Or Why You Should Never Buy a Console at Launch
I was fairly excited about preordering my Xbox One system. Like many others, I eagerly looked forward to the arrival of a new generation of system capabilities and games that left the old systems thoroughly in the dust. Now, of course, by this point I’m well aware that console launches are never, ever what they’re cracked up to be, and never has that been more true than in the era of “ship it broken and patch it later” products. Still, it’s hard not to be disappointed given all that’s been promised, very little of which has actually been delivered. But why is it such a disappointment? We’ll get to that, but before then let’s start with something more positive: I got a full refund. Head on past the break and I’ll tell you all about my experience with Microsoft’s latest and second greatest.
Let me get the bad news out of the way: my Xbox One arrived with a dead optical drive. As such, for the first ten days I didn’t play a single disk-based game or blu ray on the system, which left me with very little to do besides explore the system and scant few demos. I have more to say on that topic, but let’s save that for the “Customer Support Experience” section of the review, shall we?
You’ve probably already read or even seen: Xbox One is big, almost stupidly so, and it has an enormous power brick to go with it. Some people see this as a problem, and I can understand why, but it doesn’t really bother me. Given the choice between a large console or another RROD fiasco, I’ll take the large console. I suspect Microsoft had a similar outlook when deciding on the system’s design in all its rectangular glory, and I can’t blame them. It’s very clear when picking up the Xbox One that it’s a well built system, undoubtedly designed for the long haul. It’s clean lines and blend of glossy and matte plastics make it recede into just about any entertainment center you’re likely to install it into (save, I suppose, a bright white or light colored wood one, but hey, you can’t win them all). Whatever else you can say about the machine’s build, it says “quality” from the word go. This, of course, makes it especially frustrating to have found myself with a defective unit, but, if Microsoft’s claims are true, the issue I face is a problem for only about 1% of Xbox One owners. Time will tell, I suppose.
The Xbox One’s system software is ambitious but unpolished. Xbox One’s Windows 8 inspired UI is fast, easy to navigate and offers a lot of flexibility–if you use the Kinect voice commands, of course. If you don’t, it’s still easy to navigate, but far too many things are not clear. Like the original release of Windows 8, there’s little in the way of user tutorials to teach you how to navigate the system or setup its many features. Once you finally wrap your head around it, it’s actually quite easy, but make no mistake: there’s a learning curve, and appearances aside, Xbox One’s UI doesn’t really work like Windows 8’s.
But perhaps the thing that bugged me most was that the system would frequently completely freeze for no obvious reason, and on several occasions it just flat out turned off. At first I chocked this up to the fact that my system had a defective blu ray drive and so perhaps it had other problems as well, but as I would later learn, this was not the case.
Navigating and Kinect
Bouncing from one app to the next is easy and almost shockingly fast when using Kinect’s voice commands. Switching from Netflix to Hulu to the dashboard to Internet Explorer is fast and simple–when the commands register. Unfortunately, at least in my humble living room environment, Kinect 2 fares worse than Kinect 1 did on Xbox 360. Sure, the depth and breadth of commands makes the Xbox 360’s slate pale in comparison, but it’s no less frustrating when probably three quarters of commands aren’t recognized on the first try. This makes navigation a hit or miss affair that leads to frustration just as often as it feels “next generation”. I like to think that with time, this will improve, as they slowly did with the original Kinect, but I have to ask: why did Microsoft ship this thing in such condition when they’ve had three years of original Kinect experience, telemetry and user feedback to guide them? That normal usage remains as much a frustration as it was three years ago is not something that lends me confidence, but at least on paper the new Kinect is much more capable than the old and so should be given some time to grow before we pass final judgment. That the Kinect is included with every Xbox One is a good reason to have hope, as it provides a greater motivation than ever before to put their best foot forward. It’s just a shame they couldn’t do that before launch.
In the end, I found little to complain about the performance of the system, but the experience of using Kinect to navigate it was very frustrating and more than a little broken.
Now, it’s important to be honest here: the Xbox One does some cool things, some better than others. Its ability to rapidly switch between apps is second to none. I wish 360 had half the voice commands Xbox One does, but I suppose that if it did, there’d be no good reason to upgrade. Like 360 before it, Xbox One has a large number of video apps available (though not nearly as many, I’m surprised, as its predecessor), though surprisingly little in the way of music. The social media integration is slick, though I honestly have to wonder how relevant it really is, as it doesn’t seem like something I’d use. I’m excited for the idea of being able to capture, edit and post video reviews straight from the console, but so far that ability is far too limited to be of much use. Still, baby steps; it may not be as good as PS4’s, but it’s there, and that’s something.
Microsoft took a lot of shit for its focus on tv and media integration at the initial unveiling of the system, and rightfully so. That said, it works VERY well. I was able to configure the system to automatically turn on my TV and receiver, and set the receiver to the proper input automatically. That’s cool stuff any way you slice it. Navigating the channel guide by voice was great when it worked, and, like navigating the UI itself, frustrating as hell when it didn’t, which was more often than not. Still, there’s no getting around it: Xbox One handles cable tuners like a boss, and that’s a groundbreaking feature. It’s a shame Nintendo didn’t take its TVii feature this far. Once you learn the ins and outs of the channel guide (it isn’t hard), you’ll be switching channels automatically and easily within just a few minutes. It’s probably the best designed aspect of the entire system.
Prior to getting a working unit, I played Killer Instinct and some Kinect Fitness training, owing, again, to my lack of a working optical drive and the fact that these were pretty much all that was available to download without paying again for games I already had. I can’t say I came away particularly impressed, to be honest, and this carried over to Dead Rising 3 when I finally was able to play that as well. What I will tell you is this: if you’re happy with the way Xbox 360 and PS3 games look, you’ll be happy with the Xbox One’s graphics. They’re hardly distinguishable at all. That’s to be expected, of course. Consoles almost never launch with a stable of great games that take advantage of the new hardware, and Xbox One is no exception. All I can really tell you about games performance is this: the couple I played looked decent, ran smoothly and seemed otherwise decent enough. Dead Rising 3 was no doubt the prettiest of the bunch, but it’s, you know, Dead Rising. It’s not exactly an exercise in innovation, though it is fun to play.
The phone experience with customer service was a long, tedious, unproductive experience the first couple of times I called. They were always polite, but getting the customer service agents to understand my problems with the system was maddening, especially because they originally categorized my broken optical drive as “system noise”, which didn’t qualify for the free game offer they’re giving to people with dead optical drives. In my humble O, what the cause of your defective Xbox One is is simply irrelevant; if you got a defective machine they can’t replace at retail, then MS should be offering you a game or something to compensate for the extra time you’ll wait. All in all it took 10 days for my replacement Xbox One to arrive, and another 5 before they investigated and decided to give me the free game. I suppose I can’t complain too hard–in the end they gave me two games, so that’s something.
My experience with the replacement system changed almost nothing. The optical drive worked, so that enabled me to try blu ray and DVD movies and disk based games, all of which worked pretty much like you’d expect. Xbox One played them all competently, provided a clean, clear, beautiful picture on my 55″ Samsung LCD, and that’s really all I have to say about that. But the glaring bugs in the system itself remained even on my second Xbox One. Occasional hard freezes and reboots plagued my gameplay experience, and the Kinect continued to be more miss than hit. All of this added up, over a period of about three weeks, to a sum that wasn’t worth the cost of admission. In frustration, I packed up the Xbox One, drove it to my local Microsoft store, and returned it. That experience was hassle free except that they had to send me a check for the refund (I received it yesterday, so all is well).
I like what the Xbox One stands for: it’s a device that wants to do many, many things for you, do them fast and do them hands free as often as possible. It’s a device that’s full of promise, and if they can get it working the way it’s advertised, I think it’ll ultimately be a device worth owning. I want to love Xbox One. It’s clearly got plenty of power and a lot of well thought out ideas that unfortunately just aren’t implemented well. As such, I don’t think the time for owning an Xbox One if you have to pay full price for it has arrived yet. I think it will, when the games library matures and the software glitches are ironed out, but those will only come with time, and my guess is that time will come in about a year, likely when we’ll see the first price drop as well (I think $499 is simply not a long term sustainable price, especially when your competition is selling millions at $399 and $299 for PS4 and Wii U respectively).
My hat is off to Microsoft for aiming high. I just wish they’d manage to hit somewhere closer to the target.