With the Xbox One hitting stores in just two days, Microsoft showed off their new gaming console/media streaming device/oversized box of dreams at a press event in New York City. We got a look at the Xbox One in action and, well, it’s a really awesome way to watch TV! Here’s what we learned from our sneak peek at the Xbox One.
1. The Interface Is Greatly Improved
Yes, it’s basically a redux of the Windows 8 homescreen, but the format of a grid of tiles showing your games, movies, apps, and other media works surprisingly well when displayed on your television. The “Snap” feature of running two apps side-by-side — like, say, taking a Skype call or watching TV while playing Dead Rising 3 — is a nice addition that will surely corrode our already waning attention span. The “Pins” are pretty helpful for organizing your content and saving stuff for future use, though I really wish it was called something else. We get it, Pinterest is popular.
2. The Kinect Is No Longer a Huge Joke
The new Kinect is far more sophisticated than its predecessor, recognizing your face the second you enter a room and logging you into your Xbox account. With a much wider field of vision, Kinect can distinguish between six different bodies in the room and only requires you to be three feet away from the Xbox as opposed to six as with the previous version. (Finally, those of us with tiny apartments can use Kinect even if we don’t have room for a washer/dryer.) It can also track your heartbeat, which is more than a little terrifying if you think about it long enough.
Yes, you can use the Xbox without the Kinect (and the Microsoft spokesperson did acknowledge that maybe people don’t want a potentially hackable camera in their homes), but you’ll lose all the fancy voice commands and be forced to scroll through the menu with your controller like it’s 2007 or something.
3. Switching Between Apps Is Super Fast
Easily the best part about the Xbox One so far is the ease with which you can go from playing a game to watching TV, to searching for something to watch on Netflix or Hulu Plus to using Bing to look up a Thai place that delivers at 1am. There’s no more switching inputs or changing wires or turning the Xbox off and opening up your laptop to make a Skype call. Unfortunately Xbox Music is the only streaming music option available right now, though you can also stream content from any Windows machine with the “Play to” feature. And, uh, hey, it plays CDs! That Toad the Wet Sprocket disc collecting dust on your shelf isn’t going to spin itself…
4. Talking to Your TV Is Surprisingly Fun…Provided You Have Excellent Diction
In the demo I saw, the Xbox One was finicky unless you spoke to it like Professor Higgins teaching Eliza Doolittle how to talk like a proper English lady instead of a filthy street flower peddler. The clearer your diction and the stronger your voice projection, the better Xbox One will respond to your commands. That doesn’t mean you have to yell at the TV, but mumbling orders at it while hungover isn’t going to work most of the time.
Slightly more annoying is the Xbox One’s need for specific vocal commands. For instance, to play Forza Motorsport 5, you have to say, “Xbox, play Forza Motorsports 5,” not “Xbox, play Forza” or “Xbox, play Forza 5.” The Microsoft rep said that the audio command for games is dependent on the developer and that some – like Ryse: Son of Rome, which responds to the far less wonky statement “Xbox, play Ryse” — will be simpler than others. Also shouting commands to Bing in mixed company is more than a little embarrassing.
5. The Audio Commands Could Use Some Improvement
There’s also a lot of potential for frustration and (potentially hilarious) mishaps with the new voice commands. When the Microsoft rep running our demo said the word “pause” while talking about the system’s TV viewing capabilities, the Xbox One suddenly jumped into action and unpaused Forza Motorsports 5 like a good little A.I. that is likely biding its time until the moment when it can achieve sentience and enslave us all.
You can tell the Xbox to “Stop Listening” (which will particularly come in handy whenever you’re talking about what you plan on getting it for Christmas), but the system seemed awfully eager to respond to its pre-programmed audio commands. Also, since it responds to any voice in the room, your significant other can easily go “Xbox, what’s on The Cooking Channel?” and make it switch over to the Deen Brothers while you’re in the middle of blasting zombies. Expect to see plenty of hilarious videos of couples fighting over who has control of the Xbox in the months to come.
6. The OneGuide Is Actually Better Than Most Cable Guides
I can’t speak for everyone’s cable provider, but the OneGuide makes me want to never look at my ugly Time Warner Cable guide again. With its tantalizing photos of your favorite New Girl stars and advanced search capabilities, the OneGuide is far more intuitive than your average cluttered cable guide. If you were to, say, search for TV shows or movies featuring Twin Peaks alum Sherilyn Fenn, you’d get everything offered on your cable listings as well as on Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus and (soon) HBO Go. (To answer your next question, yes, you need a Xbox Live Gold membership to access all of the aforementioned streaming options. To answer your next next question — no, Boxing Helena is not available on Netflix, streaming or otherwise.)
One downside — once you’ve set up your cable to play through the Xbox with the included HDMI cable, the Xbox always has to be on if you want to watch TV. Also, you can’t tell the Xbox to record live TV, so you’ll still need your lame old DVR remote for that. Look at it, just sitting there, not responding to our frequent requests to record Steven Universe. What a piece of junk.
7. Microsoft Assumes You Want to Do Everything on Your TV
Microsoft is really banking on the hope that you want to consume all your content on your TV. They’re pushing the fact that the Xbox One can store several unique profiles for the whole family and bring up your personalized content with just a few words. Except, the whole family already has access to pretty much the same content on their mobile devices.
It’s nice that the updated SmartGlass app lets you access your Xbox One account from your mobile device, but outside of checking friends’ stats and pinning stuff for later use, are you really going to use this feature? You can already watch Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go on your mobile device. Why download another app to access the same content through your Xbox One account?
8. It Could Put an End to Games Discs as We Know It
Now that you’re able to log in to your Xbox One account from any system, it is now officially cumbersome to purchase physical copies of games. If you’re all digital, you can get into your account through a friend’s Xbox One and have access to all of your games and other data. If you purchase hard copies, you’ll still need to insert discs wherever you go. (That shouldn’t sound dirty, but it does…) And if your friend wants to keep playing, say, Killer Instinct after you’ve left, they’ll have the option to buy it digitally and keep all of their achievements. If nothing else, this could finally put a stop to that one friend who always seems to somehow get peanut butter stains on your discs.
9. Recording Game Footage Is Easy (Maybe too Easy)
As a way of perhaps making up for the fact that you won’t be able to stream live gameplay over TwitchTV just yet, Microsoft is playing up the Xbox One’s instant record capabilities. The system constantly records the previous five minutes of gameplay, allowing you to rewind and relive that insane car crash or zombie head explosion.
By saying “Xbox, record that,” you can capture game footage and send it to the Xbox One Upload Studio. There you can edit the clip, add audio commentary or record video of yourself waxing poetic about your sick moves before uploading the footage to Xbox Live or your SkyDrive. Want to share it on Facebook or Twitter? You’ll have to upload it to Skynet, I mean, your SkyDrive, first.
On the plus side, the fact that it’s never been easier to record high-quality game footage hopefully means the end of camera phones being shakily pointed at the TV. However, you can only record up to five minutes of footage, so, for the love of Cthulhu, keep your Battlefield 4 rants pithy, people.
10. Microsoft Could Care Less About Games (For Now At Least)
Yes, there are 21 launch titles, and some of them (ahem, Dead Rising 3) look pretty great. But we were only shown Forza Motorsports 5 which is pretty, but basically looks like every racing game you’ve played since Cruis’n USA. The focus is on apps and exclusive media content, and right now Microsoft has the edge on Sony in that department. If you’re looking for a killer gaming system, you probably want to wait for a price drop and better titles to come out. If you want a boxy, voice-activated TV to show off to your friends, well, then, congrats, because you’re part of the new consumer base that Microsoft is trying to reach.
Ultimately, Microsoft has succeeded in delivering an all-in-one entertainment hub for our attention-challenged times. This is the first step to a world where we all have TVs that allow us to switch between a Skype call and an episode of Almost Human with a simple voice command. Now if Microsoft will just remember that this amazing super cable box they’ve come up with is also a video game system, it might be actually worth shelling out $500 for.