First thoughts on Xbox One: difficult to recommend right now

I received an Xbox One on launch day last week.

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I ordered this because I am interested in tracking Microsoft, and because I have had a lot of fun from the Xbox 360 and its predecessor, the original Xbox.

In the box you get the console, power brick, the new Kinect sensor, a single controller, a headset, and several leaflets including a pointless Day One “achievement” and a code to download FIFA 14.

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Setup is a matter of connecting an HDMI cable to your TV or, in my case, a receiver, and the Kinect to its special port. I also connected an ethernet cable.

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Finally I connected a digital TV PVR to the HDMI in. This enables the TV app on the Xbox One.

First impressions of the hardware are good. It looks elegant and feels well made. The controller is lovely to hold. The Kinect looks solid and sits comfortably in front of our TV.

I looked in vain for any specifications in the box. From other sources I believe the Xbox One has:

  • AMD chipset with 8 CPU cores at 1.75 GHz and 8GB DDR3 RAM
  • 500 GB hard drive
  • AMD GPU with 768 cores supporting up to 3840×2160 (2160p) graphics.
  • Blu-ray drive
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 802.11n wifi
  • HDMI out, HDMI in, 2 USB 3.0 ports, S/P DIF optical audio out.
  • 7.1 surround sound

First impressions of the software are so-so. It began by downloading a firmware update, which went quickly enough. However that was just the start. The Xbox One dashboard uses an app model; almost everything is an app. Each app has to be downloaded and installed, including the Blu-ray player, Xbox Music, Skype and so on. Even the system settings is an app.

I made the mistake of registering my free download of FIFA 14 as one of the first things I did. The download is huge, and while it proceeded most of the other functionality showed as “Queuing”.

I expected to be wowed by some gorgeous effects in the new dashboard, but in fact the design is rather pedestrian. It is a tiled user interface but not quite the same as Windows 8. The dashboard features a larger tile which represents the currently selected app. This may be a live preview in some cases, TV for example. You can select this to run full screen, or you can have a snap view which shows a secondary app running alongside.

The dashboard overall feels rather spartan, especially to begin with when nothing much has been downloaded.

All of this contributed to an overall out of box experience of “is that it?”

I remember unpacking the original Nintendo Wii, running the Sports game, and having an amazing time. By contrast getting started with Xbox One was rather drab.

There is a video store where you can buy or rent downloads. I tried a few previews which show in extremely poor quality, which I trust bears no comparison to what you get if you actually pay. It beats me why you would show worse-than-VHS previews of movies when trying to tempt people into paying for a download.

There there is Kinect. I have mixed feelings. First, it really is amazing. It feels like a huge step forward from the original Kinect. I downloaded Kinect Sports Rivals preview, which lets you ride a water racer where you clench your fist to accelerate and move invisible handlebars to steer. It works perfectly even when you are seated. Technically that is a huge achievement.

At the same time I have to say that I would rather use a controller. Are we ever going to get equally precise control with motion sensors, compared to what you get with a controller? If it is a bowling game, motion sensors do make sense, but for controlling a water racer I am not so sure.

I am looking forward to trying the fitness app, but currently I a get a log-in failure with a message “unable to connect to token service”. It could be a firewall issue. Annoying.

Voice control is another big feature. Again, I have mixed feelings. It works for the most part very well. You say “Xbox select” and available options show in green text on the screen.

The main problem I have with the voice control is lack of consistency. I am willing to invest the time getting good at voice control, but only if I can do nearly everything with it. Unfortunately many apps are not voice enabled. So you can start the YouTube app with voice, for example, but not search within it.

I also worry that voice control will be a liability in some scenarios. Such fun to enter a room full of intense gamers and say “Xbox Go Home”.

It is getting there though, and worth some effort just to be able to go into a room, say “Xbox play Miles Davis” and have it be so.

That brings me to Xbox Music. It seems pretty good for streaming from Microsoft’s service, but not for much else. In my case I have a huge library of music ripped from CD and would like to be able to play it on the Xbox One. Rumour said that there would be support for DLNA streaming but I cannot see any sign of it.

FIFA 2014 looks good though football games are not so much my thing. I do miss having a little leaflet with a quick guide to the controls; a downside of download games.

There are not many games available and some are extraordinarily expensive, £68.99 for Dead Rising Deluxe Edition for example.

The YouTube app is nicely done and a good way to while away time, lack of voice search aside.

There are occasional Windows-like annoyances. You start the console, it says “Hello Tim” and you think you are signed in. You open Xbox Music and it says you must sign in. You select to sign in and you get another screen saying you should sign in. Then you sign in and it works.

There is a lot more Windows in Xbox One than in its predecessor. The SkyDrive app lets you view your uploaded photos which is handy. Internet Explorer is there and works reasonably with voice control, but lack of Flash is a big problem given that multimedia is important in the kind of web browsing you are likely to do on a TV.

So what do I think? On the plus side, the hardware seems excellent. I like the new controller. I like the Blu-ray support. I like the YouTube app.

The sad thing though is that as of now an Xbox 360 is a lot more fun, with its rich array of available games, and mature dashboard and apps.

Lack of any backward compatibility is a disaster at this point in the new console’s lifecycle. It is also disappointing that you cannot yet install Windows 8 apps, which would have instantly provided an array of reasonably priced casual games.

Populate XBox One with some strong games and apps, give the dashboard a bit more polish, and it could be really good. As it stands though, I find this hard to recommend. This is a long-term worry, since it gives the competition a head start from which the One may never recover.

Microsoft also needs to be a little less greedy in terms of pushing its subscription services and give us more fun out of the box.

Kinect is the major differentiator, and we will have to watch this space. The technology is amazing but where are the stunning and delightful games or apps that take advantage of it? Whether or not these will arrive is a big unknown.

Related posts:

  1. Keep your 360 – Xbox One not backward compatible
  2. Windows in Xbox One: a boost for Windows 8 apps?
  3. Poor usability in Microsoft’s Xbox Live billing and support
  4. Microsoft announces Internet Explorer for Xbox 360, makes bid for living room
  5. Xbox Kinect has sold 8 million since launch, and is driving more controller-free features