The Xbox One is a powerful home entertainment hub.
Thursday afternoon, I was given a 45-minute demo of Microsoft’s next-generation console ahead of its November 22 release.
I didn’t get a lot of hands-on time to test games.
Instead, I was being shown the updated Xbox Dashboard and all the goodies that come along with it — from streaming live TV, to Skype, and multitasking capabilities.
Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take our own photos, so the majority of the images you’ll see here were shared from the Xbox One folks. We’ll have plenty of our own when we’re reviewing the console.
Before I get to all the features, I need to geek out for a moment about the first thing that caught my eye: the new Xbox One wireless controller.
It’s a super sleek, simple modern update.
One of the problems I’ve always had with the Xbox 360 controller (as a female gamer) is that the controller always felt a little too bulky in my small girly hands. The new wireless controller not only fits more naturally in my palms, but it also feels lighter.
Even better? Say goodbye to that cumbersome battery pack at the back of the controller. It’s gone! You’ll no longer have to worry about clashing your knuckles against the box in the back. Instead, batteries go inside the controller.
Other noticeable changes are ridges placed around the two joysticks — perfect for a better grip and to prevent fingers from sliding around. The directional pad is also simpler and the trigger buttons are larger across the back.
If I could say a game controller was sexy, that’s one word I’d use to describe it.
Now, onto the dashboard!
Here’s the Xbox One home page, the first screen you’ll see when turning on the console.
Let’s compare that with the 360 Dashboard:
The new dashboard is simpler and more cohesive to navigate, reflective of Microsoft’s Windows 8. There are three screens to scroll between: pins, your home, and the store.
Currently, the Xbox 360 has eight tabs.
On your homepage the largest box shows you what you’re doing at that instant. That can be anything from the game you’re playing to a show you’re watching. Here you can see we were playing Forza Motorsport 5 (more on that later).The items immediately underneath are your most recently opened apps.
To the left are “Pins” and to the right is the “Store.” The latter seems pretty self-explanatory.
Pins allow you easy access to any apps, television series, CD, game, movie, etc. that you want to be able to get to right away. Think of it as a desktop with whatever you want making it up. You can add up to 25 pins. You’re not able to shuffle them around and organise however you please, but it’s like having all your bookmarks in one spot.
Here’s a quick look at the apps store:
Great. So what is there to do?
Glad you asked.
The Kinect Is All Powerful
Clearly the biggest tool here is the Kinect. It’s almost as important — if not more important — than the controller. No kidding.
No longer is it an option to have the motion sensing input device as an add-on to the system. A new, revamped Kinect comes with every Xbox One and if you’re not familiar with it yet, and you’re planning to get the console, you will be.
From the moment we arrived until we left, we were “one” with the Kinect. You can literally use it for just about everything. It turns on and off the console, turns the volume up and down, and helps you swap quickly between apps and programs.
The 360’s Kinect could just as easily receive commands; however, in addition to old commands like “Xbox, go to [insert app],” we were told Microsoft will release an entire list of new commands to navigate across the console.
It’s clear the voice recognition is faster and easier to use (check it out for yourself here). The new Kinect is supposed to be extra sensitive to normal speaking voices and motion. We were in a room with an unusually high ceiling so the acoustics were a bit funky and we had to raise our voice a bit to get the console’s attention, but by no means were we shouting.
There were a few times during my demo where the Xbox didn’t respond right away, but for the most part, we didn’t have any issues. Overall, the Kinect executed requests promptly.
But what if you’re not into talking to your Xbox all the time?
I asked why else a gamer would be invested in a Kinect — other than for voice commands and the obvious Kinect games ranging from dance to fitness-types.
I was told since it will be mandatory with an Xbox One console, developers will be more apt to test out ways to take advantage of the technology’s motion and voice control in future releases.
This is already being seen. “Call of Duty: Ghosts” will allow gamers to use the Kinect to speak directly to squad members among its voice controls.
We were told with the 360 when every player didn’t own a Kinect, it didn’t seem as logical for developers to spend time making in-game features with the technology.
Watching TV on the Xbox One
What truly sets Microsoft’s next-gen console apart as a home entertainment console is its ambitious effort to make the transition between gaming and watching television nonexistent.
Provided you have cable, a quick HDMI cable hookup between your TV and the Xbox One puts your television directly on the console. So if you’re not into switching back and forth between input keys on your television remote, this is for you.
If you want to watch TV, again using the Kinect, you simply tell the Xbox to “watch TV” and it reverts to your cable while keeping you inside the Xbox. Any party invites or notifications will show up on the screen as they normally would during video game play.
Football lovers may want to ditch network TV for the NFL option on Xbox One as users can check in on latest news and scores, customise to follow highlights of their favourite teams and Fantasy Football.
In addition, you don’t have to worry about flipping through TV listings or channels. The Xbox One has its own built in television guide, so rather than searching for something to watch, or needing to know what channel something is on, you can ask the Xbox, “What’s on the History Channel?” and list of shows pops up.
Just as easily you can tell the console “Watch the History Channel” and you head right over to the channel. Yeah. This is the future.
But it gets better!
Who says you should have to choose between watching TV and playing a game?
You can do two things at once
This is one of the features we were most excited to see with the Xbox One and it did not disappoint.
The “snap” feature (Get it? Like snapping two items together) on the Xbox allows users to select two items to do simultaneously. For instance, you can play a video game while streaming music, play a game while watching TV or checking out game highlights. Forget playing a game. You can also surf the web while having TV on the side.
We attempted to try this out, but Forza kept acting wonky, so I had to settle for a combination of Internet Explorer and television. Not as exciting, but I still got the picture. You can only control one item at a time (makes sense), but it’s easy to shift between the two with a simple double tap of the X on the top of the Xbox controller.
In addition to all of this, we were also showed the Skype feature which came in at a very clear 1080p HD. Here we saw another great function of the Kinect as it automatically adjusts the camera to focus on an individual in the call. As opposed to the 360 which could handle two people at once, the Xbox One’s Kinect can focus on up to six people at a time. If someone enters or leaves the frame, the motion sensor compensates for that. That was pretty cool to see as we Skyped with one of the Xbox guy’s pals.
We only tried out the one-on-one call, but here’s a look at group Skype. You can do that with up to four people.
We know from game viewing site Twitch people love recording themselves play video games and others love watching people play. So, for anyone who’s into recording their own in-game experience, the Xbox One has a built in game DVR. And of course, it’s voice-controlled by the Kinect with a simple, “Xbox, record that.” Just like that, you capture 30 seconds of your latest gameplay.
If you’re into doing reviews, there’s an option to capture five minutes of video at a time. Xbox let’s you get creative with your videos with its Upload Studio, but we imagine most people would probably just record and share.
At launch, videos will be able to be shared across Xbox Live with friends. In the future, it’s expected that videos can be shared on YouTube, Facebook, and other social media.
Near the end of my demo, I tried out Forza briefly, not only to check out the graphics, but to test out the wireless controller in action.
Though I wasn’t playing the finished version of the game — just one for testing purposes — I could have been fooled. It looked and played like the real thing. The graphics looked as crisp and sharp as they did in previous footage shown at E3.
Again, not being able to take photos, here are screengrabs of ingame video play:
The car handled pretty well (I was driving a McLaren). Steering was a lot easier than making turns, but I was playing for less than five minutes and I was playing around with the different camera views. Most notable were the vibrations in the controller when starting to get off track. Press notes for the controller say the “Impulse Triggers deliver fingertip vibration feedback, so you can feel every jolt and crash in high definition.” I didn’t crash, but I did feel every bump in the road.
So what did I think of the Xbox One?
I loved it. 45 minutes was far from enough time to try out everything the console had to offer. Again, I was limited to the dashboard — not spending as much time exploring on my own or playing an actual game, but the console has a lot of potential.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The Xbox One is a giant entertainment hub. It’s clear Microsoft realises gamers do much more than just play games, so they want to make the console the one-stop-shop for everything.
One way Microsoft does that is by bringing the rest of the world into the game experience whether that’s with sports, TV, music, movies, Skype, etc. That’s what I saw a lot of during the demo. I really got the sense the Xbox One is about keeping people connected on their game console, the same way in which we’re plugged into every day life by making everything available instantaneously.
In addition to gaming, it’s clear the Xbox One is very invested in the Kinect and television integration.
Xbox announced it’s first wave of entertainment apps coming to the console Friday morning including The NFL, ESPN, CWTV, FXNow, FOX Now, Verizon Fios TV, and HBO GO on its way.
One thing repeatedly told to me is that the Xbox One is an ambitious project. And it is. There’s no denying that.
At its best, the Xbox One could very well change how a lot of people start watching TV.
If Microsoft can get a bunch of people to watch TV on a gaming console, it could very easily blur the lines between television and (what I like to call) Internet television (Hulu Plus, Netflix, etc). However the downside for some is that you need to have cable — in addition to an Xbox Live membership ($59.95 / year) — in order to experience much of the greatness the Xbox One will be offering. Microsoft seems aware of this as they’re rolling out a bunch of entertainment apps. We’d like to see more exclusives announced.
You can check out the dashboard for yourself in a new comprehensive demo Xbox released:
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