The Hardware—A New Way to Kinect
The first thing you’ll notice about the Xbox One is how massive it is. It’s almost 11 inches wide by 13 inches deep and three inches tall. In an age of ever-shrinking electronics, I actually love how the Xbox One bucks the trend and hearkens back to a time of behemoth top-loading VCRs that dominated our entertainment centers. The Xbox One is, of course, much prettier than a top-loading VCR, with power and disc eject buttons that aren’t really buttons at all, just sensitive spots on the console’s face that operate on the lightest of touches. Like the PS4, the Xbox One is housed in a mixture of glossy and matte black plastic, with nearly half of that housing built out of vents to dissipate heat.
Those vents will come in handy because if you use the Xbox One the way it was intended, it’s going to be on all the time. The console has an HDMI IN port for your cable signal, and if you choose to set it up this way (which you should, as this is a major selling point) you actually won’t be able to watch TV without your Xbox turned on; this connection does not serve as a dead pass through. This can seem like a pain in the ass at first, but once you start switching between apps, games, and TV, you won’t be pining for the option to just turn on your cable box. The Xbox One’s new hardware allows for a lot of programs to run in the background and makes switching back and forth between games, TV, and apps like Skype and Netflix, super-fast. Snap mode allows you to run TV or a game in the main window—more than three quarters of your TV screen—and have one additional app running as a sidebar to your screen. One of the coolest uses of this new mode is to have the NFL app snapped to the side of the screen—scrolling headlines, stats, or your NFL.com fantasy team (at launch, no other fantasy sites are supported, unfortunately)—with a game running on the main screen. In addition, a new Smartglass app designed especially for the Xbox One lets you navigate the UI and perform some remote control commands, including volume control and channel changing, from your smartphone or tablet.
Most discussions about Xbox One, however, usually start with the new Kinect, which comes packed in. The Kinect is a pretty serious piece of hardware, a heavy, 10-inch wide camera and microphone that can be mounted above or below your TV. It connects to the console via a thick, nearly 10-foot-long cable. Like the original Kinect for the Xbox 360, the new version lets you motion-control certain games, and because it’s far more advanced than the first, does a much better job in this regard. But motion-controlled games are just the tip of the iceberg; the new Kinect allows you to channel surf, open any app, Skype, and navigate any part of the Xbox One’s interface through voice commands. This is simultaneously the source of the Xbox One’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side: This allows you to walk into your living room and say, “Xbox on,” and instantly fire up your Xbox, cable or satellite box, and TV with that single command before you even sit down. Shutting the whole entertainment system down is just as simple with an “Xbox, turn off.”
Say, “Xbox watch TV,” then “Xbox, watch ESPN,” and the Kinect is responsive enough to bring you there quicker than your remote can. But any channel with a name not as distinct as Fox, NFL Network, or Comedy Central will give you problems. While the Kinect can take me to the NFL Network 10 times out of 10 that I try, it’s yet to be able to take me to the correct channel when I say “Xbox, watch NFL Redzone.” Most of the time, it takes me to the NFL Network or, if I try to emphasize the “Redzone” portion of this, it might take me to another, totally random channel. Ironically, a few times it took me to the Lifetime channel.
Other new functions like gesture control using Kinect aren’t very smooth, either. In theory, you’re supposed to be able to wave to the Kinect to enable gesture controls, and then navigate the interface or the channel guide with simple hand gestures. This is fine if you want to “grab” your home screen and swipe to the left or right, but selecting a piece of content or a channel rarely works well. Hopefully, this is something Microsoft can iron out in a future update. Another major drawback: At the moment, the Kinect has no DVR functionality, meaning you cannot go to your cable box’s DVR using any voice commands. Given the popularity of DVRing—I rarely watch live TV outside of sports these days—this is a significant issue, if only because it robs the Xbox One of feeling complete. Again, Microsoft can and will likely iron this out in future updates, but at launch, it remains a major oversight.