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Microsoft's Xbox One: Does It Live Up to the Hype?

XBOX One Console Family - H 2013
XBOX
XBOX One

With its new console, launching Friday, the company makes a bold play for your cable box and the future of television.

This Friday, Microsoft will release its new Xbox One video game console, competing directly with longtime rival Sony, whose PlayStation 4 console launched last weekend. The two machines are comparable in gaming power, but the Xbox One offers some never-before-seen options regarding television watching and other entertainment possibilities. Microsoft is unmistakably making a bid for “Input One” on your television, to be the primary device through which you consume all living room media.

However, in practical terms, the specs and performance of the two machines are very comparable (Xbox One has a faster CPU, while the PS4 has more GPU cores and faster RAM). The Xbox contains an eight-core CPU, 8GB of DDR RAM, an 853 Mhz Radeon GPU and a 500GB hard drive. Microsoft has touted the future ability for their machines to offload computation to the cloud, allowing for a “virtual upgrade” to the Xbox One’s hardware, but those features will not be implemented at launch and it is unclear how effective they might be. The machine costs $500 and comes with a controller, a voice-chat headset, a large, brick-style power supply and the new Kinect 2 motion-sensing and voice-control device. (Note: the PlayStation 4 costs $400 and has an optional $60 camera).

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Kinect started out as an optional (albeit strong-selling) add-on for the Xbox 360. Kinect 2, its successor, is bundled with every console, meaning developers can integrate Kinect support into any game and be confident that almost all users will have the device. Kinect 2 represents a significant upgrade in fidelity over its original incarnation, and the device has been deeply integrated into Xbox One’s OS. The camera can recognize multiple individual users at once and automatically log them in to separate accounts simultaneously. Impressively, it can differentiate between different users in the same room, know which user is making a voice command and respond based on their unique preferences and selections. Changes in Kinect’s field of view also allows users to stand closer to the system than before. The original Kinect on Xbox 360 was criticized for requiring large amounts of space in front of the TV and not working well in small living rooms. Kinect is now sensitive enough to gauge a user’s heart rate by sensing his pulse in his face.

Voice control, while still not perfect, has been significantly improved, with the system understanding a wider and more useful array of commands. In pure gaming situations, voice control has historically held dubious value, as players almost always had a controller in their hands that offered faster, more reliable navigation and control. However, given the new Xbox’s emphasis on non-gaming entertainment, voice control offers some compelling advantages.

When engaged in video content, especially, at the point where you want to manipulate the console (to change the channel or switch to a different app or service) there is a good chance you will not be holding a controller. The convenience of being able to jump around at will using only your voice is powerful and quickly becomes second nature. Navigating through menus to get to the TED Talks app might take three or four button presses, but voice command allows you to jump directly there by saying, “Xbox, go to TED.” The system is not foolproof, however, and speech recognition can suffer when there is a lot of background noise.

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Voice control becomes even more compelling in relation to what might be the most revolutionary part of the Xbox One, its TV-watching integration. The Xbox One has an HDMI In as well as an HDMI Out, which means it can be daisy-chained with your cable box as a pass-through device. Used this way, the idea is that any time you watch TV you will do it through the Xbox and have access to all its attendant features, including Skype, Facebook, Twitter, streaming video services and video games. Any two apps (or an app and a game) can be “snapped” to one another, picture-in-picture style. Thus, you could have a rolling Twitter feed down one side of your screen while watching the Emmys, open up a Skype call while watching Netflix, or keep a small TV window open on the side of your Madden game so you know when the real NFL comes back from commercial.

Channel guides for all cable providers are available, and with voice control you can change the channel by simply saying its name. In another clever use of its technology, Xbox uses Kinect as a universal remote/IR blaster to directly control your cable box, TV and multimedia equipment. You can set it to automatically turn on your TV when you power up the Xbox, as well as control the volume and other functions this way.

The net effect of running your cable box through a game console means that everything lives side by side in the same environment. Switching between live TV, streaming services and Internet services such as Facebook, Twitter and web browsing is effortless and requires no device switching. The Xbox One supports the usual raft of streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, FXNow and so forth. It has exclusive rights to the NFL’s app (the NHL and NBA both have apps on PlayStation 4). Notably, there is not currently a YouTube app, but the site can be accessed through the web browser (the PlayStation 4’s web browser cannot play YouTube videos). Comcast Xfinity and Verizon FiOS users will have access to apps that will pull in on-demand content from those systems. In a world where some content lives in multiple places (often at multiple prices) Microsoft has leveraged its Bing search engine to let users find all available options for a given piece of content.

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One amusing side note: Microsoft has ported its Achievement system, which awards players “Gamerscore points” for doing certain actions in various games, to its video apps. Yes, you can now unlock achievements by binge-watching TV. There are even leader boards. Let’s get to work, people.

One thing that has not changed in the console rollover: Microsoft still requires an Xbox Live Gold subscription in order to access streaming services. This $60/year subscription also enables online multiplayer. Sony has a similar for-fee system in its PlayStation Plus service.

And let’s not forget that this is, at its core, a game console. As noted in our write-up of the PS4, the launch games for new game consoles do not generally represent the best of what the systems will ultimately offer. With that in mind, there are 21 titles available on day one. The Xbox exclusives are Dead Rising, a zombie-killing gorefest; Forza Motorsport, a race driving simulator; Ryse: Son of Rome, a swords-and-sandals hack and slash game; and Crimson Dragon, a flying, fire-breathing fantasy. Two other download-only exclusives are Lococycle, a motorcycle combat game, and Killer Instinct, a classic fighting game.

The Xbox One shares a host of cross-platform titles with the PS4 (and PS3 and 360), all massively popular titles from massive game companies. They include Need for Speed: Rivals, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Madden 25, NBA 2K14, FIFA '14 and NBA Live 14, Skylanders: Swap Force, Just Dance 4, and Lego Marvel Super Heroes. As with the PS4, gamers can stream their virtual exploits live to the Internet via Twitch.tv as well as record short clips for sharing online.

Bottom line, the Xbox One is a very interesting box that represents a bold vision of the converged digital entertainment future. But don’t buy it for the games (at least not until Titanfall comes out next year), especially if you already own a PS3 or 360. The fact that these titles are available is a nice bonus for those who are buying the console anyway, but they actually serve to underline the extraordinary feat Microsoft has been able to pull off. They’ve put together a new game console that is compelling enough to buy, even without a clear, system-selling game. The Xbox One is the closest thing to the future of television we’ve yet seen.