Update Nov. 29: The Xbox One has been out for a week, and with Microsoft's new console out in the wild it's time to update this review and see how some of its more advanced features are faring.
Prior to the Xbox One's launch Microsoft was full of assurances that its rougher edges would be ironed out by release day. Unfortunately, that's proven to not be the case. Even worse, problems have cropped up in the last week that didn't make themselves known when the console still had pre-release firmware in the weeks leading up to its retail release.
Specifically, voice recognition is still spotty. It works most of the time, yes, but not every time, and you'll frequently have to repeat things. The console also interprets vague motions (or no motions at all) as gesture controls, particularly during Netflix playback, which wasn't available to test before launch. And strangely, Kinect will often recognize people in the room even when they're not there. Turning off Kinect sign-in fixes the symptom, but not the sickness, and you have to do it individually for every profile on the system or it will keep signing ghosts in over and over. There was hope that these problems would be alleviated by launch, but obviously Microsoft is still gettng the kinks out of this console's revolutionary new features.
Original review follows…
Microsoft is entering the next generation of console video games with a shocking amount of confidence. Even after the Xbox One's initial reveal left gamers reeling and protesting, forcing the company to completely rethink its strategy, Microsoft seems incredibly assured of the Xbox One's single sacrosanct purpose: to be the all-in-one living room device.
It's absolutely packed with features that Microsoft hopes will help it accomplish that goal. Many of those features, like the inclusion of a Kinect with every system, were a huge risk. As a result, the new Xbox console comes with a massive learning curve. But it's also the most advanced and impressive piece of living room entertainment hardware that's ever existed.
If it weren't for the PS4's simplistic approach to console video games then the age of the dedicated living room gaming device might be declared over. As it is, Xbox One users are going to be using their consoles for far more than just gaming.
There's more in the Xbox One box than a console and a controller. Every single one comes with Microsoft's new Kinect sensor, which is thankfully a massive improvement over its predecessor. The original Xbox 360 Kinect was an optional add-on that actually added little, but the new Kinect is truly essential to the Xbox One experience.
It drove the console's price up $100, but it was arguably worth it. Once you get the console home and begin to see how easy it is to navigate the entire system with voice commands you might agree.
The sensor itself is much more subtle than its predecessor. It's still bigger than the PlayStation Camera, but at least now it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. And overall it's much better at detecting faces and players' movements and at recognizing voice commands. You'll still have to repeat things sometimes, particularly when others are in the room talking or when the volume on your TV or speakers are up, but even with that it's perfectly usable.
The console, meanwhile, is much larger than the PS4. It's square and black, with a combination of matte and shiny finishes that look slick together. It's not unattractive, but it does stick out. That may have been an intentional choice; the Xbox One will dominate your living room setup, both physically and technologically.
At least the big black Xbox One is covered with vents; hopefully the red ring of death common with the Xbox 360 will be avoided this generation.
The controller is another story. Microsoft bungled the original Xbox's giant, ridiculous gamepad, but now it seems determined to never make that mistake again. The Xbox One controller is the perfect evolution of what was arguably already a perfect controller in the Xbox 360's gamepad.
Its textures differ subtly all over, with the analog sticks in particular feeling gorgeous, with a rough texture that will prevent even the sweatiest thumbs from slipping off. The triggers and buttons are all placed perfectly, the new, flattened Xbox button looks really smart, and the controller's four-motored rumble feedback system is surprisingly effective.
The triggers can rumble independently from the rest of the controller, making shooters and in particular driving games like Need for Speed Rivals and Forza Motorsport 5 more tactile than ever. You can feel the cars fighting against the pavement to gain purchase or come to a stop; it's really great. These "Impulse Triggers" alone make the XB1 controller superior to the PS4's in many respects, despite that gamepad's advancements like the touchpad.
The Xbox One also comes with a headset not unlike the one included with the Xbox 360, though this one feels sturdier and hopefully won't break quite so easily.
Here is where the Xbox One really differentiates itself from everything else on the market.
You can—and will—navigate 99 percent of the Xbox One experience using only voice commands. The new Kinect is very good at understanding speech, and Microsoft promises that it will learn and improve even more as you use it. Commands like "Xbox, on," "Xbox, go home," "Xbox, go to Dead Rising 3," and more work great and are super convenient. There are many other system-wide voice commands, and countless more contextual ones; saying, "Xbox, select" on any screen highlights words in green on that screen if the console can recognize them. Of course, you can still use a controller to navigate around, and basic gesture controls are present as well.
The Xbox One's UI itself is tile-based, much like Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, and even the Xbox 360 before it. You can pin up to 25 apps/games/services/movies/tons more on the left side of the home screen, while the right holds portals to the console's game, music, movie, and app stores. In the middle are recently used items, friends and some other essentials. It's simple but elegant, and it makes getting around extremely easy, no matter what input method you choose.
Another big part of the Xbox One experience is the console's television mode. If you've been following along with the saga so far, then you know that you can plug your cable box directly into the Xbox and use the console for TV viewing as well as games and apps. Say "Xbox, watch TV" at any point and voila. It features the "Xbox OneGuide," like a supercharged cable guide, and you can even call out the names of channels to jump around.
The combinations and shortcuts made possible by the Xbox One's well-designed UI are endless. You can even say "Xbox, snap" with the name of an app to "snap" it to the side of the screen next to whatever else you're doing, so you can watch TV or browse the internet while you play a game, check your friends list while a movie plays, and more.
The Xbox One also works hard to recognize and accommodate multiple users per household, even if they're all using the console at the same time. When Kinect recognizes a new user in the room, it acknowledges them so they don't have to switch manually to their profiles. And switching to your personalized dashboard with your pins and color scheme is as easy as saying, "Xbox, show my stuff."
There are too many such features to name in a reasonably-sized review. You can cut gameplay footage clips by saying, "Xbox, record that," then overlay video commentary and publish to Xbox Live or SkyDrive without leaving your couch. There are tons of entertainment apps with full voice command and "snap" support. The ESPN app is extremely impressive thanks to Microsoft's partnership with the NFL. Skype is fully integrated, and Twitch is coming next year. The list goes on.
You'll spend the first few weeks with the Xbox One learning exactly how to use it, and with so many possibilities you'll be happy you did.