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Xbox One: Everything you need to know

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One could not accuse Microsoft of releasing too little information.

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Microsoft unveils Xbox One

Microsoft unveils its next-generation Xbox- featuring an exclusive 'Halo' series produced by Steven Spielberg.

The Xbox One reveal event at Microsoft's Redmond campus in Seattle, kicking off with a press conference and then including an expert panel, behind the scenes tours and several interviews, provided me with more information than I know what to do with.

This is not to say that we have been given every detail we want; there are still some notable blanks the folk at Microsoft promise will be filled soon. There have also been some details the fans are not happy with, some of which will be "clarified" at a later date.

I have sorted through all of this information, and now present to you my edited highlights. This is not a complete list of features by any means, but should answer Screen Play readers' most common questions.

Get comfortable; this is going to be long.


The big picture

It is clear that Microsoft no longer regards the Xbox primarily as a games machine. Many commentators and fans were frustrated by the lack of games at the press conference, and its focus on media consumption, video calling, and interactive TV programming.

Even the name reflects this: Xbox One. One of the slogans appearing on many posters and videos was "all-in-one entertainment". Microsoft is pushing this as a single-box living room solution than we will use for watching TV, calling our friends and family, browsing the web, watching movies and – of course – playing games.

This "complete entertainment package" ideal informed every facet of Tuesday's reveal event, from the tone of the press conference to the material covered in the discussion panels and interviews, and even the design of the new console.

The box

I am unimpressed by the look of the box. It's very square, black and featureless. Rather than a game console, it looks more like a first generation Blu-ray player, back when they were bulky slabs of black plastic. This is certainly part of the "all-in-one entertainment unit" marketing push, giving us a unit that looks like a piece of AV equipment rather than a game console.

Inside the box, though, the hardware is extremely impressive. This is not some glorified Blu-ray player, but an extraordinarily powerful games machine with some clever hybrid features to make it work as an entertainment unit as well.

The heart of the machine is a custom CPU built by AMD, an eight-core x86 processor. This is backed up by a staggering 8GB of DDR3 RAM, sixteen times the memory of the Xbox 360. No details have been revealed about the graphics hardware so far, but credible rumours suggest a customised version of a high-end Radeon card. Add in a 500GB hard drive, USB 3.0, a Blu-ray drive, gigabit Ethernet and on-board wireless, and you essentially have a high-powered gaming PC with standardised hardware.

I'm trying to find precise details, but one hardware tech mentioned that it has multiple wireless units inside, allowing it to connect wirelessly to multiple networks and devices instead of sharing the same bandwidth between multiple jobs.

I asked Marc Whitten, chief product officer for the Xbox, whether there was any chance of the Red Ring of Death part two, and he was candid in stating that the RRoD was a major lesson for Microsoft. He said they are committed to product quality, and are thoroughly testing their designs. During one behind the scenes tour I got to see the automated testing lab, and I was told the Xbox One is going through extensive heat and humidity testing. Sounds good, but I do wonder if it will be enough to placate nervous early adopters.

The controller

Everything I said about the Xbox One box design being a little dull, the opposite applies to the controller. Microsoft has taken what was already my favourite controller of all time and applied more than 40 improvements to it, and the result is sexy as hell. The list of improvements seems endless, and ranges from major overhauls down to incredibly subtle fixes for problems that hardly anyone knew existed.

Perhaps the most obvious change is the completely re-designed directional pad. The 360 controller's d-pad was its Achilles Heel, an awful, mushy thing that simply could not be relied on in the heat of battle. The new controller has a slick, low profile cross shape, very different from the old controller's disc. It has apparently been designed with fighting games in mind, so I look forward to trying it out live at E3.

The other big change is the new internal battery case. Because the original controller started out wired, the wireless edition had a chunky external battery case, right where your fingertips wanted to rest. The new controller is wireless by default, with no wired option, and the batteries are turned 90 degrees and set inside the body. My only qualm is that it still uses AA batteries rather than being rechargeable.

Instead of mechanical solenoids, the new controller's triggers are magnetic sensor, meaning they will detect even the slightest squeeze. Each trigger also has individual feedback, like a tiny rumble pack, in addition to the whole-controller rumble feedback. This may be my favourite design feature of the entire console. Imagine squeezing the trigger to fire your gun in Call of Duty, and feeling it pulse under your finger with each shot, or running low on health and feeling your character's heartbeat in your fingertips, or braking your car hard into a corner and feeling the loss of traction.

The analog sticks have been greatly improved as well. They are textured, high-grip and extremely light, meaning it takes very little pressure to move them. Even so, they are extremely precise, centring perfectly when at rest. The engineering team has also been working on giving them the tiniest dead zone possible, meaning they are incredibly responsive.

The controller also has a thoroughly improved feel. The engineers at Microsoft have looked into every complaint people had about the old controller, including screw holes right where some people want to grip, sharp seams that dig into your fingers and so on. It feels really good in your hands.

Best of all, these controllers are being tested to destruction. There is a robotic test lab set up where controllers are run through stick movements and button presses literally millions of times, simulating up to a decade of regular use. When a component fails, they can see when and how, and they return to the design process to work out why. This may turn out to be the most durable controller ever made.

Kinect 2.0

The major difference between the original Kinect and this new edition is that the first iteration was released as an add-on to an existing console, rather than being integrated from the start. This time around, there is dedicated image processing hardware inside the Xbox One, making the new Kinect incredibly fast, accurate and detailed. It is also a standard peripheral that comes with every console, rather than an optional add-on.

Perhaps the biggest improvement is the much wider field of view. This new Kinect sees far more of your living room, meaning you can stand much closer to it and it will function in a much smaller room. I am quite tall, around six feet, and yet I was completely within its field of view, from head to feet, while standing only four or five feet away. For the first time, Kinect may actually work in real living rooms, rather than just the unrealistically spacious refurbished warehouses shown in the ads.

Thanks to the wider field of view and beefed up processing power, the new Kinect collects far more information and deals with it much more intelligently. Where the original could guess where your joints were, the new version can also see joint rotation. It can even calculate muscle load based on a physics simulation of your current pose, very useful for exercise games.

The cameras on the new Kinect are also greatly improved. Instead of the horrible grainy picture of the original, the new hardware has a full HD 1080p camera, with excellent clarity, colour and low light functionality. Even better, it now has an infrared camera, meaning it will work in pitch darkness. It can even accurately calculate your heart rate using heat and colour information from your face.

Using all of this data, the new Kinect can do a lot of very clever stuff. Most functions can be activated with voice commands, including turning the unit on. Voice recognition has been greatly improved, and again there is dedicated audio processing hardware inside the console that filters out background noise and works out where a voice is coming from.

Small practical things really impressed me, too. You will never need to manually log in, as the console will recognise your face and voice, and will also see which controller you are holding. When playing split screen, it will see where you are sitting and switch sides on the screen to match. If you hand the controller to your roommate, it will recognise him and log him onto that controller automatically.

Playing games

Let's get the bad news out of the way first: the Xbox One is not backwards compatible. Like the PlayStation 4, Microsoft has said that the internal architecture is just too different. Even so, Xbox profiles will carry over to the Xbox One, with achievements and gamerscore intact. Gold membership will not only continue on the Xbox One, but will be concurrent, so early adopters who keep their 360 will be able to use both machines on the one account.

One of the coolest new features is a built-in video recorder and editor for game footage. While playing, you will be able to record footage, then edit it right there on the console and upload it to YouTube. This is great news for fans who like to record speed runs, make play-throughs, or make their own video reviews.

The console also has very smart power management, drawing more power when playing a game and much less when just browsing the web or watching a movie. Even better, games can be paused any time and then restored instantly. You can pause your game, turn off the console, then come back later, turn it back on with a voice command – "Xbox on!" – and be back in your game within seconds. Even better, the console is supposedly silent, even when running at full load. After the incredibly loud Xbox 360, this will be a relief for gamers' ears.

Sadly, as I said earlier, there were not many games on show this week. This was a hardware launch and obviously they were eager to show off everything it can do, rather than just playing games. That said, Marc Whitten promised me that E3 this year will be all about the games. They should have plenty to talk about, too: Xbox One will have 15 first-party exclusives in its first year on sale, with eight of them being brand new IPs.

The new Xbox will also continue its support for independent games on Xbox Live Arcade. Microsoft has just announced a simplified accreditation process for indie games, so hopefully the successor to the console that brought us Braid, Bastion, Fez, and Mark of the Ninja will carry on that pedigree.

One awesome little detail that I haven't seen reported elsewhere is the huge bump in the maximum number of Xbox Live friends. The old limit of 100 on Xbox 360 is jumping up to 1000 on Xbox One. Considering both machines will share the same account, this suggests that the 360 will also get the increase, but I haven't confirmed that.

Finally, some good news for those who don't plan to be early adopters: Microsoft has vowed that the Xbox 360 will continue to be supported. They were heavily criticised after the 360's launch for dumping the original Xbox, suddenly discontinuing support and leaving it without any new games. I have been told that this will not happen this time around, and the 360 will continue to be a viable console for a few years to come.

The problems

Every hardware unveiling has it issues, and the Xbox One is definitely not an exception to that rule. The biggest controversy is over used and borrowed game discs. At first, the rumour was that every game disc would have to be installed to work, which would allow it to be played without a disc but would prevent it from being installed on another machine. Later, gaming news sites were reporting that a disc could be lent or sold, but that there would be a fee to install it after the first time.

Exactly what is going on is still not clear. I asked Marc Whitten to clarify, and he said simply that game discs will be able to be borrowed or bought second hand and they will work, but exactly how it works will be revealed at a later date.

My personal theory is that Microsoft is still working it out with their licensees. A re-install fee would essentially allow everyone to buy one game at full price and then pass it around their friends to install it cheaply on their own machines, so I can't imagine third party publishers being very happy with this idea. I'm sure we'll learn more about this soon enough.

We also don't know how much it will cost, but this is hardly surprising – the PS4 doesn't have a price yet, either. While it would be nice to know how much damage this machine will do to our wallets, we will have to wait until later in the year to find out. A precise release date is still to be announced, too, with the current announcement being simply "holiday 2013".

That's all I have for you currently, though there are still plenty of small details I have left out in order to keep this article shorter than War and Peace. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and I will answer them as best I can after I arrive back in Australia on Friday.

 - James "DexX" Dominguez

The writer travelled to Seattle as a guest of Microsoft.