Dabe Alan

The Xbox One is a confusing mess of hardware and UI that sings once you learn the voice commands

The Xbox One is a confusing mess of hardware and UI that sings once you learn the voice commands

The Xbox One has always been an ambitious platform. Microsoft wanted to create a truly digital platform, but inept messaging and instant player backlash urged them to drop that plan.

The last few months have been damage control as they’ve moved back to a disc-based model, waffled on whether or not the Kinect would be mandatory for the system to work at all, and of course the get the oddly complex three-part OS system had to become operational.

I’ve had a system in my home for a pretty good amount of time, although many of the system's marquee features have only just been added. I went from being skeptical of the new Kinect to not minding the little bugger sitting under my television, and now that I’m used to how it works and what it does I find it hard to live without it.

Getting set up

The elegance and ease of use of the PlayStation 4 is nowhere to be found in the Xbox One packaging and out of the box experience, although once you take a breath and connect everything piece by piece it’s not that bad. I’m imagining non-tech savvy customers opening the box on Christmas morning and becoming slightly overwhelmed by the amount of hardware and cables in the box.

Just take a breath, though. It’s easy to get set up. The Xbox One itself looks like a large black brick; the system almost feels like a brutalist sculpture. You sync controllers by holding a button on the left side of the disc slot. The power button is more like a sensor that knows when it’s being touched. There is an HDMI output, an HDMI input, a port for the Kinect, a place to plug in the giant power brick, and that’s basically all you need to worry about.

The controller

The Xbox One controller is not nearly as interesting nor as forward-thinking as the PlayStation 4 controller. There’s no touch pad, no speaker, no flashing lights, none of the neat features and doodads that make the Dual Shock 4 such a fun little piece of hardware. The Xbox One controller is merely an evolution of the Xbox 360 controller, and that’s not too bad.

The d-pad feels great and works well with fighting games like Killer Instinct, and the rumble effects in the triggers add a surprising amount of information to certain games. You can get a sense for what your tires are doing on Forza by the rumble you feel on the brakes and the accelerator, which allows you to more accurately feel the limits of what your car can do before spinning out or losing traction. The menu and select button do pretty much what you expect them to, and there are no other big surprises.

I already desparately miss the audio output that you find on the bottom of the PlayStation 4 controller, but what can you do?

The UI, and why voice commands are the bomb

It’s easy to get overwhelmed once again after the Kinect is hooked up, the batteries are in the controller, and the day-one patch is updated. The Xbox One UI is unlike the Xbox 360, it’s not quite what you’re used to in Windows 8, and nothing makes sense at first. You need to spend a little bit of time and effort to learn what it can do, what you want it to do, and the best way to get it to do those things.

I un-pinned everything from the left of the screen and only pinned games so I had one place that collected every piece of content for my system. So now what?

Well, anything you want, really. The system multi-tasks in a way that’s rare for anything except a full-fledged PC. You can pause any game, move it to the background, and watch a movie on Netflix, or watch any game clips your friends may have uploaded. You can make a Skype call, then return to the game at any point. The idea of the “quick save” may be a bit antiquated; you can stop the game and walk away at any time, and it’s kept there for you.

In, fact I quickly saw how antiquated it was to want to keep my games in one area. The voice commands are powerful, functional, and quick. If you say “Xbox, go to Killer Instinct” in a conversation voice… well, you’ll go to Killer Instinct. “Xbox, go home” takes you back to the home screen. “Xbox, snap Netflix” will get the video streaming service running next to your game.

I’ve been told that you don’t have to shout or change your voice in any way, and that ended up being correct. Last night I was worried about waking up a sleeping baby when I was giving voice commands, but the Kinect sensor was able to pick up my commands when I used my lower than conversational voice.

Hearing me talk to the TV in a low voice, it has to be said, freaked out my wife. So there's that.

Still, this is where the Kinect pays off. The gestures are a gimmick, and I don’t think anyone is going to want to wave their hands in front of the screen to select different windows, but the voice commands were a joy to use. I have a large family, and everyone is always holding a baby, or making a snack, or needing to use the restroom, so being able to control something like Netflix without finding a controller or even using your hands is helpful.

Being able to walk into a room, turn on the system, launch Netflix, and start a movie with a few quick voice commands is actually easier than using a controller. And then moving instantly from that to a game with your voice is, again, much faster than using the traditional UI.

It's also fun once you've set up multiple accounts. When my son says “Xbox, show me my stuff,” his home screen takes over and he can look over his games, pins, and other content. I can say the same thing and switch it back. Setting up parental controls, including white-listing individual games, is a snap.

The trick is that you skip steps, you don’t have to move through any layers of the menus, you just tell the system to go directly where you’d like to go. “Xbox, go to Forza” is much easier than backing out of a program, going to your games, looking through them, and selecting the one you want to play.

There are many more features of the Xbox One, and we’ll be dealing with them in the coming days, but this is the one that sticks out. The voice commands are almost enough to justify the Kinect by themselves, and they make any number of features faster and simpler.

The speed at which you can move from game to app to app to app to game to game is dizzying once you get used to navigating by voice, and everything loads quickly. It feels like the magic trick to move from an episode of Doctor Who back to your game at a moment’s notice by saying a few words, but it’s going to be one of the nicest things about the system once you get used to how it works.

And it does take a bit to get used to. It can tricky to learn how to say each command in the specific way that will let the Xbox understand what you mean, and Microsoft sent us a handy list of voice commands and what they do. I didn't memorize all of them, or even most of them, but once I understood how to get the system to do each thing I needed it to do the voice commands became my preferred way of navigating the system.

Also, snapping apps. I didn't know I wanted to watch League of Legends matches while I played Forza, but now I know that this is a thing that I actually desire. Micrsoft's Albert Penello told me that he was sure the Internet was going to find interesting combinations of things to do together, and there's many different forms of chocolate to mix with the peanut butter in this system.

There are some weird omissions and flaws. There is no way to play any form of content from a USB stick; you'll need to stream content from your PC. The controller isn't compatible with any of your existing headphones, which is disappointing given the barebones nature of the pack-in headset for voice chat. Multiplatform games perform better on the PlayStation 4 in general, so if you have a large TV or want the absolute best graphics the Xbox One may not be your best choice.

We’ll be diving into the firmware and its features in more detail once I’m able to spend more time with the final software. If you have any questions, ask in the comments.