Xbox One ups the ante in gaming wars

While on a field trip from Nazareth Area High School to the King of Prussia Mall, (from left) Mitchell Wilson, Justin Wintle, John Weaver, and Michael Boucher stop to try out an Xbox One. Microsoft's new gaming console goes on sale at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
While on a field trip from Nazareth Area High School to the King of Prussia Mall, (from left) Mitchell Wilson, Justin Wintle, John Weaver, and Michael Boucher stop to try out an Xbox One. Microsoft's new gaming console goes on sale at 12:01 a.m. Friday. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 22, 2013

Could a central command center for all my family's home entertainment turn a Call of Duty killjoy into the owner of the latest in video gaming?

Maybe so, if Microsoft comes through on the promise of its $500 Xbox One, which goes on sale at 12:01 a.m. Friday - the second new system in a week from two companies, Microsoft and Sony, fighting out 2013's Console Wars.

A test run this week demonstrated just a slice of what the Xbox One has to offer, but that was plenty to impress. Voice commands moved the system smoothly from its Windows 8-style home screen in a variety of directions. With the motion-sensing Kinect controller, gestures can perform some of the same functions.

Want to play new versions of Killer Instinct or Forza Motorsport 5? Easy as launching an app on a smartphone or tablet.

Want to search the Web via Bing? Watch old episodes of Modern Family on Netflix or live football via your cable box? Call across the globe via Skype? Getting to any is easy, with the Xbox One's handheld controller or by voice command.

It's way too soon to call results in a competition as epic as any narrative played out for years on video-game writers' storyboards. Sony's PlayStation 4 boasts a state-of-the-art gaming experience, plus Web video and other features matching the One.

Each system will inevitably have its partisans - as does the Nintendo Wii, whose pathbreaking movement-sensor technology made it the only new gaming system ever to break into my household, peopled with parents who missed the gaming explosion and teen daughters more interested in computer universes like The Sims than in Super Mario Brothers or Grand Theft Auto.

So far, that is. Though the average age of heavily invested gamers is 35, nearly six in 10 of all Americans count themselves in, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and Microsoft is clearly aiming for the broadest swath of the market. Here are some "entertainment hub" features that might reel in some of us not-yet-gamers, and a couple of the system's rough spots:

Personalization. Kinect's facial-recognition capabilities - Xbox One can identify up to six users - can offer a new level of personal attention from your TV, says David Dennis, XBox's director of program management.

Each user profile is built dynamically, around the entertainment options that person prefers. Someone who wants games pinned to the home screen will see them by saying "Xbox, home." Another user's might be full of apps and TV options.

Even if you don't pin every favorite, the One helps keep track. A "breadcrumb trail" shows each user's recent activities.

Split screens. The word Windows is absent from most Xbox pitches, but Windows 8's architecture is obvious. Even if you're not sold on it for your laptop, it works for entertainment - especially the "snap" function that allows two apps to share a TV's generous real estate.

"The real fusion we did with Xbox One is to bring the television and gaming worlds together," Dennis says. "I can see that my friend John is online playing Call of Duty, and I can snap it to the side of the screen during halftime on the football game."

Voice commands. Microsoft is hardly alone in promising this, but the devil is in its delivery. Apple's Siri and I have conversations bizarre enough to pass as scripts for the old Firesign Theater.

Microsoft's strength here may be in not overreaching. Most voice commands are highly scripted. Say, "Xbox Bing," and the One responds, "Say what you're searching for." It's not hugely ambitious, but functional beats funny.

Drawbacks. I'll let other critics catalog these, but two stand out. One is the $60-a-year subscription you'll need for Xbox Live Gold to access content on "premium apps," which includes services like Netflix. Another is the lack of a voice-to-text function, to smooth the One's computer functionality. Who wants to write anything, even something brief, on a virtual keyboard with a game controller?


jgelles@phillynews.com

215-854-2776 @jeffgelles

www.inquirer.com/consumer

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