Initial thoughts on Microsoft's Xbox One

Microsoft's Xbox One launched at the end of last week, and mine came Friday evening. That means I've only had a couple of days with it, but I thought I'd share my thoughts so far. Don't consider this a thorough review or anything; just a gadget freak's first reactions.

While the Xbox One plays games (obviously) what makes it unusual is its media capabilities. That means to take advantage of the TV features I had to run an HDMI cable from the cable box to the HDMI IN port on the Xbox, and another cable from the HDMI OUT port to (in my case) an A/V receiver. Kinect plugs into a proprietary port. Other than that, it's a standard console setup...except for the obligatory Day 1 patch that you have to download. Unfortunately Microsoft didn't make this patch via alternative means. Fortunately, for me at least, downloading the patch didn't take long; Microsoft's cloud did its job as far as that went.

The closest thing to the XBox One's media functions that I've had experience with is Google TV and I expected to have to do a lot of fiddling with the system to get it working after everything was plugged in.

Turns out I was wrong. The Kinect sensor's IR blaster is powerful enough that it can control all my gear without the wired blasters that I had to use with Google TV. I did have to go through the Kinect voice calibration, but that was really no big deal; turn up the volume and stay quiet for a couple of minutes, and that's about it.

Setting up control of the TV was as easy as telling the Xbox what brand TV I had. For the cable box I told it my provider and the brand of cable box. Setting up my receiver was a separate step and I had to provide make and model for that. Once I did, the Xbox was 'smart' enough to send things like volume and mute commands to the receiver rather than the TV. Lastly, to set up the guide I had to pick my cable provider and region. And I was done.

Once you get the Xbox One up and running you'll find it is completely empty, so set aside some time to start downloading apps that interest you (and there're a few free game trials you might want to queue up too: Killer Instinct and Kinect Sports Rivals Preseason). For me that meant the usual suspects: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video and a few others. One creepy moment happened when I fired up Netflix for the first time. The Xbox One already had my credentials and logged me in. I assume this means that Microsoft is storing your Netflix log-in with your Microsoft profile (I had the Netflix app on the Xbox 360 and on my Windows 8 machine.) This turned out to be both convenient and unsettling. So let's back up and walk through a typical Xbox One session. I walk into the living room and say "Xbox, on." The Xbox springs to life, then it turns on the TV, cable box and receiver via IR. As soon as I walk in front of it, it logs me in. I say "Xbox, Watch TV" and I get full screen live TV. I can say something like "Xbox, Watch ABC" and it'll tune to the local ABC affiliate even though I personally couldn't tell you what channel number that is. Sadly the Xbox One won't control your DVR features. It also won't change Inputs if you've been watching Apple TV on another HDMI port or something. It will control volume but the changes, at least with my receiver, are so subtle that they're not very usable. I'd have to give the same command a number of times in a row to raise or lower the volume substantially. And both Mute and Un-Mute are problematic; those are really the only commands I've found the Xbox doesn't parse reliably. Anyway of course there's nothing on TV (is there ever?) so I say "Xbox, Go To Netflix" and the Netflix app will launch. I can navigate around this using voice and start playing something. I can do Xbox Pause, Play, Fast Forward and Rewind and it all works quite well. When I'm done I say "Xbox, Turn Off" and the TV, receiver, cable box and Xbox all shut down (well technically the Xbox One goes into standby mode). By the way, turning everything off is optional; you have to enable that in the settings. I read a lot of reviews of the Xbox One that say that voice commands aren't really viable because they don't work well enough; that hasn't been my experience. I do have to keep the cable box remote handy for DVR stuff, but I've never had to use the Xbox One Controller to control media, for instance. Yesterday at lunch I turned on the system, found something watch on Amazon, watched it and shut everything down again and never touched any kind of remote. Pretty swanky! What doesn't work well (for me at least) are gesture commands. I just can't get a feel for them yet. I'm not sure I'll bother since the voice commands work so well. One more anecdote for you. Sunday afternoon I was watching football. When a commercial came on, I'd say "Xbox, Snap TV" and it'd minimize the TV window over on the right side of the screen. In the main window I could now see the game of Powerstar Golf I'd been playing before I started watching TV. I'd then say "Xbox Switch" to make the golf game the active window, and take a few shots in my current round. When I saw the commercials were over, I'd say "Xbox Switch, Full Screen" to make the minimized TV feed active and then full screen. In short, I'm loving the media capabilities of the Xbox One. Then, of course, there're the games. I've focused mostly on three: Forza Motorsport 5, Dead Rising 3 and the already mentioned Powerstar Golf. I'm enjoying all three of these games. Forza is beautiful and it's a hoot to see the "Drivetars" of your friends in a race with you. I haven't honestly played enough to say that these Drivetars are better or worse that regular AI drivers, though. Dead Rising 3 is great fun if you're a zombie fan with the most impressive feature being the sheer number of shambling undead they can get on-screen at once. And Powerstar Golf is an old-school golf game (meaning it has a 3-tap swing system) with lots of asynchronous social play and a budget price of $20. I also tried the Kinect Sports demo and it controlled surprisingly well, but holding my arms out in front of me to control a game isn't really my idea of fun. In fact in general I'm still not sold on Kinect in games. Forza has head tracking where you can lean left and right and your in-game camera will pan in the same direction you're leaning. It works, but not if, like me, you play games in a semi-reclined position on the couch. You have to sit up straight to use it. And Dead Rising lets you shout "OVER HERE!" to get the zombies attention so they'll come after you, but every time I shout in the midst of a game session my dog gets spooked. As with the Playstation 4, I don't think there's a "must-have" game for the Xbox One yet. But we're happy with it for the media features. My girlfriend has a profile on the Xbox One and she can set up her own favorites and stuff. And we're still amused at the fact that the Xbox greets us by name when we sit down. In a lot of ways I think the Playstation 4 is a better games machine; the controller has added features like a trackpad and a built-in speaker, and you can plug any headset into the controller and play without disturbing the family. The Vita Remote Play feature is nifty if you have a Vita, too. Also most of the hardware geeks say the PS4 is more powerful. But the Xbox One strikes me as a machine that will please the whole family. It's great for the gamers and really convenient for the TV watchers. And who knows? Maybe in the future game developers will figure out a way to make Kinect as awesome in games as it is outside of them. It's been a great two weeks to be a gamer. Smart money probably says to give these new consoles some time to work the kinks out and for the libraries to develop. But if you're a passionate gamer excited for the new generation of gaming, I don't think you can go wrong with either of these consoles. Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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