Last week, Sony launched the PlayStation 4 (PS4), signaling that the next generation of console gaming is officially upon us. On Friday, Microsoft will launch its Xbox One, which aims to not only bring more fidelity to your gaming experiences, but also to rather dramatically change the way you interact with your television set. It's an ambitious goal, and the most impressive product Microsoft has released in a long time.
In terms of hardware design, Xbox One is a departure from the Xbox 360; the new console has a boxier shape and an exterior covered in vents (chalk that up to the 360's relentless overheating issues). It's much bigger than Sony's PS4, which is a bit surprising given their relatively similar internals, and is saddled with a bulky external power brick that will need to be stowed away somewhere (a departure from the PS4, which conveniently lets users hide the external power brick inside the console). Even the new Kinect is roughly quadruple the size of Sony's PlayStation camera. Generally the hardware looks fine – especially if you're comparing it, say, a VCR – but lacks the refined design sophistication of the PS4.
The controller is more impressive, though. With four vibrating pads situated behind the triggers and where the player's palms meet the plastic, the controller provides a level of physical feedback that surpasses anything else out there. It's a subtle thing at first, but nearly every game benefits from the advances: the cars in 'Forza Motorsport 5' feel more connected to the road, the characters' attacks of 'Killer Instinct' feel deadlier, the guns in 'Battlefield 4' guns have more kick. It lacks some of the more obvious "features" of Sony's DualShock 4 (read: share button, touchpad), but Microsoft has done a great job refining its already excellent controller into something you'll be happy to game with for many years to come.
In terms of raw horsepower, Xbox One is no slouch, either. In most games, the disparity in graphical fidelity between the next-gen consoles is negligible; even advanced eyes would be extremely hard-pressed to spot the differences. It's even armed with the same 500GB hard drive and 8GB RAM as the PS4. Still, there's a looming sense that the PS4 is a more technically capable piece of hardware, as evidenced by the fact that 'Battlefield 4' and 'Call of Duty: Ghosts' both run in 1080p on PS4, and in 720p on Xbox One. It will be interesting to see how the respective hardware evolves over the course of its lifecycle.
While the PS4 interface is a significant improvement over that of PlayStation 3 (PS3), it is far surpassed by what Microsoft has accomplished with the Xbox One. The new home screen is clean and provides access to the console's many features quickly; fans of Microsoft's "live tile" system will feel right at home. Back out of your game session and it becomes an active tile on the home screen; you can then browse the Web, watch a movie, eat a sandwich, and come back to the game exactly where you left off. It's a console built for the modern, multitasking world, and it does a better job at this than any other console to date.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the Xbox One is how Microsoft has integrated it with other forms of entertainment. The console essentially serves as a hub for all of your televisual media: Plug your cable box into the back via an HDMI input, and you've instantly reinvented your television viewing experience. Your guide becomes gussied up in Microsoft's modern new interface, which can be searched and organized in ways that your dinosaur of a cable provider doesn't allow.
There are almost too many small, smart touches to list. You can, for instance, tell your Xbox One to find you all of the movies starring Danny McBride, and it will look across all of your various services – cable, Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, and more – and fetch all the available listings in a nice list that you can then go in and choose from. You can bring up Xbox Music (the company's subscription-based Spotify equivalent, essentially) mid-race, or Bing a search for anything mid-punch.
Also deserving of mention is the Skype integration. Making video calls from the comfort of your living room is a nice option to have, and the smart Kinect camera follows and tracks you as you sit, stand, or walk around the room. Another cool use of the Kinect camera: The built-in Xbox Fitness program uses it to analyze your movements as you work out and gives you real time feedback as to whether you're moving correctly or not (it can even read your heart rate when you're standing still). The concept isn't new, but it's innovative because it uses existing DVD workouts like P90X and INSANITY and essentially retrofits them for Xbox Fitness (rather than you having to go out and buy a separate 'Biggest Loser' video game that you can't relate to). Unlimited access to the library of videos is available to anyone with an Xbox Live Gold membership ($60 per year).
The console can be left in a sort of permanent standby mode and, after a two-minute setup process, communicates directly with your television, cable box, and receiver. This means that you can enter the living room, say "Xbox On," and the console, along with said television and receiver, will all magically power on, without the need to ever so much as look at a remote control. It also downloads system and game updates automatically. (Of course, whether this low-power convenience is worth its contribution to global warming is another matter entirely.)
Sharing is cool, too. While you can't stream your live gameplay session the way you can on PS4, exporting video clips of your achievements is just as easy. Simply call out the screenshot or video (up to five minutes) you want to share, and upload the clip to your Microsoft SkyDrive. The SkyDrive app also lets you pan and zoom around photos and videos, including ones from your own cloud collection and ones that others have shared with you.
Neither next-gen console's launch lineup is spectacular, and there are no exclusive, must-have system sellers for either the PS4 or the Xbox One. The closest thing on Xbox One is 'Forza 5,' or perhaps 'Ryse: Son of Rome'; both are visually superb and a great way to show off your new system, but neither is the kind of killer app that sells hardware. 'Dead Rising 3' is a solid zombie romp, and there are plenty of multiplatform shooters and sports games to get your library started, but if you're wondering if you need an Xbox One (or a PS4, for that matter) right this very goddamned minute, the answer is probably no.
If the company could rewind a few months, it surely would. Mistakes were made early on, when the company announced that it would essentially prohibit the sale of used games, and that Xbox One would require both Kinect and an Internet connection to operate. Microsoft fortunately saw the error of its ways quickly enough and reversed these policies, but it remains to be seen whether Xbox One sales will suffer from the early PR fallout.
Still, despite the missteps, Microsoft has managed to stuff a lot of unique functionality into the $500 Xbox One, and created an exciting next-gen console in the process. Ultimately, it will succeed or fail on the strength of its game library. But if you're a cable-streaming movie junkie, it might just be worth its (admittedly considerable) weight in gold as your new home entertainment hub. [$500; xboxone.com]