News, Views, and Reviews
After years of the current console generation stretching on for too long, after months of speculation and anticipation following their presentations, and after days of waiting for pre-ordered consoles to arrive, the next gen consoles are finally here. Only one week separated the launch of the PS4 and the Xbox One, and I’ve tried to get as much hands-on time with both as I can since then. Unfortunately, my travels this summer resulted in both consoles being pre-ordered and shipped to a GameStop in Tennessee, so I had to wait one extra week, each, to get my PS4 and Xbox One. Fortunately, I started working at eBash, and I didn’t have to wait that long to start playing games. So far, my experiences with both consoles have been just about what I expected. For these console reviews, I will focus on the hardware, the controllers, multitasking, and the user interface. It’s hard to overlook many of the similarities between the PS4 and the Xbox One, so don’t be surprised if I mention some of the same things in both reviews.
The Xbox One and PS4 have so much in common, from hardware specs to software features, that it’s remarkable how different they look. Both consoles contain an 8-core AMD CPU, 8 gigs of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive, and a Blu-Ray DVD drive. But, the PS4 is even smaller than current generation consoles, and the Xbox One is the biggest console released in some time. While the Xbox One does little to hide that it’s a giant, rectangular box, the PS4 has more artistic flair. Both consoles have dual-textures on their tops, coincidentally featuring a shiny glossy texture on the left, which is very prone to smudges and fingerprints. The right side of the PS4 is a flat texture, but the right side of the Xbox One is a large vent. This thick vent design continues across the left and right edges of the console. These large vents, combined with the large size of the console, suggest that Microsoft is not going to repeat their mistake with the original Xbox 360 design that was prone to over-heating. The Xbox One takes yet another precaution, and continues to use an external power brick, but the PS4 does not.
Highs: Both consoles look great, and are fantastically different. Really, it will be a case of personal taste; some may prefer the artistic flair of the PS4, and others might appreciate the industrial design of the Xbox One. It is quite remarkable how Sony crammed nearly identical hardware into such a smaller console. Both consoles are super quiet, and they both stay relatively cool.
Lows: Some of the artistic touches on both consoles create some awkward physical problems. The Xbox One features two USB ports on its back panel, and a third USB port on the left side of the console stands out for its strange placement. The disc slot and disc eject button function well, but the power button on the right front side is actually a touch sensitive area. It lights up as a bright, white version of the Xbox logo, but it’s too easy to accidentally turn on the console with the slightest touch. Like the PS4, it has to be held down for several seconds to turn the console off, though I prefer to use the controller or the Kinect user-interface instead.
For many enthusiasts, the crucial decision over which console to buy comes down to choosing a controller. Years of perfecting analog precision devices have paid off for both Sony and Microsoft. The Xbox 360 controller was often praised as the best controller ever designed, yet Microsoft did make a few changes and improvements for the Xbox One version. The trigger and “bumper” buttons have a radically different ergonomic design, and also include their own rumble motors for more feedback during games. The analog sticks have a different texture on them, and overall, the controller feels lighter and even more comfortable to hold. Even the battery compartment on the back has been redesigned to be flush with the rest of the controller.
Highs: It’s hard to believe it, but the Xbox One controller has even less input latency than the Xbox 360 had. It’s fast and responsive, and the trigger vibrations sounded like a silly idea until you feel it in action. The redesigned trigger and bumper buttons take some getting used to, but overall, the controller feels more comfortable to hold than ever.
Lows: That awkward USB port on the left side of the Xbox One also hides the controller sync button, which, when held at the same time as a sync button on top of the controller, will pair that controller to that Xbox. I have experienced more difficulty pairing controllers to Xbox Ones than I had performing the same task with the Xbox 360. Families with only one Xbox One in their homes will probably never notice this, but it does create some problems in a busy game center environment. The redesigned trigger and bumper buttons take some time to get used to, especially because the bumper buttons respond to pressure best at their edges. This changes my finger orientation from the Xbox 360 design – holding the index fingers over the triggers and then raising the entire finger to push directly on the bumper buttons – to a new orientation on the Xbox One – raising just enough of the fingers to press on the edge of the bumper buttons. As I get used to that new orientation, it’s turning into a positive aspect of the controller, but it is worth mentioning. Finally, the continued use of AA batteries instead of an internal rechargeable battery may upset some, though it doesn’t really bother me.
The people that contributed to both systems selling over one million units on each of their launch days are what we would call “early adopters.” They are the consumers, like myself, that watched every announcement since February, and read every news article and game preview they could find. System defects or software issues are not a concern; these people HAVE to have the new product on day one. This target audience is also most likely interested in only one thing: games.
All of the multitasking capabilities of the PS4 and Xbox One are an afterthought to these early adopters. This is fine, and I don’t mean to offend the gaming enthusiasts out there, but MS and Sony have to sell their consoles to more than just gamers. This is a big commitment for both companies: the end result of billions of dollars of research and development costs, and long term plans to keep their products relevant for as long as possible. They have to get them into people’s homes, subscribing to their networks, purchasing content from their online stores, and the best way to do that is to increase the number of things their consoles can do. We saw this marketing strategy take shape during the current generation, as both the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live started offering more and more multimedia content. Netflix was one of the first third-party “apps” added to the Xbox 360 and then the PS3, and other vendors like Hulu, YouTube, HBO, and others followed.
Instead of adding these features and services after the fact, both next-gen consoles have integrated them into their core operating systems, and try to make switching from game to internet browser, YouTube video, or Skype video chats, and back, as seamless as possible. I believe the design philosophy for both Sony and Microsoft is to keep you on your couch, interacting with one device as much as possible. If you get up to look something up on your PC, you might not come back. Or, if you find your newly released movie on Amazon.com, you might not buy or rent it from Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. With all that in mind, how well do the next-gen consoles perform?
Highs: It should be no surprise that the system that focuses on multimedia and multitasking has some clear advantages over its competition. Heck, it’s even in the name: “The Xbox (All In) One.” Gamers might not care about setting up their TV channels or grouping their favorite TV shows together, but even the most hard-core gamer has to appreciate that they can watch a YouTube video walk-through guide, accept party invites, or start Skype video calls, without quitting their game. A feature called “snap” allows the Xbox One to handle two tasks, simultaneously, side by side, on the same screen. The main task shrinks over to the left of the screen, and the second task “snaps” to a smaller portion on the right side. I should point out that the PS4 can also handle multiple functions at the same time, but the “snap” feature on the Xbox One gets points for letting you see them on the same screen.
Lows: There isn’t much to complain about here, as any multitasking or “snapping” is completely optional. The interface itself might need some work, but that’s a separate category. I haven’t found much of a need to “snap” anything during my play sessions, but it’s fun to think of the possibilities. I have noticed a few customers at eBash taking advantage of these features already; it might become one of those “needs” we didn’t know we had. Some are criticizing the Xbox One as being less powerful than the PS4, and pointing fingers at multitasking as reducing its potential. Multi-platform games like Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 are in native 1080p, 60 fps, on the PS4, but are upscaled to 1080p from native 720p, 60 fps, on the Xbox One. Whether or not this will be true for every game remains to be seen, and if it is, that would be a shame. Still, I would suggest that MS is focusing on more than just higher resolutions, and it also remains to be seen if this marketing strategy will pay off for them.
Clearly, both consoles are attempting to broaden their appeal and include many features beyond playing games. Access to these features is handled by the user interface, or “UI” for short, which includes everything from sharing video clips with friends, inviting friends to chat or play games, watching movies, browsing the internet, downloading new games or other digital content, changing the system settings, and so on. Unlike the system hardware, the user interface is software based, which means it can be changed throughout the lifespan of the console. The PS3’s user interface didn’t see a lot of changes, but the Xbox 360 went through several major updates and changes between 2005 and 2013. Will the new consoles update and change their user interfaces? As they are now, I certainly hope so, as both seem to have more lows than highs.
Highs: Fans of the new Windows 8 “Metro” interface will love the design of the Xbox One UI. Big, customizable squares clearly define their functions, and favorite games or applications can be “pinned” to the main screen. Recently played games also appear as smaller squares on the main screen, so they can be quickly accessed. Like the Xbox 360, and now like the PS4, friends can invite each other to a “party” that can exist independently of games being played, which makes joining different games or activities with the same people fairly convenient. As I mentioned in the Multi-Tasking section, two separate apps can be “snapped” to the screen at the same time. Someone can watch a football game and discuss it over a Skype video call with their friends, or someone can watch a YouTube video walkthrough while they are trying to figure out what to do next in the game they are playing.
I have to admit that I haven’t experienced about 50% of the intended features of the Xbox One, as I don’t have it connected to a cable box. It can be programmed to create your own custom TV channel guide, bookmark your favorite shows and movies, and remind you when your shows are on. The “Bing Search” function can also help you quickly find your favorites or new shows and movies to watch, regardless of their source. You could search for “Batman” for example, and it would list a number of Batman games, TV shows, and movies, as well as different sources to watch those movies like Netflix, Hulu, or HBOGo. The Xbox One can also have up to eight different user profiles logged in at once, and each profile can have their own favorites and channels programmed just for them.
Lows: Although it is much quicker than the PS4, the Xbox One UI shares some of its counter-intuitive frustrations. For example, the “System Settings” menu is actually a sub menu of the “Games and Applications” menu. I don’t know who was responsible for that decision. Once the system settings menu is found, it can be pinned to the main “My Pins” screen, or it can be found as a “recently played” smaller square on the main screen. BUT, it won’t STAY there if it isn’t used very often, as that section rotates old squares out in favor of more “recently played” applications. Similarly, the “Games” menu is fine when you first start playing games, but I imagine it could get quite crowded after more and more games are played, with no methods of organizing those tiles in sight.
This seems to be true for both consoles: there is a little bit of a learning curve getting used to the new UI. For example, getting a friend or game invite always goes to the “notifications” tab instead of the more intuitive “messages” tab. Games have to be installed to the hard drive before they can be played, digital or physical copies, although you can start playing before it is finished. But if you take the disc out before it finishes, its not very clear how to resume the install, even when you replace the disc into the drive. Like the PS4, it seems like the Xbox One is trying to organize and do everything FOR you, in the background, instead of giving you more direct control. With time and experience, navigating these menus won’t seem so strange, and at least the UI is very fast.
There is a solution to these issues, though: use the Kinect. You can search for that hard to find “System Settings” menu, or you can simply say “Xbox, go to settings” and the Xbox will load the menu. You can turn the Xbox on or off with your voice, and even set the Kinect to control other devices like your TV and cable box. Signing into my profile just by walking in front of the TV and having the Kinect recognize my face is amazing! Learning the different commands might also take some time, although simply saying “Xbox..” will activate the “listening” Kinect, and turn anything that’s on the current screen that can be used as a command into a green font. In many ways, using the Kinect voice commands are quicker than navigating through the actual menus. You could go through the “Games and Apps” menu, select “Netflix” and then find the “The Walking Dead” season and episode you want to watch, or you could just say “Xbox, watch The Walking Dead, Season One, episode 4. Play.” A counter-intuitive menu system is still a shortcoming, even if you can bypass it with the Kinect.
The Xbox One is figuratively and literally a bigger, bulkier version of the previous Xbox. Microsoft did their homework and emphasized and improved the aspects the Xbox 360 excelled at, as well as innovating and introducing new ways of meeting our multi-media needs. They’ve also improved the build quality of the console – even though it’s big, it’s definitely quiet and relatively cool – and the Kinect 2.0 is vastly superior. I strongly believe that its something that has to be experienced to fully understand and appreciate, and I challenge everyone to try it before forming opinions. Like the PS4, there are some user interface issues, but part of that is just learning the new menus and how they work.
It’s easy to look at the Xbox One and focus on the non-gaming features, but make no mistake, it CAN play games, and it will get its share of exclusives and killer apps. After months of mixed messages, back pedaling, and rearranging key management positions, Microsoft seems like they have settled down on a clear path for the Xbox One and the Microsoft brand. Both the Xbox One and the PS4 are making record breaking sales, and they’re so evenly matched in hardware and features, its hard to tell at this point who will come out on top. When all is said and done, though, MS has chosen to broaden its markets by making an “All In One” multi-media device, so it will be interesting to see if this is the One console to rule them all!