'll also have to know just what to say to Kinect to get it to work. For instance, saying "Play Forza" will confuse it. You'll have to say "Play Forza Motorsport 5" to launch the game. Similarly, you can say "Xbox: Volume up" to boost the sound coming from your TV, but if you try "Xbox: Turn the volume up," you'll get nothing.

We also suspect Kinect is a bit hard of hearing. While we carefully went through the set-up process, which is supposed to correct for ambient noise - and even though we tested in a quiet environment - we still had to bark commands at an elevated volume, and sometimes shout like a madman.

Where Kinect works wonderfully with both gaming and television, though, is in its automatic recognition of household members. It knows what you like to play and watch, and organizes the dashboard around those interests. And should one user wander into the room while another is using Xbox One, it will still recognize and greet the newcomer. And the technology shines when you've bought a gift card or are trying to redeem a code. It's able to quickly scan QR codes, saving the headache of typing in a long string of numbers and letters.

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Xbox One's TV interface (Microsoft)

Entertainment beyond games

Ultimately, Xbox One is about more than just games. It's designed as an entertainment hub. It's a nice idea in theory, but setup may prove frustratingly complicated for many. To take just one example: if you have a satellite provider, do you get the national feed or the local feed? Many people likely don't know.

The internal TV guide is adequate. Once again, however, vocal commands prove troublesome, as Kinect only seems to recognize certain networks. (Tell it to go to BBC America, for instance, and you'll wind up on ABC Family.)

Some functions that seemingly should be native to the system will require a little effort on your part. Want to watch a Blu-ray on your Xbox? Or listen to a CD? You'll have to first download and install a specific app for each. While it doesn't take long, it's an annoying step that should have been built into system functionality.

Other key non-gaming components were unavailable for testting prior to launch, including Microsoft’s highly-touted NFL partnership. Original content - such as the Spielberg-produced Halo series - won't be available until well after launch.

Skype integration is well done, though, offering a crisp picture and smart use of the Kinect camera to track you as you move around the room. (To promote usage, Microsoft’s giving owners six free months of Skype's premium service, which includes group video calling.)

Microsoft originally envisioned the Xbox One as an always-on device -- an Internet-connected system that utilized the cloud, enabling remote gaming and eliminating concerns about hard drive space limitations. In doing so, though, it issued a set of policies that some gamers declared draconian.

Microsoft’s subsequent about-face was a necessary move, but it left the company with just months to build an alternative. It's impressive Microsoft was able to pivot as well as it did -- but from an objective standpoint, it didn't quite make it to the finish line.

Given how critical the Xbox One is to Microsoft's in the coming years, there's every reason to believe the company will work fast to smooth the rough edges - but early adopters who grab one need to be prepared to ride out those changes.

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