Microsoft Xbox One as Content Hub
AT A GLANCE
Integrates with cable or satellite set-top box with advanced One Guide
Improved Kinect camera for voice and gesture control
Blu-ray player works with voice and gesture control
Requires Xbox Gold membership to stream from some services
Some streaming services available on Xbox 360 not yet on Xbox One
Can stop playback to say “hi” to a new user that has stepped into the room
For gamers who want a streaming all-in-one entertainment device, this is the console to buy.
The Xbox One was released in November 2013, exactly eight years after the release of Microsoft's last game console, the Xbox 360. In those eight years, the Xbox 360 was updated and upgraded, including the addition of the Kinect camera for voice and gesture control. In the past couple of years, a number of streaming services were also added, making the Xbox 360 a viable whole-family entertainment device. Now, the Xbox One has “improved” on the 360’s features. The Kinect has been upgraded. TV integration and a Blu-ray player have been added. The result: the Xbox One may be poised to fulfill Microsoft’s hope to make it the only component you’ll need to add to your home theater.
The new Kinect camera is designed to work in low-light conditions—even in a dark room. I found that neither the new voice nor gesture commands were as natural or intuitive to use as those for the Xbox 360. The new Kinect uses a different set of hand movements and voice command hierarchy than the Xbox 360. Instead of holding up a hand to engage gesture command, the Kinect detects when the palm is facing the camera. Often, reaching for a coffee cup brought up gesture controls and inadvertently paused a video or took me to another app. Scrolling required a deliberate grab-and-drag gesture instead of a sweeping arm movement.
Likewise, I had to get used to the voice commands. With the Xbox 360, saying “Xbox” lit up available commands to choose what was on screen. The Xbox One adds another level of control—which is both good and bad. Saying “Xbox” can take you to any app from within any app without going back to the home screen. To bring up Netflix while watching TV, you'd say "Xbox, go to Netflix." Other general controls are available including “snapping” a second app in a side bar to research something on the Web, chat with friends, and more. To choose something you see on the screen like you do on the Xbox 360—whether it’s an app in the home screen or controlling and choosing a video in a streaming app—requires that you say “Xbox select” to select from what is displayed. Over time, I’ve become accustomed to saying “Xbox” or “Xbox select.”
Of course, the Xbox One comes with a video controller if you'd rather not deal with voice and gesture, or you can use the Smartglass app for smartphones and tablets, which has been improved. Connectivity was reliable and worked every time. The app mimics the Xbox controller and is specific to the current app. Tapping movie or "episode details" displays a detailed synopsis, other episodes, and recommendations for similar shows from all streaming apps. While watching House of Cards on Netflix, it recommended Person of Interest on Vudu.
A post-release update added USB keyboard support. Any computer USB keyboard can be connected. For a wireless experience, I used a Bluetooth keyboard and plugged the adapter into the USB port on the Xbox One. Not only could I chat more easily, I was able to navigate to Google Docs and my Microsoft OneDrive where I wrote part of this review before switching to watch Jack Reacher on Netflix.
This self-proclaimed “all-in-one entertainment system” has a plethora of media choices. It starts with access to your TV provider’s lineup, then add in your Blu-ray library. Xbox One rounds it out with online streaming apps—Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, NFL, MLB, Crackle, Vudu, YouTube, ESPN, FoxNow, FXNow, TED, Redbox Instant, and Skype, among others—and the ability to stream your own media from computers and devices. So, content is plentiful. Unfortunately, several streaming media services that were removed from the Xbox 360 lineup haven't show up yet as of this writing—including HBO Go, Spotify, Pandora, iHeart Radio, Rhapsody, and more—but they are expected to be brought to the One in the future.
The Xbox One’s OneGuide is a convenient way to find what you want to watch. It’s easy to switch from the enhanced guide of what’s on TV to top recommended videos from each streaming service. The guide is customizable, and it's easy to browse and choose something to watch using grab-and-punch gestures or voice selection.
And, let’s not forget that this is a video game console. With more powerful hardware than the Xbox 360, games for the Xbox One are ever more detailed and realistic, with increasing numbers of artificial intelligence (AI) characters acting independently in the background in games like Dead Rising, NBA2K14, Forza, and more. A number of fitness apps take advantage of the Kinect’s enhanced abilities to “see” muscle load and monitor heart rate by detecting blood flow in a player’s face. Following popular workout videos from Jillian Michaels, P90X, Insanity, and others, it was like a trainer was in the room correcting my form.
The Xbox One sends out 1080p video from compatible sources. Blu-rays looked as good as on any other player in my system. Dolby Digtial and DTS bitstream output were added this spring, though the unit can decode the lossless Blu-ray formats onboard and output them as uncompressed PCM via HDMI to any compatible receiver. Netflix’s SuperHD less-compressed video option has yet to appear on the Xbox One (where it streams to my other devices). Nonetheless, picture and sound quality are good. And the Xbox One's faster processor opens and changes apps with no hesitation.
Once some of the services from the Xbox 360 are added to the Xbox One, it could become the only component needed for a home theater. If you have an Xbox 360, wait a little longer before buying the Xbox One.
I have many options for streaming media, so at the end of the day, which device remains connected to my TV after testing is an indicator of how much I like it. With Xbox One, most of my content is available with a voice command, and I can quickly tell the video to pause or switch to another app. I find myself missing this feature when I need to use a remote control with other streaming players. The integrated OneGuide gives more information than my Dish basic guide, and I use the SmartGlass app to find other videos or for accurate control when I want to be quiet.
On the downside, it does take practice to learn the new gestures and voice controls, but they work well once mastered. And we may have to wait a while for some key streaming partners to be added. But if you want a streaming solution with TV integration, a built-in Blu-ray player, and the ability to multitask while you're watching, and be able to control it all by voice and gesture, this is a good solution that is bound to get progressively better. The Xbox One is a versatile whole-family device.
Editor’s Note: For a more detailed take on the Xbox One, see Al Griffin’s review.