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Many people love having HTPC's, or for those of you who are unclear of the term: Home Theatre PC's/Personal Computers. HTPC's come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, but this one in particular we're...
Strong graphics, fast system, excellent features, good multitasking
Price, lack of file browser/external file/storage support
Many people love having HTPC's, or for those of you who are unclear of the term: Home Theatre PC's/Personal Computers. HTPC's come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, but this one in particular we're going to talk about today is a little bit special. Why is it a bit special? Because most people don't get the idea of a gaming console being a good HTPC. In this specific case, the Xbox One. With excellent potential for streaming and web browsing, multi-channel audio playback, an HDMI input, and other various features... This box is certainly a good contender for the HTPC market, even though it is primarily a gaming console. And this is where the name, Xbox ONE, stems from. A simple, easy to use, all in one device. Let's dive in and see, if the box can live up to it's name.
Things to like about the box, or that is does well:
The box is VERY, very easy to set up for first time use. After unpacking, all you need is a few cables that are included and you're ready to go. You rest the box where you wish, plug it it's power cord, hook up the optional (and personally recommended) Kinect system, and obviously your video output cable to your TV. You have the option of using digital optical audio out also, in case you prefer to use an external Digital to Analog converter.
When first powering on the box, you go through some simple steps. Such as registration, account log in (using a previous Xbox Live/Microsoft "Hotmail/Windows Live" account) or create a new one. Set up your home network either via a fast, fully integrated WiFi chip inside the console, or through a network RJ-45 connector for wired LAN. After doing so you're presented with a visually appealing, and rather bare, main screen. Here you'll find an array of varied, multi-colored "blocks" similar to what you see in Windows 8, if you're familiar with the operating system. Though arguably a hassle with regular computers and laptops, this layout works very well when using the included Xbox control, hand gestures via the Kinect, or even voice commands via Kinect. This screen is layed out to provide quick access to your profile, friends, and other regarding various information. Also, recently played games and recently used apps. On the right side of this section, you'll find a space to "snap" apps, which we'll get back to in a bit, view your currently accessible/registered/installed games and apps, as well as information as to which disc media is currently occupying the disc drive within the console.
Now, with any game console, as you'd expect, you have great gaming. The hardware in the device is pretty potent, and is able to output games in 1080p, possibly at 120Hz for 3D content. Which is great. A great bonus to this, is the ability to as aforementioned, be used as an HTPC. The console can not only play games, but fully browse the web using full desktop websites. With many media streaming apps such as YouTube (which now uses the full site's search, and plays "desktop only" videos, too!), Hulu+, Netflix, and many other "Day 1" apps for media. This gives you tons of content to watch all waiting right away at either the press of a button, a voice command, or a simple hand gesture/motion. The video quality itself is usually quite high, or the highest it could allow, thanks to a faster processor able to download the stream quicker, and a faster, non-external, wireless chip. By default, the system automatically outputs in stereo, but can be set to Dolby modes, 5.1, and even 7.1 audio over HDMI. The actual screen colors can be calibrated within the systems menu, as well as changing color space and black levels. The controller is by default wireless, and can generally hold a charge for a few weeks with a single pair of typical double-A batteries. For about $20 more, you can purchase the rechargable battery pack, which comes with a rechargable battery and a cable to charge the controller with from the console. In a recent update (2/15/2014) they added the ability to see the level/status of battery life within the controller on the main/home screen, which is also very convenient. Along with this update, and back to the topic of settings & system control, you now will also be able to view how much of the total system memory is used up. The console is marketed as having a 500GB hard drive. After the actual-disk size, and OS space requirements, I believe it is somewhere in the neighborhood of 410GB of actual useable storage space, for games, and apps.
Games and apps will always be readily available provided the user has an internet connection, meaning no need to wait inline at game stores! The market place is easy to use, and divided into categories for Music, Movies, Games, and Apps. You can search by genres under each category, and even used advanced searching.
These apps I mentioned before are great, but they can also be snapped (IE, such as apps in Windows 8 can be snapped) to the side of the screen when playing a game, or using another app. Making for easy multi-tasking. For example, you could be listening to your playlist or favorite song on Youtube, and snap in Internet Explorer, to browse Facebook and chat with friends. To make chatting easier, the console has two rear USB ports, and one side USB port, allowing for use of multiple devices. Such as say charging a controller while using the keyboard to chat on social media sites with those friends. (I've been using the extremely cheap, $20, Logitech K360 wireless keyboard. At first, the keyboard was not recognized. But after leaving in the wireless receiver for the keyboard and doing a hard-restart of the console, it has been working without flaw since.) Snapping and transition between apps is generally very smooth, and stutterless, thanks to an advanced 8-core CPU paired with 8GB of available memory for the system to utilize. This also means certain "heavier" applications, such as say Skype, or multi-tasking while gaming, play over very smoothly, also. The system powerful enough to take a full 1080p input signal, and scale it down into a snapped window, while playing back video games (such as Forza Motorsport 5) in 1080p at 60 frames per second.
The console also features the ability to use a built-in system DVR (though only on games, without recording player in-game audio) by a default time of the previous 30 seconds from saying "Xbox Record That," to a whole five minutes prior too. All at the press of a button or two, which is pretty impressive that this itself doesn't bog down the system. These videos can then be editted, strung together, or add voice/video recording through the Kinect camera in the Upload and Upload Studio apps. Videos can be accessed on a full PC later on, from your (free) Skye Drive account paired with your Hotmail/Windows Live e-mail account.
The input method I keep mentioned is through an app called "TV" on the console, which comes included in all consoles. It utilizes an HDMI (1.4a) input port on the back of the device. Now, it's main purpose is to be used and paired with an HDMI CEC capable set top box. As the consoles name denotes, Xbox ONE, it is meant to be the bridge to all your devices, including TV. With the systems (rather large list of) remote codes to control TV's, set top boxes, and receivers, it does it's job at integrating television quite well. Most set top boxes will allow the user to voice-command a specific channel, or even search through an on screen channel guide. This input can be used for other devices too, though, just without remote function. Such as inputting another media player, a computer, or even a game console. If you're a gamer, but also looking for an HTPC, this device definitely checks off some of the most sought-out/needed "check boxes." So let's move on to what it CAN'T do, or what it might not do so great.
With all the systems pro, there definitely are some downs to it. So here we go:
It seems general consensus (though my personal opinion differs) that most people do NOT like the design/exterior appearance of the box. They say it seems to blah or bland. This is because it is meant to be understated. It's meant to blend in with your decives, and not draw attention from the important stuff: what's on screen.
Though you CAN browse the internet, there are some things missing sadly. There is no file browser, not even a limited one. So you will not be able to save & download images or files. Which in turns means not all web pages/applications work, specifically those requiring Java and MOST requiring flash. Some flash pages will work, such as YouTube in browser, or very basic flash items. Which this is where it may be a deal breaker for certain HTPC buyers. A lot of buyer want a device that can store media and songs and movies. In theory (though not as of yet, I believe) you will be able to link an external drive to the console for media playback, such as songs, movies, and pictures. But as of yet, they have yet to release such items.
With all of the systems ability to multi-task, as great as it is, will leave headroom to allocated resource power to multi-tasking, and fast app switching. Some power-users/gamers will be a bit dissappointed in that you can't toggle the systems ability to let go of "reserve resources" and have greater power, or more frames per second, in games. Although to Microsoft's defense, I've owned the console since day one, and they continually release updates that make the system load lower, and reduce the amount of resources needed and allocated to the UI and other "reserve."
An internet connection is DEFINITELY recommended to use the console. When you first power on the device, it does NOT come standard with the ability to playback audio CD's OR Blu-Ray discs. But, two simple little downloads in the app store that should take no more than 60 seconds each will rectify this. (Really Microsoft? Why didn't you just include them if they were "Day 1" apps?)
The console noise is... A debateable con. I have yet to hear the console fan spin up when playing games, or mutlitasking. Spin up LOUDLY, that is. The disc drive is rather quite, too. But, when keeping the system set to go into "sleep" mode, so to say (which I do recommend for the access to walk in the room and say "Xbox: On" to turn the console, and connected devices on as well as change start up time from an agonizing ~60-120 seconds down to about 5-15 seconds), the fan will remain on. A whisper quiet, drull little whir. But audible in a room with no sound/conversation. If you're a light sleeper, and keep the console in your bed room, this will probably make falling asleep at night more tedious. It shouldn't wake someone who is sleeping, but it might bother some.
Not all apps are able to be snapped. Which is kind of a bummer! Most of the apps you want to be snapped, like Internet Explorer, Xbox Music, TV, even Netlfix, can be snapped. But certain ones would definitely be great to have snapped. Such as say Skype, or YouTube. So you could browse the Internet in the larger screen, while havng your communication/playback on the smaller section of the screen.
Snapping itself, though generally smooth and simple, can be a bit annoying. The system does NOT allow the user to either change the size of the two snapped items, as in make one bigger and one smaller (at least not without completely switching to one app, then snapping the other if possible) and it does not let the user choose which side of the screen the app is snapped to.
Though the system boasts a 500GB hard drive, after the "market loss" as some call it, and OS spacial requirements, the user is left with 410 or so GB of storage. Which sounds ample, but considering most games occupy anywhere between 5GB-15, or even 30 in some very rare cases, users may find themselves wishing to have more space quite frequently. Now, the drive within the console is a standard 2.5" SATA hard drive. But replacing/"upgrading" this drive voids warranty. I suspect future models will boast bigger drives, or Microsoft will allow ship-in-drive upgrades, if they pony up the resources to perfectly clone console drives.
Lastly, the party chat & game session joing can be a bit... Confusing, at first. The part chat, which is now an app, can always be run in the background. But you have to make sure you turn on party chat when joining parties, as it does not automatically do so. Also, inviting players is no longer as simple as it was on the Xbox 360, but now requires you to use the (sometimes buggy, depending on game developer) in-game invite menu. And sometimes even needing them to be in your Xbox Live party, too. Though voice chat quality is significantly increased, including Kinect chat, also.
Verdict/Over-all: A debateable 6/10.
With it's current abilities, it does fair well as a media device. Apps such as YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Instant, etc. allow streaming of high quality video. Audio support for Dolby sound modes and 7.1 audio make for an immersive experience, whether it be gaming OR home theatre purposes. Blu-ray playback (albeit with the Blu-Ray player needing to be downloaded), and great support to control cable boxes, televisions, and many AVR's. Though sadly, with the lack of any kind of file browser, it currently can't do everything, or many things, most home theatre PC users would like. Now, you could go and say that the device should get 0/10 in terms of HTPC usage. But I give it a higher rating. Reasons being it is still capable for some, as aforementioned, and all it's other bonuses. And the potential is there. It has the potential to be a simple, fast, easy, all-in-one media solution including HTPC. But until they allow the resources/needs of a full dedicated PC, it won't be that way. It seems to me that Microsoft is slowly, but surely, step by step heading towards that direction. Of making the console an HTPC/gaming all-in-one livingroom media device. But until then, it can't really compete. That's not to say it's not an excellent console & machine, as I do without a doubt love mine. But time will tell. As for the device as a gaming console itself, with added features such as Kinect, I'd give it a rating of 4/5 stars. But in the aspect of it being JUST an HTPC, it does need some work to be a viable option.
(This was created using the Xbox One console. My computer itself isn't currently working, but once it is, I plan on adding reviews and screen shots for not just menus, but individual apps that are released for the console as well. So keep an eye out on this page/review, as it'll change and have more useful information time to time!)