It's been more than a decade since software giant Microsoft fought its way into the gaming console market with the original Xbox in 2001. That device was a powerful console built for the future of gaming with an internal hard drive and built-in broadband connectivity -- unheard of in other consoles of the day, especially since not that many people had broadband Internet at the time. It also had other media capabilities, such as the ability to play CDs and DVDs, but it was mainly a very cool, albeit unprofitable, gaming system.
The company then revolutionized online multiplayer gaming with the launch of Xbox Live in 2002, which allowed players to connect with each other worldwide. The ability of developers to provide downloadable content also let games continue to grow and change after release.
The Xbox 360, released in 2005, was an even more advanced gaming powerhouse, but as media streaming apps became available, it also became an entertainment hub in a lot of homes. Still, it only allowed you to do one thing at a time, and its non-gaming, non-streaming features, such as Internet browsing via a game controller, could be unwieldy. Voice and motion control became possible with the introduction of the Kinect external device in 2010.
Xbox One, the latest member of the Xbox family, incorporates many new entertainment, social and computing features, as well as a leap forward in voice and motion control through the new generation of the Kinect. It's now beginning to resemble an all-in-one (or most-in-one) central home media system. And Microsoft is hoping that it will come to dominate your living room. Plus, it improves on its predecessor with a faster processor, more memory, better graphics, very quick switching between applications and a newfound ability to multitask.
Read on to get the scoop on this not-just-a-gaming system from Microsoft.
The Xbox One has a Microsoft-customized 8-core AMD Jaguar x86 central processing unit (CPU) with 8 gigabytes (GB) of 2133MHz DDR3 random access memory (RAM) as well as 32 megabytes (MB) of very fast ESRAM integrated into the processor chip. This is a pretty big leap from the Xbox 360's custom Power-PC with 512MB of RAM.
The console also has an 853 MHz AMD Radeon graphics processing unit (GPU) with 12 compute units (CUs) running at an estimated 1.31 teraFLOPS. Around 10 percent of the GPU time will be reserved for system-related tasks such as running Kinect functions and background apps and processes, although Microsoft may free some of that up for use by developers in the future. Similarly, 3GB of the RAM will be reserved for running the operating system (OS).
A Blu-ray drive with 720p and 1080p high-resolution capabilities is built into the console, a step up from the previous console's standard DVD player. For storage, the device has a 500GB non-removable hard drive. Microsoft warns that the system software uses up a bit of storage, so not all of the 500GB will be available for saving your games and other media. The console sports three USB 3.0 super speed ports, and there was talk of the ability to attach external storage devices via USB, but as of late 2013, that's been delayed and will be rolled out at an unspecified time after the launch.
The console itself is sleek and black, except for a few rumored, special edition white consoles. The dimensions are around 13.1 by 10.8 by 3.1 inches (33.3 by 27.4 by 7.9centimeters). Aside from USB, the unit has HDMI-out and HDMI-in ports, an S/PDIF optical audio-out interface, an IR-out port and a Kensington Security Slot, as well as the Kinect connection port. For Internet connectivity, the device includes 802.11 b/g/n dual-band WiFi as well as a Gigabit Ethernet port.
Xbox One comes with the Kinect 2.0 (the new version of the Kinect sensor), one wireless controller, a mono headset, a Category 2 4K-rated HDMI cable, a power brick and a power cord.
The controller has the same button, stick and trigger placement as the previous model, but it has undergone more than 40 changes to improve comfort and control. The new Impulse Triggers are more sensitive and have additional tiny rumble motors to provide better, more sensitive directional feedback. For power, the controller requires AA standard or rechargeable batteries, or a special Xbox One play and charge kit (sold separately). The battery area is now nestled into a U-shaped circuit board inside the controller, thinning the device to allow for easier grip and more thumb motion. The D-pad shape and sensitivity have been improved, the thumb sticks were made smaller and given a texture to improve feel and functionality and the A, B, X and Y buttons were moved slightly closer together.
The controllers are now all wireless and have infrared (IR) LEDs that allow you to bind them to the device with a button press whenever they're in view of the Kinect. Users who prefer to be wired up can plug the controllers in via micro USB. Micro USB will also power the controller or charge the play and charge kit. You can have up to eight controllers attached simultaneously.
Read on to find out more about the advances in Kinect 2.0, and the SmartGlass app.
Kinect 2.0 and SmartGlass
The camera- and microphone-laden Kinect, first introduced for the Xbox 360, gets some major improvements with Kinect 2.0, and you may be able to largely eschew physical controllers for menu and app navigation. On the previous console, you could use voice commands via the optional Kinect to select and run menu items that were displayed on the screen, and you can still do this on Xbox One using the "Xbox select" voice command. But Kinect 2.0 has been redesigned to be more intuitive and responsive, and a greater variety of commands have been integrated into the system. You can call many of them out at any time, with no need for menus.
When you first log in, the Xbox will use Kinect to create face and skeletal models of you which will be used to create your biometric ID in the system. After this is done, the console will recognize you and automatically sign you in when you walk into the room, bringing up your personalized home screen. For privacy reasons, your biometric information is only on your machine, not the cloud. If someone gives a command that requires login to an account, Kinect pinpoints where the voice came from and uses the biometric model to determine who is speaking.
Kinect 2.0's field of vision is 60 percent wider than that of the earlier version. It can see in darker areas with its active infrared (IR) camera and uses 3D geometry to tell your position. You can use smaller hand gestures to control games and other apps. It can even detect whether your hand is open or closed, and whether you are off balance, as well as your heart rate and facial expressions. The new Kinect can track six people at a time rather than the previous version's two, and it recognizes more joints per person. It uses a five-microphone array for advanced noise isolation that helps it determine who it should be listening to in a noisy room.
You can say, "Xbox on," to turn the console on, because when it's off, it remains in standby mode listening for the on command. Kinect's built-in IR blaster can even send signals to other devices attached to the Xbox One, such as your cable box and TV.
Despite the fact that it comes standard with the Xbox One, Kinect is still a separate component that can be turned off through the settings or unplugged, and you can use the Xbox One without it if you wish.
There is another novel way to control your console. If you download the latest version of the Xbox SmartGlass app, you can use your iOS, Android, Windows Phone or Windows 8 tablet or smartphone as a controller. It allows you to use your mobile device's touchscreen capabilities to move a cursor around, swipe to new screens, type text using your device's virtual keyboard or select items with a tap. It certainly makes surfing the Web easier. And developers can use it to extend apps by providing second-screen features, such as game hints or movie commentary.
You can also use SmartGlass to view your achievements and game progress, watch recorded clips, send and receive messages and pin content for later access from your console. There has even been mention of the ability to transfer movies and TV shows from your mobile device to your Xbox and back. The available features will vary between the different phone OSes, however.
New Features With Xbox One
Just like you could with its predecessor, with Xbox One you can download lots of apps and pin the ones you want for quick access on your home screen. However, your home screen and other digital content, such as game downloads and save spots, are saved in the cloud, and you can access them from any Xbox One.
The device now allows multitasking. You can give Xbox One the "snap" voice command to bring up a second application on the right side of your television screen alongside whatever you were already doing. For instance, "Xbox, snap Internet Explorer," will bring up the Web browser next to the current app. To switch control between the two on-screen items, you use the "switch" voice command or double-tap the home button on the controller. You can Skype while watching a movie or hunt for hints while playing a game. One of the apps will appear in a smaller portion of the screen, kind of like old school picture-in-picture.
Xbox One also allows you to instantly switch from one app to another. If you say, "Xbox, watch TV," while you are playing a game, it will switch you to TV, but keep your game saved in active memory until you come back to it (or until you switch to another game or turn off the console), and you can pick up right where you left off. Several apps can be held in memory at once, with a maximum of 10, although the maximum will decrease if the programs you are running are memory hogs.
Another time-saving advance is that updates and downloads happen in the background instead of when you turn on your machine or log on, so you should be able to go about your entertainment-devouring business with fewer interruptions.
An Xbox Live Gold membership is required for a lot of advanced features including Skype, multiplayer gaming, Game DVR, Upload Studio, The NFL on Xbox One, Internet Explorer and the Xbox SmartGlass app.
Television and Streaming Features
Xbox One allows you to connect your cable or satellite box to the device through the HDMI-in port and watch TV with HDMI Pass-Thru. It essentially passes whatever is output by the HDMI device through to your TV, so you could potentially plug in any HDMI device, provided it's supported. You just have to provide your TV and other devices' model numbers and your cable or satellite provider at initial setup.
The Kinect's IR blaster will actually send out signals to your attached external devices, including your TV, AV system and set-top box, allowing you to change channels and turn up, down or mute your TV's volume, all with voice commands. This means you can watch shows or movies on cable without switching your TV input to another box, and maybe forgo a remote or two. You can also continue to get multiplayer invitations from friends.
Xbox One has a new OneGuide that brings TV listings, favorites and streaming app channels onto one guide screen. The app channels can include any streaming services that opted to develop for the OneGuide. Your favorites can include TV channels, in-app programs or even your own photos and videos from the SkyDrive app (Microsoft's cloud data storage service), so you can create a customized guide of only the things you're likely to view. You can call up the listings for a specific channel and start playing a show or movie by voice command. You can even switch channels by name with commands like, "Xbox, go to the ESPN channel," or "Xbox, watch AMC."
One thing you can't do, unfortunately, is schedule things to record on your DVR, or see what is already scheduled to record. For DVR functions, you have to switch back to your set-top box or other external DVR.
Some streaming apps slated for the new console are Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Redbox Instant, Vudu, Crackle, TED, Machinima, Verizon FiOS TV and Target Ticket. Several networks will also have apps including ESPN, Fox Now, FXNow, Univision Deportes, CWTV and HBO Go. Some might not be available right away, but they should all become available sometime between the launch date and spring 2014.
Streaming channels aren't the only way to view media. You can stream content from your SkyDrive cloud storage account. Anyone with an Xbox account will get 7GB of free storage. You can also stream media from a personal computer running Windows 8 to your Xbox One through the Xbox Video and Xbox Music applications. At launch, you can't play MP3s stored on your Xbox locally, but that feature's in the works.
The Xbox Fitness app will give users access to lots of fitness resources, free for a limited time with your Xbox Live Gold membership. Xbox is also the official game console of the NFL, and the NFL's Xbox One app allows you to access stats, scores, news and video highlights, and NFL.com Fantasy Football.
Gaming Advances and Features
Xbox One has a lot of good news for gamers. The new system has a faster processor, more memory and better graphics. You can reportedly start playing games before they even finish installing. Multiplayer start times are faster, and, as previously mentioned, you can leave a game and come back without losing your spot. Your Xbox Live Gold membership will work on both Xbox One and Xbox 360, so there will be no need for two accounts or for ditching your old system before you're ready. And your Gamertag and Gamerscore (a score based on in-game achievements) will follow you from the Xbox 360. In bad news, Xbox One won't have backwards compatibility with older games. The older controllers will not be compatible with the new machine, either, so you'll have to start your controller collection anew.
Regarding Gamerscore, Microsoft has removed the 1000-point-per-game limit and now allows developers to add achievements on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis, giving opportunities for achievements without the need to download new game add-on code. The data will instead be stored in the cloud. There will also be timed challenges that can be completed for specific titles or sets of titles that can earn you in-game rewards, but not Gamerscore points. Some of them will actually be community rather than solitary activities. Xbox has even created a media achievement system separate from Gamerscore for non-game apps to gamify things like your video watching habits.
There have also been artificial intelligence improvements. The SmartMatch feature uses advanced algorithms to pair you with players similar to yourself. The system will also learn from your gameplay to match you with better computer-generated opponents. The reputation system has apparently been overhauled and will do things like isolate problem players (for instance, those who are constantly blocked or are the subject of enforcement actions) into groups, matching them up with each other for multiplayer gaming rather than with the non-problem-causing players. A player's negative reputation could earn him or her a red mark as a warning to others, and the reputation of a group will be determined by the player with the lowest score. There are apparently safeguards to keep people from being able to gang up and reduce your reputation fraudulently.
A new Game DVR feature lets you record up to five minutes of your gameplay at a time at 720p and 30 frames per second to keep or share. Just say, "Xbox, record that," while gaming. The console is, in fact, constantly keeping five minutes of your game recorded, just in case something unexpected happens that you might want to keep. You can use the Upload Studio app to edit, record a voice-over or otherwise customize your clips before you share them. You'll be able to upload via Xbox Live at first, and Facebook and YouTube sharing should be enabled sometime in 2014. You can also set the Game DVR to automatically record special moments, like when you unlock achievements.
There are some notable game-related apps. Twitch, which lets you live broadcast your gameplay and chat with other gamers, will be integrated into Xbox One for easy sharing and socializing. Machinima will also launch a new, more highly integrated version of its app at Xbox One launchtime, which will let users pull up walkthroughs, help videos, reviews and other helpful information.
As with any console launch, there will be exclusive games for Xbox One, as well as exclusive content from some cross-platform games. Ancient Roman adventure "Ryse: Son of Rome," zombie game "Dead Rising 3," racing game "Forza Motorsport 5," sim game "Zoo Tycoon," fitness game "Zumba World Party" and a free trial version of "Kinect Sports: Rivals" will all launch exclusively on the release date of the Xbox One.
Several titles will be available as digital downloads via Xbox Live, including "Crimson Dragon," "LocoCycle," "Powerstar Golf" and the fighting game "Killer Instinct."
Still more exclusives are expected sometime during the launch window that ends in March 2014, such as "Peggle 2," "Minecraft: Xbox One Edition," "Project Spark" and "Titanfall." "Titanfall" will be available on both PC and Xbox, but no other consoles.
There will also be some major games released on both Xbox One and its rival, the new Sony PlayStation 4 (PS4), including "Battlefield 4," "Call of Duty: Ghosts," "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag," and "Lego Marvel Super Heroes."
"Call of Duty: Ghosts" and "Battlefield 4" will have downloadable content (DLC) exclusives first on Xbox One. "Call of Duty: Ghosts" will also enable you to transfer your profile from Xbox 360 to Xbox One if you upgrade after buying the game. Both will also have second screen features using SmartGlass.
Social and Communication Advances
The voice chatting, messaging and friending that were possible on the Xbox 360 are available on Xbox One, but in some ways they've been taken to a whole new level. We've already heard about Game DVR video sharing, multiplayer matching and community achievements, but Xbox One boasts even more new social and communication features.
The updated Friends app seems to have adopted some of the functionality of popular social networking sites. It allows you to add up to 1,000 friends and closely follow their Xbox One activities, depending on how they set their privacy settings. You can view your friends' profiles and friend lists, and you can monitor all friend activity via a constantly updating news feed. You can also use it to view your own activities, achievements, reputation, and numbers of friends and followers, and to watch any of your uploaded DVR clips. If you have a core group of friends you game with a lot, you'll be able to add them to to your favorites and find them quickly.
You can even follow users who aren't your friends and view limited information about them, like their scores and achievements. If two people follow each other, they are put into each others' friends lists. But if others having access to that information doesn't sound appealing, you can block your profile to prevent anyone from following you.
On the live communication front, Xbox One now allows you to make and receive 1080p high-definition video calls via Skype with anyone else on a supported platform. You need to have broadband Internet and an Xbox Live Gold membership, and, of course, all involved parties need to have TV, Web cam and messaging clients that can handle it. With Group Video Chat, you can talk to up to three people besides yourself at a given time. Long distance is free.
Skype can be run alongside another application if you want to multitask. And to make things even more futuristic, Kinect can tell who in the room is participating in the conversation and can pan over and zoom in on the speaker, or expand its view to cover multiple participants.
How It Compares to Sony's PlayStation 4
There are some striking similarities between the Xbox One and the PS4, including the fact that their CPUs and GPUs are closely related and they have the same memory and storage sizes. But the hardware does have some differences that could affect performance.
PS4 has an 8-core single-chip x86 AMD Jaguar CPU that comes from the same AMD "Sea Islands" family as Xbox One's more customized CPU. It has 8GB of 5500MHz GDDR5 RAM (faster than Xbox One's DDR3 RAM, but without their extra integrated ESRAM) and a 500GB removable hard drive. Xbox One's similarly sized hard drive is not removable, but Xbox will at some undisclosed point in the future allow the addition of external storage via USB.
PS4 has an 800MHz PlayStation-customized AMD Radeon Graphics Core Next engine GPU with 18 CUs, which is six more CUs than Xbox One's GPU, running at 1.84 teraFLOPS per second at peak.
Both consoles can display 1080p high-definition at 60 frames per second (fps), although there has been press about some games running at lower (but still high-def) resolutions on Xbox One than on PS4. Still, they both have stellar, somewhat comparable graphics that are improvements over their predecessors.
Both have Ethernet and 802.11 b/g/n connectivity. PS4 also has BlueTooth. Xbox One uses Wi-Fi Direct for device-to-device wireless connection instead. Both have HDMI and optical output, but Xbox One is also capable of HDMI input, so PS4 won't be able to stream video from your cable or satellite box.
PS4's new DualShock 4 controller had some comfort improvements and now includes a touchpad, but otherwise remains similar in layout to the previous controller. You can only connect four controllers at a time to PS4, compared to Xbox One's eight.
Xbox One comes standard with the Kinect. PS4's Eye (their voice- and motion-detecting device) must be purchased separately. Kinect's new model is also reportedly a bit better than the Eye. The new Kinect has a 1080p resolution RGB camera versus the Eye's 720p, and Kinect is the only one with IR blaster, which bounces infrared light off of things to measure depth and see in the dark. PS4's Eye uses two cameras to triangulate your location. Eye no longer requires special Move controllers, although you can still use them.
Both systems utilize cloud computing to store your data and enhance games and apps, and both allow for running multiple apps and switching quickly between them. Neither have backward compatibility with old games, unfortunately, so you may have to keep your old consoles for a while if there's a title you can't live without.
Xbox One will reportedly be able to stream media from your PC or network-attached storage (NAS) drive, and some certified Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) devices, although only from devices that use the Microsoft Play To standard. PS4 does not include DLNA capabilities. PS4 also can't play CDs or MP3s, although it can play music via streaming apps.
Like Xbox One, PlayStation 4 also has a gaming DVR. It can record up to 15 minutes of gameplay and will allow you to share via Facebook at first, and YouTube later.
Both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have smartphone and tablet apps that can be used to control the console or display additional information. The PlayStation Vita handheld game device can also be used with PS4 for remote control and second-screen features, and even lets you play games remotely elsewhere in the house through the Remote Play option.
Sony initially provided more support for independent game developers, so there may be more small indie games for PS4. But Microsoft says that all Xbox One consoles can act as free development units and that they will allow self-published titles, possibly with certification -- a departure from earlier policy announcements.
On Xbox One, TV streaming, multiplayer online gaming and Skype require the annual Xbox Gold membership. PlayStation 4 will allow you to run streaming apps and do video chat without any extra fees, but you have to purchase the annual PlayStation Plus subscription to participate in multiplayer online gaming.
In the U.S., PS4 was released on November 15, 2013 with a retail price of $399.99, $100 cheaper than Xbox One. That is without the optional Eye, which is $59.99 as of November 2013. That brings PS4 in at a slightly lower cost than Xbox One. But which people choose may depend largely on user preference, and what console their friends have.
Controversies and Issues
The development of Xbox One has seen its fair share of controversy. Microsoft initially announced that users would not be able to freely buy or sell used games. They also stated that the device would have to be connected to the Internet at least once every 24 hours in order for you to play its games, even if you weren't playing online. Public outcry led to a reversal of both policies, and as it stands now, you'll be able to play most games from disc, whether online or not. Internet connection will only be required for initial setup of the device and for downloading game and system updates, including a mandatory day-one update.
Of course, a lot of features require the Internet. But at least gameplay won't be impossible if your Internet connection or Xbox's servers go down, and you won't have to repurpose any games you dislike or no longer want to play as coasters. Still, the inevitable shift from disc to digital downloads that's occurring might eventually do away with used games. You'll be able to buy any games that launch for Xbox One in digital rather than physical form if you prefer, and some games are download-only.
The facial and skeletal recognition capabilities of the Kinect have raised some privacy related fears. Fortunately, if you want to use Kinect, but are worried about potential abuse, you can turn off auto-logon as well as voice or gesture commands. You can also require a password on top of the recognition function before login is completed. And your biometric data is supposed to only be stored on your local machine, not to the cloud. As stated earlier, you're not required to use the Kinect at all. It can be unplugged and you can stick to physical controllers.
At least in reports leading up to the launch date, when you snap an app to your screen and have two sound-generating apps going at once, you will hear the audio from both at the same time. There is currently no way to choose one over the other for audio, unless one or both of the apps give you the ability to mute. This may be fixed with future updates, but as of November 2013, it remains uncertain.
Removal of the per-game Gamerscore cap of 1000 points has some consumers worried that there won't be a reasonable way to reach 100 percent of game achievements. Xbox has said that despite the lack of a cap, there will be policies the developers have to follow and they'll monitor for abuse.
And in retail whoops-a-daisy news, a few of the systems leaked out early when Target mistakenly shipped them nearly two weeks before the official launch date. Microsoft banned those systems from connecting to Xbox Live, a ban the company said it would lift closer to the release date.
Reception and Availability
Responses of those who have been able to try out the device have been positive, but it hasn't been in the wild for very long as of this writing, so most reviews note that in-home conditions might yield different results than the controlled environments of demonstrations. Some reported that they had to repeat voice commands occasionally, but according to Microsoft, the system learns and becomes more accurate the more you use it, and in most demos, voice recognition worked pretty well. By many accounts, the responsiveness of the device as far as switching from program to program, pausing games and bringing up simultaneously running apps sounds like it is as good as Microsoft would have us believe. And the graphics appear to be stunning.
Any current issues aside, policies and system functionality are somewhat mutable, so as in the past, there are likely more changes and features to come in the form of software updates and app additions. Xbox One has the potential to get better and better.
The Xbox One was released worldwide on November 22, 2013 at a retail price of $499. The updated SmartGlass app, many new Xbox Live features and a number of games were also available on that date.
As is usual with game consoles, availability is likely to be lean initially, and then they'll become more widely available as time passes. And if things follow the usual pattern, the price of the previous console should drop a bit to tide any super-late adopters over until they absolutely must have the latest and greatest.
Author's Note: How Xbox One Works
These days, I am primarily an Xbox 360 gamer (a convert from PC gaming who finally got used to the controller over mouse and keyboard), but I did buy a PlayStation 3 recently, as well, so I could go either way with the new consoles. Researching this article, however, made me lean a little toward Xbox One as my next console. With its Kinect improvements, it not only sounds like an advance in gaming systems, but an advance in home entertainment and computing devices in general. Many of us have dreamed of the day that we could walk into a room and immediately start querying our always-on computer a la "Star Trek," or swipe our way through a virtual display like "Johnny Mnemonic." The command options are still a bit limited, but this could be a stepping-stone to bringing the voice and gesture controlled helpers of sci-fi past into reality in the not-so-distant future.
And while today I check e-mail and social networks on my phone while watching TV, and use it to look up hints and walkthroughs while I'm stuck in a game, the Snap feature means my phone can be freed up for some third multitasking distraction. Sensory overload awaits.
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