The Arrival and Initial Impressions
My Xbox One arrived in the late afternoon on launch day in the middle of an unusually powerful rainstorm here in Southern California. I was impressed by the the overall quality of the machine's build; it's sleek and simple, and it feels well constructed. I didn't have any games when I received it, and I didn't own a game until I purchased Forza 5 a few days later. Therefore, I was relegated to familiarizing myself with the various features of the system: the Kinect functionality, the operating system, and the cable box connectivity.
First Month Impressions of the Xbox One
Having owned the original Kinect for the Xbox 360 since its release in 2010, I am pretty familiar with what the technology has to offer. With the Xbox One, my optimism for the Kinect was quickly quelled with dismay and discouragement. With the rightful expectation of an improved product, especially as it pertains to the voice command recognition technology, what I got was a Kinect that seemed to have a more difficult time complying with my commands than its older, less sophisticated brethren.
When the Xbox One's Kinect works, it feels great; it is smooth and fast. Unfortunately, it seems to misunderstand my vocal commands more often than the 360 version, and sometimes it just ignores me, altogether. Another problem is that it seems to reset itself a little too fast. If the user doesn't verbalize a command fast enough, or if the Kinect ignores the user's command, the software will automatically return to an idle state, requiring the user to utter "Xbox" once again. This happens too frequently to be overlooked or ignored, and it is very vexing. Lastly, the Kinect seems to have a penchant for misunderstanding what I say, or hearing things I never said. This is most salient when watching a video in Netflix. Idle chatter in the room during video playback sometimes causes the Xbox One to execute a random command without calling out "Xbox." Attempts at replicating this error is usually met with failure, indicating to me that this is simply a random, yet frequent malfunction.
A few weeks ago I was playing Dead Rising 3 for the better part of a Saturday afternoon and early evening. When I decided to stop playing, I called out, "Xbox, go home!" The command was ignored. I tried again and again while projecting varying degrees of loudness in my voice, but to no avail. I then tried pressing the middle button on the controller, and nothing happened. The game was still running normally, so I decided to utter some of the voice commands within the menu system of the game. They all worked perfectly. I ended up having to turn off the system by getting up from my couch, walking over to the unit, and pressing the power button. Another strange occurrence happened a few days ago. I hadn't turned on the system for almost a week when I tried to wake it from its sleep state with the words, "Xbox, On!" It ignored me. I tried dozens of times, and I even tried while speaking right next to the Kinect. Again, nothing happened, and I had to press the power button to make it come on. My initial conclusion about these two anecdotes is that the Xbox One's voice command system seems to stop working when the system sits idly for and extended period of time. This is pure speculation, but it is all that can be deduced at the moment.
The Operating System
After a brief 500 megabyte mandatory system update, my Xbox One was ready to embark on, what is hopefully, many years of faithful gaming service. The initial setup was quick, easy, and intuitive, and before I knew it, I was staring at my dashboard. This is where things started to get complicated.
The new dashboard looks mysteriously similar to a Windows 8 PC desktop. Unlike the abundantly comprehensive Xbox 360 dashboard, the One's OS display presents users with a remarkable dearth of windows and menus. I can only surmise that this was done to force users to talk to their Xboxes via the Kinect, since the fastest way to find simple and important menus such as "SETTINGS" is to use the voice command functionality. Upon first glance of my new dashboard, I found myself in a state of consternation precipitated by the lack of knowledge as to what to do next. The voice commands for the Xbox One are very different from the ones used for the 360. There is a big difference between saying "Xbox, go to" and "Xbox, select." Oftentimes, I find myself thinking about what to say after calling out "Xbox!", only to have the console "STOP LISTENING" to me after only a few seconds. After watching tutorials, web videos, and after reading comments on forums, I still don't know how to fully navigate my Xbox One's menus a month later.
The dashboard does look very nice, however. They have eliminated the visual clutter, and the colors used on screen are very soft, visually pleasing, and appear aesthetically modern. The "Pin" system on the left-hand side of the screen is a nice addition, and it will allow users to set their favorite menu items on the screen upon start-up, allowing for customized and easy access. And about that start-up - it is really fast. Now if only the software will sign me into my profile when it sees me like it does for my wife. The system seems to have little problem recognizing her, and it seems her profile ends up being the primary signed-in profile, even when I am in the middle of a game. I usually have to sign her out to avoid confusion. I look forward to the day that Microsoft's engineers will be able to match the software quality with the aesthetic quality the hardware and dashboard so proudly exhibit.
Cable Box Connectivity
This aspect of the Xbox One's feature set has been the most disappointing for me. Although the picture quality of cable T.V. running through the console is great, and switching between game, dashboard, and T.V. works as advertised and adds qualitative value, the T.V. video lacks the accompaniment of the necessary audio for me. I have gone through the cable box setup multiple times, and I even followed the instructions on Xbox.com. I have also tried reconnecting all of the wires, and I tried rebooting my cable box. Every attempt to get the sound to work has ended in failure. This feature was one of my most anticipated non-gaming features of the Xbox One, a fact that only intensifies my disappointment. I still have not contacted Xbox Customer Service, but I intend to very soon.
Games and Controller
Buying a video game console is mostly about the desire to play good games, and the Xbox One shines brightly in this regard, so far. Forza Motorsport 5 is a technical masterpiece, impressively combining accurate automotive technology data with fun, accessible gameplay. It is also visually stunning. Ryse: Son of Rome has been much better than expected, although I am only 2-3 hours in. Characterized by some of the most photo-realistic character and environmental graphics I have ever seen in a video game, the mechanics are strategic and precise. Although it may get repetitive in the long run, the game is still fun. Finally, Dead Rising 3 is one of my favorites for 2013. It doesn't look as good as the aforementioned games, but the open-world zombie massacre gameplay is a blast to play. It still looks good, however, especially when there are 100s, or 1000s, of zombies on screen simultaneously, and the system's performance remains steady and stable.
In the past, video game consoles were designed to primarily do just one thing - play games. Today, video game systems are multimedia hubs designed to provide an eclectic array of entertainment options including video games. As a consequence, console platforms are ever evolving. Because of this current state of gaming, reviewing a console at launch is a veritable impossibility. The only way to properly review a console is to do so near the end of its life-cycle, when its full set of features and capabilities have been optimally realized. For example, the Xbox 360 is a much different beast today than it was when it released 8 years ago. I remain confident the same prospect is in store for the Xbox One; it will be dramatically different in just a few years from now.
Currently, one of my favorite non-gaming features of the Xbox One is being able to view contemporaneous gameplay videos using the Upload app. I have spent many hours sampling games I don't own by watching others play them using this feature. In the future, we may be using features we haven't even imagined yet, and through software updates and improvements, many of the annoying issues I have with the system may become a long, forgotten memory. As it stands now, the Xbox One barely manages to exist at the edge of the shadow of its own lofty ambitions. It struggles to perform at the level that Microsoft laid before us during the months leading to its release, and it struggles to meet the expectations of the consumer who paid good money to acquire one. This, by no means, is meant to convey the notion that the system is a failure, rather it is a work-in-progress. The foundation is firm for something great to be built upon. The road is long, expectations are high, and secrets and games have yet to be revealed. It is best to reserve final judgement until there exists something more substantive to judge. My immediate impressions are balanced between enjoyment and disappointment. I am happy I bought one, yet I am cautiously optimistic for the future. The anticipation I felt before the console arrived at my door on November 22nd has been supplanted by an even bigger anticipation for what that future will bring to the Xbox One and its user base.