Microsoft's Xbox One is at once a next-gen gaming console and a bold attempt to reinvent your home entertainment experience. It's built around Microsoft's new and improved Kinect, which recognizes you the moment you step in front of the system and allows users to watch, play and share media from a variety of services using voice commands. It's not perfect – the voice recognition can be spotty, and certain aspects feel like they're still in beta – but overall, the experience feels like a slice of the future.
$500.00 gets you an Xbox One console, complete with a 500GB hard drive, 8GB of RAM, one controller, an HDMI cable, an AC power cord, a mono mic/headset and a USB cable. It also comes with a voucher for six months of free Skype group video calling.
Compared to the PlayStation 4, Xbox One is large: by volume it's roughly 30 percent larger. Unlike the PS4's sleek aesthetic, the Xbox One looks more like an oversized cable box covered in vents. Where the PS4's hardware designers were able to hide the power brick inside the console, the One's sits alone – and likely on your floor. Even the Kinect itself is roughly the size of two thick remote controls stacked atop one another. To summarize: if you're going to get an Xbox One, you might have to make some space first.
The new controller is something of a revelation in terms of rumble. Four motors inside the device provide more subtle, immersive physical feedback, from the low hum of your engine as you hit the pavement in Forza 5 to the heavy blasts of rumble as your jury-rigged, post-apocalyptic skull-crusher connects with a zombie cranium in Dead Rising 3. The thumb sticks are more concave and have textured rims, making them easier to grip in even the most dire of virtual circumstances.
Xbox One's interface is an impressive accomplishment – clean and uncluttered, making perhaps the best use to date of Microsoft's live tile system. Everything from the easily visible avatar icons to the ease of getting around makes for a sophisticated man-machine dialogue. After a setup process that takes only a few minutes, you'll have your console trained to turn on not only itself but also your compatible television, cable box and receiver the moment you step into the room and say the words, "Xbox, on."
Kinect integration is thorough. From inside any game or app, you can open a sidebar of any other app. Want to stream music or lookup something online? Simply say, "Xbox Snap Music" or "Xbox Bing best excuses for calling in sick to work" and you'll pause the current activity while a window populates the right third of the screen with your results.
It's also worth noting that any retail game available for Xbox One is available for digital download, and Microsoft backtracked on its "no used game sales" policy for disc-based titles, meaning you're free to buy and sell them at your leisure.
Microsoft's most impressive exclusive launch titles are Ryse: Son of Rome, Forza Motorsport 5 and Dead Rising 3, which all run in 1080p at 60 frames per second. None represent a giant graphical leap beyond the last generation, but it's been eight years since Xbox 360 debuted, and it certainly shows. Xbox One games now look like high-end PC games – unsurprising, perhaps, since the console uses largely PC components. This isn't a bad thing, and the performance you get out of the machine easily bests an equivalently-priced PC.
Beyond the games available for PS4's launch – a list which includes heavy-hitters like Battlefiled 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin's Creed 4, FIFA 2014 and NBA 2K14 – Microsoft has some other genre titles to fill out its portfolio. Killer Instinct is an update of the classic 90s fighter, bringing back the impressive visuals and general bombast of its arcade legacy. Fighter Within is a distinctly more newfangled interpretation, with entirely Kinect-based punching and kicking. While it's unlikely to appeal to the hardcore gaming elite, it's a fun way to see what your new Kinect is capable of.
Which is to say: quite a bit. It works in low light or even total darkness via an infrared sensor, and distinguishes between up to six bodies in the room simultaneously (it recognizes your face and logs you in accordingly). While it doesn't always work perfectly – your pets will almost certainly look at you with puzzlement as you shout "Xbox Bing gluten-free pizza" or some other nonsense – it's generally much better than expected. The simple ability to say "Xbox mute" at any moment is itself a godsend.
While there's no ability to broadcast your live gameplay sessions via Twitch.tv (as you can on PS4), recording and sharing screenshots and video clips is slick. Saying "Xbox record that" processes the last 30 seconds of your gameplay into a clip, and bringing that clip into Xbox One's Upload Studio lets you expand it to five minutes. From there your can upload it to your (free) SkyDrive account and share it with friends via your social media network of choice (or, gratefully, email).
From the get-go, Microsoft has been making a big deal about Xbox One's multimedia capabilities – so much so that their reveal of the console earlier this year emphasized said capabilities at the expense of ignoring the machine's actual gaming prowess. But now that the console is out, it's plain to see why: this is the most ambitious attempt to date to unify all of your movies and television.
When you plug your cable box into the back of your Xbox One, you're essentially upgrading its brain. Instead of relying on the dated, slow software developed by Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon and others, you're getting a clean, thoughtfully designed interface for watching TV. You can search for shows and movies starring your favorite actors and create favorites with a single voice command or button press. Even better, signing into your other related apps – Netflix and Hulu Plus are available at launch, and HBO Go should be there soon – lets you include on-demand content in your searches. So if you tell your Xbox One to find you everything featuring William Shatner, it'll search through both your live cable listings as well as your subscription services and bring up a list of all the content available.
Music is a bit less ambitious. Xbox Music, Microsoft's Spotify-style streaming service, is your only option for playing tunes on your Xbox One as of launch day. (You'll get a measly 15 free songs to start, and there's no free ad-supported option.) Still, the ability to call up artists just by shouting their names is engaging. Hopefully Microsoft will allow apps from other streaming services, or even better, let you stream music directly from your home computer.
Also worth mentioning is Xbox One's Skype app, which uses the Kinect camera to track your face as you dawdle around your living room. It's surprisingly enjoyable (for the person one the other end of the line, at least, unless they're also on an Xbox One), and the ability to view Skype on your television set is a nice upgrade from the traditional small screen.
Microsoft has taken its share of criticism regarding Xbox One, including many of its policies regarding used game sales and privacy concerns. Most of those decisions have been reversed, thankfully, and what we're left with is a solid next-generation console that unifies your gaming, movie and television watching under one voice-controlled roof. Now, let's see which platform gets the best games.