Living with the Xbox One: Thoughts after the launch
We’re past the point where video game consoles are just pieces of hardware for games. The PlayStation 4 may be less expensive than the Xbox One and more focused on games, but it’s still filled with features that betray Sony’s desire for the system to be given a prominent place in your home theater.
The Xbox One, on the other hand, takes all this madness to a whole new level. It’s a $500 system, it juggles a variety of applications with your gaming, and comes packaged with the next-generation Kinect hardware so that the system knows what you’re saying, where you’re sitting, and who is in the room with you.
Some companies want a piece of your living room, while Microsoft’s plan is to place its boot on the throat of your entertainment center. We said we’d revisit the system after having some time to really live with it and see how things worked out, and it’s time to check back in.
So how well does all this stuff work in practice?
It’s very strange to walk into the room and have your television welcome you and log you into your account once it sees your face. The voice commands remain my favorite part of the Xbox One, although it takes a good bit of time to get used to learning the words and mannerisms the system looks for to give you an accurate response.
I’ve heard some people have to repeat themselves a few times, but in my experience it’s been just fine. I have a feeling this is going to vary wildly depending on your voice.
You don’t need a remote control or video game controller, you can just use your hands or voice to manipulate the menus and get to where you want to go, and this system is in fact faster and easier than using the standard menu, because you can go straight to the options you want. No more going through menus to find the Netflix logo to click on it, you just tell your Xbox to take you to Netflix. Simple.
There are people who just don’t want the Kinect though, and you can’t escape the extra cost of the hardware. The voice commands could just as easily be handled by a high quality microphone for much less cost, and the motion controls that the Kinect offers don’t really give you much in terms of gaming. Microsoft has always said that there will never be a version of the system offered without the Kinect, but they’ve said a lot of shit that ended up being reversed, and it looks like Sony is poised to make some serious gains this generation.
If Microsoft wants to fight the pricing game, and they may have to if they want to stay on top at retail, expect the Kinect to be the first thing to go, and development of motion-controlled games or features to be put on the back shelf. For now, the Kinect offers some very convenient features in the UI and for media playback, but I’m not sure how much I would miss this aspect of the hardware were the Kinect removed.
Video while you game
The Xbox One allows you to “snap” different features together, so you can split your screen and multitask. This is something that may have seemed a bit silly at first, but it’s surprising how much use I’ve gotten out of the feature.
It’s fun to play slower games like Powerstar Golf and watch Twitch streams on the other side of the screen, or to catch up with some shows on Netflix while I’m also playing Killer Instinct. Most games reward the player when you give them the totality of your attention, but others allow for a little bit of wandering.
Being able to watch a show or movie while playing is something I thought was silly, but it's quickly become one of my favorite features.
What needs to be done
The party and chat system is a mess right now, and Microsoft's Major Nelson has already promised that it will be improved. What's frustrating is that the party system on the Xbox 360 was functional and useful… why take a step back?
If you don't use voice commands it can take way too long to navigate to your games and apps, and this issue is only partially fixed by pinning your favorite content on the home screen. Even a folder system so you could organize and arrange your content would be an improvement.
The ability to share real names on the PlayStation 4 has become one of my favorite features of that console, and it's something that Microsoft needs to steal yesterday. I also miss the ability to quickly and easily stream my content from the console, something that the Xbox One can't do yet… although the content sharing options are already pretty nice.
Remember that the Xbox 360 at launch was nothing like the system we're used to; these systems are going to be updated, changed, adjusted, and improved fairly rapidly as people buy and use the hardware and services. This is a first step, for both Microsoft and Sony, so it's hard to be harsh about the things that need improving; so much of it already works so well.
Of course, those of us who bought at launch (or are covering the systems for work) are basically beta testing for the reasonable people who are waiting for better games after launch, and to them I say… you're welcome?