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 3D-enabled 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 cable 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 organized a lot like your cable's built-in menu. It can be navigated just like the One's general interface, with speech, gestures, the controller or SmartGlass.
The OneGuide menu is accurate, but not fast. Scrolling quickly often gives you an empty menu that needs a few seconds before the listings pop in. We've never had that problem with our DirecTV menu. If you only watch a few channels, the OneGuide's favorite list will serve you well, and if you're just want a "best of" option, Microsoft will start offering a curated list of content called "What's On."
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 favorite 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, either through Netflix, Amazon Instant or Hulu Plus. While it's still waiting on some key apps, the Xbox One wrangles that functionality by letting you search for programming across all your services, as well as your cable.
This 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.
For us, that meant that it was available on Netflix Instant. It also reminded us that we had a few episodes in our Amazon Instant library, we 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.
It's not a perfect all in one search tough. When we asked Bing for The Matrix, it showed us when it would be on TV, and gave us links to rent it from Xbox Video, Vudu and Redbox Instant. We didn't even have those last two apps installed. Meanwhile it ignored Amazon Instant, an app we'd been using, which had it for rent at the same price.
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. Both have the big guys like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu Plus, however, HBO Go recently launched on Xbox One, giving it one leg up on the competition. While PS4 has separate NHL and NBA apps, Xbox has ESPN. Right now, though, only Xbox has an official NFL app.
What about users who have their own media collection? The Xbox 360 offered users numerous services to stream movies and music from a local server to their system, but until now Xbox One gamers were forced into using the proprietary Microsoft media player app. Flex, a service similar to XBMC, will be the next generation of media center apps - and it's available only on the Xbox One starting in October. (Editor's note: We'll update this review once we've set up our own media server and tested the software.)
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 $10 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.