Microsoft ruled the game console world for years with the Xbox 360 — but some mis-steps at the launch of its successor, the Xbox One, have taken time to recover from. But recover they did.
It might have been hubris that got in the way of common sense, but the launch of the Xbox One was a bit of a PR disaster for Microsoft, who’d been leading the market for years with their previous Xbox model. The third reimagining of the Xbox brand, the Xbox One was initially launched as a device that could be the centre of a home entertainment system, playing movies, TV shows, streaming video, watching sport and… oh yes, playing games.
Microsoft wasn’t let off easy by the press on that one, and it’s taken them a good few years to steer the Xbox ship back on course, putting games at the forefront once again. And there’s a lot to like about the Xbox One. It’s compact, it’s nearly silent even in heavy game sessions, it ties in to the Xbox Live network to update your progress in real time (Sony’s console only does so automatically once a day) and it’s powered by a version of Windows 10 that’s been specially designed for the console.
What Makes the Xbox One Stand Out?
At launch the Xbox One suffered from being infamously underpowered compared to its direct rival, and a large part of that was simply that the “Kinect” motion control device (which Microsoft was pushing heavily at the time) was taking up a big chunk of the console’s available power. But even with that problem gone, the Xbox One doesn’t quite have the grunt of the PS4.
Not that you’d know when you’re playing some of the best Xbox One exclusives, though. The car-fuelled Forza Motorsport (track racing) and Forza Horizon (open world) series are simply stunning even on a base Xbox One, while the Halo series that made the Xbox brand famous has been given its own Xbox One version that was already spectacular and is about to be enhanced even further. But there’s a real scarcity of Xbox exclusives to be found overall (even though all the cross-platform stuff is there).
One big win for Xbox One is the “backwards compatibility” feature, where your old Xbox 360 and original Xbox games can be played on your modern console, often with graphical enhancements. That makes the potential game library for the Xbox One massive — and an absolute win if you hung onto Xbox game discs from previous generations.
The Xbox One also comes with a 4K UHD Blu-ray drive, even on its base version, making it a terrific Ultra HD disc player as well — worth considering if you’re a movie fan.
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Are There Different Xbox One Models Available?
Microsoft has made several passes at the design of the Xbox One, with the original version now long discontinued. The design of the base Xbox One was completely reworked in late 2016, and the changes were substantial. For the first time, there was no “power brick” — the power supply is built into the new console’s slimmer, smaller case. And some minor improvements to graphics power were made along with the removal of the control port for the now-defunct “Kinect” motion sensor.
Unlike with Sony’s early redesign of the PlayStation 4, the new Xbox One was given its own unique name — Xbox One S — and has been a big hit for a number of reasons, not least the low price. The S can output at native 4K to a compatible TV, and it can play 4K UHD Blu-ray discs from its in-built UHD disc drive (making it a bit of a bargain if you’re keen on collecting UHD movies as well!). One thing it can’t do, though, is play games in 4K — the maximum resolution for games on the S is 1080p.
More recently, Microsoft launched the Xbox One X, a smaller, much faster and 4K-game-capable edition that currently rules the roost as the fastest game console out there. More than four times as powerful as the Xbox One S, it’s certainly not cheap — it clocks in at a hefty $639, $100 more than Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro. But if you play a lot of cross-platform games and want the best of the best (including true 4K gaming much of the time) then it’s money well spent.
|Xbox One S 1TB||$329||1080p HD|
|Xbox One X 1TB||$639||2160p UHD|
Interestingly, Microsoft has stopped selling Xbox One consoles with any hard disc size other than 1 TB — which probably makes sense for several reasons. Not only does it remove the need for them to carry multiple versions of the same console just to cater for different drive sizes, it also lets them use the one type of drive across the board, saving money. But what if you want more space?
Well, Microsoft has that covered with what was the first full external USB 3.0 drive support for a game console (Sony’s since added the feature to the PS4). You can plug one or two USB drives into the back of the Xbox One, format them for use as game storage, and go nuts. And not only that, you can actually take those drives over to a friend’s place, plug ‘em in, sign in to your account and play the games there, straight off the portable drive.
It’s an elegantly-done solution to the storage problem that all gamers are facing these days, as AAA games get larger and larger (several current games on the Xbox One X clock in at around 100GB thanks to their 4K assets, for example!).
It’s an important feature, too, since the Xbox One’s internal hard drive is not user-replaceable!
What Exclusives Does Xbox One Have?
Microsoft’s had a bit of a mixed fortune with first-party game titles and exclusives in the years since the Xbox One launched. Part of that was bad luck and bad timing, and part of it was arguably bad judgement. Either way, there’s no getting around the fact that out of the “big three” consoles, the Xbox One has perhaps the weakest library of exclusive games.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some cracking great ones, though! For starters, anyone who’s ever used an Xbox will know of the word “Forza”. The venerable motor racing series has become an institution on the Xbox over the years, and on Xbox One it’s finally found the sort of graphical grunt to do it justice.
There’s now two “branches” to the Forza series: Forza Motorsport (a “serious” track racing game) and Forza Horizon (a more freeform, open-world-fun driving game). Both are superb, though arguably it’s Horizon that’s really gotten Xbox Ones flying off the shelf.
The other famous Xbox-only brand is Halo — the name that launched the very first Xbox. Series creators Bungie no longer produce Halo games, but the team that’s taken over is passionate about them — so much so that you can buy a collection of the first four games fully remastered in 4K for your Xbox One. A new Halo game arrives late in 2018, and as usual, Xbox One is the only place you’ll find it.
Those big names aside, the exclusives are pretty thin on the ground. Titles like pirate-em-up Sea of Thieves and button-masher Sunset Overdrive have their fans, though, and we can’t forget the reliable Gears of War series.
What About Movies and TV Shows?
Originally marketed more as an “entertainment centre” than a game console (something Microsoft may never live down) the Xbox One was built with video streaming very much in mind, and aside from its very capable built-in UHD player and integrated support for audio formats like Dolby Atmos for Headphones, it also offers a large range of movies and TV shows to buy and rent through the Microsoft Store.
There’s plenty of regular discounts and specials, and while the range of shows and movies is near-identical to what’s available on other storefronts, the prices here can frequently be a little cheaper.
What Are the Key Xbox One Accessories?
As with every other game console, the accessories market for Xbox One is saturated with third-party things of varying worth — some elaborate and expensive, some cheap and nasty. But naturally, Microsoft has their own range of accessories to match their console, including a few very handy items you might want to pick up.
The most unique amongst them is the Xbox Adaptive Controller, specifically designed for people with disabilities or limited mobility. Paired with a range of input devices it can bring gaming to people who previously were completely shut out from it. It’s not cheap — the base controller goes for $129 and you need to buy the additional bits separately — but it’s well designed and, let’s face it, pretty much unique.
Conventional Xbox One controllers are available in a vast array of colours — but you won’t need to pick up a spare for yourself since the Xbox One controller uses AA batteries rather than an embedded rechargeable. Not only is the battery life superb, you can just swap out a pair of batteries in seconds if you’re running low.
Controller connoisseurs might want the Elite controller, though — an absolute beast of a device that tries hard to justify its $200 price tag by being really, really heavy.
For movie/TV playback and streaming, grab the $29 Media Remote and you’re set to go without fumbling for buttons on the game controller. And if you send a lot of messages to your Xbox friends, you can pick up a “chatpad” — a keyboard that attaches to your controller so you can type while shooting.
The Xbox One User Experience
The user interface on the Xbox One might not look like it, but is, in fact, Windows 10. Yes, the very same Windows 10 you’re running on your PC, albeit with a very different “skin”. And it works well enough, especially after many handy features were added in later revisions.
But the problem remains that the main focus of the home screen is not your game library, but rather… stuff. A lot of different stuff. If you want all your games on the front page to choose from, you’re out of luck — you can set up a sub-screen with “pins” linking to all of them, but you have to do it manually.
On the plus side, all game saves and achievements are instantly synced to the cloud (something that does not happen on PlayStation 4) as are any screenshots and video captures you might take during gameplay. Microsoft is clearly going for a more “social” kind of interface with the Xbox One, and it kind of works, and yet doesn’t quite get there. It’s still very much a work in progress.
Oh, and one more neat thing. If you buy an Xbox One game on the store and it has the “Play Anywhere” branding (as most of Microsoft’s own titles do) then you get a copy of the game for Windows 10 as well, free of charge — and it’s kept in sync with your Xbox version.
What About Online Play?
Microsoft was not about to waste any time in charging for online video gaming once they got it up and running; Xbox Live is the name of the overarching network (which runs all the cloud services we mentioned above) but for actual online play with other people, you need to subscribe to Xbox Live Gold. That’ll set you back $80/year or $11/month, but keep an eye out for discounted pricing — it happens regularly, both direct from Microsoft and via the Xbox Live cards sold at supermarkets.
As part of your membership you get discounts on various games as well as several free games each month (under the heading “Games with Gold”), which are yours to keep as long as you remain an Xbox Live Gold subscriber.
Any Extra Services?
If the idea of an instant game library appeals to you, there’s a couple of services you can subscribe to on Xbox One. Microsoft’s Game Pass gives you access to over 100 full games on a subscription basis (think of it as like “Netflix for games”), while EA Access gets you a much smaller set of games solely from publisher Electronic Arts. Game Pass costs a fairly reasonable $10.95/month, while EA Access is $7/month or $40/year (which works out as less than half price and is the way to go!).
Can You Play Your Old Games?
When Microsoft started experimenting with backward compatibility, nobody expected much to come of it. But what they’ve managed to achieve is nothing short of remarkable — Xbox 360 games running on the Xbox One as well as they did on the real Xbox 360, and sometimes even better (several games have gotten 4K upgrades in the process). Whether you buy the game digitally or own the disc from back in the day, you download a freshly-minted Xbox One version that lets you play your classic game the way it was meant to be played. Currently there’s around 500 Xbox 360 games that have received support — and 33 games from the original Xbox! It’s a brilliant feature that adds a ton of value to the console.
Xbox One — Finding Its Way
It’s a console with so much going for it, which unfortunately had a clumsy launch and some very public growing pains. But the Xbox One has truly come into its own now, particularly with the arrival of the super-powerful Xbox One X, which is becoming the platform of choice for developers wanting to make true 4K versions of their games. If you’re a Halo or Forza fan you probably already have one, but if you’re on the fence about which console to get, consider some of the Xbox One’s strengths — its size, its quietness, its backwards compatibility, its UHD Blu-ray support — and its tight integration with your home PC via Windows 10.