Xbox One Review Part 3: Interface and Voice Control

By November 27, 2013
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Remember the old days when you’d shove a cartridge into a game console and flip a switch to start playing? Those days have been over for awhile, but there’s a lot to be said about the sheer simplicity of the process for getting to your video games. With the dawn of the original Xbox, PlayStation 2, and Nintendo GameCube, consoles became mini-computers, with things like…menu screens. Instead of simple video game systems, companies now touted their machines as “Computer Entertainment Systems,” and with that more advanced architecture came new ways for us to interface with our game devices.

With the beginning of the seventh generation and the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii era, our game consoles became more than video game players: they became one-stop entertainment hubs, where we could browse the internet, throw up our digital photos on our TV’s, check the weather, and watch movies and TV shows over the internet. The access to console-specific applications spelled a bright future for forthcoming game consoles, and when it comes to the current eighth generation, no device is more ambitious in attempting to take control of all of your entertainment needs quite like the Xbox One.

Interface: Windows 8’s ‘Metro’ Comes to Xbox

As I mentioned in the previous part of this review, the Xbox One seems to be taking a lot of cues from Microsoft’s latest build of their computer operating system, Windows 8.1. This is probably most apparent on the new “Home” screen, where the tiles and position of apps and information is strikingly similar to the setup on Windows’ Start screen.

My Xbox One home screen, personalized with red tiles.

My Xbox One home screen, personalized with red tiles.

If you don’t really consider yourself a fan of the Windows 8 platform, then there’s likely very little I can say that would change your mind. Whatever your feelings may be on it, though, the fact remains that it’s a very simple and straightforward design, and the only real difficulties in navigating it come from the lack of familiarity that comes with learning any new technology you bring into your home. The centerpiece of your home screen is whatever you were doing last on your Xbox One. As you can see, before I navigated home and took the above picture, the last thing I was doing was browsing my friends feed. The long tile to the left shows the user currently signed into the console, while the next four tiles along the bottom are all recently used apps. The tile in the bottom right hand corner signifies the disc drive, which a Blu-ray of mine currently occupies.

The “My games and apps” tile is exactly what it sounds like: a comprehensive list of the installed games, along with first and third party apps you have on your console. The “Snap” tile allows you to have two apps on the screen at once, with one taking up most of the screen, and the other off to the side but still accessible. Multi-tasking is a huge element of the Xbox One, and although a limited number of apps are “snappable,” it’s a feature that should only improve as time goes on.

Moving to the left takes you to your “Pins” screen, which is where you can place tiles for specific apps you want to access quickly. To the right of the home screen is the Store, which is also exactly what it sounds like: here you can download free apps, buy digital download games, acquire DLC content for games, launch Xbox Video and buy movies or TV episodes, and even buy music and watch music videos.

An example of what the "Pins" screen looks like on Xbox One's home.

An example of what the “Pins” screen looks like on Xbox One’s home.

One thing that I found slightly disappointing when I initially set the console up is that it couldn’t really do much straight out of the box. I’ll go into how it plays movies in a future part of this review, but just as an example, you have to download the Blu-ray player app before you can play DVDs or BDs on the console. The only apps that came pre-loaded on the Xbox One right out of the box were system-related – anything else you wanted to try you had to download and install. This isn’t a bad thing and I’m not counting it against the experience, but I found it odd having to install a Blu-ray player app to be able to play my HD movies on the new Xbox.

One thing worth noting is that as it stands shortly after launch, the Xbox One’s home page and even store content feel quite limited when compared with that of the Xbox 360. Where on the 360 you could apply characteristic themes to the dashboard and menus, the only true customization option outside of your personal avatar is by selecting a preferred color for your tiles. To feel more populated and vibrant, the One has a long way to go if it wants to match the vibrancy of its older brother’s interface. Every part of the 360 feels alive, where the One feels kind of like a ghost town. I fully expect this to change as time goes on, though.

Some features seem hidden at first glance from these screens. Your Xbox One’s “Settings” page, where you can configure specific functions of the system itself, is not a default tile that appears on any of the home pages. When you do bring up settings, you might find it odd that you’re not able to locally manage the system’s onboard 500GB hard drive. This will change later in 2014 when Microsoft introduces external hard drive support to the console, but it’s an odd thing to leave out at launch. The function of using a QR code is also similarly hidden. Some of the much-touted features of the console you may want to access, but fiddling on the controller might end up frustrating you a little too much.

This is where the Xbox One’s voice recognition system comes in. You can’t see that stuff, which is a little inconvenient, but you can tell your Xbox to bring it up verbally.

Voice Control

I'm cheating a little by covering this here, but the voice control is essential to the interface.

I’m cheating a little by covering this here, but the voice control is essential to the interface.

Now, those of you that have followed this review series thus far might be calling foul on my inclusion of the voice control with the interface. The Kinect sensor is actually going to be covered separately, and the voice control is a feature granted to the Xbox One by that sensor. I’m including coverage of the voice recognition in this piece, though, because I feel that talking to the Xbox and telling it what you want it to do is not only one of the most advertised features of the console as a whole, it also feels essential to the user interface experience. Microsoft designers clearly intended you to spout off commands to the Xbox One for a multitude of tasks right out of the box, and as a result, I feel like that more than qualifies it to be a part of this segment.

The full list of vocal commands supported by the Xbox One's voice recognition system.

The full list of vocal commands supported by the Xbox One’s voice recognition system.

So, as previously alluded to, telling the Xbox to “go to settings” is actually the primary way to get to the configurations for the console, which you can the pin to your home page for quicker access. The initial setup of the Kinect sensor was supposed to account for the normal amount of background noise in your gaming environment, as well as a louder-than-normal volume from your speakers so that it could still hear you during a particularly intense gaming session. This feature is probably one of the defining features of the entire Xbox One experience, and it’s pretty awesome…most of the time.

There are a few notable moments when you might be studying the released list of voice commands, and it just doesn’t seem to work right. Some choices were kind of interesting, though as well. Pretty much everybody knows that you can activate the console by simply saying, “Xbox on.” You might think that to shut it down, you could just say “Xbox off,” but you can’t: you have to say “Xbox turn off.” Getting in the groove of exactly what will be understood by the console takes a little bit of practice, but chances are you’ll be ordering your Xbox to do things in style pretty quickly.

For instance, simply saying “Xbox” will cause all selectable options on the screen to turn green, and you have to say the entire phrase if you want to be completely understood. When I was in Amazon Instant Video, for instance, I couldn’t say, “Xbox, watch Batman.” I had to say “Xbox, watch Batman: The Animated Series The Complete First Volume” before I could even select the episode I wanted to see. I had to do something similar to start playing Dead Rising 3, and I’ve read of others even having to say a mouthful like, “Xbox, go to Forza Motorsport 5.” Hopefully this can be streamlined in the future, not because it’s not impressive as-is, but there’s something to be said for…brevity, I suppose.

One thing worth mentioning, though, is that I haven’t quite got a handle as to how quiet I can get with the commands. I tend to be a night owl, and living in an apartment complex means that I have to be courteous to the other tenants while I’m staying up way later than I probably should. As a result, sometimes my commands fall on deaf Kinect, and I haven’t pinpointed an exact vocal volume to use where I can make sure people can stay asleep, and where the Xbox can hear and understand my commands.

The interface and voice control represent both the simplest and most ambitious features of the Xbox One console. Both feel a little underdeveloped as of right now, but they also come with a great deal of potential. Some of that you’ll be able to see when the review for the SmartGlass app goes live, but some of it is also still up in the air. The same with the voice recognition: if Microsoft really wants us to approach the kinds of conversations that Captain Picard had with the Enterprise computer then it still needs to be refined, but it’s still a damned impressive feature and a whole lot of fun to play with.

Click below for Part 4 in our Xbox One review series, focusing solely on the Kinect sensor: what people think it does, what it actually does, how you can use it to play games, and whether or not the raised privacy concerns really are warranted!

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.