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If the universe gave out most-improved awards to video game consoles like a second-grade soccer league, Microsoft would have a shiny new trophy to put above its fireplace.

We’re more than 365 days since the Xbox One hit the market on Nov. 22, 2013, and the system has gone through some very rough times. Gamers felt it was too expensive. It included a Kinect camera that people didn’t want. But a shift in leadership at Microsoft has led to a different tone that seems to understand gamers better than ever. That has helped the Xbox One find its footing, and it has the hardware positioned to perform well into the future — even if Sony’s PlayStation 4 has outsold it in the U.S. every month this year.

But this isn’t necessarily about how the Xbox One compares to the competition — although we will take that into consideration. Instead, we’re taking a look about how the Xbox One finished its first year (just like we did with the PS4), and whether it’s a console worth owning now. Let’s get to it.

Games

Think back on your favorite consoles. Who cares now that the PlayStation 2 plays DVDs? Does it matter that Nintendo Entertainment System doesn’t have a Netflix app? No. We remember these systems fondly for their games, and the same will hold true for the Xbox One.

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Exclusives

Here’s what you can only get on an Xbox One:

  • Crimson Dragon
  • D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die
  • Dance Central Spotlight
  • Forza Motorsport 5
  • Forza Horizon
  • Halo: The Master Chief Collection
  • Killer Instinct
  • Powerstar Golf
  • Sunset Overdrive

That list is a bit more impressive if you consider Titanfall, which is also available on Xbox 360 and PC but not PS4 or PS3.

Overall, the Xbox One’s exclusives are simultaneously impressive and easy to overlook depending on who you are. If you’re into the Forza games, the Xbox One is already easily a must-own console. Developer Insomniac Games is winning over critics and fans with its open-world action release Sunset Overdrive.

But Xbox One’s lineup isn’t deep. Crimson Dragon is boring. Powerstar Golf was an OK launch game, but it’s not a ton of fun now. Dance Central is fine, but we’ve played it before. D4 is interesting but isn’t earning much love.

And worst of all, Halo: The Master Chief Collection is busted online.

Halo 4 looks like it was made for next-generation hardware, but the online multiplayer was not.

Above: Halo 4 looks like it was made for next-generation hardware, but the online multiplayer was not.

Image Credit: GamesBeat/Brandin Tyrrel

Performance

The battle of exclusives between Sony and Microsoft right now has to go to the Xbox, but the PlayStation 4 is winning a battle of perception when it comes to multiplatform releases. A significant number of games that are available on both platforms run at either a higher resolution, a higher framerate, or both on Sony’s box.

The general understanding among consumers is that games run worse on Xbox One than PlayStation 4.

Here’s just a few of the huge releases that run better on PS4:

  • Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
  • Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
  • Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
  • The Evil Within
  • Watch Dogs

Not all games run better on PS4. Both Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Assassin’s Creed: Unity maintain a better framerate than the version available on Sony’s consoe. But it’s important to note that Microsoft has special marketing deals with the publishers of those, and that may have led to the developers giving the Xbox One versions special attention.

But here’s the thing about the performance on Xbox One. It’s something that mostly exists in our heads. Side-by-side, it’s often difficult to tell the difference between an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 game. And while some games run at 900 lines of horizontal resolution on Xbox One, the console has a very good upscaler, which outputs that image at 1080p.

The point is that most people cannot tell the difference. They’re just numbers. Sure, if you’re choosing between the same game on two systems, and the numbers are higher on one, you would choose that one.

Grade: B

Xbox One has some great exclusives, and Microsoft deserves some acknowledgement for getting so many cool games out in the system’s first year. Obviously, it stinks that the system struggles to keep up with the PS4, but it’s something you’re ever going to really notice. 

Features

Xbox Live Gold

On Xbox 360, the Xbox Live Gold membership service was kind of a bummer. You need the subscription to play games online and, for most of the Xbox 360’s life, you needed it to watch Netflix and other video apps. That’s it, and those are things that the PlayStation 3 did for free.

On Xbox One, Xbox Live Gold is still a requirement for online multiplayer, but now Sony is charging for that as well. Microsoft has also improved the value by offering games at no additional charge each month.

So far, Microsoft has given Gold subscribers eight different games. That’s nice, but it’s kind of pitiful compared to the 22 releases Sony has given PlayStation Plus subscribers.

Kinect and television

When Xbox One debuted, Microsoft made a big deal of the system’s included Kinect camera-and-microphone peripheral. It was a big reason the system was $100 more expensive than the PS4, and as a gaming device, the Kinect is clearly a failure.

Releases like Kinect Sports Rivals, Dance Central Spotlight, and Fighter Within were all rehashes of what we saw on Xbox 360. One of the biggest recent releases for Kinect, Fantasia: Music Evolved, came and went in last October. It was worse than panned — was ignored despite a number of positive reviews (including ours).

Gamers are over the Kinect.

But it’s still useful. If you patch your cable into the Xbox One, you can use the Xbox One to pause and play with your voice. You can say a quick command like, “Xbox, go to Forza Horizon 2,” and it will boot right up.

For people who regularly use their Kinect, it’s a feature that is hard to go back from. When you can quickly yell “pause” from the kitchen so you don’t miss a big play while you’re getting food out of the oven, the Xbox One feels very futuristic.

It doesn’t always work, but it does enough of the time that it’s worth always using.

Kinect Sports Rivals

Above: Kinect’s games are disappointing, but the device is still worthwhile.

Image Credit: Microsoft

Interface and apps

While navigating with the Kinect is a breeze. The Xbox One’s menus are a bit of a mess with the controller. Most things are a button press or two further away than what makes sense. The settings menu, along with everything else that isn’t a game, lies buried in an Apps folder. It’s a clunky design, but it’s also something you grow accustomed to.

Microsoft also gives you the option to pin any game or app to the homepage, and that’s something that you need to learn to do early on to get make getting around the system easier.

Using the apps is also sometimes weird. Most things like Xbox Music or Friends requires you to snap an app to the side of the screen, which makes whatever your playing smaller. This seems like a half-baked solution. It’s often confusing which side of the screen you’re actually interacting with, and the snapped apps don’t have a lot of screen area to display information.

It does have its uses. Snapping television or videos is actually pretty cool if you are playing something where you can split your attention. And snapping something like the Twitch chatroom while you stream video is useful.

Grade: C

Xbox Live Gold is OK, but its “free” games look weak compared to the competition. The Kinect has its benefits, but it’s a gaming dud, and Microsoft needs to put some more thought into its interface and apps. Nothing here is atrocious — just mediocre.

Support and online infrastructure

Microsoft has updated the Xbox One nearly every month for since launch. Through these patches, the company has added Twitch streaming, custom backgrounds, and a much more.

And the company promises to continue supporting the Xbox One with monthly updates through 2015. Microsoft’s engineers are promising to add the capability to take a screenshot at any time sometime early next year.

These updates are tangible proof that Microsoft is always working on making its box better, and it has even set up a website where you can submit new ideas that you’d like the company to incorporate into future updates. Through that site, Microsoft found that people wanted the option to boot right into the television mode, and the company patched that into the system software.

Microsoft has also smartly started a beta program where select Xbox One owners can test out updates early. This helps prevent situations where millions of Xbox Ones get bad updates filled with bugs.

As strong as Microsoft is with its software support, the company has recently had trouble with online. Halo: The Master Chief Collection has completely busted multiplayer. Gamers are running into matchmaking issues that are continuing to plague the shooter weeks after its release.

On top of that, it’s common for Xbox Live to deal with minor issues like the friends list breaking or apps that stop working. Microsoft usually fixes these problems quickly, but it all breaks too often to ignore.

Grade: B

This is an area where Microsoft would do so much better if it weren’t for a few big things. Xbox Live’s problems are annoying, but Halo’s online troubles are unacceptable.

Xbox Live.

Above: Xbox Live.

Image Credit: Microsoft

Incentives and price

Microsoft knows it botched the Xbox One’s launch, and it wants to make it up to you.

Yes, the Xbox One debuted at $500, but a lot has changed since then. First, Microsoft made the Kinect optional and dropped the price to $400. Then Microsoft started making a number of deals to bundle in big releases (like Madden and Sunset Overdrive) at no extra cost. Then things started getting crazy. In early September, Microsoft started giving away a free game to everyone who bought a new Xbox One. That enabled people to go pick up an Xbox One bundled with Madden for $400, and then they would also get something like Destiny as well.

Now, for the holidays only, Microsoft is making its biggest gesture yet: You can get a new Xbox One for $350. Even if it is bundled with a game or two, like in the case of the Assassin’s Creed package that includes Black Flag and Unity.

Grade: A

Microsoft has gone from an overpriced console bloated with stuff many people didn’t want last Christmas to having one of the best deals for this year’s gift-giving holidays. That’s a big turnaround in 12 months, and it shows that the leadership at the company understands that it needs to do everything it can to win you back.

Conclusion

The Xbox One probably deserves to lag behind the PlayStation 4 in terms of sales. Microsoft’s early issues scared off gamers, and now the company needs to prove that it understands what it did wrong. And it has already made a lot of progress over the first 12 months of the system’s life.

“Microsoft has eaten a big piece of humble pie,” IDC research manager Lewis Ward told GamesBeat. “Xbox One, I’m sure they believed, would build on the success of the Xbox 360 platform not just in the U.S. but worldwide. What they’ve learned the hard way is that getting too far out ahead of where their core gamer base is today — a kind way of putting it — was a mistake, and they’ve made several big course corrections as a result.”

Looking from a gaming perspective, the Xbox One had a slightly better year than the PS4. Especially if you are only looking at the games, and with the low price and enticing bundles, Microsoft could have a monstrous fourth quarter.

“They deserve credit for making these adjustments,” said Ward. “And it’s possible that when the dust settles this holiday season that the Xbox One will be right there with PS4 in terms of total sales in North America.”

Xbox One has a couple of great games already available. It’s relatively inexpensive and comes with games depending on the bundle you get. It also has some exclusives like Halo 5 and Quantum Break lined up for next year.

Microsoft has made a lot of changes to try to make the Xbox One a must-own system, and it worked.

Overall grade: B

 

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