The story so far: I’ve left the New York Times to start a new consumer-tech site at Yahoo. We’ll open for business in a few weeks; in the meantime, I’ll continue to post my columns—right here on Tumblr.
You know what we should do? We should spread Christmas around a little more evenly. Maybe celebrate it for six hours each on March 25, June 25, September 25, and December 25.
That way, you, the shopping public, wouldn’t have to endure a tsunami of product introductions, all crammed into a single monolithic buying season. Manufacturers wouldn’t have to compete with each other during the same three-month crisis period. And we tech critics wouldn’t have way too much to review all at once.
Until my idea catches on, though, we’d better get started.
Yesterday, Microsoft reps gave me a tour of the company’s Great Shiny Black Plastic Hope, the Xbox One ($500 when it goes on sale November 22).
Now, the gamer Web sites will soon be offering 12,000-word deep dives into the gaming aspects of the Xbox One; I, on the other hand, don’t usually write up game consoles at all.
But this time around, the Xbox is more than a game machine. It’s also intended to double as a TV-based entertainment center, like an Apple TV or Roku box. It can download and play online movies and TV shows, both from Microsoft’s video store and from Netflix and Hulu Plus, and control your cable box. More on that in a moment.
Now, even before anyone’s gotten an Xbox One home to test, it has its critics. Microsoft originally intended every game to “phone home” before you could play it (a copy-protection scheme); fans booed, and Microsoft abandoned the scheme. Then there’s the threat of Sony’s PlayStation 4, which comes out a week earlier and has charms of its own. And there’s the price ($500), which is $100 more than the Playstation.
But in theory, at least, there’s some eye-popping technology built into this thing. Some of the highlights:
The New Kinect
Every Xbox One comes with a new, redesigned, far more sensitive Kinect (the little infrared camera bar that “sees” the room and everybody in it, shown here at top). Its inclusion, you could argue, helps justify the One’s $100 price differential.
Wow, has Microsoft done some cool things with the new Kinect. It recognizes your face when you enter the room and logs you in automatically. “Hi David” (or whatever) appears on the TV screen.
You can now scroll the Xbox’s Home screen by reaching into the air and “grabbing” empty space. It still takes practice, but it’s much less frustrating than the Xbox 360’s “hold your hand perfectly still for several seconds” method.
And coolest of all, Skype is built into the Xbox now. When several people gather on the couch for a Skype video call, the Kinect camera tracks the source of the audio—and pans to whoever’s speaking.
(Caveat #1: The Kinect doesn’t actually move or swivel. The panning and zooming is all done in software. Caveat #2: This feature wasn’t working in the demo I saw.)
Fitness is a new focus of Xbox, and it’s one I love. That’s right, fitness—on a couch-potato dream machine.
Microsoft has licensed workout videos from Insanity, P90X, Tracy Anderson, Jillian Michaels, and so on. (If you’re a Gold member—$60 a year—you can watch them for free.)
Here’s the wild thing: When you work out, the Kinect reads your body. It displays your silhouette on the screen, observes your technique, and offers on-screen encouragement. It might prod you to step higher or move your legs more, for example.
It’s two-way feedback, and it’s pretty amazing. It transforms the nature of workout videos. Now you’re not just watching them; they’re watching you, too.
Incredibly, the Kinect’s infrared “eye” is sensitive enough that it can read your heart rate. The Microsoft rep told me that it can “see the change in pigment under your eye” to do that. I didn’t believe it until I saw it in action.
Microsoft points out that this idea—having your computer observe you and make suggestions—could have huge applications, like home improvement, education, cooking, and all kinds of other help.
You can do just about everything with voice command. “Xbox, watch TV.” “Xbox, go to Crimson Dragon.” “Xbox, go home.” In the demo, held in an all-concrete San Francisco loft, the voice recognition didn’t work a few times; when I actually review the One, I’ll let you know how it fares in a living room.
You’re supposed to plug your cable box directly into the Xbox, which becomes an almost-Tivo. Although it contains a hard drive, it can’t actually record shows. It can pause live TV, though, display a TV guide (“Xbox, show guide”), change your channel (“Xbox, what’s on HBO?”), and so on.
You can also split the screen so that a Web browser appears beside your live TV picture (“Xbox, snap Internet Explorer”), the better to look up trivia about what you’re watching. You can also split the screen between a game and a TV show, if you’re under 17.
Here’s one thing having a teenage son teaches you (well, teaches me): It’s now a “thing” to watch YouTube videos of other kids playing video games. Yes, that’s right: Kids these days sit there and watch narrated recordings of other people playing video games.
The Xbox One makes it infinitely easier to create such videos. “Xbox, record that” starts recording as you play a game. When the round is over, you open an Upload Studio app, where the Kinect adds video of you narrating your gameplay in a picture-in-picture effect—and then you upload the whole thing.
Discs or not
You’ll be able to buy games either on disc or by downloading them. Advantage of discs: You can resell or trade the games, or take them to a friend’s house. Advantage of download: Instant startup when you want to play. You can re-download your games at a buddy’s house, although that takes time. (Both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are also full-blown Blu-ray players, too.)
Ready for this? Xbox 360 games don’t play on the Xbox One. There are about 950 of them—and not a single one plays on the Xbox One.
Some companies will update their existing 360 games and sell you a One version for $10 or so. But there will be only 24 Xbox One games available at first.
Make your customers buy all new games? Seems like a pretty gallsy move to me (although it’s true of the PlayStation 4, too).
But if you’re willing to bite the bullet, you’re in for a treat; some of the One’s first games are truly spectacular. Some of them, like Ryse and Forza Motorsport 5, are breathtakingly photorealistic (or, rather, videorealistic).
Between the steeper initial price and the $60 annual Gold membership required by many of the best features, the Xbox seems more expensive than the Sony PlayStation 4 (shown here with its $60 optional camera).
But it also does more. And the features made possible by the included Kinect—hi-def, auto-panning Skype video calls; workout feedback; optical recognition and sign-in of players as they enter the room—show genuine inspiration (and a helluva lot of engineering work).
I’ll review the Xbox when the time comes. In the meantime, it’s good to see that innovation—truly new, truly good ideas—are alive and well, at least here and there, at Microsoft.