I’ve been thinking about this post since the day I installed my Xbox One, but the final straw came last night: “When you go away I’m ripping this thing out” said my wife as she headed off to the bedroom. Of course I already knew where she stood on the Xbox One as the center of our home entertainment experience. Earlier in the week she was using the preface XHUSBAND to get my attention. As I dig into this keep in mind that we aren’t talking about gaming here, I have yet to play a game on the Xbox One.
Technology people, especially those with long experience using Microsoft products, will point out that “one” isn’t just part of the name of the new Xbox but also its version. This is a 1.0 product. I’ve hit some things that made me exclaim, to a Microsoft employee who was visiting, that it’s a Beta 1 product. Ok, I was upset at the time. Beta 2 is more fair. And if you want to be more negative about certain aspects, like the TV integration, and call it a prototype, demo, or even a parlor trick, I won’t argue with you.
The problems started right out of the box, literally. The Xbox One comes out of the box with a mandatory Kinect sensor that can’t be mounted to any modern TV. For that you need an adapter, which they don’t mention to you in the store. Probably because they don’t have them. Microsoft doesn’t make one and third parties don’t seem to have been ready to meet the demand. And frustratingly, the adapters that work for the Xbox 360 Kinect are within millimeters of fitting to the base of the Xbox One Kinect. Really Microsoft, you couldn’t make the bases the same? Or at least so different that it was obvious the earlier adapter couldn’t work?
I found a place to rest my Kinect until I can get the mounting adapter. Unfortunately every time she looks at the TV that rubs my wife’s nose in the fact we already spent $500 to degrade her TV watching experience. Not only that, its perfectly placed to be dislodged by a dog nose or wag of the tail. I think one dog is learning she can get more attention by disabling our TV.
It’s really cool to walk into the room and say “XBOX: On” and have your entire setup turn on. Except when it doesn’t actually turn on. “XBOX: On” you say again, and with any luck it works the second time. Or the third. I’ve never had it take more than three tries. Then, if you knew you were going to watch TV you say “XBOX: Watch TV”. Again, if things work as intended you are now watching TV. If not, you try again. And again. Even if everything works on the first try the entire process is much slower than just grabbing the TV remote and pressing the On button. Basically my wife has an issue with startup time and sees it only as a degradation of the process. For me, if it works the first time I am ok. If it doesn’t I start questioning the sanity of the setup.
Next you pick up your regular TV remote. “WHAT?” you say as you recall that the Xbox One is supposed to control your TV and set-top box. The Xbox One does have pretty cool integration with set-top boxes but the V1.0 implementation doesn’t even meet minimum requirements. There is a guide, but you can’t search it. Voice control for switching channels (e.g., saying “XBOX: SyFy”) definitely is fun for 30 seconds. Until you have to say it multiple times. Or until you have to have to shout it over the program playing on the TV so that the Xbox One hears you. Scrolling through a program guide via voice is also cute, but that’s about the best I could describe it. Tedious is more appropriate.
Ok, so voice control is cool but of limited practical use (more on this later). Why not use the Xbox’s own remote to control it. What remote? You mean a game controller? I guess if you are a heavy gamer than using a game controller to control your TV set doesn’t phase you. But, and I’m sorry to throw the rare insult of this nature at Microsoft employees, what were you smoking when you decided that a game controller was an acceptable remote for non-gamers? This makes as much sense as it would have been to have introduced Windows 8 with Powershell as the new tablet UI. (I know some of you are snickering and would have preferred that over Metro, which is why the analogy is so perfect.)
There are probably people at Microsoft going “but we supported the Windows Media Center remotes in Xbox 360 and few used them”. Perhaps, but the Xbox 360 wasn’t claimed to be the entertainment integrator that the Xbox One is. Particularly around traditional TV. So once again you give me a product that demos really well, and I can show off nicely, but as soon as I hand it to a non-gamer they think it was designed for Martians.
What about SmartGlass? I love SmartGlass and use it all the time, but when it comes to controlling the Xbox it still presents a virtual game controller as the user interface. While that was cool for the Xbox 360, what would have been special for the Xbox One is if it presented a content or app-specific UI. So watching TV would give me a TV Remote not a game controller (optionally, either). Maybe in the future, but right now SmartGlass doesn’t sufficiently address the issue.
But even that is not the real reason the best way to use Xbox One’s TV capabilities is to bypass them, it’s the lack of functionality. That the Xbox One can’t yet control DVR functions is well known, and of course in our household we probably watch more DVR’d content then live TV, but even basic functions are missing. How does one search the OneGuide by program name? I haven’t found a way. Saying “Watch SyFy” certainly demos nicely, but I really want to say “Watch Warehouse 13″ or “When is Warehouse 13 on”.
A focus of Xbox for years now has been the Bing cross-service search capability. Xbox One’s Bing search capability is incomplete and doesn’t work reliably. I searched for a TV show and it came up on Amazon Instant Video, but not Xbox Video. Of course it is also available on Xbox Video! And then, as implied above, Bing doesn’t search OneGuide either. I would argue that the biggest problem with today’s TV/Streaming environment is finding who has the content you want. It’s a problem that Microsoft seemed to be trying to solve with the Xbox One, except the Xbox One fails miserably at addressing it.
This one may not be Microsoft’s fault, but it is something that degrades the experience of using the Xbox One for entertainment. On Xbox One Amazon Prime Instant Video only plays HD video (whereas on PCs and tablets you can select HD or SD). The problem is that I don’t have a broadband connection that can reliably stream HD video. So I pay for three streaming video services (Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu Plus) yet still get forced into paying additional to stream content that I theoretically already paid for. How may users are just going to forget the whole thing and put a “not good for watching videos” on their Xbox One?
Last night also brought a new and exciting experience. The Xbox One decided to stop transmitting IR signals and that it couldn’t see the signal from my TV. The fix was to power cycle the Xbox One. This required lying on the floor and reaching my hand deep into a cabinet to get to the back of the Xbox One. My wife’s comment is not publishable.
Another time the Xbox One required a reboot in order to use the Internet. It claimed to be connected and working, but everything failed until I did the reboot. Sadly this occurred between episodes of our Downton Abbey marathon, further demonstrating to my wife that the Xbox One was not ready for her. My DirecTV DVR goes many months without a reboot. My Surface RT usually reboots after Patch Tuesday, but would probably go months without it otherwise, and that’s all automatic. Xbox One? More than once a week so far.
That brings me to one last thing that is TV specific, and it’s a dumb design decision from my standpoint. The Xbox One should have allowed HDMI pass-through to work when the Xbox One was “off”. Then someone who decided to use the TV/DVR combination without the Xbox One being in the loop could do so, while you could simply turn on the Xbox One when you wanted an integrated experience. What’s going to happen now, at least in my house, is I’m going to unplug the Set-top box/DVR from the Xbox One and plug it directly into the TV. Then use the Xbox One just as I used the Xbox 360, only when I want to stream (or play a game, of course). At least my wife will be happy.
Microsoft probably didn’t include the “passive” (it might have required some power) HDMI pass-through because in their vision it isn’t necessary. That will probably be true around version 3.0, but it’s not true today.
Oh yes, another frustrating Xbox One limitation (and regression from the Xbox 360) we encountered was that it doesn’t support viewing Photos. So we got back to the house eager to view the pictures we’d all taken at the zoo and discovered we couldn’t. Well, I we had to bypass the Xbox One and have the TV’s built-in DLNA support show them from a share on a Windows 8.1 machine. Sony Internet-Connected TV 1, Xbox One 0.
Now on to a few things that are not entertainment specific, starting with the voice control.
Voice control is a nice feature, but it needs to be treated as a secondary rather than primary means of control. Much of that is inherent in its nature while some of it is the Xbox One’s specific implementation. In a quiet isolated room it tends to work reasonably, but throw in dogs barking, kids playing, and people talking and usability degrades rapidly. And, at least in the case of the Xbox One, sound from the TV also interferes. To avoid speech on the TV being misinterpreted as commands the Xbox seems to want you to shout above the volume level of the TV. That, as well as barking commands in general, annoys those around you. Or those trying to sleep, study, or work down the hall.
Voice command is also tedious, especially with the rigid menu structure that the Xbox One uses. Natural Language, ala Apple’s Siri, would make it less so and I’m shocked Microsoft isn’t there yet. They’ve been working on both natural language and speech recognition for at least 20 years (I worked on the acquisition of Natural Language Inc. back in 1994) but have had limited success in bringing the combination to market in mainstream products. Xbox One was a perfect place to do so, but they didn’t. But even with a perfect implementation, saying “XBOX: Select Page Down” to scroll the program guide is going to be tedious compared to pressing the Page Down button on a properly designed remote.
Note I’m not knocking voice completely, just knocking over-reliance on it. Saying “XBOX: Pause” as you jump up because the timer just went off on the oven is not only cool (when it works) it is more convenient than fumbling around for a physical remote. Trying to use voice command to fast forward or reverse pales compared to a higher input like proper remote buttons.
Lastly for this post I have to say I HATE the Xbox’s security model. The entire user experience is geared towards the Xbox’s use of biometrics to identify who is sitting in front of it. Xbox alternatively allows you to (a) require entry of your Microsoft Account password or (b) a 6-digit code to log in. Entry requires a game controller of course, which is a terrible device for entering either. If you don’t establish a code then anyone can log into your account just by selecting it. Apps like Skype (contact lists) and Skydrive (files) will then expose your content to anyone.
The issue I have with the way Xbox One does this is that you can’t say “Log in with biometrics OR require a password/code”. Your only option is no security (even biometrics) required or password/code always required. The former defeats all security of Microsoft’s consumer services while the latter defeats all usability of the Xbox One. Why did Microsoft do this? I can only guess because they were designing around Family Safety requirements and not for security of the Microsoft Account protected data. So here we have the Microsoft Account team adding all kinds of security features and the Xbox team defeating them. What I want is unfettered access when the Xbox One is sure I’m in the room and password or code required when I’m not. A verbal authorization code (recognizing that it is my voice) to launch certain apps would be a plus.
BTW, for those of you who think contact information is not confidential please talk to your (if you work for a big company) Chief Information Security Officer. Or even for an individual. I have the cell phone number for a Congressman in my contacts. I’m sure he would be thrilled if he had to change it because the cleaning people pulled it off my Xbox One.
Even the sign in features as designed leave a lot to be desired. Windows 8/8.1 allows for a 4 digit pin whereas the Xbox One requires 6. Why does the device with lower security require a longer code? Windows 8/8.1 allows for a picture password, Xbox One does not. I understand this in the sense that the Xbox One code is entered with a set of obscure key presses on the game controller and so no one can see what you enter, whereas a picture password would be visible to others in the room. Windows 8/8.1 controls this by letting you switch sign in methods and Xbox could do the same.
Microsoft has a lot of work to do before the Xbox One is ready to be at the center of the home entertainment experience. Maybe they’ll get there around Version 3. But for now, I rate it a Fail.