The Xbox One’s killer feature

Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are pretty much neck and neck technically - but in one area, Microsoft has out thought Sony...

The first round of the next generation console battle was won a long time ago. Not because Sony brought a significantly superior product to market, but because Microsoft did pretty much everything possible to sabotage the launch of the Xbox One.

Looking at things pragmatically, there’s not a whole lot that separates the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 – they’re both based on the same AMD hardware platform, after all. Yes, the PS4 is marginally more powerful, thanks for the most part to its more advanced memory architecture, but anyone honest comparing an Xbox One version of a game with the PS4 version will tell you that it’s almost impossible to discern a difference.

No, the reason that Sony won hearts and minds this time last year wasn’t because it had a more powerful console, it was because it had a far more affordable console.

Microsoft shot itself in both feet when it launched the Xbox One at £429. With the already more powerful PlayStation 4 selling for only £349, anyone who went down the Sony route could bundle a couple of games with their purchase for the same price as a bare console from Microsoft. So anyone who’d been sitting on the fence up to the next-gen launches was only ever going to jump one way.

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Of course there was a reason that the Xbox One was more expensive, it came with Kinect bundled in the box. Unfortunately that was another huge mistake – if there had been a third foot to shoot, Microsoft just blew it off with a shotgun.

Despite what Microsoft might want, most gamers don’t care about Kinect. Yes, motion control made the Nintendo Wii an unprecedented success, but Xbox and PlayStation fans have always been more hardcore, more serious and more focused. And one thing that serious gamers don’t want to do is pay for something that they neither want nor need.

Eventually Microsoft came to its senses with a series of price drops and the groundbreaking decision to offer the Xbox One without Kinect, thus bringing its price in line with the PlayStation 4. And with the second Christmas period for these consoles well and truly upon us, we’re seeing further deals, bundles and price cuts galore.

A year ago I went down the PS4 route, for all the reasons listed above, but I always knew I’d also buy an Xbox One when the time was right. Now that I’ve lived with both consoles for a while, I’ve come to a surprising conclusion – the Xbox One is actually a better platform.

I’m not suggesting that the Xbox One is more powerful, because that clearly isn’t the case. That fact is regularly made clear when cross platform games either run faster, or at a higher resolution on the PS4. But as Apple proved many years ago when it launched the first iPhone, sometimes user experience is more important than raw power.

While the Microsoft tile interface isn’t universally loved, it’s still far better than what you have on the PlayStation 4, but that’s not the killer feature I’m talking about. What I love, and I truly mean love, about the Xbox One, is that I can be playing a game literally seconds after grabbing the controller.

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The instant on/off nature of the Xbox One is, quite simply, brilliant. If you’ve only got half an hour free, you can be up and running in a few seconds, and never have to worry about reaching a save point in time. Of course Xbox One games have save points, but you don’t really need them. When you finish playing, simply switch the console off, then when you fire it up again you can carry on exactly where you left off.

The PS4 also has a standby mode, but it is, to all intents and purposes, pretty poor. Firing up the PS4 from standby isn’t really any faster than starting it up from cold. And once it starts up, you’ve then got to login to PSN, load up your game, and then reload your save point before you can start playing.

I know that there will be thousands of PS4 players out there shaking their heads right now, thinking that the start-up and load times aren’t an issue at all – believe me, I used to be just like you. But once you’ve experienced the instant gaming functionality of the Xbox One, you’ll be continually frustrated by how archaic the PS4 feels by comparison.

The funny thing is that it’s not like Sony doesn’t know how to do this. The PlayStation Vita works in exactly the same manner – finish playing a game, switch the console off, then start from where you left off in seconds when you switch it back on. So why couldn’t the same functionality have been baked into the PS4?

All that said, there’s one major disappointment about the Xbox One’s killer feature – it could have been so much better.

When Microsoft announced the Xbox One back in May 2013, the original model required games to be completely installed onto the hard drive and linked with that console. This would have allowed you to switch instantly between any games in your collection without the need to physically swap discs. Finished playing Forza Horizon 2 and fancy nailing some Covenant on Halo? No problem, and no need to even get up from your sofa.

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Unfortunately Microsoft didn’t think through the implementation of this model enough, and there was a lot of doubt in the air. The vocal masses cried about not being able to sell games that were associated with a specific console, or even lend games to friends. And while there was some merit to those complaints, gamers, just like Microsoft, ended up shooting themselves in the foot.

You see there’s simply nothing wrong with associating a game with your hardware, as long as you can disassociate it when you’ve finished with it. If you want to sell a game that you’ve finished playing, simply unlink it from your Xbox and then the person who buys it can link it with theirs. It’s a model that has worked perfectly well for PC and Mac software for years.

But rather than try to expand on how the system would work, and allay the fears of all those outraged gamers, Microsoft made yet another mistake. It bowed to the pressure and reverted to the age-old “disc in machine” validation for games. Which now means that every time I want to switch games, I still have to switch discs.

I sincerely hope that there will be an opt-in feature at some point that allows me to link my games to my console or Live account, and thus no longer need to swap discs, but I fear that Microsoft is scared of resurrecting the outrage associated with its initial game usage model.

As things stand right now, however, the Xbox One is in a stronger position than it has ever been. Not only does it offer a better user experience than its direct competitor, but it also has a better software line-up with some genuinely compelling exclusives – Forza Horizon 2, Sunset Overdrive, Halo Master Chief Collection, for instance.

If I was sitting on the fence this Christmas the choice would be much tougher, and I think I’d probably end up on the Xbox side.

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