Xbox One Reveal Post-mortem: Microsoft reveals expensive PVR which under limited circumstances can play games
I’ve waited for a few days after Microsoft’s Xbox One reveal on May 21st 2013 to gather up the trickle of additional information that has been leaking out of the press in the aftermath of what has widely been considered one of the most disastrous console reveals of all time. While fanboys and media alike were quick to criticise the new machine, here I am going to present just the facts as we know them so far, and a dose of reality that some readers may find startling.
But first, a history lesson. Xbox 360 was announced and released a full year before PlayStation 3. While PS3’s motto was “it only does everything”, Xbox 360 was more focused on games. PS3’s media capabilities have until recently always been significantly ahead of the 360, with Bluray playback, support for more media streaming formats (over DLNA) than the 360, CD ripping and CDDB (online track name and detail look-up) out of the box, much more audio-visual customizability and wider audio format support (eg. DTS MA), 3D games and movie playback, and more recently, on-demand services like Netflix, YouTube and BBC iPlayer. In recent times however, the tables of turned, with Microsoft re-positioning the 360 as more of a media center, and launching a slew of on-demand apps and new media capabilities. With the Xbox One (X1) and PS4, the circle appears to be complete, since PS4 has been billed as a primarily games-oriented console, while X1 has been pitched as your one-stop shop for all your living room entertainment needs.
The reveal press conference was mercifully lax on marketing babble (unlike the PlayStation 4 reveal which was a comprehensive ass-kissing to shareholders). Focus was given to the user interface, TV and app capabilities, and a brief run-down of the hardware and controller. The key points:
- The machine will tout 8GB of GDDR3 RAM, a 500GB hard disk and Bluray drive, as well as USB 3.0 ports (two ports, we believe).
- Three operating systems will run; the Xbox OS, a sub-set of Windows 8, and a supervisor OS which will delegate to and manage the two other OSs.
- Kinect 2.0 will be bundled with every system and the X1 will not switch on or function without it being connected (however the various features can be disabled).
- The system includes a TV tuner, TV guide (“Xbox Guide”) and PVR capabilities.
- Apps such as Skype, Netflix and Facebook will be integrated at launch.
- The system will feature true multi-tasking: you can pull up Internet Explorer or use Skype on your TV while playing a game or watching a movie. for example. These apps can be snapped to a sidebar on the screen.
- The user interface will be voice and gesture-controlled. Near-instant switching between games and TV can be performed.
- The Xbox game controller has had 40 design changes, crucially including a rechargeable battery as per the PS3 (replacing the annoying AA batteries of the 360), and a new d-pad which will be a great improvement for typing and fighting games.
- The machine will launch worldwide before the end of 2013
As a side note, EA wheeled out some typically un-inspired sports games and the same Activision CEO who stood up at the PS4 reveal touting Diablo III came on and shocked us all with the revelation that Call of Duty Ghosts will be an X1 launch title. Who would have imagined that?! A one-month old demo of the new Forza was shown and failed to impress; the only real point of interest was a tantalising quick peak at Quantum Break. No other games were mentioned at all, but it was noted that there will be 15 exclusives for the system in the first 12 months, of which 8 will be new IPs. We expect some or all of these to be revealed at E3 in June.
Some minor details they forgot to mention
As the hours ticked by and the post-event interviews started rolling out, a few more facts which some people might consider vaguely relevant in their purchasing decision came to light:
- Kinect will monitor audio and video (via its cameras) in the room even when the system is “turned off”
- The system does not require an always-on internet connection as had been widely speculated, but it must connect to the internet at least once every 24 hours
- All games must be installed to the hard drive before first-time use. Once installed, the disk is no longer required
- New games require online activation and will not run – even offline – until they have been activated. We assume a license check is performed every time the periodic connection mentioned above is performed, although there is no definitive confirmation of this yet
- Used games and games you lend to friends will require the payment of an activation fee which may be as much as the new retail price of the game itself (but see below)
- Gameplay will be automatically recorded for later sharing as per the PS4, but unlike the PS4 there was no mention of live streaming for spectate mode (the PS4 allows this via UStream)
- As per the PS4, games will be playable before they have finished downloading
- Xbox Live accounts, profiles and Gold subscriptions will carry over to the new system
- There will be no backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 disks or Xbox Live downloadable titles
- Revealed on 27th May: the X1 will be region-locked (the 360 was partially region locked, the PS3 was not region locked, and the status of the PS4 is currently unknown)
The decision to use 8GB of unified RAM instead of the rumoured 4/4GB split between GPU and CPU is a wise decision, and follows in-line with PS4’s unified 8GB. The PS3 was crippled by splitting the memory half and half between GPU and CPU, whereas Xbox 360 used unified memory, so the fact that both of the new consoles will use a unified memory architecture (UMA) is good news.
The choice of a 500GB HDD seems unfortunate as this is likely too small given that all games must be installed and we will doubtless also be expected to download movies, music and apps from the Xbox Live Marketplace. There is no word yet on whether the HDD will be user-upgradeable as per the PS3 or whether expensive proprietary drives will be used as per the Xbox 360.
In graphics, a similar AMD chip to the PS4 will be used except with 12 compute units available rather than the PS4’s 18, giving 1.2 TFLOPS of performance vs PS4’s 1.84 TFLOPS. As with the PS4, the CPU and GPU will be rolled onto one die, giving higher performance.
The failure rate of the original Xbox 360 was an eye-popping 40% in the first 12 months, and movie-lovers hated it for its extremely noisy operation. So it is of significant note that the new system has been designed to run cool and have near-silent operation: Microsoft are thankfully re-thinking the consequences of pumping out cheaply-produced boxes this time around.
It’s no secret that Kinect has been pretty worthless for the majority of 360 owners, but Kinect 2.0 appears to have some promising improvements: full skeletal tracking is now implemented in 3D, meaning not only the position of your limbs but also the way your wrists are twisted (for example) will be taken into account. Facial recognition is now in place and the X1 will know automatically who is using the system: when a person picks up the Xbox controller, the X1 will automatically navigate to that user’s home/favourites page. Voice recognition has been improved and commands can now be given in a more fluent, conversational style. It appears that the system can tell whether you are “engaged” (ie. talking to it) from the orientation and expression of a user’s face, so that other conversations in the room will not be mistakenly interpreted as commands. Tracking of user attention level, mood (via facial expression) and heart rate has been added, the latter presumably to enable the box to auto-shutdown if you have been watching too much porn. Finally, Kinect has been improved to work better (that is, at all) in low-light conditions.
Operating the system is now a breeze as you can navigate between apps, change games and channels and perform web searches with voice alone. You can also flip between pages or apps by swiping your hand sideways, among various other gesture controls. It’s worth noting that nothing was mentioned of voice or gesture control at the PS4 reveal, even though the PS4 will include a camera (with integrated mic) with every system sold.
While Kinect 2.0 probably won’t have any meaningful impact on the gaming landscape, it certainly brings a futuristic edge and new usability to the system’s user interface that we have not seen in any previous set-top box.
For us lefties, it’s disappointing that the new controller remains asymmetrical, however the good news is that it now sports a rechargeable battery, re-designed D-pad, extra-grip stick edges with smaller deadzones (giving accuracy more in-line with the PS3’s DualShock 3 controller), and rumble servos in each trigger button as well as in the main controller body. The start and select buttons have been replaced with task-switching and navigation/menu buttons. Few other details were revealed, although I’m personally thankful it no longer looks quite as much like a child’s toy as the previous design.
Plug in your TV set top box to your X1, then you can use it as a TV set top box
The X1 reveal was widely slammed by gamers and the gaming press alike. Shares in Sony and Nintendo shot up and Amazon witnessed an 875% rise in Wii U sales. The main criticisms were too much emphasis on general entertainment rather than gaming, the fee-based system regarding used games, and the requirement to connect to the internet every 24 hours.
For many, the ability of the X1 to watch TV channels you presumably already pay for and presumably already have a TV receiver for is unnecessary. Really, the idea here is to save you switching inputs on your TV, and as such the X1 features an HDMI in port on the back for input from your existing TV set-top box. The X1 will allow you to control your TV via voice and gestures, change channel, subscribe to and record your favourite shows etc. as an added convenience. But how much of this will work outside US cable networks? I predict, little-to-none.
On the other hand, the fuss about being internet-connected seems unjustified to me. How many of us have cellphones with data plans? How many of us use Facebook and Spotify every day on our PCs? How many of us stay connected to Xbox Live or PlayStation Network? How many of us stream videos on YouTube or Netflix? I would hazard a guess that I have included the vast majority potential audience of the new consoles here, and internet connectivity really isn’t an issue. However, the 24-hour requirement does seem overly harsh for the case where you might want to take your console with you on a weekend trip or on holiday. Relaxing this to 72 hours would perhaps be a reasonable compromise and answer many of the complaints.
The situation with game entitlements is more complex. Microsoft corporate VP Phil Harrison gave an interview to Kotaku with some details. Here is what we know so far:
- When you buy a game on disk, the box will include a one-time-use activation code (similar to the current insidious online pass system used by EA and others, except it applies to the whole game)
- You can freely install the disk to any X1. To play the installed game, you either need to have an activation code, or purchase the entitlement to play online
- Anyone who has a profile on your own (local) X1 can play any installed game
- If you loan the game to a friend or sell the disk, the borrower or new owner must pay the fee when they have installed the game, since the activation code has already been used
- A scheme will be put in place to allow game entitlements to be traded online
Therefore, the actual disk itself now becomes a mere mechanism to save on download times, with no actual monetary value. What you are paying for when you buy the disk is the activation code. You could equally take someone else’s disk, install it and buy the entitlement online. Therefore, the disk itself becomes largely irrelevant.
I have spoken with GameStop and they inform me that these activation fees will in fact be less than the game’s retail price, contrary to current speculation. They have stated that they will sell used X1 games but at a lower profit margin: the plan is to subtract the cost of the activation fee for a particular game from that game’s used re-sale price. Presumably this means that shelf prices will indicate both how much you have to pay at the counter and how much you have to pay when you get home. How much of the activation fee goes to GameStop and how GameStop will keep up with constantly changing activation fees are both interesting and unanswered questions at this time.
Phil Spencer gave an interview to GameSpot discussing the used games and always-on internet scenarios. Check it out for more information.
The PlayStation 4 Is Not Your Saviour
GameSpot has held a Twitter battle to kick off the inevitable X1 vs PS4 console war. At the time of writing, the score is 87% to the PS4 and 11% to the X1 (no, I’m not sure how this adds up to 100% either). But let us not forget that all Sony has said about used games on the PS4 so far is that “the PlayStation 4 will not block the use of used games”. This in no way precludes Sony from incorporating a similar or identical scheme to that of the X1. Indeed, it would be commercial suicide for them not to. Consider the alternatives: if they don’t include such a scheme, developers will prefer X1 as it will generate more revenue; secondly, Sony is a business whose goal is to make money. If Microsoft operates a scheme like this with X1, there is no compelling business reason for the PS4 not to do the same. In fact, business logic would dictate that PS4 must do the same otherwise it would be throwing away revenue unnecessarily. We will no doubt learn more at E3, but we should be very careful about making snap judgments that the PS4 will not punish used game buyers because right now we have no such confirmation. The same proviso applies to requiring a periodic internet connection.
Similarly, while X1 is busy getting ripped on for having no backwards compatibility, BC on the PS4 comes only in the form of Gaikai streaming, which we can be fairly sure won’t be available in most territories and be fairly laggy in most of those where it is available. Once again, don’t forget, there has been no information on whether we will need to re-buy our existing games to get them streaming on Gaikai either. Past experience dictates that we most likely will.
About The Games
PS4’s move from Cell to an x86 architecture is a smart one, but there is still a problem for Sony. While most console games are first developed on PCs, these PCs are running DirectX. The X1 runs DirectX. The PS4 runs OpenGL and Sony’s own graphics libraries. Porting games to X1 will theoretically still be easier than porting to PS4, so PS4’s TFLOPS and GDDR5 RAM advantages will likely only be taken advantage of by PS4-exclusive games. We should expect therefore that the performance of multi-platform games to be more or less identical across the two systems. Since this is the first time in console history this will have happened, the machines are now only differentiated by their exclusive games and service offerings.
While the PS4’s privacy was startlingly abysmal, X1 opens up exciting new opportunities for privacy invasion. While we may escape PS4’s obsession with nagging us to share our every burp and fart on Facebook and Twitter while using the X1, we will instead open up our living rooms in a whole new way: Kinect is listening to you and watching you 24/7, including while the machine is on standby (in case you issue the voice command to turn it on). The X1 will run Windows 8 in part. Consider the scenario of any app on the system being compromised. A hacker can then watch and listen to you without you even knowing it. And even if they don’t, what is Microsoft doing with all this voice and video data from Kinect while you are online? You could of course put this down to conspiracy and say the Kinect doesn’t record or care, it just processes commands and throws the rest of the data away, and that may well be the case. We have no way of knowing though, and the threat of a system hack by a remote stalker is very real. This will be the first time in history our activity in our own homes will be constantly and invasively tracked and made potentially accessible via the internet. Is the risk worth it for the convenience? You can turn the features off of course, but who wants to buy an all-singing all-dancing new high-tech gadget and not use one of its core features?
The situation is complex. On the one hand, what we have here is a machine whose gaming performance will be extremely comparable to that of the PS4, but sell for less money, do more and have a substantially better user interface. On the other hand, uncertainties about the machine’s ultimate focus on other forms of entertainment and the behaviour of used games abound.
Let’s first see how the new machine stacks up against the Xbox 360.
- Games will be even easier than ever to develop, hopefully leading to improved quality and performance
- New controller no longer requires a constant supply of AA batteries; re-designed D-pad improves typing and accuracy for game types that rely on it
- Vastly improved user interface with touch and gesture control
- Games playable before download completes
- Auto-updating games and suspend mode
- Game footage sharing
- TV tuner
- Skype on TV
- Improved media capabilities
- Xbox Live accounts carry over to X1
- Requires periodic internet connection
- Used game fees
- Potential privacy nightmare scenarios
- Increased focus on other forms of entertainment may put off some users
- No backwards compatibility
Against PlayStation 4, things are not quite as simple as the press would like us to believe.
- Hardware is mostly identical on both platforms, most games likely to perform near-identically
- Controllers perform similarly and neither require battery replacement
- Significant new forms of privacy issues on both platforms
- Automatic game updating, suspend mode
- Games playable before they finish downloading
- Automatic recording of gameplay and video editing for later sharing
- Bluray movie playback
- Neither machine has any meaningful backwards compatibility to speak of (PS4 Gaikai backwards-compatibility expected to be non-functional or unusable due to lag)
- Accounts from Xbox Live and PSN (including PS+) will all carry over to the new systems
- Games will likely be ported to X1 first, meaning their PS4 ports are unlikely to perform better
- Voice and gesture control (not currently mentioned for PS4)
- Less in-game focus on social networking
- Likely better media capabilities and more entertainment apps readily available; TV capabilities built-in
- Skype-on-TV will only be available on X1
- Unified worldwide store, no interminable waiting for delayed or never-appearing European releases
- Very likely to be cheaper and be released first
- Used game fees and periodic internet connection – but we don’t know how PS4 will work yet
- No live in-game streaming, spectate mode or gameplay hand-off features
- No internet game streaming (eg. OnLive or Gaikai)
- Increased focus on other forms of entertainment may put off some users
Finally, never under-estimate the power of vendor lock-in and brand loyalty. While nobody can carry their game collection forward, many core gamers are very interested in their achievement and trophy collections and won’t want to start from scratch. Their friends lists are also on their current consoles. These facts alone may mean that most core gamers who own a 360 will buy an X1 and most core gamers who own a PS3 will buy a PS4 no matter what the specs are. We could argue that since the PS4 is more game-oriented, it is the better choice for core gamers, while the X1 is the better choice for someone looking for an all-round entertainment system. But with game performance likely to be near-identical on both platforms, the X1 being cheaper and having additional capabilities, then unless you really need spectate mode, gameplay hand-off and Gaikai, what compelling reason is there to buy a PS4?
In conclusion, I think the X1 has gotten an unfair rap since the reveal event and we shouldn’t be quick to jump to the PS4 as the preferred gaming solution of the next gen. More details will be revealed by both manufacturers at E3 on 10th June, including prices and release dates, and I will present an updated and detailed comparison of the two machines then.