Is now the time to re-evaluate any misgivings about the One?
Following on from our article about whether now was the time to invest in a PlayStation 4, we turn our attention to its main competitor, the Xbox One.
I think it would be fair to say that Microsoft’s first year with the Xbox One has had some ups and downs. Sony’s PS4 has taken an early lead against it, less through its own excellence and more through some poor decisions from Microsoft in the run up to their console’s launch. For anyone who hasn’t followed the evolution of the console from its initial reveal through to the present day, the contrast might be striking.
Some myths need dispelling now - it doesn’t have to be online all the time to operate (as originally planned), it doesn’t necessarily come with the Kinect camera peripheral, it plays second hand games the same as any other console, you can trade in your used games like you’ve always done; and, thanks to some well stocked bundle deals available, it no longer carries such a significantly greater price tag than the PS4. In short, it’s a standard, fairly reasonably priced new console.
Myths and miscalculated sales plans take time to sink in with consumers, but if Black Friday’s sales and the recent upswing in popularity for the console (at least in the States and the UK) are anything to go by, Microsoft can head into 2015 with some confidence that they’re finally fighting on an even footing with Sony. So, is now the time to buy an Xbox One?
Key selling points
It's hard to escape the fact that both systems converge on things like app support, hardware functions and will host many of the same titles, yet each console, obviously, has their own set of unique features with which to entice people towards their systems.
Essentially a split screen mode for multi-tasking similar to how picture-in-picture works on some TVs, where you can have two things displayed at once. If you’re stuck in a game you could always search the internet for hints and keep them on screen whilst gaming, or perhaps open an app such as Xbox Music etc. Most will have smart devices, such as tablets or phones nearby anyway, but it’s a nice addition to consolidate things into one place rather than you having to resort to a second screen solution.
The Xbox 360 controller received universal acclaim, which saw it become the de facto preference not just for PC gamers using a pad, but also the template for most companies releasing their own gaming machines. As such, Microsoft didn’t have to offer much more than an evolution with the Xbox One’s pad, and that’s what we got.
There are some subtle differences though. The shoulder buttons have been tweaked slightly, the battery is now recessed into the body of the controller, and more focussed force feedback - causing the pad to rumble with the on screen action - now targets the triggers as well. As ever though, controller preference is a matter of taste, but it would be hard to see anyone moving from an Xbox 360 to an Xbox One and finding the pad was anything other than a natural fit.
The much maligned camera peripheral no longer comes as standard, but its presence as an optional peripheral is still worth noting. If you choose to leave your console in standby mode (recommended for allowing auto updates in the background and for quick start-up time) you can enter a room and say “Xbox on” and it’ll oblige. If various family members use the console, and as such there are a number of different sign-in profiles, when the control pad is held Kinect will automatically sign the right person in after recognising their face.
True, it’s not essential, but it is a nifty addition, as is voice control for many apps, such as Netflix and BBC’s iPlayer, meaning you don’t have to drain the battery of a controller. The downside is obviously the peripheral’s price, and the potential that since it’s been unbundled it may not be as integral to future support and app updates, but in the present it’s a perfect universal remote.
Games with Gold
This service offers free games to download for those who sign up and subscribe to Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold account. It’s been going since the days of the Xbox 360, but a recent change in policy for the advent of the One has seen the previously “it’s yours to keep” motto changed to one that falls more in line with Sony’s Instant Game Collection, whereby the games are yours to play for as long as you subscribe. If your subscription lapses, you lose the ability to play the games, but they’re not lost to you forever, as soon as you resubscribe you can play them again.
There aren’t a huge amount of titles around at the moment that would make it as impactful a service as it will be later on in the console’s life, but the January tempter of a fairly recent title in the shape of D4 bodes well for the future.
This whole category could really go down as a key selling feature, as the console was designed around the principle idea of multitasking for both media and games, hoping to become more than just one person’s games console, but a potential media hub for the entire household. In an age when numerous devices at hand can load the same apps, it was a bold idea, but thanks to a procession of updates since launch, Microsoft’s console is closer than ever to being the central component in a living room set-up, especially if you’ve yet to invest in a Smart TV.
Central to Microsoft’s initial vision was the inclusion of an HDMI in socket. The intention being that you can plug your PVR into the Xbox One and stay within the console’s interface, so messages and game invites are never missed. Now that the UK has the OneGuide (the Xbox One’s TV guide, that can learn your watching preferences and tailor suggestions to your habits) the function takes on slightly more significance. If you don’t have a set top box, Microsoft have also released a peripheral, a mini-tuner that you hook up to your aerial and slot into a USB port on the console.
App support is good. Pinning to home page makes sense, and will continue to prove more beneficial as more apps are added. Support for Kinect - as previously mentioned - is a real boon too, with even the recent addition of BBC’s iPlayer offering voice control. Stability is one area that is harder to judge, as many point out that it has improved, but others (such as myself) have never suffered the stuttering of Netflix or the like; the important factor is that updates are common, new apps are being added regularly, and the basic standard is seemingly ever improving.
Unlike the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One does feature CD playback. Unfortunately, like the PlayStation 4, there’s no facility to turn that straightforward playback into mp3 files, meaning you can’t insert a CD and directly rip tunes to the hard drive of your console. You can, however, play music from a connected USB hard drive, thanks to the media player app.
With the PS4 not featuring full DLNA support for streaming your own media files from a PC, this is one area where the Xbox One holds the high ground. Until recently it was a more one sided victory, as the popular streaming app Plex (subscription required) was only available on the One. However, as that’s reached the PS4 in recent days the choice of which system is better for streaming files across your home network isn’t as one sided. The frequency of updates and how soon the functionality reached the Xbox One clearly indicates that it’s a priority for Microsoft though, so that’s worth bearing in mind for the future.
If you have your files stored on a USB thumbstick or external hard drive you can access them thanks to the media player app. This can handle many file types, such as mp3 and DivX for both audio and video playback. The full list of compatible file types can be found here.
The Xbox One launched with more exclusive titles than the PS4, such as the historical sword-fest Ryse: Son of Rome and the zombie slayer Dead Rising 3, but they were all at the general level of early games, perfunctory and fun but nothing special. Now, however, the Xbox One has finally hit its stride.
Sunset Overdrive may have been overshadowed by the annual tidal wave of big games in November, but it’s strangely unique in being focussed on the comical and fun rather than dour realism. Between Forza 5 and Forza Horizon 2 you have a track racer and an open world racer worthy of any console. Add in the value of Halo: The Master Chief Collection (though its online content is still patchy) and you’ve got a healthy line up that spans multiple genres and tastes.
Should I buy an Xbox One now?
This was perhaps an easier question when the Kinect peripheral was bundled in with the machine, as it was a defining factor both in terms of price and the potential direction the console would take regarding prioritising multimedia functionality. Now that it’s been uncoupled the price is lower, but the machine’s lost a unique selling point, and the prospect is raised that future functionality based around it - like voice control - won’t be as comprehensively rolled out for new apps and features.
The ironic thing is, despite the initial pitch of being a hub for all your living room needs, it’s as an out-and-out games console that the Xbox One is starting to excel, and the planned use as a media hub has resulted in a very quiet machine that runs cool - ideal for long gaming sessions. The pad’s minor revisions mean those migrating from an Xbox 360 should find the transition easy, and with the variety of bundles now available the price difference between the One and the PS4 has been somewhat mitigated.
Hopefully Microsoft go back on their decision to revert to a slightly higher price - as the price cut ran only over the Christmas period - to make the decision even easier.
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