FORTUNE -- If the Xbox One isn't already near the top of your holiday wish list, it should be.
With Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox One, due out this Friday, it's clear the company is gunning for the living room, marrying TV viewing, game play, and Internet-connected services to an unprecedented degree. At $499, it may cost $100 more than the Sony (SNE) PlayStation 4 that was released last week, but the extra cash nets users a next-generation user experience, including menu navigation and gameplay driven by voice recognition and gesture.
With this device, Microsoft wants to own the living room in a way the company's previous products never could, with more advanced hardware and software that juggles everything from playing games to scanning a player's skeletal frame and musculature. It's the first time in a while you'll be excited to see the Microsoft logo when you rip open the wrapping paper.
The hardware. One word: huge. The Xbox One is a beast, dwarfing the PlayStation 4 and Wii U and most other consoles of recent years. (It's so large in fact, it'll challenge old-school VCR boxes in sheer size.) There are some nice accents on the jet-back plastic console up-close -- a two-tone juxtaposition of matte and shiny textures, a grill top that covers half the device, some silver chrome, and a touch-activated power button doubling as a logo -- but the Xbox One's industrial design is more utilitarian than looker. The same goes for the new Kinect 2 motion-sensing bar, roughly the size of a Febreze can and meant to sit closer to the television.
The controller bears a strong resemblance to the Xbox 360's, but the look and feel has been refined. The two handles on either end are slightly more contoured for holding. Buttons click in an appreciably more premium-feeling way. (In the particular, the direction pad has been redesigned and feels a lot less cheap and a lot more usable.) Microsoft also integrated four vibration motors instead of two this time around. So instead of the entire controller rumbling, developers can make the sensation more localized. It's a very subtle distinction but one that adds to the immersiveness of gameplay during games like Forza Motorsport 5, as players take corners. The controller isn't as ergonomic as the PlayStation 4's, which wins my personal award for best-feeling console controller ever, but players won't grouse about discomfort here, either.
The software. In recent years, Microsoft has pushed a visual experience based on flat, two-dimensional tiles. Windows Phone pioneered it, Windows 8 followed, and so does Xbox One. It's clean, minimal and easy-on-the eyes. And while learning how to navigate around the PlayStation 4's menus took less than five minutes, getting around the Xbox One was even quicker -- it's just more intuitive.
Getting set up was a thoroughly simple, though lengthy process, with a series of software updates that required installation before I could get going. (A spokesperson for the company indicated consumers won't have to download the same updates or wait nearly as long.) With the Xbox 360, the Kinect was only required for a subset of games. Here, the Kinect is technically not mandatory either -- a change in policy from a company statement this spring. But given how each unit comes packaged with one, not to mention that the Xbox One and several launch games use voice recognition, and the Kinect feels all-but-essential to get the most from Microsoft's new device. It's not mandatory that users issue voice commands to navigate around, but in some cases, it's actually easier. For one, commanding the device to power up by saying "Xbox On" -- which it does in around 10 seconds -- sure saves me the small hassle of walking back-and-forth across the room. The same goes for the other tasks like movie playback. Telling the Xbox to fast-forward and turn on closed-captioning is easier to do via voice than fiddling with the controller and for once, feels less like a gimmick.
MORE: Bitcoin's tipping point
In other cases, voice recognition still doesn't quite cut it. For now, the Kinect seems fine with basic commands -- going to the console's main screen, switching between apps, and actual video playback -- but getting from Point A to Point B in Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu entirely by voice sometimes felt like it took twice the time it normally would if I had stuck with using the controller, even after Microsoft recommended I re-calibrate Kinect to better pick up my voice. There are clearly kinks to be worked out, so for now, the best way to get around may yet be a combination of button presses and voice.
Microsoft is pushing the Xbox One not just as next-generation gaming device but as serious home entertainment hub. By hooking up a cable or satellite box to the console, users can browse programming, change channels, as well as raise and lower volume by issuing basic voice commands such as "Xbox, volume up." A new software feature called "Snap" serves as Microsoft's interactive take on TV's "picture-in-picture" feature. It's a vertical pane summoned by voice or controller to the right side of the television screen where users can have something else running at the same time: TV, music, video and so on. It worked mostly as advertised, although in a few tests, the movie Man of Steel seriously stuttered in the Snap pane, while I played a game on the main screen. In other cases, the film played smoothly. (Microsoft says the performance issue will be fixed by launch.)
No new console would be compelling without a solid stable of games. As I mentioned last week in my PS4 review, many of that console's initial titles, including Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and Battlefield 4 will also be available for Xbox One on the first day, and indeed, the former is already available for older consoles, too.
Xbox One has two killer exclusive titles. Ryse: Son of Rome starts off feeling like a deceptively simple and predictable hack-and-slash action adventure but gradually layers on more complex gameplay, introducing new moves and strategies for players to earn experience, customize their warrior's skills, and execute entertaining execution kills. And car aficionados will likely spend tens of hours racing and tuning up their cars in Forza Motorsport 5, where the gameplay is as superficial or as deep as the player's skill level.
The verdict. A new console may live or die based on its initial games, and here is where the Xbox One trumps the PlayStation 4. Both Ryse and Forza Motorsport are the kind of graphical showcases that should move consoles throughout the holiday season.
Microsoft and Sony are positioning their consoles as multi-purpose entertainment hubs for the living room, and some consumers may make their decision simply based on price. (After all, the PlayStation 4 is $100 less.) But if Microsoft can iron out some performance quirks around voice recognition and Snap, the decision won't be too hard: it's far easier to glimpse the future potential in the Xbox One, starting with 10 seconds of time and the simple two-word voice command: "Xbox on."
Sony's next-generation video game console is here. But should you choose it over Microsoft's pricier Xbox One?
FORTUNE -- Ask Sony Computer Entertainment President Andrew House about the company's newest device, the PlayStation 4, and he'll put it quite simply: "We learned a lot from challenges with PlayStation 3." The PlayStation 3 was priced higher than its primary competitor, Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox 360, and its cutting-edge technology posed, as House puts it, "considerable MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Nov 13, 2013 12:36 PM ET
Call of Duty: Ghosts launches a fresh start for Activision's $8 billion first-person shooter franchise, but it faces competition from EA's Battlefield 4.
By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- It's another November, which means gamers around the globe have lined up for midnight launch events to be the first to play Activision's Call of Duty: Ghosts. The game publisher is celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Call of Duty this year, which has MORENov 5, 2013 5:04 PM ET
Its live streams for gamers surpass the Super Bowl's online numbers, and investors are taking notice.
By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- The odds are that if you're under 30 and play video games, you're already aware of Twitch. If you're older and don't play games, then you're not one of the 45 million unique visitors per month that flock to the social live streaming site. Over 600,000 everyday gamers -- as well MOREOct 4, 2013 10:05 AM ET
The Belarus-based gaming developer is moving from PCs to consoles to grab more of the U.S. market.
By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- Just over 15 years ago, Minsk, Belarus-based game developer Wargaming launched with a focus on hardcore turn-based and real-time strategy PC games like DBA Online, Order of War, and the Massive Assault series. By 2008, the company saw publishers shy away from these genres amidst shrinking retail space. At MORESep 25, 2013 9:00 AM ET
Sony's Jack Tretton thinks the company has the right strategy this time around.
By Matt Vella, senior editor
FORTUNE -- The battle between a new generation of video game consoles is, in reality, still months away. Consumers won't be choosing between Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's Playstation 4 until later this fall, when both devices become available. But the contest between the two has already heated up online, as the details MOREJul 9, 2013 2:22 PM ET
Don Mattrick may be the troubled game maker's best shot at coming out on top again
FORTUNE -- Desperate times call for desperate measures. In the case of flailing casual gaming company Zynga (ZNGA), that meant installing a new CEO. Earlier this week, the company announced founder and long-time CEO Mark Pincus would step down, making way for Don Mattrick, the former president of Microsoft's (MSFT) Interactive Entertainment unit, which includes MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Jul 2, 2013 12:33 PM ET
However, the company's about-face on policies users found unbearable will help.
By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- Anyone who questions the power of the crowd need only talk to Microsoft.
In a stunning reversal, the technology giant made an abrupt about-face on some of the controversial features of its upcoming Xbox One console. The company scrapped requirements that would have prevented users from playing offline games and made it difficult to sell used MOREJun 20, 2013 6:56 AM ET
The console makers are going head-to-head for new consumers for the first time.
By Peter Suciu
FORTUNE -- A big battle is brewing in the world of video games. The battlelines for the living room were drawn this week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the annual trade show for all things video games, as Microsoft and Sony solidified their plans to introduce new consoles this year.
Microsoft's (MSFT) presentation this week MOREJun 13, 2013 7:46 AM ET
The business model formulated to attract Chinese consumers is taking over around the world.
By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- With the Electronic Entertainment Expo just around the corner, the gaming world will soon be focusing on the next generation of gaming from Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One consoles. Both of those holiday releases are guaranteed to be in short supply this fall. But as exciting as the promise of next-gen MOREJun 4, 2013 7:22 AM ET
|Boost for trade as global deal struck|
|Someone bought a $100,000 Tesla with Bitcoins|
|2 million Facebook, Gmail and Twitter passwords stolen in massive hack|
|Five key numbers behind the jobs recovery|
|Economy is improving but why doesn't it feel that way?|