This has not been an easy year for Microsoft. In May, they revealed the Xbox One—the successor to the wildly popular Xbox 360—with a presentation that focused mostly on the console’s third party apps, TV integration, and the company’s partnership with the National Football League. In other words, the kind of stuff that doesn’t matter at all to the people who actually care enough to watch a live console unveiling. Microsoft followed this up with months of the worst messaging and PR I’ve ever seen and a bunch of controversial DRM policies (which they eventually reversed). To be blunt, they dug a huge hole for themselves.
Despite all of this, it’s clear that Microsoft has a vision for the Xbox One. They’d like for this thing to be the center of your living room. This isn’t a unique vision—this has been the holy grail for consumer electronics corporations the world over—but the Xbox One is easily the most complete execution of this vision that there has ever been. It’s an incredibly ambitious system, one that is set up to do a ton of different things, and to do them quickly and seamlessly.
This is apparent as soon as you turn on the system. The Xbox One’s UI is a combination of the 360’s tile interface and Windows 8’s Metro UI, leaning towards the latter. It can be a little confusing at times—the dashboard is a single page showing you apps you’ve used recently, with the most recent prominently displayed in the center. It’s relatively easy to navigate, but it started to suffer whenever I wanted to get to an app that wasn’t on the main page. Typically they would be buried in the “My Games and Apps Section,” though some things were in even weirder places. And, notably, everything is an app. Even the BluRay player (which has to be downloaded, weirdly enough. It’s free, but that’s odd). Another notable drawback: there is no way to view the hard drive. At all. You can’t see how much space you have. You can delete things manually, there’s just no way to see how much space you’re freeing up. Microsoft’s reasoning is that they’re making everything simpler, and that the Xbox smartly deletes sections of games to make space while keeping them playable. Which is great and all, but that doesn’t seem like it would preclude some sort of space management system. This isn’t a deal breaker, but I’m really hoping they change it.
Still, I found the dashboard to be clean and functional, and it really starts to shine when used in tandem with Kinect. Which, of course, brings me to Kinect. Microsoft made the decision to include the new Kinect sensor with every Xbox One, something that makes a lot of sense from an adoption standpoint but also bumps the box’s price to $500, or $100 more expensive than the PS4. Kinect is a cool concept, and Microsoft made the thing an integral part of the Xbox One user experience. Still, I approached it with trepidation, given how terrible the first Kinect was. After a few weeks with the thing, I can pretty easily say that the new Kinect is additive and, mostly, pretty damn good. But it does have its weaknesses.
As I said above, the UI really shines when you’re controlling it with Kinect voice commands. Instead of looking for an app, you can simply say “Xbox, go to <name>,” and it’ll open the app right up. And when this is working, it’s unbelievably cool. Combined with the Xbox’s ability to suspend more than one game at a time, I was able to quickly move between open sessions of Killer Instinct and Dead Rising 3 in a few seconds, without skipping a beat or any loading whatsoever. Obviously, that kind of app switching is mostly just a convenience, but it’s a very cool one, and you can start to see what Microsoft had in mind with their original all-digital vision. You can do more than just switch apps with Kinect. You can go to the store and search it (with Bing, of course), you can flip to TV, and you can “snap” apps, which is the system’s version of multitasking. Notably, the Kinect only responds to very specific commands. If I wanted to go to Call of Duty: Ghosts, I had to say the full name, because “Xbox, go to Call of Duty” does not work. There are some other kinks—”Xbox, on” is the command to turn on, but the off command is “Xbox, turn off”—but it works very well once you get used to the syntax.
Of course, syntax doesn’t matter at all when the Xbox isn’t listening correctly, which is an issue I ran into on occasion. When I was sitting at my desk in Boston, the Kinect picked up my voice the vast majority of the time. When I brought the console home, things got a bit more dicey. I spent most of last Saturday in my basement with a bunch of people, and the amount of background noise appeared to confuse the Kinect. I don’t know that it ever got down to truly unacceptable levels, and part of this was due to the fact that this was in no way an ideal situation for voice commands (there were two TVs on and a bunch of people yelling at the Auburn game), but there is a noticeable drop-off when the Kinect is dealing with significant background noise. This is the kind of thing you’d hope Microsoft can fix, and they’d better, because people simply aren’t gonna use the thing if it doesn’t work well in certain situations.
Microsoft has spent much of the lead-up to this launch touting the Xbox One’s TV integration. I wasn’t able to spend a ton of time watching TV with the box, but I’ll give my impressions anyway. It works! But I’m not sure how interesting it is. To set up TV, you have to have plug your set top box into the One via HDMI. The Xbox One is not a cable box, which inherently hinders its ability to do cool things with TV. This lets you take advantage of the OneGuide, the Xbox’s version of a channel guide. It’s important to note that the Xbox is not a cable box, so all it’s doing is overlaying something on top of your current set up (if you’ve used TiVo, it’s similar). You can control the OneGuide with your voice, and you can snap apps to the side of it (and snap it to the side of other apps). And that’s…basically it. You can’t access your DVR and you can’t record shows. For me, the idea of being able to be in an Xbox Live party while I watch a baseball game is cool, but it still feels a little thin. What Microsoft has here is really neat, and I feel like it’ll improve, but they’re definitely hindered by what the cable companies will let them do.
And, finally, the Xbox plays games. It plays them via a new controller, which is quite similar to the (excellent) 360 controller, though it’s got some new tricks, like rumble triggers. On a software front, the One is actually doing pretty well. The launch lineup is pretty solid, if lacking a true killer app, but I can’t say I haven’t loved the hell out of both Killer Instinct and Dead Rising. Dead Rising in particular is a very impressive next gen showcase, I’ve never seen so many enemies on-screen. It’s important to note that the Xbox is definitely a weaker system than the PS4. I’m not sure how much of a visual difference that will make in a few years once developers have the consoles figured out, but if graphical fidelity is really important to you, the PS4 is the safer bet.
All told, I’m pretty happy with the Xbox One. Microsoft has built a good system here, and they’ve got a solid base to go on. Still, I can’t outright recommend you run out and buy this—or any other next gen system—right now. The games just aren’t there. Wait until March, when Titanfall and Infamous and Destiny are close to release. For now, be happy with the knowledge that the Xbox appears to be going in the right direction.