Gaming the Industry: Xbox One Review and Install Tips

gaming-industry-330If you read my last article on the PS4, you’ll no doubt be unsurprised where this article is going next. We’re covering Microsoft’s entry into the next-gen console market: the Xbox One. Next week will be my first non-review column and I hope to go into more detail with some specific solutions that will add value to a game-centric theater. Lee Distad made a good comment on my PS4 article and Mark Coxon made some good points on his blog — you should read it — and I hope to address some issues in a way that would make Kevin O’ Leary proud (a SharkTank reference from Mark’s article).

Released one week later than the Sony PS4 with a $100 premium, sales are brisk and stocks are non-existent in retail stores after Black Friday.  I’ll admit that I stood in line at a Best Buy on release day for the first time in my life to make sure I got my hands on the Xbox One. I’m glad I did, because I haven’t seen one in stores or online since.

xbox-one_boxOverall, the case design is minimal and angular compared to the predecessor Xbox 360’s curves.  I actually would personally have thrown in a splash of color to offset this case’s pool of black. The bigger issue is the literal brick-sized power brick that you’re going to have to hide somewhere and is going to take up precious cable space. If you’re keeping the 360, you now have two lovely bricks to find spots for while you are cable dressing. Speaking of dimensions, I was unprepared for the size of the Kinect motion sensor/camera. It’s about 10″ long and almost 3″x”3 on the side. It looks a bit ridiculous standing on a display so finding a way to integrate it into a theater wall would be a large improvement. It has a thick, monitor-style 9-foot cable instead of a standard USB cable like the Xbox 360, which is really going to put a cramp in your placement options for the console itself. Hopefully they will open the signal standard and allow for Cat5 extenders or even just longer extension cords.

Here are some quick specs:

  • 8 Core AMD CPU
  • 8 GB system memory
  • 500 GB hard drive (non-upgradeable, but external support is coming soon)
  • 4K and 3D video output support (no game support planned currently at that resolution)
  • Gigabit wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi 802.11 N and Wi-Fi Direct support (no 802.11 AC here either)
  • HDMI in, HDMI out and optical audio out.

If you’re looking for a pure gaming experience with the best quality content this month — you may want to head over to the PS4 camp. Several games that launched on both platforms run at a lower resolution on the Xbox One.  Microsoft is heading towards a unified media center with the Xbox One and dabbling with control. While this is not great if you want to sell equipment with third-party UI options, there are plenty of tie-ins to premium theater equipment.

The biggest current flaw with the Xbox One is a bug affecting surround sound through the optical out. It currently supports full Dolby 5.1 through the HDMI audio out, but dumbs it down to stereo Dolby DTS through the optical audio out. This could really kill some theater setups, but Microsoft assures users that a patch is coming down the line soon to fix the issue.

xbox-one_tvTo jump into some of those integrated media features, the Xbox accepts an HDMI in signal, which actually includes support for the HDMI control protocol. No current major satellite or cable boxes support this yet, sadly. The plan is to plug your DVR, cable box or satellite receiver into the Xbox. The Xbox then overlays its own UI on top of the image coming from your content box. You can use voice or motion controls to browse content from the cable box. The Xbox controls the cable box by using the Kinect as an IR blaster. Interestingly it can also control any device in a room by filling the room with bouncing IR signals. Some people with consumer TVs have been feeling some frustrations with the lack of discrete on/off signals while trying to use more control. I can see more control functions opening up in the future through the Xbox app store and potentially using the iOS and Android SmartGlass app feature.

The great thing about this strategy is the power of the Xbox’s incredibly fast switching UI. Playing a game and want to check a game on TV? The game will freeze in place and you can swap to TV with no lag or flashing plus a smooth animation. It also lets you “pin” a live TV window to a corner of a game. I know our industry has fast switching signal equipment, but I think you’ll be impressed.

What’s weird about this setup? The Xbox is only taking a live signal and sending signals to control the cable box. In an age of DVR place and time-shifting, this feels like an anachronism instead of next generation hardware. Microsoft itself makes DVR software with its Windows Media Center line. It may be a space issue considering the limited 500 GB internal hard drive.  When external storage is opened through it’s USB 3.0 ports later in the year, there will be more room for media.

The other part of the answer could be a working CableCARD system to directly receive cable signals. We know that’s not going to happen any time soon. The other issue is the same problem I have with all IR based control systems — the terrible lag you experience while your remote methodically blasts out a series of IR codes. Partnering with several control companies or using an open standard for would be ideal and I wouldn’t rule it out in the future. They already support Logitech Harmony remotes, but that has some of the same lag issues previously described.

One other unique feature of the HDMI in is you can put virtually any device into that port. I’ve been using it to watch my AppleTV. You can find funny photos online of people plugging other Xboxes into it for an Inception style experience.

xbox-one_kinect

Control itself is a defining feature of the Xbox One. The Kinect bar lets users use their hands to move through the UI and the integrated mic and voice recognition system takes commands like a champ. I haven’t had any issues so far with it recognizing words (other than me feeling a little silly at times talking to my TV). The first generation of Kinect had some, um, issues with accuracy. The verbal command structure is very specific, which I hope they will improve in the future. For example: “Xbox, off” does not work, but “Xbox, turn off” does. Also, you’ll have to be specific about game and TV channel titles. You can’t say “Xbox, play Ryse,” but instead have to say “Xbox, play Ryse, Son of Rome.” Hopefully they will keep improving the software to be a little smarter. The motion control actually works pretty well, although at times I feel less like I’m in Minority Report (and yes, we know that analogy is played out in the AV industry), and more like I’m a TINY MAN PRESSING GIGANTIC INVISIBLE BUTTONS!

While we’re on the subject of the Kinect, there are a couple other innovative uses of the camera. The face recognition software is amazing. Walk up to your Xbox and it will automatically recognize your face and log you into the machine. Your friend sits down, and it will recognize her and log into her user account as well. If you receive a physical item, such as a gift card you you can scan the QR code instead of typing in a 25 number key. One odd note: The camera never turns off and MS hasn’t promised not to gather and sell data based on your presence and attention to the TV.  Weren’t paying attention to that last ad — Microsoft could track that. On the flip-side, it’s forced to watch you (warning: this link may offend some, so click at your own risk).

The Kinect also integrates beautifully with Skype and has an excellent 1080p camera with motion tracking and zoom. Playing a game or watching TV and you receive a Skype call? Hit the fast-switch and move to Skype. This is going to bring Skype into millions of living rooms that previously had no teleconferencing on the main display. It may eventually kill our beloved Biscotti, or even higher-end home video conferencing systems for a particular segment of the AV industry. This shift reminds me of Sony’s decision to add Blu-ray to the PS3 — suddenly millions of people have unintentionally added a technology into their home and taken a stand on standards.

xbox-one_controlerThe game controller is great, with minimal changes for people used to the Xbox 360’s controller. While it does have a proprietary jack for headsets, it only offers voice functionality, unlike the PS4’s audio and mic 3.5 mm jack. The included controller does not come default with rechargeable batteries and instead uses AAs. For $30 you can buy a rechargeable battery pack with an external mini-USB jack. Just one more reason AV furniture manufactures need to get up with the times and offer built-in USB charging stations. I like it — solid, good button feel and two independent rumble packs. Buying a second controller is a bit pricey at $80 for one with a rechargeable battery.

Like the PS4 and WiiU, the Xbox is embracing second screen technology with their Smart Glass app for iOS and Android. You can control the Xbox UI and add an extra layer of control and engagement to some games. The Smart Glass app uses a direct Wi-Fi connection to the Xbox for virtually no lag between the Xbox and your device.

xbox-one_ui

The overall Xbox One UI is a bit of a mess. The fast switching and pinning makes up for many of those sins, but the metro-style square icon docking layout creates a jumble content to flip through. If you have 50 games, you’re just going to have to flip through them with with little control over organization.

The Xbox already has quite a few apps available for free in the store, including Netflix, Amazon Video, HBOGo, and twitch video uploading. Like the PS4, every game you play is recorded and buffered for 30 seconds. Hit a button, and you can record and post your digital exploits to services like Twitch, or store it on the cloud service SkyDrive for later posting. Microsoft is being a bit heavy-handed with Xbox Live Gold and Silver accounts – and who can blame them for wanting recurring revenue. If you want to play multi-player, or even watch Netflix, you HAVE to buy a subscription to Live. For those who enjoy playing alone, this feels pretty unfair. Currently there are no free game demos for the Xbox One to download, so unless you’ve purchased a game you like, you’ll be stuck with the fighting / button mashing game Killer Instinct.

Unlike the PS4, the Xbox supports DNLA out of the box. But, unlike the 360, you can push content from a computer or mobile device to the Xbox One, but you can’t remotely browse a computer or device serving content. It’s much more like Apple’s Airplay now.

The Xbox one is a solid machine — it’s a big ‘ole dedicated gaming computer sitting in your theater/living room. There are no huge downsides, so if you buy this or the PS4 it’s really just up to your client’s preferences. Microsoft’s modest foray into making a media hub and control box shouldn’t scare clients away from more elaborate AV solutions you can sell and design for them. I think if anything it will let them dip their toe into what’s possible and ultimately feed their interest for more. I think most gaming fans are going to want one of these in any theater setups anyway, so it’s up to you to show that you can really make the setup sing with the rest of the theater gear in a way that your competitors may not have thought was possible. I hope to continue to write about that in more detail in the coming months.