Never believe the advance PR. I learned this a long time ago, but whoever puts out the PR at Microsoft definitely got way off point. By focusing on the console’s media capabilities, I got sidetracked into thinking this was going to be Bill Gates’ new version of the Swiss Army Knife, so that everything would be just sort of shruggingly okay while nothing about the console would stand out but its shine. Well, I was wrong! Xbox One is a living room media device and a cable box and a video game console… and all of them excellent! Open the box and the first thing you find is the 2.0 Kinect. This is the thing you’ve paid an extra US$100 for. More on that later!
The console itself looks like an old-school VCR. Consequently, it’s a bit heavy and limited in portability. The console features both HDMI in and HDMI out, as well as S/PDIF, IR out, ethernet ports and a blue-ray disc player. Additionally, there are three USB ports and a Kinect slot.
A few negatives first: Microsoft sticks with a similar console controller to its last generation. There are no new fancy gimmicks. The major changes come in the death of ‘Start’ and ‘Select’, which have been replaced by ‘Menu’ and ‘View’ buttons, and the raised profile of the right and left bumpers. The raised bumpers at the end of the controller are a bit impractical for my kind of serial user, however. There’s no easy way to slide your fingers from the triggers to the bumpers. So be aware that you’ll need to keep both hands free! This is a minor problem, but points to engineers who don’t do enough personal handling of their own creations.
Microsoft gives you a fairly good headset and a 14-day free trial for Xbox Live Gold, which is just as necessary on the Xbox One as it was on the Xbox 360. Consequently, if you don’t buy a subscription to Xbox Live Gold, you lose most of the console’s functionality. Netflix, Skype, Internet Explorer, OneGuide, game recording and online multiplayer are all barred from users without Gold. So be prepared to invest in this machine!
Setting up the Xbox One took me an hour. I think everybody knows that the dashboard on the old Xbox 360 was too cluttered. Popping in a disc and starting a game was easy, but changing settings or dealing with Xbox Marketplace was awkward. Now, however, everything sits front and center. Your profile and recent applications fill up center screen. A very practical storefront sits to the right, conveniently broken down into categories, and a well set up custom list of games and apps.
Oh, yeah, you can talk to it! Kinect is both a waste of time and a minor miracle at once. Depends on you. It followed my voice commands and even though I felt daft asking for the TV to increase its volume, it worked.
Xbox One replaces your cable box altogether with OneGuide once the two devices are connected through the HDMI out port, complete with DVR controls, voice commands, and a list of favorite apps and channels. Consequently, switching between watching TV and playing a game is as simple as a voice command: “Xbox, watch TV!” and “Xbox, go home!” and the console casually transfers itself between the console’s two primary functions. Although the OneGuide and the voice commands aren’t going to convince any non-subscribers to get cable, Xbox One is very much worthwhile addition if you own a cable subscription.
Another gimmick is Snap, which allows you to watch any TV program of your choosing while still gaming. It’s fun, but Snap takes up about a fourth of the screen, so you need a sizable monitor to utilize it fully. Due soon is Twitch streaming. Twitch will allow you to both edit and save favorite sections of games and pass them on to friends. There’s also Upload Studio, which allows you to splice clips and upload them onto the likes of YouTube.
Finally, there’s SmartGlass. SmartGlass turns your smartphone or tablet into a controller for your console. It can also detect when a game launches and gives you the option to open a built-in companion app to participate in proceedings from, say, work. If the minor issue with the console controller gets sorted out, the sky is the limit for Xbox One. It retails at between US$449 and US$499. Good hunting!