When Microsoft introduced the Xbox in 2001 it became clear that they were after our living rooms. While that system never fulfilled the promises Microsoft made, the next system, Xbox...
Graphics, Audio, SmartGlass, A controller with a proven track record
TV Integration, Kinect Gestures, Games that feel more like Tech Demos
When Microsoft introduced the Xbox in 2001 it became clear that they were after our living rooms. While that system never fulfilled the promises Microsoft made, the next system, Xbox 360, did. SInce the 360s release and success we have seen the advent of Android and iOS devices as well as the ubiquity of streaming devices such as Roku. The XBox One seeks to reaffirm Microsoft's nearly decade long battle for our living room by introducing many ambitious features.
AS AN ENTERTAINMENT DEVICE...
Microsoft has included what they have touted to be the replacement for how you watch TV. The Xbox One includes an HDMI IN port that allows the user to pass-thru any HDMI video and audio source. Microsoft is hoping that most users will decide to hook up their cable box as is evidenced by their inclusion of One Guide(more on that in a minute), IR blasting from the Kinect, and voice control of channel switching and volume.
This all sounds intriguing until you finally see it in action. Too much of what Microsoft is trying to accomplish is hinging on what our Cable providers are providing us with. I was excited to hook my Fios Motorolla DVR up to the One. You are prompted to enter information as to what hardware you are using. This was all very intuitive. When it came time to enter my content provider's information trouble began. I typed "Fios" in to the Content Provider Search bar. It responded there was no such service. I thought for a second and realized I needed to type in "Verizon". This is indicative of problems that will arise later in this review. After stumbling through setup I turned my One off. In excitement I announced "XBOX TURN ON!" My voice powered up my television, receiver and Xbox all at once. It was thrilling. However, I was immediately caught with no television. A Verizon Fios logo floated across my screen. The Xbox does not take into account that in order to start watching TV the Fios box must also receive a "Menu" command in addition to the "power on" command. I went searching for my Harmony and corrected the situation. I had realized that it took me longer to watch TV via voice control than it did to just simply use a remote control.
I quickly discovered that using voice commands to control my television was daunting. My Xbox isn't smart enough to understand, "Xbox watch Investigation Discovery" it only understands "Watch Discovery". This was pretty disconcerting as I seem to have almost 5 alternatives to each mainline cable channel. Changing channels through the One also takes an eternity because it does not send a "channel up" command. The One sends the entire key string of numbers to the box which then raise the Motorolla menu to the screen. It makes what is just clunky on my Motorolla cable box an even clunkier and slower process. Using voice commands to pause and un-pause the video feed seems to be the most useful feature while watching TV through the One. I attempted not knowing(and still not knowing) if hand gestures worked to change channels and nothing happened other than the creation of a small breeze in my living as I flapped like a bird.
Microsoft has also included the "One Guide". The guide is actually quite pleasant and is the best TV feature offered by the One. TV shows are listed with accompanying artwork as well as a description of the show. This is something the cable providers really need to pay attention to: User Interface. It looks great but depending on the cable provided box is the huge Achilles heel
I believe a lot of what makes the Xbox One fail as a cable box replacement is that it is not a replacement. It still depends on the same archaic box provided to you from your cable/satellite company. It in no way replaces it. It just layers it's own menus on top of your cable box's menus creating a pretty cumbersome affair. Microsoft is on to something here but their current strategy is wrong. They need to be able to offer the One as the solitary cable box and I just don't see how that can happen given the current climate.
Netflix works nicely on the One. Features like The Max are not currently available. The Xbox One also plays Blu-Ray discs more than adequately. Other streaming features found on devices like the AppleTV and Roku are surprisingly absent.
AS A GAMING DEVICE...
This is what I purchased my One for. The One offers three ways to control what's unfolding on-screen, Controller, Kinect, and SmartGlass.
The controller is an excellent piece of equipment. It is durable and runs for an astonishingly long period of time on only 2 AA batteries. Some fuss has been made over the alteration of the bumper buttons on the controller but this has not bothered me at all. The controller is always responsive to even the slightest input and is a joy to use. While playing a game such as Forza(a car driving simulator) you can actually feel the feedback in the buttons used to control both the gas and brakes of your car. The trigger buttons pulse as you grind to a halt or rumble as you careen over the grass after missing that hairpin turn. It is quite something to feel and really improves player interaction with the game.
The Kinect allows for both voice and motion control of games. I didn't games that seemed to require any motion to control. However, the titles "Ryse" and "Dead Rising 3" allowed for some form of voice "control". I'm using quotes because I feel in it's current implement it's more of an interaction than it is a way to control games. For instance in "Dead Rising 3" you can shout at bosses, "You're Crazy!" This leads to the boss to sometimes become disabled thus easier to attack. It felt very tacked on. It's "cool" that the game allows you to step in from another angle but it is yet another feature that feels clunky instead of smooth. In the game Ryse you coulda use your voice to command archers to unleash a volley of arrows upon the enemy. While the 10 year-old in me is excited by this it just doesn't really have any fun or lasting impact on the game. In fact I'd argue that a button would lead to a faster and more player-friendly action. The developers of Ryse seem to agree as they allow you to use a button to bypass their voice commands.
The SmartGlas app I used was on my iPad Air. The app allows you to control your Xbox One and is much more intuitive to me than any of the Kinect controls were. You can start games or apps on your one by touching them on SmartGlass. I also used the SmartGlass app in the game Dead Rising 3. The app acts like a cellphone in the game. You receive phone calls from an off-screen character. He gives you missions which are then added to your in-game mission roster. The missions were never anything substantial however it was neat to be hearing audio come out of my iPad while plowing through zombies. The app also provided offscreen maps which were quite helpful as I often got lost in the game. This felt more "next-gen" to me than the Kinect controls. However, Microsoft is again depending on you to have an outside device to be able to interact with the One in such a way.
Another exciting feature that actually comes by way of the Kinect is the Game DVR. Lets say you just accomplished something really incredible in the game you're playing. Shouting, "Xbox Record That", allows you to record that previous feat. You can then take that clip, edit it, add an intro trailer, and share it with your friends. With game streaming services such as TwitchTV becoming more popular this seems like a feature that will strike the right notes with gamers.
Many of the games on the One are not currently 1080p. I didn't really mind as most games looked great to me. I am accustomed to playing many games on my PC at 1080p and thought this would be an issue. Sound during games like Ryse and Dead RIsing 3 is impressive. Nothing in the line-up really struck me as "different" or as an experience that warranted owning this $500 machine other than to fulfill my inner tech beast. Out of the games I played Dead Rising 3 was the best. While the graphics were not up to par with Ryse the number of onscreen characters is impressive and the game feels like a cohesive whole as opposed to the tech demo feel of the other launch titles. Having recently gotten a taste of TItanfall, releasing March 11, I believe the justification many gamers will need is right around the corner.
Microsoft has created a piece of hardware that is solidly built. Unfortunately, too many of the supplemental entertainment features rely on products outside of Microsoft's control. As a games machine the Xbox One has an interesting, all but short, list of titles that give an ambitious look at what's to come. The future of the XBox One depends on Microsoft's ability to deliver exciting first-party games while also working with cable and satellite providers to deliver on it's promises of an all-in-one device.