Last week I gave you some early impressions of the PlayStation 4, this week I’m here with the Xbox One. I had no intention of buying this box so soon, but my impulses got the better of me. So here we are. The Xbox One is the most ambitious product Microsoft has put out in a long time. Microsoft has been beat to a lot of markets, most prominently the smartphone and tablet markets, and they’re aggressively trying to make sure that isn’t the case with the living room. The Xbox One is a jack of all trades device. Its part gaming system, part Roku 3, part Windows 8 machine, and large part GoogleTV. Microsoft has made a lot of the inclusion of Kinect, their secret weapon in the battle for living room supremacy. The Kinect reads faces, is always listening for your commands, and is the preferred method of navigation inside the Xbox One UI. The One is banking big on voice control being the killer app for their integrated box hoping to excel where Tivo, Google, and others have failed. Is the Xbox One the All-In-One device we have been waiting for or is it the best GoogleTV ever made?
Let’s start with the easy stuff, hardware. The Xbox One is huge. It is clear that Microsoft isn’t trying to relive the RROD nightmare that plagued the Xbox 360, there are vents everywhere. It’s almost as if Microsoft is using vents as some kind of design aesthetic. The box features a two-tone black color pattern. One side is full of gloss, the other is a more textured matte finish, very similar to the Playstation 4. However, next to the PS4 the Xbox One seems terribly lazy. The PS4 is svelte and tries to do something interesting with the black box motif, more importantly it packs the power brick INSIDE THE BOX. For as large as the Xbox One is, it still doesn’t accomplish that feat. Madness. It’s not tremendously egregious, it will blend in perfectly well with the rest of your home theater setup, just don’t expect it to win any beauty contest.
The Xbox 360 controller was wisely regarded as the best controller in gaming last gen. It was nearly perfect, great stick placement, not too big, fit well in the hand, but the DPad was awful and the battery pack bulged from the back center of the device. The Xbox One’s controller solves those two issues and also adds Impulse triggers. The triggers now have rumble motors in them and they are AWESOME. Forza Motorsport 5 is really the only game I’ve played that utilizes them, but they are integral to the experience. You can really feel the cars and gauge how much trouble you’re getting into. Microsoft has also messed with the shape and size of the unit. The new controller is flatter and narrower than the previous. It’s not so much smaller that your hands feel cramped after prolong usage, but I did find myself missing the spacious layout and feel of the DualShock 4. Like the DualShock 4, the Xbox One’s controller features a nice grippy texture though one different from the DualShock’s. Your hands just wants to stay on it, but Microsoft seems hell-bent on you leaving it down for most of the time.
XBOX, Use a Code: Introducing Kinect 2.0
The Kinect is kind of amazing. It can read faces, skeletal structures, see in the dark, and is always listening for your voice commands. That may seem terrifying given the recent NSA leaks and Microsoft’s history of playing ball with those guys, but the Kinect is The Xbox One. You navigate the UI with the Kinect, doing it with a controller is an exercise in frustration. Microsoft wants you to talk to your TV. Navigating the UI seems like it was an afterthought. Doing things like going to your achievements requires so many button presses and moving about that it would be stupid not to just say “Xbox Go To Achievements”. Things like system settings weren’t even viewable before I used voice commands to launch the “app” and have it appear in my recent app tray. The Kinect handles this all incredibly well, but I can’t help but feel that if navigating your OS is a chore with a controller you’ve done something wrong. As far as the Kinect hardware goes, it shares its hub unit’s design principles; it’s large, black, and full of vents. Last generation’s Kinect was a beta product, a proof of concept that Microsoft sold to the tune of 25 million units. This Kinect is the real deal.
XBOX, Go To Settings: UI and Navigation
The Xbox One is a Windows 8 device. There I said it. The unit actually runs three different OSs. A games OS, a hyper virtualized OS, and a Windows 8 kernel. Microsoft has boasted about porting Windows 8 apps to Xbox in all of 24 hours. What this really means for consumers of two things: 1) your Xbox One may run Office one day 2) The Xbox One UI looks a lot like a Windows 8 tablet. The later of those two isn’t really a good thing. Like the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One sucks at organization and doesn’t allow you to be any good at it either. You can pin certain items to the left side of your home screen which is a big upgrade to the PS4, but you can’t manage the system memory at all. Like it straight up isn’t an option anywhere. When you run out of hard drive space and want to install a new game the Xbox One will simply delete another title to make room. I can’t imagine this will stay like this forever, it’s simply too bone headed of a design idea. Things are buried deep in this UI. Achievements used to be one little home click away, now I don’t even know how to get to them without voice control.
XBOX, Watch TV: Microsoft’s version of the GoogleTV
The most talked about feature of the Xbox One is the HDMI pass through option. This allows the Xbox to interface with your TV, practically hijacking most of your cable box’s functionality. The Xbox One is then able to present you with a new channel guide, dubbed “One Guide” on the Xbox One, switch channels for you, pause and rewind live TV, increase/decrease volume, and turn devices on and off. The Kinect acts as a high tech universal remote, constantly unleashing a barrage of IR commands to your cable box and TV. When it all works it’s great, but it can be finicky.
Voice navigation is integral to the Xbox One’s TV functionality. You can tell the Kinect things like “Xbox, Go to TV” or “Xbox, Watch HBO” and have the unit instantly drop what it’s doing to handle that task. Where you encounter difficulty is with the subtle things. The Kinect often confuses AMC & ABC, SpikeTV for Go to TV, and blatantly disregards sub-channels. Before I marked HBO Comedy as a favorite the Kinect would often times switch to HBO before I even finished the Watch command. It’s not always this vigilant at following commands. Telling it to “Watch, EPIX 2″ works just about all the time, but things like ESPNNews sometimes don’t. It’s very hit or miss in that regard.
More importantly to TV viewers, the Xbox One does NOT, I repeat DOES NOT interface with your DVR at all. This is strictly a live event TV box. It seems like a pretty big omission, but it’s not something Microsoft could really do a thing about. Myself and others have long spoke about how rough the TV industry is. It’s almost an impossible nut to crack, because the industry isn’t struggling, it’s thriving. People aren’t thrilled with the cable experience or the outrageous prices they have to pay, but they also aren’t rioting yet. Piracy is an issue, but not like it is for the film audiences. TV ad space is still extremely lucrative and the quality of television programming is going up. The problem is people are now very accustomed to controlling how they experience TV. DVR is a BIG THING now. People don’t bend their schedule around TV, they bend TV around their schedules.
There are few exceptions to this rule. Sports and Awards shows are the two big pillars and there is also season/series finales anomalies like, Breaking Bad and Scandal. Other than that people have demanded they have their TV when they want it and WHERE they want it. Second screen experiences are big. Being able to watch TV on your iPad/Nexus/Kindle whenever and where ever you want is awesome. The Xbox One seems to be strapping it’s marketing pitch to a slowly sinking ship. This also doesn’t factor into the fact that this stuff doesn’t really cater to any market other than the US and is currently broken in the UK due to some weird technical oversights. The long and short of this is, if you live in the states and you’re a DVR-less guy or gal or watches some TV this is the device for you. Is it worth 500 smackaroos? Probably not, but it’s a valuable addition to this box.
XBOX, Go to Forza Motorsport 5: Gaming on the Xbox One
Like the gaming section on my PS4 impression, this section will be short. For me there’s only one exclusive truly worth playing on the Xbox One and it’s Forza Motorsport 5. I have lost about 10 hours to Forza since launch day. It is painfully addictive. Racing on consoles has never been better. Everyone laughed when Forza announced Drivatars, but fundamentally changes the way the game feels. Drivatars are AI controlled racers that feature the personality traits of their hosts. A.I drivers no longer lack that human touch, because they are pretty much carbon copies of their humans they’re based off of. Some racers are more aggressive and don’t mind trading paint, their Drivatars reflect that. A.I racers don’t all drive in straight lines anymore, you can sense desire. They want to win and fight hard to do so. It makes every race feel like a multiplayer race. I also purchased Ryse and have tried Killer Instinct and they’re both kind of meh. Ryse is beautiful, but is stuck in last gen. It might be the most uninteresting exclusive at launch. Killer Instinct is not as bad, but its free to play model is a bit off-putting. Games will get better, Microsoft has already lined up Titanfall for March 2014. They’ve proven to be good at garnishing 3rd party content, it’s the 1st party stuff I’m still a little worried about.
XBOX, Turn Off: Last impressions
The Xbox One has more potential than the PlayStation 4. It is simply a more robust all in one device. With that being said, it’s also beholden to a dying version of television. Sony has also activated voice navigation and is doesn’t require a Kinect. Is it anywhere as good as Kinect? No, but it’s also a first step. The PlayStation 4 has more horsepower under the hood that is undeniable, but this is a software world we live in. Even though I’m an Apple/Android guy, I trust Microsoft’s skill set when it comes to software on consoles than anyone else in the space. There are a lot of weird issues navigating the UI with controllers, but I’m sure those will get solved. They have clearly thought very hard about the user experience and like many have already said, when it works it truly does feel like something from the future. Voice control has a long way to go, but the groundwork has been laid and the future is bright