Xbox One Review Part 5: VOD, Video Disc, and TV

By November 29, 2013
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Game consoles have become more than simple devices on which to play video games. They’ve become one-stop entertainment hubs, where you can go from beating a tough level one minute, to popping in a DVD or Blu-ray disc and watching an old favorite film the next. You can even watch your favorite TV shows on your gaming system with the advent of new TV on demand applications. The way we consume our media is very different today than it was even a decade ago, and one of the most pronounced statements Microsoft made when initially pushing the new Xbox One was that it wanted to be on the cusp of that change. It’s all in the name: One stop for all of your entertainment needs, from games, to movies, TV shows, sports stats, fantasy leagues, and potentially more.

This is largely why I felt that the consumption of video and on-demand services warrants its own part in our review of the Xbox One, because the intersection between gaming and other living room activities is a primary focus of what the console is, supposedly, designed to do. Chances are that if you already have a seventh generation console in your home, you already use it to watch things like Netflix or Hulu. Those same capabilities exist on the Xbox 360 and on the PS4 and Wii U, but a few specific features make the experience an overall different one on Microsoft’s latest effort.

A shot of the Xbox One Netflix app, with a little bit of a different aesthetic than on other platforms.

A shot of the Xbox One Netflix app, with a little bit of a different aesthetic than on other platforms.

VOD Services

Voice control is a big part of what enhances the watching experience on the Xbox One. Yes, the aspect we discussed in part 3 of this review series actually makes a sizable difference when watching movies or TV on the Xbox One, since you don’t even have to pick up a controller if you don’t want to. You might not think that this augments the experience too much at first glance, and admittedly it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty cool to give commands like, “Xbox, go to Amazon Instant Video. My Watchlist. Beetlejuice. Play.” Then, before you know it, you’re relaxing on the couch and watching one of Michael Keaton’s best performances.

All the usual suspects were available on the Xbox One Store at launch: Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video for starters. Xbox Video, of course, was also a part of this, and the experience of pulling up your Amazon queue or your Hulu watch list is pretty much the same as other platforms. Netflix, though, has a specifically designed app for the Xbox One that largely functions the same way as its app on other platforms, but looks pretty different. The Xbox One displays HD-capable video at resolutions up to 1080p full-HD, and while the bitrate isn’t as good as watching a Blu-ray disc, it comes very close to emulating that kind of watching experience. The apps themselves are easy to navigate, especially if you’re using voice control to get where you want to go. It’s not a bad idea, though, to learn the specific commands that the Xbox One can understand so that you know exactly what you need to say in order to correctly navigate the services.

A close-up of the console's Blu-ray disc drive from a publicity photo. Even if they resisted, going with Blu-ray is currently essential to owning current living rooms.

A close-up of the console’s Blu-ray disc drive from a publicity photo. Even if Microsoft may have resisted, going with Blu-ray onboard the Xbox One is essential to owning current living rooms.

Video Disc Playback

The official icon of Xbox One's Blu-ray player app.

The official icon of Xbox One’s Blu-ray player app.

The Xbox One’s major upgrade as far as disc playback is concerned is the inclusion of a Blu-ray disc drive. Although the format has been the standard-bearer for HD home media since at least 2007, Microsoft was very hesitant to get behind it, perhaps because the primary backer of the format was their direct gaming rival, Sony. The PS3 shipped with a Blu-ray drive when it was launched, but the Xbox 360 still relied on the aging DVD format and famously backed the wrong horse in the high definition format war. After the failure of HD DVD, Microsoft even took some potshots at the Blu-ray format, calling it a format that would be quickly passed up in favor of digital downloading and streaming.

While that statement will likely prove to be true in the future, it’s not true enough now to warrant Microsoft going back to a DVD drive for the Xbox One. The new console is equipped with an onboard Blu-ray drive, and all Xbox One games are distributed via the format. The console can also play your Blu-ray movies, but this requires downloading the Xbox One “Blu-ray Player” app before it can be done. Blu-ray playback is very smooth, with an easy-to-use interface carried over from the streaming apps, with the ability for voice control via Kinect as well. Unfortunately, you can’t actually browse the Blu-ray menus with your voice, so if you have to select specific audio settings or subtitles, you’ll have to pick up your controller to do so.

Overall, I’m pleased that Microsoft finally adopted the prevailing HD media format for their latest console, and really, while we still buy movies on disc, it’s the only way they’d be able to try and obtain that living room dominance that they so desire. But really, this is all mere distraction next to the mother of the console’s features of watching entertainment.

An official illustration of how to hook up your cable box to Xbox One, with the box in the console and the console in the TV!

An official illustration of how to hook up your cable box to Xbox One, with the box in the console and the console in the TV!

Watching TV on Xbox One

When Microsoft first announced the new console back in May of this year, a lot of gamers were somewhat perplexed by their presentation. The main reason for this is that games took a back seat to the integration of TV into the system, and the ability for you to use your Xbox One as a manager for your cable set-top box. This is the cornerstone of Microsoft’s strategy with the Xbox One as the dominant black box present in your living room – so much so that they geared the very construction of the hardware around this single feature. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that games have taken the back seat to TV, I can certainly see why some people may feel that way just because of Microsoft’s marketing efforts: they’re decidedly TV-oriented.

Taking a look at the back of the actual console shows that there are two HDMI ports. One sends the signal from the console out to an HDTV. The other is an HDMI-in port, which allows you to plug in your cable box and pass the signal through the overlay of the Xbox One UI. This also allows your console and cable box to talk to each other to a degree, enabling the interactive features of “OneGuide.”

OneGuide and the TV pass-through are primarily set up whenever you decide to enable the features of watching TV on your console, and it’s a pretty simple process: select your TV brand, your zip code, and cable provider, and the Xbox One can learn all the details about your channels and their programming lineups. After setup is complete, just say, “Xbox, watch TV,” and you’ll be taken to the live feed from your cable box. You can then use OneGuide to browse upcoming show times, and even set favorite channels. Your voice can also change the channel, but the Xbox itself doesn’t actually know what is going on in your cable box, nor can it tap into some of its onboard features (like a DVR if you have one). This requires you to use your pre-existing cable remote, which seems a little awkward, but if you just want to watch TV then the features work surprisingly well.

Conceivably, you can connect any HDMI-enabled device to the Xbox One, but if you wanted to connect a game console then you’ll experience latency which would likely kill the experience.

Overall, the TV features are nice. They’re not my favorite, though. That’ll always be the games, which we’ll start getting into in next week’s second half of Xbox One review coverage.

Join us right back here on Monday with a full review of the Xbox One SmartGlass mobile app, and how it can add even more interaction with both the console itself, and the games you will play it on!

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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.