Review: Microsoft’s Xbox One wants to speak to more than gamers

Nov. 20, 2013 | 5:00 a.m.

“Go ahead,” the screen on Microsoft’s Xbox One will tell you, “say ‘Xbox.’”

“No,” you may very well think, “I am an adult, and I will not talk to my video-game console.”

Oh, but you will.

That’s because Microsoft’s $500 all-in-one entertainment system is the first video-game console ever made that can utilize your voice to go from zero to playing Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” video in 47 seconds.

One simple command, “Xbox on,” brings your hardware and television to life; three more commands and you’re on YouTube watching her get fierce with a sledgehammer — all without pressing a button.

The Xbox One terms such ability “automagical,” and while that’s a marketing buzzword that probably shouldn’t be attached to anything that doesn’t involve Tinker Bell, it’s admittedly pretty neat.

But what does it have to do with games? Well, not much, but Microsoft’s successor to the Xbox 360 wants to play with your television and the way media is consumed as much — perhaps more — than it wants you to slay enemies as a Roman soldier.

REVIEW: Sony’s PlayStation 4 console is connected, communal

The release Friday of the Xbox One comes just one week after Sony’s PlayStation 4, the latter of which sold more than 1 million units in its first 24 hours of availability. Xbox One is priced $100 more than the PS4, and in terms of technical capabilities, both systems offer a 500-gigabyte hard drive and souped-up PC infrastructure. Additionally, the PS4 and Xbox One often overlap in their ability to act as a media hub. Stream television and purchase or rent films? Check and check.

Sony's PlayStation 4, left, and Microsoft's Xbox One. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Sony’s PlayStation 4, left, and Microsoft’s Xbox One. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

But their presentation — the arguments they put forth about how games can and should be integrated into our lives — varies greatly. Sony’s PS4 takes a targeted approach by emphasizing games and the places players go to talk about those games. The PS4 controller contains a button labeled “share,” and pressing it will instantly stream your game to the masses and connect you with like-minded gamers.

The Xbox One has sharing abilities as well, but its system places broader, non-gaming ambitions front and center.

The Xbox One’s operating system has a refreshed look that closely resembles the latest Windows devices. It re-imagines the television as something that can more closely align with the smaller mobile and tablet screens that increasingly occupy our time. A swipe of the screen right brings you to a store full of apps as well as music and movie options. A swipe to the left brings you to your own personally curated screen of entertainment choices, be it your favorite games, television shows or apps.

A scene from "Xbox Fitness." (Microsoft Studios)

A scene from “Xbox Fitness.” (Microsoft Studios)

The Xbox One comes bundled with Kinect, the system’s camera, which boasts that it can read your heart rate. While this trick wasn’t tested — the Xbox One’s robust fitness applications were not yet turned on for media previews — the Kinect can recognize when you walk in the room. The big pitch for families or households with roommates is that the Xbox One’s Kinect can recognize up to six different people at once, instantly switching between their profiles and their saved games, much of which is saved on Microsoft’s servers.

Another key differential: Only the Xbox One can speak to your cable box. Microsoft wants you to never again have to switch inputs on a television, enabling you to jump from a game to a sporting event in seconds using only your voice.

If your viewing habits are largely of the on-demand variety, however, the Xbox One’s TV integration may not be a make-or-break proposition. The Xbox One can communicate with your cable box’s DVR functionality, but to access and program the latter you will need to go all-2013 and use a remote.

The PS4 and the Xbox One want to be the media centers of your choice because they’re designed for the upsell. Ultimately, you will want both devices connected to the Internet 24/7, and you will likely need a PlayStation Plus membership ($9.99 per month or $49.99 a year) or an Xbox Live Gold membership ($9.99 per month or $59.99 a year) to fully unlock the capabilities of each system.

Sony, in its bid to appeal to the most serious of gamers, won’t charge you to upload video clips or stream your games, and it likewise won’t charge you to access services such as Netflix. Microsoft saves such features, including an editing suite for game footage, for its Gold members. On the other hand, Sony gives only Plus members 1 GB of online storage for saving games, while the Xbox One comes with a free 7 GBs of cloud storage for photos and video and lets everyone place their save game data in the ether (Microsoft declined to say how much space the operating system consumes on the hard drive, and the Xbox One conceals such information).

Bottom line: At some point, you will likely end up with a subscription, especially if you want the ability to play games online on the PS4 or want to rent a movie on the Xbox One, but you can more easily live without it on the PS4.

Video-game machines have progressively become a more risky purchase at launch. Neither the Xbox One nor the PS4 offers a game that clearly makes a case to the common player that these $400 and $500 devices are accomplishing something in games that has never been done before.

A scene from "Dead Rising." (Microsoft Studios)

A scene from “Dead Rising.” (Microsoft Studios)

Graphical leaps are impressive, but incremental, and advertising campaigns for both machines have puzzlingly emphasized the most predictable, worn-out aspects of the last decade of gaming, as they are selling their systems with post-apocalyptic, gun-filled, zombie-ravaged worlds. You don’t need a new console for a 20-or-so-hour game with a sci-fi-narrative and a dude with a gun, but Sony has given us “Killzone: Shadow Fall” just in case.

On the flip side, arcade-style Xbox One games such as the dragon flier “Crimson Dragon” and motorbike fighter “LocoCycle” are ones I couldn’t uninstall fast enough. Either console purchase is one based on the promise of things to come, yet in 2013 that can be a dangerous justification for buying a game system.

Nintendo’s Wii U and Sony’s handheld device the PlayStation Vita are cleverly designed devices that emphasize touch-based control schemes. At launch, both felt like the future, as they give creative game developers new design tools for which to challenge players, many of which have distressingly gone underutilized.

Today the Vita is at risk of becoming an expensive accessory for the PS4 and the Wii U, which is only now getting a few new noteworthy games, underwent a price cut.

A scene from "Ryse: Son of Rome." (Microsoft Studios)

A scene from “Ryse: Son of Rome.” (Microsoft Studios)

So if one were to judge the systems based solely on games available at launch, the Xbox One would have a hair of advantage — a hair. I’m not sure how long I’ll be sticking with “Ryse: Son of Rome,” Microsoft’s big launch exclusive, but it’s the best-looking next-gen game on the market. For now that’s keeping me entertained, as is the life-like look of “Forza Motorsport 5.”

This, coupled with the Xbox One’s media versatility, may be enough to sway those interested consumers who haven’t yet picked a team.

For here’s a confession about living with the Xbox One for a week: I turn it on constantly. I turn it on if I am watching basic cable. I turn it on if I am using the Wii U. I turn it on if I am using the PS4. I have six devices capable of streaming Hulu to my TV, but I turn on the Xbox One for Hulu.

Why? The voice commands. Volume up, volume down, mute, pause, rewind, turning the TV off and on, etc. It’s that simple.

The voice recognitions features aren’t always perfect, as there are times I have told it to search for the Chicago Cubs and have ended up at a cooking website, but even with some kinks to work out the Xbox One already feels integrated in my day-to-day life. If only I could tell it to find me a great game, one without guns and most definitely one without zombies.

– Todd Martens | @toddmartens | @LATHeroComplex


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16 Responses to Review: Microsoft’s Xbox One wants to speak to more than gamers

  1. mike mrnge says:

    What about the red ring of dead

  2. Daniel says:

    PS4 cares about games, which is the purpose of a video game system. I have enough "devices", having 6 ways to play Hulu is too many already.

  3. Guest says:

    Creep me out! People complain about Big Brother watching, and then install this stuff in their homes to facilitate the process? No, thank you!!

  4. Stacy says:

    So let me get this straight, I need to give Microsoft $500, and $59.99 in order to BUY a movie from them! And I thought AT&T was ripping me off. Sorry Microsoft- I will pass. Hello Apple TV.

    • Eric says:

      Or Roku. Or a smart TV. Or… There are so many choices these days, it's overwhelming. But you have a point. If you don't want all the other stuff that an Xbox One (or PS4) includes, you'd be crazy to buy one just for movie or TV watching. There are way cheaper alternatives. But for those who DO want that extra stuff, having the option to link your Hulu Plus or Netflix or Amazon Prime or Vudu or (you get the idea) is a nice feature.

      • Andrew says:

        I never had a 360, but at least on the PS3 the interfaces for Netflix/Hulu/etc always were much better than on any other device that had them built in, like standalone blu-ray players or TVs. At one point thePS3 was also fairly competitively priced for a quality upgradable blu-ray player, making the games just a nice bonus for those who didn't care as much about them.

  5. Guest says:

    You mentioned Miley Cyrus and Xbox in the same article… Shame on you

  6. Justin says:

    Um you guys are missing the point….Xbox is being innovative and trying something new. You complain about paying 59.99 for a yearly membership? It was so successful for the 360 that playstation adopted it. Microsoft, at least in the case of the 360 and the launch of Xbox One, have had better exclusives. You can blindly make a case otherwise but you would be kidding yourself. I personally owned both a PS3 (which i bought for god of war alone) and Xbox 360, and with the exception of MK9 (the dual shock D-pad is much better than xbox's) I preferred to play cross platform games on the 360. You get what you pay for. And you guys complain about the Xbox being a spying device? Well I sure hope you dont own a cell phone more specifically an Iphone, because essentially it is the same damn case. Besides is someone watching you (hopefully you aren't degenerate thugs) worse than having your credit cards and other payment methods compromised, as was the case with the whole PSN network fiasco. Stop being silly people. Rebuttal anyone?

    • Chris says:

      ………xbox is giving you the ability to go back to watching commercials?; at the expense of horsepower for actual gaming? So not having to pick up the TV remote hit the input one button to go to my DVR box is worth the power drain for actual gaming? They built a grossly underpowered device so we can go backwards and watch live TV? If you can afford a xbox one you can afford a DVR box…….which makes the power drain for games more frustrating……its 50% weaker than PS4 so we can watch commercials……..STUPID!!!! Xbox is going to get crushed…..valve steam machine here i come……

      • jboeke2 says:

        That 50% weaker garbage was discredited eons ago. Kind of makes whatever else you said not credible, though the rest was pretty silly too. Why would anyone switch to commercials? I don’t even understand the joke you’re attempting to make.

        I currently own the ps4, and it’s fine, no exclusives games really to play but I’ve been enjoying AC IV and NBA 2K14. That said, the interface is very conservative and the feature set feels very similar to ps3. I’ll be picking up the xbox one tomorrow so I’m hoping their more ambitious approach to next gen will be a little more exciting.

  7. Gamer says:

    Here's the TLDR: Both PS4 and Xbox One are equally good consoles.

  8. Leo says:

    That game you're looking for without guns and zombies is on the Wii U Check out Mario 3D World or Pikmin 3 or Scribblenauts.

  9. Chris says:

    So let me get this straight……xbox is giving you the ability to go back to watching commercials?; at the expense of horsepower for actual gaming? So not having to pick up the TV remote hit the input one button to go to my DVR box is worth the power drain for actual games? Never thought a multi billion dollar company could be so ridiculously stupid!!!!!

  10. Ray says:

    How do you figure they're losing horsepower for TV? One, the TV is just passing through the xbox,. Two, every review I've seen has said Ryse is the best looking game so far this gen. Sooooo…. That makes absolutely no sense. PS4 is not 50% more powerful than Xbox One. Period.

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