The Microsoft of the PC era ruled the world with bigness. Its Windows operating systems were sprawling messes of code built to accommodate almost every PC on earth. The Office suite of applications became more bloated with every release, but that meant that you couldn’t complain about missing features. Elegance did not factor into the company’s strategy. Instead, Microsoft aimed to provide a reassuring sense of scale. We have everything you need, the company promised, and soon we’ll have more.
That was a fruitful approach in an era when technology was expected to be obtuse, when people were still coming to terms with computers as ubiquitous home appliances. But in the smartphone era, elegance suddenly matters again. People buy iPhones and Android gizmos not because they can do everything, but because they do enough things, and they tend to do them with a grace and pocket-sized convenience that a PC can’t match. Few users need the reassurance anymore of Microsoft The Great, Microsoft The Vast, Microsoft The All-Encompassing. Those ideas don’t match our society’s more intimate relationship with technology.
Still, with the $500 Xbox One, Microsoft doubles down on bigness. It’s what the company’s DNA demands. This is the box that can supposedly do everything, hence its presumptive name. The idea is that it’s the One device you need in your living room. Yet surely Microsoft also recognize that it’s not 1998 anymore. Agility is now the fashionable look in personal tech. So the Xbox One tries to be agile, too, with a swish interface and a camera accessory that invites you to put down the controller. The result is an experience akin to watching a linebacker practice ballet: No matter how many times he pirouettes, he’s still a hulking golem.
Fresh out of its packaging, the Xbox One makes a strong impression, if not an alluring one. When I first saw images of the Xbox One, I likened it to a 1980s VCR and found its boxy retro look appealing. Once I had squeezed this clumsy thing into my entertainment center, I realized why having a 1980s VCR in your living room is more fun in theory than in practice. The One looks especially ridiculous next to the PlayStation 4. Microsoft’s console is so much bigger, and its angles so much cruder, that it doesn’t even look like it belongs in the same conversation as the PS4. How is it that these two machines do pretty much the same thing?
The clunkiness extends beyond the machine itself. The One, like its predecessors, also forces you to contend with its external power supply, a brick that sits in the middle of the console’s connection to a wall outlet. (The PS4’s power supply is internal, making its smaller size all the more remarkable.) And while it’s not mandatory that you use the included Kinect camera, the Xbox One would really prefer that you do. That means placing yet another black brick in front of your TV and connecting it to the mothership with an thick, unruly cable that will defy your attempts to hide it.
The main console’s exterior features a mix of gloss and matte treatments arranged in a patchwork: On the top of the unit, the left side is glossy, but on the front, the right side is the shiny one. The Xbox One designers believe they can offset the box’s monolithic nature by breaking it up into smaller fragments, the way someone might cut a steak into bite-sized cubes for their kid.
This philosophy carries over into the software. which follows the lead of Microsoft’s latest Windows products by chopping the interface into a million colorful tiles. As a design metaphor, the tiles have an appealing simplicity. They offer an implicit assurance that you won’t have to go hunting around for obscure visual widgets or leaf through semi-hidden menus to accomplish what you want. If it’s important, it gets a tile. Like the PS4, the Xbox One rearranges the tiles on the home screen to reflect what you’ve done most recently, and you can also “pin” your most-used apps so that they’re always at the ready.
At times, the tiles’ simplicity is also a flaw. All those shuffling little squares suggest a breezy experience that adjusts to your desires, and in some respects, the tile system delivers that. But because the tiles have so little functional depth, they struggle to accommodate even mild complexity. The Netflix app, for instance, does a piss-poor job of distinguishing between tiles that will start playing a video immediately and tiles that will take you to an information screen. I often saw two identical-looking Ryse: Son Of Rome tiles on my home screen and was at a loss as to which tile I should select to start playing the game. It turns out they both do the same thing: The Xbox One reserves the bottom row of tiles on your home screen for recently used apps and games, except that the last tile in the bottom row is reserved for whatever’s sitting in the disc slot. So if you recently played whatever was in the disc slot—an extremely common prospect, I’d imagine—you get this confusing redundancy in the interface. (It would be surprising if Microsoft doesn’t fix this in a future software update.)
Those are small concerns. The larger issue is that it’s hard to get your bearings on the Xbox One. It seems like every app is another sea of tiles that stretches into off-screen oblivion, so they all blend together. When you duck out of an app, the Xbox One places it in a jumbo tile in the home screen. Does this mean it’s still running in the background? It’s hard to tell. Sometimes I could quit a game, use a different program on the console, and then pick my game back up right where I left off. Other times, when I resumed my game, it would boot up from the beginning again. Who knows why. Maybe it’s a bug, and maybe it’s the result of the console managing its resources. The iPhone’s operating system, for instance, will keep recently used programs in a state of suspended animation until it needs to quietly terminate them to free up memory. That could be what’s happening here, but I don’t know, and the console does a poor job of keeping me informed.
The “snap” feature invites further disorientation. Users can “snap” apps onto the screen—essentially half-launching them into a sidebar that pushes aside everything else. Some apps offer a more limited set of functions when they’re snapped, but this is unpredictable. The more salient question is why you would bother. The Xbox One’s tutorials helpfully note that you could, say, carry on a Skype chat while continuing to play your game. While the world will certainly be enriched by the scintillating conversations that will ensue in this setup, it seems like a rare scenario. It is at least conceivable, though. I couldn’t come up with another situation in which I’d want to snap an app rather than just launching it.
The Kinect—a motion-sensing, voice-recognizing webcam that has been overhauled for the Xbox One—is another feature in search of a compelling purpose. Microsoft could not have ended up in a worse political and cultural moment to make the Kinect a centerpiece of its new machine. The ongoing parade of revelations from the files of Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, has given us new insight into spy programs that catch millions of private citizens in their dragnet. As we’ve seen, much of the intrusive data-gathering only exists by virtue of a forced relationship between the U.S. government and massive technology companies like Microsoft. Into this milieu steps Kinect 2.0, a little box of Orwell.
Microsoft has promised that it won’t, say, gather data from Kinect’s camera and microphone to hit you with customized advertising—or at least that it won’t do so without asking you first. The Xbox One, according to Microsoft, does not upload facial-map data (which the Kinect uses to recognize you and automatically log you in) to any central server, and it turns off the video-streaming function unless you are explicitly using it, like in a Skype video chat.
I see no reason to doubt Microsoft in regard to these specific claims. But I also don’t see a reason to trust the company so credulously that I install one of its cameras in my home. You don’t have to be paranoid to find the Kinect creepy. I recently had a friend over to run the One through its paces. When the word “Xbox” came up in our conversation, the software would often pause the game and bring up a Kinect menu—the Xbox’s way of saying, “You rang?” As we chatted while playing Dead Rising 3, the game would periodically flash a red microphone icon on the screen to indicate that it didn’t understand. Yes, Xbox, you didn’t understand because we weren’t talking to you. But the machine can’t conceive of such thing. It believes that you’re always talking to Xbox. And since the microphone doesn’t turn off, in a way, you always are.
The Xbox One encourages you to move around its interface “faster” by using Kinect voice commands. These commands work about 70 to 80 percent of the time, which is not enough. You’ll end up stumbling around in a busted feedback loop. You issue a command and wait to see if the Xbox understood. If it didn’t understand, the best-case scenario is that the console does nothing; the worst case is that it launches itself into some task you didn’t ask for. Then it’s time to yell at the machine some more or, if you have any sense, to pick up the goddamn controller already.
Even if they were reliable, the integration of voice commands would still be crude. Looking over the menu of options in the Netflix app, I can’t simply zero in on my pick and say, “Xbox, play Arrested Development.” Instead, I have to summon the Xbox, wait for it to overlay a grid of numbers on the tiles, and then say, for instance, “Select 2.” Select 2? This is the future?
As soon as I finish this review, I’ll be unhooking my Kinect for good. That wouldn’t be such a big deal except that Microsoft is asking users to pay a $100 premium over the PS4, and the inclusion of the Kinect is a big reason for the price gap. Microsoft is in a bind here. If the company’s executives someday choose to offer a Kinect-free version of the Xbox One—thereby making it easier to compete on price with Sony—they’ll be betraying their developer community. After all, Microsoft had promised that the Kinect would be an integral part of the One experience, and that developers could depend on One owners having a Kinect.
Then again, developers have already betrayed Microsoft by making such uninspired use of the device. Its integration into games is limited almost entirely to lame gimmicks: You can yell at enemies to distract them in Dead Rising 3, for instance, and a few sports games reprimand you if you swear. When the Kinect was launched, it was supposed to usher in a whole new class of video games. Now it’s reduced to playing nanny. Most major studios and publishers have decided that the Kinect isn’t important to them. The next year or two will show if Microsoft’s ever-diminishing ambitions for the technology finally dwindle to nil.
I spent the better part of a month with the Xbox One before writing this review, which is longer than usual, as I struggled to understand the thing. Major pieces of consumer electronics like this can be fascinating because of the potential they have to shape information, entertainment, and the rhythm of our lives. If you observe a device closely enough, you can usually intuit an underlying philosophy (intentional or not) that drives it. Take the Xbox 360. With its Achievements for in-game feats, a dramatically improved Xbox Live network, and a bulked-up online marketplace, the launch version of the 360 put forth a vision of a playful community that extended beyond the bounds of the disc in the drive.
The Xbox One’s identity doesn’t cohere like that. At first blush, it positions itself as a comforting juggernaut of simplicity—the One true box that unifies your electronic desires in a single venue. You can even run your cable box’s video feed through the Xbox One so that all of your entertainment is mediated by Microsoft. (Full disclosure: I didn’t test this feature, as my cable box and TV already work fine without an Xbox One in between.)
With time, the initial impression of grand unity dissolves as the One breaks itself up into fragments of experience. It slices the screen into a mess of tiles. It invites you to multitask by snapping apps or using “SmartGlass” to display Xbox One content on your smartphone or tablet. It records footage of that high score you just earned on Peggle 2 and then gives you a pop-up notification, just in case you wanted to upload that video to your Microsoft SkyDrive. The ideal Xbox One user is a hyperactive entertainment omnivore who’s never satisfied doing one thing, but is always moving on to the next activity, or splashing one activity on top of another, in a never-ending parade of distraction.
I have no doubt that such people exist. For the rest of us, the Xbox One needs the user to finish the job of justifying its existence. The console dumps a pile of dubious features and half-ideas on you and then expects you to make sense of it all. It does so with such sunny confidence that it’s almost convincing. A confident bullshitter is a bullshitter all the same, though. And at launch, the Xbox One is trying to put one over on you. This is not a finished product.
That’s not much of a sin for now, because anyone other than an ardent hobbyist would have to be a little nuts to buy a console during the “launch window.” Both the PS4 and the Xbox One offer modest improvements over the previous generation’s visuals. They both come with very good controllers (although the PS4 has the edge—the Xbox One gamepad suffers from cheap, mushy-feeling triggers and shoulder buttons). Neither console has any essential exclusive games yet. In other words, the margin of quality between these two is small, message-board holy wars be damned.
Modern consoles improve with age, and Microsoft has plenty of time to connect the One’s conceptual loose ends. That’s why I plan to re-review both consoles a year from now to see how they feel after the initial launch madness has settled down. For the time being, all the PS4 and Xbox One can really do is tell us who they are. The PS4 is a bland but friendly functionary that tries to stay out of your way. The Xbox One, meanwhile, is that unwieldy linebacker in a tutu, stumbling over its own toe shoes. Microsoft still needs to make it dance.