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.
A whole year has passed, and Australians still don't have access to the much-publicised Pay-TV and Free-to-Air TV integration functionality that other territories have been enjoying since launch. This is kind of baffling.
The OneGuide menu is accurate, but not fast, and certainly not populated with a lot of content. 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.
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. Aside from the content apps mentioned above, YouTube, Crackle, Twitch, Machinima and TED are all available on the console.
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 have continued to add new services over the past year, with PlayStation users now having access to ABC iView, PLUS7 and Foxtel Play, in addition to the Quickflix and IGN apps it had before. PlayStation may have beaten Xbox to the punch on Foxtel Play and ABC iView, but both are confirmed to be on the way for Microsoft's console in the near future. Hopefully we'll see other players join both services soon.
Talking refresh rates
When the Xbox One first launched, the quality of the streaming experience was severely hamstrung by the lack of a 50Hz output, which meant pictures stuttered alarmingly. This is, now, thankfully fixed, leaving you with a very nice quality streaming experience, with good stability and crisp HD pictures (so long as you have a decently fast broadband connection obviously).
A big part of any household's media experience these days is playback of photos, videos and music via USB storage devices or DLNA streaming from networked external devices. In this department the Xbox One was something of a bust on launch, but not any more.
USB playback for some files, including MKV, is now supported, and that's supported by the exciting addition of DLNA and Plex support...
Xbox One now has ability to perform DLNA streaming with the help of the Plex app. Plex is a superb system that turns your personal media collection into a Netflix-type library full of images and music.
It means you can stream media across your own network or even over the internet, and it works flawlessly.
The Xbox One also has its own beta media streaming app which is nowhere near as refined as the Plex one, but it is being worked on so you can expect that to improve over time.
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.
Remarkably, the Xbox One still doesn't even let you rip your own CDs to its hard drive. It will play an inserted CD well enough, but you can't build up a convenient archive of your music on the console. CD ripping was, of course, available on the Xbox 360.
Hopefully Microsoft will patch in some background functionality. Until then you're better off with a separate music service.
Blu-ray and DVD
The last thing on Xbox One as media server watchlist is its playback of Blu-rays and DVDs. You'll need to install the Blu-ray/DVD app in order to play discs, but you'll be prompted to do so when you first pop a disc in the tray.
The August 2014 Xbox One update added, amongst many other things, the ability to play back 3D Blu-ray discs, so if you're keen to make use of a 3D TV, you can no use the Xbox One to do so.
Pictures look more detailed and noiseless than they used to as well. There are some standalone Blu-ray decks that can deliver bit more sharpness and colour resolution, but some viewers might actually prefer the less 'forensic' but smoother finish to the Xbox One's images.
There were significant problems with the audio performance of the Xbox One's Blu-ray player at launch. Specifically some major lip synch errors when watching at 24p, and the fact that the console could only ship out uncompressed DTS surround sound, not Dolby Digital.
Both of these problems now appear to be fixed – even if the Dolby Digital issue has only been solved by converting DTS tracks into Dolby Digital for output.