Xbox 360 gets another round of video apps: FiOS, YouTube and SyFy hands-on

The new Xbox 360 UI received a few more apps yesterday including two biggies: FiOS TV and YouTube, as well as some channel-specific apps like SyFy and TMZ. Always willing to spend time lounging on the couch in the name of research, I dove right in.

Let's start with YouTube. As soon as you download the app and fire it up, you can dive into "Feature" videos under headings like "YouTube trends," "most liked," and "most popular." Don't ask me how YouTube figures out what goes where in those buckets. You can also "Discover" content via categories like "animation," "celebrities and gossip," and "gaming."

Playing these videos worked great (quality depended on the source material, of course). Tapping the A button while a video is playing brings up a menu bar with pause, play, fast forward, etc. and from that bar you can choose More Actions which will reveal features such as Like, Dislike, Flag, Watch Later as well as Info about the video. I'm glad these functions are there, but they're kind of buried; at first I didn't think they existed.

Searching is done with the controller or gestures (with Kinect) via an row of letters on screen. Voice search isn't supported. Voice is supported for browsing/navigating and playback, plus you can access that hidden "Like/Dislike" menu easier via Kinect than you can with a controller. Just saying "Xbox" brings it up. Nice.

You can link your YouTube account to your Xbox Live account by entering a code from the Xbox app into a page at http://www.youtube.com/activate. Once you do that, you can see your Favorites, play lists, Watch Later list and get recommendations. Subscriptions are hidden away under "View All" which seemed like a curious decision, given that Google is pushing original content via channels these days, but at least they're there. "View All" is also where you'll find your own videos.

Performance in the "my YouTube" section was really sketchy. When I tried to load a channel I was subscribed to I'd get the message "Loading content approved for your device." Some times the app just hung there. Backing out and trying again might give better results, or might not. Hopefully these problems will be addressed. Of course I have problems with YouTube generally during prime time, so maybe the fault doesn't lie with the Xbox. I started testing at about 5:30 pm local time and performance got worse and worse as the evening wore on; that's consistent with my experience with YouTube on a PC, too.

All in all, YouTube is a really nice addition to the Xbox 360 experience if you're bored and just want to poke around watching popular videos and catching up on memes, though perhaps I'm biased because I don't have YouTube on either the PS3 or the Roku, so this is 'new' for me. If you have a smart TV with a YouTube app this might not be such a big deal. I'd like it a lot more if the "my YouTube" stuff worked more consistently.

On to FiOS. Once again, you'll start your adventure by downloading an app. That seems to be all you have to do. I didn't have to cal FiOS to get the service activated (as suggested in some earlier coverage) or even log in via my FiOS account. It just worked. Or at least, it just worked once. When I later went back to do more testing the Xbox couldn't authenticate against the FiOS servers. Hopefully a launch-day glitch.

FiOS gets its own entry on the Xbox 360 dashboard; it isn't under Video, it's under TV. I mention that because I went right to Video and started looking for it; I'm that dense at times and maybe someone else is, too.

Twenty-six channels are available for now, including HBO HD, HBO2 HD, and MAX HD. These are only available if you're subscribed to them, of course. The other channels are: CNN HL, DIY, MTV2, TCM, HALLMRK, TVLAND, Nick Jr., CARTOON, BOOM, TNT HD, TBS HD, SPIKE HD, ESPNewsHD, CNN HD, FOOD HD, HGTV HD, Travel HD, truTV HD, COMEDY HD, MTV HD, VH1 HD, NICK HD, BET HD. Whew. A real smattering of channels; something for everyone but conversely there are probably going to be some that you're not interested in. I guess it's hard pleasing everyone.

What I found kind of strange is that the home screen for FiOS has a big teaser block in the center (typical of the Metro UI) but it didn't reflect what was actually on. For example, a teaser for Thundercats on the Cartoon Network was one of the things rotating through this big teaser slot, but when I clicked on it I got a "Thundercats" branded page, but I couldn't actually watch the Thundercats. I could watch whatever was on the Cartoon Network at the moment. This is, after all, live TV.

I think FiOS is going to be useful to a particular niche of gamers; mostly people with an Xbox in their bedrooms or office. Otherwise, well, there's nothing I can see on Xbox FiOS that I can't see through the cable box sitting next to my TV. Bing Search should be one real strength but my initial experience wasn't great. I was watching Bonanza on TV Land (slim pickings on TV when I was testing) and then decided to test the search. Jumping out to the Dashboard of the Xbox and saying "Bing Bonanza" first gave me search results of 'manza'. I tried again, articulating carefully, and got results...but they were Netflix results. Bonanza is pretty obscure, so I tried again with Despicable Me, which was playing on HBO while I was testing. Again, Bing didn't find it on FiOS. I don't think Bing knows what's on TV right now, which is a big disappointment.

Last up, I checked out the SyFy app. At SyFy.com I can watch some full episodes of various shows and I was looking forward to getting them on the big screen via the Xbox SyFy app. No joy. Video clips only.

There are episode guides, and SyFy does produce a few web series and those you can see, but mostly the SyFy app is just a marketing vehicle, and not very interesting.

I have to say, the big winner in today's handful of apps is YouTube. Still to come: Crackle, Vudu, DailyMotion, MLB.TV, UFC, Veo, HBO Go and of course Xfinity (Comcast). Hopefully some of those will offer better content than what we're seeing in apps like the one SyFy has given us.

As to live FiOS TV on the Xbox, as I said, for FiOS subscribers with an Xbox that isn't located near a cable box it'll probably be interesting, as well as for the hyper-social who want to chat via Xbox Live with their fellow FiOS-subscribering friends while watching TV (I assume that works; in truth I didn't test it). For most households where the Xbox is in the living room next to the big screen and the cable box, it's more a curiosity than anything.

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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