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Xbox One: Gaming console or media hub?

The Microsoft Xbox One (Est. $500) is a powerful gaming console with a hardware lineup that closely mirrors that of the Sony PlayStation 4 (Est. $400) , but with performance that also closely trails it. That's almost to be expected, says CNET's Jeff Bakalar, who notes that this performance gap was also seen in the previous generations of both consoles.

Bakalar says that while graphics performance is largely similar, some noticeable differences do crop up from time to time. "For example, Tomb Raider runs at 60 frames per second on PlayStation 4, but only puts out 30 fps on Xbox One," he says. He also holds out the possibility that differences could become more apparent later in these video game consoles' life cycles as developers learn how to eke out every drop of performance from their respective platforms.

The launch-time lineup of games for the Xbox One was anything but impressive, though reviewers at PCMag.com say it's a little more compelling than what's available to date for the PS4. Most games run well, but hiccups are not unheard of when playing games that sync with online services or when running more than one app at a time, such as picture-in-picture TV, notes Will Greenwald.

IGN.com's Fran Mirabella III is a little less forgiving. While admitting that issues cropped up only occasionally, he gripes that "I encountered a number of problems that made me feel like I'd just bought a console that's still in beta testing." As with the PS3 and PS4, games (including Xbox Live games) designed for the Xbox 360 will not work on the Xbox One.

The Xbox One is bundled with an updated Kinect voice and gesture controller. While the Kinect peripheral was originally intended to be mandatory for the Xbox One, backlash from the gaming community more or less pushed Microsoft's hand into making it an optional feature. The ability to control most aspects of the console hands-free using voice commands is an ambitious goal, and experts and owners say this capability is still imperfect in practice. Reviewers report that the Kinect continuously misinterprets commands or sometimes -- especially when there are multiple people in the room -- doesn't hear them at all. While a recent update seems to have improved the Kinect's reliability, you can expect commands to work about 75 percent of the time. There's a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to figuring out what works and what doesn't.

The Xbox One's hand controller has also been redesigned. Though it doesn't stray too far from the Xbox 360's according to reviews, the changes are enough to give different reviewers different takes. IGN.com's Fran Mirabella III says that "Overall, all these small additions and changes are for the better." On the other hand, CNET's Jeff Bakalar says that "For Xbox One, the controller's shape and feel have undergone tweaks, and I can't say it's all for the better." Obviously, this is all in the eyes -- and hands -- of each user; see the original reviews listed in Our Sources for the particulars of what's changed, but the best guide to whether you'll love, hate or are indifferent to the new Xbox One controller is to pick one up and handle it yourself.

Despite these nits and snipes, most reviewers agree that the Microsoft Xbox One is an impressive gaming platform overall, and one that's destined to become better over time. Even hardcore gamers won't be disappointed.

Reviewers also agree that the Xbox One is an impressive media device -- and one that will also get better with time. A OneGuide app displays streaming video and live TV channels side by side, making it easy to find and view content regardless of the source. Multitasking lets you have a live TV feed or app in one window and a game in another, swapping between them at will (say, to the game during commercials or while a live football game is at halftime).

Every function -- changing a cable box's channel, raising TV volume, you name it -- is under voice control via Kinect, which bounces out infrared (IR) signals to the rest of your setup. Its performance is terrific most of the time, for most reviewers but not all. Wired falls into the latter category, leading Chris Kohler to call the Xbox One the "Ron Weasley of consoles." He explains: "Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's magical, sometimes it's inept." Most reviews predate a software update that has somewhat improved the Kinect's performance.

There are other things to note on the media/entertainment front. Microsoft has finally added a Blu-ray Disc drive to the Xbox. Unlike the PS4, it can also play audio CDs. Like the PS4, there's no 3D support at launch; it may be added later, but we wouldn't count on it. There's limited DLNA support -- only for formats and devices that support Microsoft's Play To standard. Most of the big names in content streaming are available, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, etc., though not all offer an app that's compatible with OneGuide. In addition, you'll need an Xbox Live Gold subscription (Est. $60 per year) in order to access most online content, including entertainment apps.

For those looking for the largest library of Xbox games, the original Microsoft Xbox 360 (Est. $200 and up) remains available and is a solid choice. Hot games, for example the Microsoft-exclusive Titanfall (Est. $60), will likely be released for both the Xbox One and the Xbox 360 for quite some time.

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