The dust has just about settled after the dueling console launches of November 2013. It’s been quite a show. I’ve been playing around with the Xbox One for about two weeks now and I’m finally ready to give my thoughts on Microsoft’s black behemoth. It is a console that will grow in dramatic and unexpected ways over the course of the next five to ten years, so long as Microsoft listens to gamers and continues honing the user experience. While I don’t believe it will ever replace any boxes currently taking up space in your entertainment center (other than your standalone CD/DVD/Blu-ray player) it’s absolutely crackling with possibilities. Right now, however, annoying UI issues and a dearth of media content make it a wait-and-hope proposition for most.
Unlike Sony’s camera, which isn’t included with the base system and feels like an afterthought, the Xbox One is all about the Kinect. When things like voice and facial recognition work, they are fucking awesome. Simply saying “Xbox on” does three things: turns on the console, turns on your TV, and impresses the shit out of anyone in the room. More than simply a cool novelty, however, the voice system is actually useful. I haven’t picked up my TV remote since I got my Xbox One (though I do not have a cable box or surround sound tuner, which would create problems with functionality). Even my wife uses it frequently and she’s nowhere near as patient with buggy tech as I am.
The flipside to all that cool is it doesn’t always work. In fact, having to sternly repeat commands several times is often the norm. And what’s worse, voice commands can’t do everything. Example: when the Xbox One fails to log you in automatically by facial recognition — which happens a lot if, like me, you don’t always wear your glasses — you have to sign in manually. If you don’t have controller handy, you can say, “Xbox Select” and then, “Sign in”. (Available commands are written in green on the screen so you don’t have to memorize them.) You select the right account just by saying “I’m this person”. Great right? Wrong. In the final step, the camera view appears on screen to confirm that Kinect has found you. You then have to click a box that says “That’s me” but the text isn’t green, meaning you can’t select it with a voice command. Instead, it requires a controller click or, worse, a roll of the dice with the Xbox One’s very imprecise gesture system. Voice command issues like this are common but they seem to be minor bugs. You get the sense that the success of the voice recognition system (well, the UI in general) in the long run will hinge entirely on a robust and regular patching schedule. If we have to wait six months for every system update, minor annoyances may cause users to give up on voice recognition entirely. Users are already compiling laundry lists of complaints for Microsoft to fix. Making sure voice commands can do everything a controller could (like starting a friggin’ DVD from its menu screen) should be near the top.
There aren’t many right now but there are one or two gems already. For example, this is the way Skype was meant to work. Now you can invite someone from anywhere on the planet into your living room without relying on a clunky smart TV interface. A PC is fine for one-on-one calls but for group chats – say a family call to grandma on her birthday – this is infinitely better than crowding around a computer or passing a tablet back and forth. The digital pan and zoom functions, which automatically recognize and center on whoever is in the room, are wonderful. Functions like this are the future of the Xbox One and the biggest reason I think it will beat Sony’s console to the center of the living room. Windows and Windows Phone apps aren’t transferrable to Xbox One, but can you imagine if they were? Sony would be hard pressed to match that install base and selection. If MS can get some kind of open submission app store going on Xbox One – even in a stripped down format – it will define the console for years to come. One last thing: the app that came out of Microsoft’s much hyped NFL partnership? It blows. It does nothing. Oooh I can watch game highlights from yesterday? AND check my fantasy teams!? Who would want to watch live games when you have all that? PUKE. Just give me the Redzone channel and I will lick your asshole for eternity.
I’ve been out of the console world for a while so maybe the most recent web browser for the 360 was like this but I doubt it. The Xbox One’s browser is pretty darn great. The Xbox One’s browser is a lot like a mobile experience and MS suggests you navigate to mobile optimized sites because of things like Flash video, which the Xbox One can’t do. While it’s not a PC replacement, it is vastly more functional than any console-based browser I’ve tried. I even got Pandora playing since there’s no app as yet. As with the rest of the OS, Xbox One’s Internet Explorer voice integration isn’t quite there. It’s nowhere near the level of Google Now or even Siri, but it could be someday, and that would be something.
Dead Rising 3 is the only launch title I’ve spent much time with. I can’t say what the others are like, though, based on their reviews, I will be buying precisely none of them. I can say it’s super annoying that my $499 for the console, plus my $59.99 for Xbox Live didn’t merit a single free game. Nothing, not an indie game, not a re-release, not a mobile port. Sony’s new console gave users two full, free games. Xbox One early adopters get one level of Kinect Sports Rivals (which is fun but over faster than my first sexual encounter) and a single character demo of Killer Instinct. I played a few rounds of that before remembering that fighting games appeal to a very specific subset of gamers that hasn’t included me since SoulCalibur.
I can’t really comment on online play and social aspects because I don’t have any Xbox Live friends with Xbox Ones. (Want to be my friend? My user Name is Stitch Hessian. If you know who that is without Googling, we’re already friends, we just haven’t met.) I played a tiny, tiny bit of Dead Rising 3’s online co-op mode. I was shocked that BY DEFAULT a stranger is allowed to enter your single-player campaign. It’s like that girl in Nightmare on Elm Street who could drag people into her dreams to help her. How pissed would you be if this idiot hauled you in to face Freddy on her behalf? The other thing about online play – and this better be near the top of Microsoft’s to do list as well — is if you meet someone in a game and you want to friend them, you have to write down their gamertag before the game ends. Microsoft has inexplicably removed the ability to view your recent players list.
Boxes, man. The Xbox One is ginormous, roughly the same size as the original Xbox, though I think a little lighter. It reminds me of a late 80s/early 90s VCR. No wood paneling (much to my sadness), just a giant rectangular monolith eating up a huge chunk of ent-cent real estate. At least it’s a beautifully designed slab. The matte and glossy panels really look sharp. The white glow lighting behind the logo/power button (which is not a physical button, but rather a touch sensitive area on the front of the console that goes off when you so much as breathe on it) is a very handsome accent. Here’s a question though: all reports are that the PS4 is more powerful than Xbox One. Yet the PS4 is, what, 30% smaller? AND it has an internal power brick, whereas the Xbox One has an enormous external brick. So…what’s taking up all that space? Maybe the added space reduces operating temperatures or allows the unit to remain quieter. (It is virtually silent compared to any iteration of the 360.) Maybe that space is devoted to the nifty HDMI passthrough, which I’ll get to in a moment. I haven’t played with the PS4 so I don’t know what they cut out to get it so small. This much I know though: the Xbox One is BIG.
A potentially game-changing feature, but it’s not quite ready for prime time. Running your cable box through the Xbox One does give you a customizable guide but all reports are that it’s rudimentary and doesn’t play well with your DVR. (The Kinect’s IR blaster controls the TV and cable box. Commands don’t go straight through the HDMI and data transfers from your DVR are not possible.) Still, MS promises they’re working on it and they even have plans to make it jive with over-the-air programming. If you could buy an HDMI-capable antenna and have free, over-the-air programming in a digital, DVR-able format, that would be a huge incentive to cut the cable. MS’s partnerships with cable companies might impede that though.
Running a laptop or other device through the passthrough works pretty seamlessly. There is a slight degradation in image quality but it’s not a huge issue. It’s more a softening accompanied by a minuscule lag, rather than outright pixilation or anything like that. It’s not a deal breaker for me but it is a reason to avoid the middleman. For now, at least. It’s worth noting that the use of the passthrough for non-TV functions isn’t something Microsoft is really touting. The command for selecting the input is “Xbox, watch TV” regardless of what’s plugged in. Still, if MS can resist the temptation to clamp down on non-sanctioned uses, we might see some fantastic user-driven innovations. A Google Chromecast coupled with a streaming aggregator or DVR app would be…whoa.
- Operating temperatures are 45 to 95 F. In an enclosed cabinet 1.5 square feet in volume or less, it will probably overheat. I haven’t hit shutdown temps, but it got up to 92 in a closed cabinet before I opened the doors to let the poor guy breath. I replaced the cardboard backing to the cabinet with a mesh screen and it now keeps the air in there at about room temperature. I do wonder about all those vents though, and whether they’ll let too much dust into the bowels of the machine.
- By default the Xbox One is always listening and it’s possible for random conversation or sounds to set it off. I paused a game and went to the kitchen to do something. Somehow the sound of putting dishes away sounded like “Xbox unpause” because that’s just what it did. My poor character got ripped apart before I could get back and yell at the Xbox like a bad puppy. Next time I’ll rub its nose in zombie guts.
- With the Xbox One we are actively inviting a listening (and viewing) device into our homes, and most of us will let it run in standby mode at all times so it can turn on with the appropriate voice command. A lot has been made of the always-on internet connection, which can be disabled, but I personally prefer to leave it on so updates work more smoothly while I’m away. Ever walk around naked in your living room? Ever say something in your house you wouldn’t ever want anyone to hear ever? Even if it’s not recording or broadcasting, Xbox One hears and sees you and it’s plugged into the internet. There’s something Orwellian about that, and there will surely be fainting horror stories about supposed privacy breaches in the near future. There’s something a little ominous about those three red lights in the IR sensor, too. I bought an attractive third party TV mount by PDP for my Kinect. In addition to placing it at the optimal height and getting it away from my toddler, it came with a privacy cover. It’s just a plastic sheath that slides over the camera and IR sensor but it blocks Kinect’s ability to see anything. Now I just have to remember to put it on every time I strut out of the shower in the buff.
- Trigger rumble. Everyone talks about this like it’s hot shit. I haven’t noticed it at all.
- Thumbsticks. Those textured borders are super cool. I wonder how long it’ll be before they rip or wear off. I’ll bet it’s less than three months of solid use. Even if they’re relatively durable, the treads are sure to fill up with my nasty skin oil crud. Lovely.
- This new controller feels great to me, but I’m biased. I hated the Dualshock 3 controllers. They were too tiny and my hands always hurt after playing with them. I was a fan of the Xbox controller even when it was that huge, Frisbee-sized thing that came with the original. I had four of them. They had breakaway cables and a useless plastic terrarium the size of Bio Dome. I loved them so. Even with my bias I can see that complaints about the new controller’s angled shoulder bumpers are justified and the super clicky d-pad, while great for me, will make fighting game enthusiasts cringe.
- The glowing white X on the controller’s home button – which is quite handy – looks so very, very cool.
- The front of the controller has tiny flickering red dots, which I assume are some kind of IR locator for the Kinect. Not really a good or bad thing, I just don’t like the idea of my electronics talking in code while I’m in the room. Controller: “You see what he just tried to do with me? Doesn’t this jackass know I don’t have an accelerometer?” Kinect: “Yeah, let’s kill him tonight.”
- Headsets. Microsoft, you nickel-and-diming bastards, are you fucking kidding me with this proprietary adapter? It’s not even a very good adapter – it’s impossible to remove the damn thing from the controller without squeezing the shit out of the mushy mute and volume buttons, which are bound to break 1.5 seconds after my warranty expires. Why the fuck wouldn’t you just let me plug in any fucking headset I want? Honestly. FUCK.
- Xbox Music? Xbox Video? GTFO. I want access to my iTunes library and the iTunes store. I don’t mind having the option to rent from MS as well, but you damn sure better believe I don’t want to pay to stream or download stuff I already bought on the most popular electronic media market on the planet.
- Have kids? My one year old can parrot anything I say and her most recent trick is “Essboss? Awwwnnnn.” It hasn’t worked yet but it’s only a matter of time.
- DLNA: well, where is it? This was a big reason I went with an Xbox One over PS4. As of this writing, nothing uses the feature in any meaningful way.
- USB ports are super useful but they don’t do much if they’re disabled. Might wanna look into that.
Holy fuck that was a long article. Kudos to you if you made it this far and you’re not my mom. (Sorry for all the swears, ma!) My take on the Xbox One is it is way better than having no console at all, which was my situation until two weeks ago thanks to the awful burglars who stole my PS3 last year. I could have bought a replacement PS3 then (I wouldn’t do a 360, having lost one already to RROD) but I’m glad I waited. Despite its many flaws, the Xbox One is amazing and it will only get better.