A hands-on look at Microsoft’s new Xbox One

Mat Sumpter

Microsoft is out to conquer your living room with the new Xbox One entertainment system.

Now marketed as a multimedia system, Microsoft’s newest console has winning capabilities — but also some worrisome failures.

Entertainment systems have had, to say the least, a fractured history. They began with relatively simple, dedicated gaming systems such as the once hugely popular Nintendo. Gaming grew rapidly with the release of the Sony PlayStation and the Wii, and Microsoft spent billions in development and marketing to make its Xbox console one of the top two gaming devices.

But today, gaming manufacturers have a serious problem. Sales of dedicated gaming hardware have dropped significantly. Casual gamers are moving to their phones and tablets; there’s also competition from multimedia devices such as Roku and Apple TV. It seems no one wants hardware that runs only games.

That change isn’t lost on Sony and Microsoft, the two leading game-console manufacturers. They now market their latest hardware as entertainment systems — with video streaming, music, and Web browsing getting equal billing with gaming. (Microsoft took a previous shot at an entertainment system — the often maligned Windows Media Center.) Both Sony and Microsoft are betting big that their new all-in-one boxes will become the next must-have multimedia devices in your home.

On Nov. 22, Microsoft released two versions of the Xbox One (site): a standard model and a limited Day One edition with all-black packaging and an exclusive controller emblazoned with “DAY ONE 2013.” Aside from that, the two systems are functionally identical and have the same U.S. $499 cost. (I tested the Day One edition.)

MS Xbox One

Figure 1. The base Xbox One system includes a large main box, a single controller, and a Kinect sensor bar. (Source: Microsoft)

Xbox One installation: Quick and painless

My first reaction was surprise at the sheer weight of the Xbox One box. A good part of that heft comes from the Kinect sensor, a camera- and audio-based controller, optional on the Xbox 360 but standard on the Xbox One.

Setting up the Xbox One was incredibly easy. Well-labeled and proprietary ports made attaching cables intuitive and quick. (But once again, Microsoft chose to stick with an external power supply, making an already large console that much more difficult to fit into your media cabinet.)

The only confusing part might be the additional HDMI input port, which acts as a pass-through from your cable or satellite box. I hooked up my AT&T U-verse DVR and also connected the Xbox One to my home network with an Ethernet cable.

The included controller is similar to that of the previous (Xbox 360) generation, but there are improvements. The batteries have been moved inside the controller’s body, giving it better balance. Microsoft also made the button labels easier to read, and the analog controls are raised. The directional pad received the largest upgrade; it feels comfortable and precise. The controller, my primary input device for the Xbox One, was always a pleasure to use.

On first bootup, the system presents you with a few simple setup options such as preferred language and location. The console immediately noted the Ethernet connection and automatically added the needed networking configuration. (The console includes wireless; in a later test, it easily picked up my home WPA2 network.)

The next step was a required 500MB update. Once that was completed, setup continued with a few final steps, including either creating an Xbox Live account or signing in to an existing account. I recommend purchasing an Xbox Live Gold account (U.S. $60 per year or $10 per month) to access all of the console’s features.

Microsoft locked online multiplayer capabilities behind the Live Gold paywall on the Xbox 360, along with streaming media options such as Netflix and Hulu Plus. That policy continues with the Xbox One. (Sony, too, put the online multiplayer option into its paid premium service, but it allows media streaming without extra charge.)

From start to finish, setting up the Xbox One took approximately 25 minutes.

The Xbox One includes a 500-gigabyte hard drive, but unlike the Sony PlayStation 4, you can’t upsize it without voiding your warranty. So if you start pushing the storage boundaries of the Xbox One, you will need to start deleting items. (The device currently doesn’t support external USB-connected storage, but it might in the future.)

A broken Blu-ray drive right out of the box

With setup done, I started my Xbox One experience by popping in a fresh copy of Dead Rising 3. But instead of a zombie-inspired splash screen, I was greeted by loud noises emanating from the optical-media slot. Then the screen displayed a warning that the disc wasn’t supported. I tried a common video DVD, but it yielded the same result.

Almost immediately after the Xbox One release, social media buzzed with reports of disc-drive failures. Unfortunately, my new system had one of the defective drives. With any large-scale product release, there will be higher-than-normal failures. Sony’s recent PlayStation 4 launch was stymied by hardware issues as well. But a malfunctioning drive made reviewing the Xbox One’s multimedia and gaming experience incomplete.

It also piqued my concerns about Xbox One reliability. I still have memories of the infamous red-ring-of-death failures in the Xbox 360. It’s too early to tell whether the latest generation of Xbox has serious hardware issues. If you’re purchasing one as a gift, I suggest opening it up early and testing it.

An all-in-one, multimedia experience

The evolution of Xbox from gaming system to media-centric device began with the addition of Xbox Live. Xbox 360 added Windows Media Center support plus media-streaming services such as Netflix. Even at that, the Xbox 360 was relegated to the periphery of your home-theater system.

Microsoft designed the Xbox One to become the centerpiece of your home theater. The HDMI input port puts the Xbox directly between your cable/satellite feed and your flat-panel TV. Its Windows 8–like home screen puts a wealth of information and applications onto one screen (see Figure 2). And the new OneGuide feature (see Figure 3) lets you unify live TV programming with additional media sources such as Netflix or Hulu Plus. (Google chose this same approach for its initial Google TV release.)

Xbox One home screen

Figure 2. Xbox One's home screen has the same tile structure as Windows 8 and Windows Phone. (Source: Microsoft)

With some extra setup, I was able to control my surround-sound audio receiver, TV, and set-top box completely from the Xbox One. And the Kinect sensor gave me voice control for everything. (It’s hard not to feel you’re moving well into the future when you can simply tell your media system to turn down the volume.)

Xbox One OneGuide

Figure 3. The OneGuide TV listings (Source: Microsoft)

One of the early tasks for using the Xbox One is going to the Xbox Store and downloading the applications you’ll want to use. A downloaded app is required for practically everything beyond playing a game or watching TV. That includes playing audio discs and DVD videos, watching streaming video, or getting football stats via the NFL app.

Cable/satellite cord cutters should be happy with the Xbox One. There are apps for Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, Redbox Instant, VUDU, and YouTube. But if that’s all you’re looking for, the Xbox One is five to 10 times the cost of an Apple TV or Roku box.

Live TV integration is a part of the Xbox experience I was most interested in exploring. My wife and I are both avid football fans, and she immediately picked up on the NFL logo on the bottom of the Xbox One packaging. So Sunday was a great opportunity to watch live TV and use the Xbox’s snap feature to pop up information via the NFL app. This ability to combine media from various sources is where the Xbox One really shines.

NFL app

Figure 4. Football fans can simultaneously watch live games and get stats on their favorite players. (Source: Microsoft)

The convergence of live video with other media sources is undoubtedly the future of video entertainment. Nearly every major network show now encourages viewers to share their thoughts online. Xbox lets you display those interactions right along with the video. We were able to keep track of the progress of my wife’s team (Go Pack Go!), even though we weren’t able to receive the game.

Some bumps on the way to the digital living room

Not everything is smooth sailing in the unified living room. For example, we subscribe to AT&T’s U-verse TV and Internet, but we opted to not receive HD channels. I’ve configured every device in my living room to work from my Logitech Harmony remote, much to my wife’s pleasure. Using voice commands, I can retrieve the channel guide for all the U-verse channels but can’t default to just standard-definition channels. If I give it the command “Xbox Watch Discovery,” it immediately tunes to the HD version. (Buried in the Xbox settings are options for hiding SD channels, hiding duplicate SD channels, or displaying HD and SD altogether.) After all the work of setup, configuration, and searching, I’m relegated to using the game controller for TV navigation.

Voice control is supposed to be a killer feature on the Xbox One. But after a few days of use, telling it to fast forward during commercials and then deactivating its microphone before a show returned became annoying. I often missed parts of the show. In some applications, physical buttons on a remote control are just quicker and more precise. And while I truly liked the Xbox controller, it will go into sleep mode at inopportune times, making it a hassle to browse channels or skip commercials.

As a multimedia device, the Xbox One really needs a true remote control. I think Microsoft dropped the ball here; the console should include a media remote that taps into the Xbox One’s powerful commands and stored knowledge. The remote would easily control all connected devices without the need to input IR device codes. I tried to use a Media Center remote from my Xbox 360, but the Xbox One would not recognize it.

Looking for a compelling reason to upgrade

Despite a few warts, the Xbox One is an attractive package, with refined hardware (except possibly for the optical-disc drive) and some slick software. Its onscreen look and feel obviously reflect Microsoft’s new Windows/tablet/phone interface. Convergence is the word of the day, and the Xbox One is a direct shot across the bows of both Sony and Google.

I’ve invested countless hours playing on my Xbox 360. No doubt I will eventually spend a similar number of hours on the Xbox One. And Microsoft and Sony will sell record-breaking numbers of their consoles this holiday season — regardless of any initial hardware issues. (The Xbox One is currently sold out at many online retail sites.)

All that said, I’m not ready to drop $500 on another Xbox this holiday season. I’ve suffered through multiple Xbox 360 failures. My Xbox 360 Slim is barely a year old, and the console supports my entire game catalog. Because Xbox 360 games won’t play on the Xbox One, I’d be starting over again. Moreover, I’m generally satisfied with my current media and gaming devices. I’m sure my opinion will change as my current setup begins to fail — but not this year. (Let others be Xbox One beta testers.)

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Mat Sumpter

About Mat Sumpter

Mat Sumpter is the IT and integration manager at iNET Interactive. His many skills include system administration, Web programming, and network administration.