The Xbox One wants to be the one system that handles all the entertainment in your living room. Movies, music and, of course, games, it's set up to do it all.
From streaming apps to cable integration to Microsoft's own services, the Xbox One certainly seems equipped to do it all. We're just glad Microsoft bit the bullet and put a Blu-Ray drive in its system. The Xbox One also plays CDs, something the PlayStation 4 currently doesn't do. Still, can the Xbox One really handle the potentially backbreaking load of the living room?
OneGuide and HDMI-in
If you're in North America, the Xbox One can integrate your cable or satellite feed thanks to an HDMI-in port. Anyone who's had cable installed in their home probably shudders at the thought of fooling with that precarious mix of coaxial and HDMI, but fear not, setting it up is easier than finding your cable company's service number.
After connecting your set-top box to the Xbox One via HDMI there's a setup wizard to take you through all the steps. All you need to know is your service provider and zip code. Punch that in and the Xbox does the rest.
The result is the OneGuide, live TV on your game console organised a lot like a Pay TV service's built-in menu. It can be navigated just like the One's general interface, with speech, gestures, the controller or SmartGlass.
For Australians, it's a lot easier, and also a lot less rewarding.
The OneGuide menu is accurate, but not fast, and certainly not populated with a lot of content. There's no support for the Aussie Free-to-Air TV channels, or even Foxtel at this stage, which means content is filled with content from apps like TenPlay or SBS On Demand.
Using Kinect commands with the OneGuide can also be a headache. While it easily understands page up or page down, telling it to go to specific channels can be rather inaccurate. It often tripped over all the different acronyms that make up station names, and sometimes struggled with something as simple as Comedy Central.
Our favourite part of the Xbox One's cable integration wasn't the OneGuide, is was being able to save specific channels and movies to our Pins for fast access. We also liked how TV listings were integrated in search results alongside streaming services. For example, if you used Bing to search for a movie, the results will include the next time it's showing on TV, as well as places to buy or rent it.
The Xbox One is also hit or miss with 5.1 sound integration. There's some extra configuration you have to work through, and while we were able to get it running, others have reported that it degrades sound quality, or just doesn't work at all. That part of the service is marked as in beta, so Microsoft is working on it.
Lastly, while that HDMI-in is meant for TV, you can use it for anything with an HDMI port. Before you get too excited, we should tell you that it's slightly too laggy for gaming. Forget about playing Killzone: Shadow Fall or Super Mario 3D World via the Xbox One, it's a much better experience plugged directly into your TV.
When consoles aren't playing games they're often streaming movies. So far, Australian streaming support is limited to apps like TenPlay, SBS OnDemand, YouTube, Crackle, Twitch, Machinima and TED.
After they're installed, accessing content runs through the Bing search function. Either by typing or talking to Bing, you can ask it for, say, Breaking Bad. The search results show you all the places where you can see the sad saga of Walter White, so long as the content is available.
For our American brethren, that meant that it was available on Netflix Instant. It also reminded them that they had a few episodes in their Amazon Instant library, they saw links to buy episodes on the Xbox Marketplace and got a heads up about reruns on AMC over the weekend. All these options were presented in one result page.
For us, all we got was a link to Xbox Video.
Streaming video services are hugely segmented. It would be fantastic to have a search that can present all the options in one place. Bing search comes close, but still overlooks certain media options, so you can't rely on it 100%.
For streaming apps, Xbox and PS4 are neck and neck in that they are both lacking in Australia. Xbox has TenPlay and SBS OnDemand, Playstation has IGN and Quickflix. Hopefully we'll see other players join both services soon.
Sony has Music Unlimited, Xbox has Xbox Music, and both services are doing their best to impersonate Spotify. Xbox Music has a library of comparable size, just like Spotify it charges $12 a month for unlimited streaming across your console, PC, phone and tablet.
When we reviewed the PS4, we noted how poor the Channel (radio) service was at finding music we liked. Xbox Music's Radio function is much better at song matching, but its Sony's Music Unlimited that has the better background interface.
To have music going while playing a game, Xbox Music relies on app snapping. That's a pretty nonsensical choice, since it forces you to give up precious screen space for an app you only need to hear, not see. Why on earth doesn't it just run in the background?
Other than that it's a fine music service. While playing in full screen on your TV it cycles through sharp looking album art and band photos. You can listen to whole albums, or create a radio mix. If you're playing a mix, you can zoom out and see the songs that are coming next.
Still, the lack of proper background playback is a deal breaker. While it's a fine way to just play music if your Xbox One is hooked into your stereo, it's not a great way to hear tunes while playing some Killer Instinct, which seems like the whole point of putting music and games on the same system.
Hopefully Microsoft will patch in some background functionality. Until then you're better off with a separate music service.