First Look: Xbox One’s TV Features Are Promising, but a Work in Progress

Microsoft's console stitches together an array of services in ways that are ambitious, though not always seamless.

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The Xbox One's OneGuide TV programming grid

When a gadget category has “game” in its name, as game consoles have had for decades, it tends to lead to typecasting. You might expect a device in it to be mostly about game playing, and — are you following along with me here? — to be of interest primarily to people who like to play games.

Actually, though, the major consoles have been broadening their horizons for years now. Especially Microsoft, and especially with its new Xbox One, which goes on sale this Friday. Sure, it still plays games. But it also offers a bevy of streaming entertainment services, Internet Explorer and Skype. It also controls your pay-TV box. And it wraps everything up in a unified interface that uses spoken commands, gestures and input from smartphones and tablets.

Rather than suggesting that this box is a one-trick pony, the “One” in “Xbox One” declares that it’s the one box you need for your living room. It aims to be an everything console, and is therefore of interest to folks who don’t consider themselves serious gamers.

My colleague Matt Peckham reviews the console here. For the past few days, I’ve been trying a pre-release unit provided by Microsoft, focusing on the TV features. The company is still sliding crucial parts of the experience into place — I was able to try Netflix only briefly, for instance — and I encountered some bugs that may or may not get squashed before the product hits the shelves. So what follows are my initial impressions rather than a definitive verdict.

The Xbox One’s approach to TV isn’t a conceptual breakthrough: Last year, Nintendo’s Wii U introduced a feature called TVii that noodled around with some of the same ideas. But Microsoft’s take on unified entertainment is far more ambitious than Nintendo’s. It’s also one of the defining differences between the Xbox One and Sony‘s new PlayStation 4, which unabashedly keeps the spotlight on games, relegating other forms of entertainment to supporting roles.

Almost nobody will consider the $500 Xbox One to be an impulse purchase. And if you’re interested enough in using its entertainment features to pay that kind of money, you’ll probably also want to spring for the Xbox Live Gold service: It costs $60 a year and is mandatory for offerings such as the OneGuide programming grid and most of the streaming services available at launch or soon thereafter, including Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, ESPN, FOX Now, Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, The NFL on Xbox One, Redbox Instant, Vudu and others. (Microsoft’s own Xbox Video service, which is well done, lets you buy and rent movies and TV shows, and doesn’t require Xbox Live Gold.)

Of course, you don’t need to spend anywhere near $500 to watch Hulu, Netflix and a gajillion other streaming services on a TV: Roku’s boxes do the job nicely for as little as $50. So why should couch potatoes sit up and pay attention to the Xbox One’s arrival?

There are several reasons, but the big one is the way Xbox One smooshes together video from the net with your pay TV subscription, games, the web and other elements into one experience. It breaks down the walls between them, letting you race from item to item nearly as quickly as your brain can take you. You can even do two things at once. If you love to multitask or simply have a short attention span, it’s a big deal.

Rather than fully replacing your cable or satellite box, the Xbox One wedges itself between the box you’ve already got and your TV, connected by HDMI cables and using infrared signals to control the TV box and TV. In my case, the cable box in question was a TiVo DVR, and the setup process was quick and painless.

Once you’re up and running, the Xbox One’s Windows 8-like world becomes your primary TV interface. If you’ve associated your Microsoft Account with the Xbox One, the revised Kinect sensor — an amazing piece of technology that does everything from measuring your heart rate to enabling Skype video calls in HD — will detect your face and log you in automatically, giving you access to TV features such as a list of channels you’ve saved as favorites. It’s all very slick, though I wonder how readily random grandparents or other passers-by will take to it.

An important point: The Xbox One doesn’t attempt to render your cable box’s remote control obsolete, especially if you’ve got a DVR. I was able to pause live TV using Kinect voice commands, but to record programs or play them back later, I used the TiVo remote. For the most part, the two boxes coexisted peacefully, but the TiVo needs to be in live-TV mode for the Xbox’s TV features to work.

Using the microphone built into the Kinect sensor, you can control TV by saying “Xbox” and then speaking commands such as “Watch ESPN” or “What’s on TLC?” The OneGuide feature resembles a conventional, off-putting cable-TV programming grid, but lets you jump to channels by name, and includes shows from streaming services. It’s a far more pleasant way to interact with a few hundred stations of programming than trying to remember whether CSPAN2 is channel 578 or 758.

That is, it’s more pleasant when it works as advertised. The more I’ve used it, the more accurately it’s understood me, in part because it officially only understands the names of the most recent twenty stations you’ve watched, and therefore needs you to tune to your favorites before it’ll recognize them. But it still sometimes misinterprets my speech — for instance, it has a predilection to tune to ABC Family when I’ve asked for something else. (I don’t feel too bad: Accuracy hasn’t been 100 percent even when I’ve watched Microsoft employees demo the system.)

In some cases — at least with my cable lineup, and especially with obscure channels — the voice input expects you to request channels in ways that are unlikely to make sense to mere mortals. Here in San Francisco, MeTV (a channel I watch all the time) is a secondary digital offering of a local broadcaster named KOFY. In order to watch it, the Xbox One makes me say “Xbox, watch K-O-F-Y D-T-2 MeTV” — a tongue-twister I have trouble saying, let alone remembering. To watch KQED Kids, I need to say “Xbox, watch KQED Kids cable only.”

Odder still: The voice-control system doesn’t know that the Style Network was renamed Esquire Network in September, so it makes me say “Xbox watch Style” to watch Esquire — even though the on-screen guide calls it Esquire.

I also found that voice input was most practical when I watched TV in solitude. When my wife was in the room, the Xbox One sometimes intermingled my commands with whatever she happened to be saying at the time — and no, I didn’t tell her to keep quiet while I changed channels.

Fortunately, voice isn’t the only way to control TV on the Xbox One. There’s the console’s controller, which gets the job done. There’s the Kinect’s gesture-sensing, which lets you wave your hand as if the air in front of you was a giant touchscreen: I’m still getting the knack of making it work. And there’s SmartGlass, a neat complementary app that turns your phone or tablet into a sophisticated touch-screen remote, complete with an on-screen keyboard. (I tried the Windows version on a Surface Pro tablet; iOS and Android editions will also be available.)

The more I got the hang of telling the Xbox One what to do, the more I was able to sit back and just do stuff. The Windows 8-like home screen lets you surf between games, broadcast TV, streaming video and music, Skype and other features in a way that’s fast, fluid and fun. Snap — another feature borrowed directly from Windows 8 — lets you place two items on-screen at once, like a game and a web page or a Blu-ray movie and a Skype call.

It really does feel like a new way to experience living-room entertainment, and it left me less skeptical about the Xbox One’s $500 sticker price. But there’s so much potential in the basic concept that I kept finding myself asking questions about all the things Xbox One doesn’t let you do with TV.

Such as:

–You can pin movies, shows and music from streaming services to your home screen for ultra-easy access. So why can’t you do the same with your favorite TV channels?

–Shouldn’t the Bing search engine — which lets you speak to find stuff across multiple video services as well as Microsoft’s game and music stores — search the broadcast TV schedule as well, so you can determine when the next scheduled showing of Seinfeld will occur? (It does list upcoming episodes of some network shows, but not all — it’s never even heard of Rachel Maddow, for example.)

–Why did Hulu Plus sometimes remember where I was in a video, and sometimes kick me back to its home screen, with no obvious way to resume a show in progress?

–How come the home-screen icons for services such as Hulu Plus and Netflix are mundane logos, not Live Tiles that show what you’ve been watching?

–Why, when you’ve launched the video search feature, must you say “Xbox Bing” again in order to speak your query rather than type it?

Like any brand-new platform, the Xbox One is by definition immature: It reflects the things Microsoft thought were most important to accomplish in the time it had. What’s not there now may show up in future updates; what doesn’t work as well as it could, like voice input, may get better.

Already, I think it’s off to a better start than such doomed attempts to combine broadcast TV and streaming video as Google TV. Which means that it’s worth keeping an eye on, even if it doesn’t sound like $500 worth of fun to you right now.