Of anyone at Giant Bomb, I’m probably the ideal candidate for what Xbox One says it's offering in its slick advertising. My primary interest in owning an Xbox One is playing great video games, but I’m also a cable subscriber, and someone who finds themselves watching live television on a regular basis.
My wife and I watch a whole lot of television, and though it’s been a while since I did the math, paying for season passes for every single show we watch would cost more than it does to have a cable box in our home every month. We like to experiment and keep up, not wait until the last season shows up before the next. We also watch lots of media not readily accessible on Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, and whatever streaming options you want to mention. She watches lots of cooking and reality shows, and we’re both glued to football on Sunday. Plus, during a culture moment like Breaking Bad, I don't want to wait until the episode is on iTunes.
This might not be you, and based on the vocal response from a whole lot of Microsoft’s core audience on Xbox 360, it’s probably not you. But you know what? That is me and my family, and I doubt it’s changing anytime soon. Microsoft is gambling there’s a larger audience to be brought into the fold through these integrated media extensions, even if there’s evidence cord cutting is influencing the bottom line of cable companies.
When Microsoft unveiled Xbox One back in May, the company spent a long time talking about being an all-in-one media box for the living room. If you had been hoping to hear all about new games, the event left you disappointed. It was the beginning of several public missteps on Microsoft’s part, but starting last Friday, Xbox One became a real thing, a device people are paying money for and seeing what it’s actually like.
Microsoft has made a big deal about the possibilities behind its “snap” functionality, which allows another application to run on the same screen. For me, that means playing a game and watching football simultaneously. This would never happen during a Chicago Bears game, but when other games are on and I’m passively tuning in, I can keep an eye on what’s happening while playing a game. In theory! Here’s how it went.
To my genuine surprise, it mostly worked! After booting up Ryse: Son of Rome, I’d yell “Xbox, snap TV” once (sometimes twice, if there was a particularly loud explosion on the screen) and the TV app would quickly slide in from the right, and after a moment or two, be on the same channel I’d left it. While all of this happens, since the Xbox is now “listening,” I had more than one instance where a friend’s idle comment prompted the channel to change. Xbox, never watch TBS! I don’t know if it’s possible for Kinect to learn a primary voice over time, but that would be awfully useful in the future. And as has been noted elsewhere, this feature causes two problems: the game doesn’t pause and there’s no way to mute the volume on the game or the TV channel. I didn’t care what was happening in Ryse, so it didn’t impact me, but it shouldn't work that way. As it's implemented, it stops me from doing grindy bits in a game and catching up on a TV show that doesn't really need the whole screen.
It would be really nice if Microsoft made a podcast app, by the way.
There are other tiny annoyances. I don’t know if I’m just overlooking the option, but it doesn’t appear possible to switch between the “main” screen and the “snap” screen with the controller or voice without tapping the home button, manually moving to the main screen, and switching. (Edit: Readers tell me this is accomplished by double tapping the home button, which is very useful information.) At random times, the interface would become incredibly sluggish. Not only would it be tough to navigate the menus, it had trouble displaying the TV feed. The best comparison I can make is that it looked like the football game was having frame rate problems.
But I’d say it worked as advertised 90% of the time, and that was enough to make me a skeptical believer. It felt kind of magical to be playing Ryse with the Broncos and Patriots game on the side, eventually closing TV because the game had become boring as hell, then randomly checking in on the game by snapping TV back on, and discovering the game had totally flipped. (Thank you, Peyton, for securing at least one fantasy win this week.) And for what it’s worth, it was easily the thing that impressed the people around me the most.
There are other football hooks in this box, too. At Xbox One’s unveiling, I might have been the only person in the office fist pumping over a partnership with the NFL. I’m in three different fantasy football leagues, and I often spend football games staring at the nearest iOS device to get updates on who I’m up against (and probably losing to) that week. Having fantasy updates on the screen as the games take place sounded awesome, but that excitement soured when it was revealed the launch would only incorporate NFL.com leagues, which almost nobody has. (Most people use Yahoo and ESPN, and those leagues are coming for next season.)
At the bare minimum, though, Xbox One could give me real-time score updates. Unfortunately, it never worked on Sunday, and that appeared to be the case for many others, according to an informal Twitter poll conducted by yours truly. Despite games being well into their first half, most of the scores sat stagnant at zero for each time, and was suggesting the games had not even begun. Rebooting the system didn’t help, snapping and unsnapping didn’t fix it--the app became useless to me. The app design needs work, too. On game day, I had to sort through scores manually. The games are spread across multiple pages, which means going through a series of mundane voice commands to see what’s changed (“Xbox Select,” “Xbox Page Right,” “Xbox Page Left”). Today, though, the scores are rotating on their own, which suggests maybe it was just my experience.
These annoyances stack up, but the biggest promise--playing a game and watching TV at the same time--worked beautifully. I haven’t had the same problems as Jeff when it comes to switching channels, but I’ve also picked out my favorites, which means Kinect is prioritizing to hear those channels over others when you talk to it. And while the lack of tapping into my DVR isn’t great, I somehow got it in my head that my remote wouldn’t work with it plugged into the Xbox One, which, of course, isn’t the case. I keep the remote nearby, and use it when necessary. The voice commands still work during a recorded show, and saying “Xbox Pause” is useful when someone hits the bathroom. Saying "fast forward" three times to really get it moving, however, is not.
Part of my positive reaction is, no doubt, that it’s new. I spent $500 on a shiny box, and it’s cool to show how the voice commands work to others. There was a genuine a-ha moment when my friend called me on Skype after the Packers game, and we talked shit. The real test is whether I keep doing this when football is over, and my big reason for doing two things at once disappears (the new Derrick Rose injury probably means I won’t watch much basketball). The real test is when it’s no longer about justifying my $500 box, and seeing if the 10% of times when Kinect doesn’t respond me to me becomes enough of a reason to stop using it altogether.
So far, I like it. I'll use it. What happens when the Bears are eliminated from the playoffs? I don’t know.