Xbox One Initial Impressions

I just got the Xbox One and I want to talk about it.

First, Some Background

I’m not an Xbox fanboy. Enthusiast is the better, more fitting label, I think. I’ve owned every PlayStation and Nintendo console outside of their most recent offerings, but when the cards are down, I simply prefer the Xbox brand. I was there at launch for the original Xbox and the 360. I participated in the beta for Xbox Live, and my Gold account hasn’t lapsed in the many years since, even when the benefits of PlayStation Plus caused me to question the value returned by my Gold account.

All that said, I was not there for the launch of the Xbox One. Frankly, I had too many good 360 & PS3 games yet to play to justify spending $500 on a system with a weak launch line-up, to say nothing of the questionable value case for the Kinect. I was content to wait, because even after the E3 hubbub died down, valid questions remained about the new Xbox. Frankly, the PS4 looked like a better gaming system, and not just on paper. Early reviews comparing games on both next-gen consoles indicated the PS4 version looked better. And we had Resolution Gate, the ripples of which continue today.

Despite everything, I was still leaning heavily toward the Xbox One because of the exclusives. Outside of The Last of Us, the 360 had the best exclusives last generation. It wasn’t really close. I wanted to love the Uncharted series, especially as an Indy fan, but the gun play was lame and boringly repetitive (at least in 1 and 2, never bothered with 3). As interesting as the story was, it wasn’t good enough to keep me playing til the next cut-scene. So it never a question of if I bought the Xbox One, but when. Titanfall settled the case for me. More specifically, the bundle that included Titanfall for free with the Xbox One pushed me to buy.

First Blush

xbox-oneMy initial impressions were not all that favorable. The very first – the box is bloody heavy! Which is fine in itself, but belied another potential problem – the sheer size of the console. I’d read previously where the reviewer compared the Xbox One to the size of a 90s-era VCR, and the comparison is apt. It took some work to wiggle it into my entertainment center and re-prioritize other devices. Placing the Kinect was a tricky proposition as well. For best results, you are meant to position the Kinect above the TV. Like most modern TVs, mine isn’t all that deep. The Kinect could perch up there steadily enough on its own, at least until the kids start bouncing around or an errant ball comes whistling in. I ended up using some tape to secure it. Not elegant in the least, but serviceable and unnoticeable.

Once it was all hooked up, I turned it on and worked through the initial setup menu. The Xbox tried to download an update, only it just sat there saying it was going to get the update, but not appearing to do anything. Afraid it was actually doing something and unwilling to brick it, I waited 30 minutes. As I waited, I started to remember how many times I had to deal with hardware problems with the 360. I sent three 360s consoles back to Microsoft in cardboard coffins, and had to buy the slim model later on when my console died out of warranty. I started to sweat.

Finally, I worked up the nerve and did a hard reset. Next time, the update came down and installed just fine. Whew.

From then on it was (mostly) smooth sailing.

Tentative First Steps

I felt a bit lost once the dashboard (is it still called that?) came up. The UI looked nice – better than the old blade system hopelessly crowded with ads – and I could navigate around just fine with the controller. But after all the to-do about the inclusion of Kinect, it was a bit jarring that some sort of Kinect tutorial didn’t greet me upon first boot, or that there wasn’t a flashing tile or some other obvious way of learning how to use Kinect to navigate the system. I waved my hands around to no obvious response. Because I knew something about the voice syntax already from previous reviews, I started talking to my Xbox, trying out random commands. I turned it off and back on. Cool.

After some digging around, I found a set of tutorials for using gestures and voice. The voice tutorial is actually an app to download, but I was able to launch the gestures one. The tutorial was helpful, but I won’t ever bother using the gestures. They are too imprecise and clumsy. It’s faster to just use the controller, which is always close to hand anyway. Somewhat mixed feelings so far.

kinect_gestures

Gestures – as stupid as it looks

TV

While the voice app was downloading, I configured the TV app. Setup was a breeze. Using voice commands, I brought up the OneGuide and switched to different channels. Speed is great – flipping channels was faster then using the cable box’s own remote. Amazing.

Here I encountered some other problems. While the Kinect recognized my command to switch to a specific channel, it was unable to locate specific programming. Even when I was staring at the OneGuide and saying the exact name of the TV show, the Xbox would just go to a random channel. I’m probably using the wrong command structure for accessing a specific television program, but it doesn’t seem like the commands are very intuitive. Once again, some sort of guide or something right off the bat for navigating with Kinect would have been great. A real missed opportunity.

Another strange, but somewhat funny problem – while I was controlling the TV via voice commands, the Kinect set off the test function of the combined smoke / carbon monoxide detector in my living room. I’m guessing some of the IR signals the Kinect blasts must be bouncing up to the ceiling. It was quite annoying, enough so that I exited the TV app altogether. As a long-term fix, I’m either going to move the smoke detector to another room, or try switching in a different brand. The Xbox isn’t moving, of course. Priorities.

Despite the snafus, my overall initial impression of the cable integration is very positive. The picture looks great, channels change quickly, and the OneGuide is miles better than the crappy channel guide the cable company provides. It’s really too bad that the Xbox can’t also function as a DVR. It seems so obvious. Perhaps in time.

Multi-tasking

Grabbing my iPad has become part of my pre-game ritual, along with using the bathroom and pouring a cold drink. Without it, I feel vaguely unsettled and agitated. I hate wasting time watching games load.

So I already practice multi-tasking and didn’t really expect to gain much from the Xbox One’s implementation of such features. I was dead wrong.

There is something amazing about seamlessly switching back and forth between Titanfall and YouTube with only the power of your voice, and having the video resume right where you’d left off. In many ways, what I’m doing is no different than what I’d done before. It’s the same concept without the extra exertion of setting aside my controller and picking up the tablet. Content delivery is condensed into one device instead of two. Logically, it’s all the same. In practice, it feels something like magic.

This new Xbox was built with multi-tasking in mind. It doesn’t just enable it, like a bad habit you allow to fester but are ultimately better off without. Multi-tasking is part of the core DNA. Xbox One encourages and fosters it, allowing you to harvest all these tiny increments of time that would otherwise be lost and put them toward something meaningful. Using the Xbox One without multi-tasking would be like playing only the single-player portion of Call of Duty: Black Ops – you can do it, I guess, but you are missing out on all the good stuff. Multi-tasking is that central to the identity of the Xbox One.

The Xbox One is quick to respond to your commands and switches tasks with very little delay. This is nothing like hitting the guide button on the 360 and waiting 5-10 seconds for the screen to pop-up. Very slick.

The Kinect

It is impossible to talk about the Xbox One without mentioning the $100 camera that comes with it. You can use the Xbox One without the Kinect, but it’s one of those “cutting off the nose to spite the face” predicaments. Yes, you can do it, but it waters down the experience and fundamentally alters what the Xbox One is and is capable of.kinect

I am cognizant of the privacy concerns that come with having an always-on camera that actively listens to you while connected to the Internet, and I am concerned on some level. The NSA has strong-armed Microsoft before, what’s to say they won’t do it again? I may not have anything to hide, but I still value my privacy.

Here, convenience carries the day. Turning on the Xbox with only my voice, having it recognize and sign me in automatically, enabling all the sweet multi-tasking features – these experiences are simply too-powerful to disable permanently. I suppose I could only plug the Kinect in when I am gaming and unplug when I’m done, but let’s be honest – I’m lazy, and that sounds annoyingly tedious. For now, I’m resolved to not discuss personal matters in my living room, and to discontinue my practice of streaking around the room.

Putting aside such sensitive topics – using the Kinect has been an awesome experience. I quickly got over the stigma of talking to my television, and even got my kids in on the act. My wife thinks we all sound crazy.

Voice commands is where Kinect really shines. I can find things navigating the UI, but it is so much easier to just ask the Xbox to show my Achievements, or my Friends, or whatever. Aside from locating specific television content, the Kinect has perfectly recognized all my voice commands every time, and in that specific instance, I was likely using the wrong commands. I’m a programmer by trade, so the need to use syntax to communicate with a computer is familiar to me and not at all surprising or discouraging.

One immediate advantage of using the Kinect – entering those 25-digit strings to unlock digital content. The Kinect read the bar code for my digital copy of Titanfall without a problem. I had to dig into the menus a bit to verify it was actually downloading, so there’s a little bit of a disconnect there.

Games & Apps

I only have Titanfall so far. I’ve written my impressions on the game here. In general – the game looks and plays great. Does it look next-gen? I don’t know. It’s certainly not the graphical leap we’ve become accustomed to when going from one generation to the next.

titanfall_parkourSome have compared Titanfall graphically to Halo 4, and I feel that’s a fair comparison. Titanfall is beautiful, no doubts there. But it doesn’t exactly blow my mind. This could simply be the result of new hardware plus smallish developer, but it is a bit of a concerning note to start the next gen on, especially given all the noise over resolutions. I’m not a graphics whore but I appreciate a nice-looking game. Titanfall fits the bill. Just don’t go into it expecting to be wowed (by the graphics, the gameplay is amazing) like the first time you played Gears of War and you’ll be fine.

Aside from Titanfall, the game store is a wasteland. It’s only 3 months out from launch, but I can only imagine how the early adopters have felt these long days until Titanfall hit. I’ve heard some promising stuff about Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare. Is the dirge of quality content making this game more desirable, like closing time at the bar? Garden Warfare looks cute and might be worth checking out to play with the kids. Too bad there is no demo.

In general, this sentiment encapsulates my feelings about the Xbox One – the console radiates potential, almost visibly, like heat shimmering over black asphalt. I want to do cool stuff with it, but there is an emptiness about the dashboard that is felt if not directly seen. Where are the experiences that fully show what Kinect is capable of, our version of Wii Sports? Where are the cheap, Xbox Live Arcade-type games? Why are the apps so limited, and where’s HBO Go? You can say it’s early days yet, those things will come, and that’s completely true. But even almost 4 months out from launch, there is ghost town-like vibe about the dashboard. I wonder if Microsoft is regretting how casually they burned the bridges with indie developers (and subsequently all but pushed them toward Sony).

Between bouts of Titanfall, I’d sometimes flip back to the dashboard and wander around a bit, trying to discover something to fill the vacancy I could vaguely sense, a feeling that I wasn’t using the system to it’s fullest. Only, there was nothing to find. At one point I even considered powering up the 360.

Overall

I’m not going to score this, as the true merit of the system can’t be known until we’ve had years to aggregate experiences. Instead, here are the things I liked and didn’t like. In general, I am very excited for the future of Xbox. I’m glad I bought the console, and I’m loving Titanfall. Looking forward to seeing the Xbox One grow into a fuller experience.

Good

  • Controller – I didn’t mention before, but the controller feels like a natural evolution from the 360 gamepad. I like that the Xbox Guide button is now more flush with the controller face, and the triggers feel less springy.
  • Multi-Tasking – Or, What I Didn’t Know I Needed in a Console But Absolutely Love and Can’t Imagine Going Without Again. Yes, my PC also does this and has since the beginning of time. But there is something really cool about this functionality on a video game console with TV and other apps integrated.
  • Kinect Voice Commands – Coupled with the multi-tasking features, using your voice to control the console feels magical.
  • TV Integration – slick and responsive. No loss of quality running cable through the Xbox One.
  • Titanfall – it may be a multi-player only title, but it is a killer app. As a “launch window title” (since when did 3 months out become a launch window?), Titanfall doesn’t have the scope or majesty of Halo: CE for the original Xbox, but it is a console seller.

Needs Improvement

  • The New User Experience – lots of new, cool stuff, but the user is a bit left to their own devices. A guided tour would be very helpful. I’m a techie and can figure this stuff out – indeed, I quite enjoy the hunt. I can’t imagine how Joe Blow (or Mrs. Blow, for that matter) would unlock the console’s full potential.
  • Kinect Gestures – just horrible. The current implementation is not worth the time to learn.
  • Unable to snap YouTube. Why?
  • Snap in general – I still am a bit lost on how best to use it. It is kind of awkward exiting from Snap – you need to go back to Xbox home and disable manually? Maybe there is a better way, but aside from trial-and-error or looking up on the web, I wouldn’t know (see bullet point #1 in this section).
  • Game / App Store – lack of content currently. Why doesn’t every game have a demo? Where are the small $5 and $10 games? Everything feels a bit spartan right now, and not in a good way.
  • DVR functionality would be killer. Even it the Xbox One just recorded 15-30 minutes of live TV so that I can watch between games. I saw a pause button but it didn’t seem to work.

I’ll post again as I have more time with the system.

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