Walk into the living room, say “Xbox On,” and Microsoft’s new Xbox One console springs to life — automatically recognizing you and welcoming you by name, displaying a personalized dashboard of your favorite content and most recent activity.
Then, while you’re settling into the couch with your take-out meal, say “Xbox, Watch ESPN.” The console quickly changes channels, and you can turn up the volume with your voice, without touching a controller or television remote.
Say “Snap NFL,” and the official NFL app appears on one side of the screen, providing more highlights or stats from a game.
Later, if someone calls on Skype, an alert appears on the screen, allowing you to take the call and chat with a friend or family member on the TV in the living room.
And when it’s time to leave the room, just say “Xbox Off” and be on your way.
Those are some of the high points from GeekWire’s initial experience with the Xbox One, Microsoft’s next-generation game console, reflecting the company’s attempt to make the new $499 machine a seamless platform for home entertainment.
In advance of Xbox One’s Friday debut, we’ve been testing the console (on loan from Microsoft) in our homes for the past week. And, for the most part, we’ve found that the new Microsoft console lives up to the company’s promise — if you take the time to properly configure the machine and learn the voice commands for navigating the interface quickly.
It also will help if your family members or roommates are willing to put up with your new habit of barking out commands at the TV.
The Xbox One is Microsoft’s attempt to claim a larger place in the living room, building on the momentum of the Xbox 360, with new features such as the ability to watch and control television on the console (in conjunction with a cable box). The Xbox business is a rare example of traction for Microsoft in the world of consumer entertainment. However, the company faces no shortage of competition, not only from Sony’s new $399 PlayStation 4 but also from Apple, Google and a host of other technology companies.
So how will the Xbox One fare as an all-in-one entertainment machine? Here are highlights from what we’ve experienced and learned, so far, in our hands-on time with Microsoft’s new living-room machine.
A broad platform for Microsoft services
A big part of Microsoft’s goal with the Xbox One is to get more people using Microsoft services such as Bing and SkyDrive.
Unlike Netflix and some other third-party apps, which came online for reviewers only recently, Microsoft’s own apps and services were available from the outset of our week with the console, giving us more time with them.
And for the most part, we liked what we experienced.
A Friday evening Skype call with Todd’s parents went off without a hitch, with a clearer picture than we get sometimes on Skype for Mac or PC — and certainly better than the initial Skype experience on Microsoft’s Surface RT after it was released last year. The Kinect sensor accurately tracked the person talking in the living room using digital zoom and pan, without any device movement.
One caveat: Skype is one of many Xbox Live features that require an Xbox Live Gold subscription ($60/year).
In the SkyDrive app, pictures that Todd had taken with his Windows Phone were easily accessible from Microsoft’s cloud service on Xbox One, and showed up beautifully on the big screen in a slide show.
The gestures for controlling Internet Explorer were a bit cumbersome, in our experience. But the browser itself has been given a good upgrade, and it’s nice to snap IE to the side of the screen to check out a site while watching TV or playing a game on the rest of the screen, as showin in the image below.
Bing search capability has also been enhanced, with natural language recognition that will improve over time through machine learning. We tested all of these voice commands, and more, and they worked well in returning results from the web and the console.
- “I feel like watching comedy movies from the 1980’s”
- “Show me popular dubstep music”
- “I want to watch the movie Star Trek Into Darkness”
- “I want to play Forza Motorsport”
Voice commands and Xbox One Kinect
With the Xbox One, Microsoft is making a big bet on voice commands — significantly expanding the vocabulary of words recognized by the new Kinect sensor to let users navigate to different parts of the experience. The traditional controller (redesigned for Xbox One) will still work to navigate the console, but commands are without question the fastest way to get around the Xbox One.
You start by getting the console’s attention by saying “Xbox,” and then you give a command, such as “watch TV,” or a specific channel or app, such as “watch CNN” or “go to Netflix.” In our experience using the console, the experience is pretty slick, and fast.
For accurate voice recognition, we found it’s critical to calibrate the Kinect through the settings in the Xbox One — and be sure to turn the volume up extremely loud when the system is calibrating. Even after initially calibrating our review unit, the Xbox One wouldn’t always hear our attempts to get its attention. But after recalibrating with the volume turned way up, the voice recognition improved substantially.
In Taylor’s case, for example, he initially wasn’t using voice commands at night because he didn’t want to wake up his roommates. But after recalibrating the Kinect, the Xbox One was able to pick up his voice even when he whispered.
That said, the voice recognition isn’t perfect out of the box. For example, in our experience, the Xbox One Kinect has trouble differentiating between “Go to Store,” and “Go to Internet Explorer.” Microsoft promises that the voice recognition will improve over time through machine learning algorithms.
Making Xbox One work with your cable box
It’s also important to carefully calibrate your television and any attached devices in the Xbox One settings.
For example, during the setup process, Todd initially identified his cable box as a Comcast box, and the Xbox One wasn’t able to change channels with voice commands. After trying again, and identifying it as an Xfinity X1 box, voice commands worked to change channels, although they didn’t work for turning up the volume, fast-forwarding or rewinding, even though the system said it recognized the box.
In Taylor’s case, he found it very nice to control the volume of the surround sound system in his house using voice commands. Once he located the model number of his Panasonic sound system, it was easy to configure the Xbox One to control the volume with voice commands.
However, when you want to bring the volume down significantly, it takes a while because saying “Xbox, Volume Down,” will only bring it down a few notches. It is also difficult to bring the volume down once you turn it way up. That’s because the Kinect has difficulty hearing you once the TV volume is up. You end up screaming at the Kinect to turn down the volume. It’s much easier to do this with a remote.
Another hard-earned lesson: Whenever words appear in green on the screen in the Xbox One interface, you can just say those words to complete a particular command, without saying “Xbox” first.
You can say “Xbox Select” at any point to show the actionable words on screen.
And when navigating the television setup, it’s important to know that the voice commands and fast switching will only work with the last 20 channels you’ve watched. If the Xbox One isn’t going to a channel via voice commands, go there manually and it should recognize it after that.
Fitting the Xbox One into the house
One nice part of Xbox One is that the traditional television remote still works just as before, without switching inputs — bringing up DVR recordings from the cable box (DVR functionality is not a native Xbox One capability), changing channels and doing everything else on the TV for anyone who prefers to keep things old-school.
There is still a cultural hurdle to overcome with voice commands. Repeatedly saying “Xbox” in the living room might be good for Microsoft’s console brand, but it also takes some adjustment and accommodation from other people in the house. In Todd’s family, for example, the voice commands became a running joke, and his toddler started mimicking him, running around and yelling, “Xbox! … Xbox! … Xbox!”
Will consumers be saying “Xbox” with the same enthusiasm? Microsoft will find out starting this Friday.
Taylor, for one, has found he’s liking Xbox One more and more as he uses it, after initially thinking it wasn’t something he would buy for himself. We’ll follow up with more of our own impressions, including our thoughts on Xbox One games and third-party apps, as we continue to use Microsoft’s new machine in the days ahead.