Xbox One, you're not making my family life easier

The Xbox One is the loneliest number if you're trying to shoehorn its do-it-all TV proposition into a family room -- unless you're willing to be part of the experiment.

Scott Stein/CNET

My Xbox One may not stay connected to my cable box very long.

In a year's time, the Xbox One might be the ultimate TV-connected entertainment box on the planet. But at the moment, it's sitting awkwardly between my cable DVR and my TV -- where it's causing some tension among the TV viewers in my household.

There are a lot of good ideas lurking within the potential of what Microsoft's newest Xbox can be: a smart home hub, an entertainment do-everything machine. But they're mixed with unfortunate downsides . And, at the moment, from what I can see, the Xbox One is a console best appreciated by those who want to absorb entertainment by themselves. As a system for sharing (with someone in the same room, not somewhere online), the PlayStation 4 and Wii U do a better job at being both innocuous and second-screen friendly. That's partially because they're not trying as hard to do something new -- but it's also because they're systems that keep TV and gaming as largely separate entities.

Let me explain.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Hooking up the Xbox One at home: A home-entertainment imposition
It's a lot to ask my wife to accept on the only TV in my apartment: "Hi, do you mind if I run our cable box through this Xbox? It'll only take a few minutes. It won't inconvenience you much."

"Family acceptance" is the rule I have to live by, having two kids and a small place. Others -- those enjoying a solo gaming and entertainment experience in massive man-caves -- might enjoy having the Xbox One as a fantasy-box, a connect-it-all big-kid toy.

All I know right now is that my wife is asking, "Why do we have to do this?"

The short answer: because I'm writing an article, and wanted to experiment, and I work at CNET. But the long answer, well, that's hard. I try to explain the Xbox One's upsides, really, I do. I show her voice commands, how I can say "Xbox, watch ESPN" and it does it, and how all the channel listings are nicely laid out.

All my wife sees is a big black box sitting between the cable box and the TV that she has to turn on.

A universal remote like a Harmony could help knit this all together better, and maybe Harmony is what an Xbox One owner really needs (the remote, and the concept). Before, I could turn on the TV and cable with one Verizon-supplied and admittedly lousy remote. Now, I need to either say, "Xbox, turn on," which doesn't always work, or find the Xbox One controller, which I need anyway to navigate the Xbox menus without yelling. And the cable remote, well, I need that, still, because the Xbox doesn't have its own remote -- unless you pair a phone or tablet with the SmartGlass app -- and that's my only way to access the cable box DVR.

Scott Stein/CNET

And even if you use the admittedly pretty cool SmartGlass app, you still need a phone or tablet nearby, ready and connected.

Using voice commands on the Xbox One means talking loudly and repeatedly, using specific commands I didn't always remember specifically. Meanwhile, I have a 9-month-old baby sleeping in one room and a 5-year-old in the other. I'm getting elbowed to please keep quiet. I reach for the remote again.

I'll cast aside the fact that she also said she noticed the TV signal looked different: paler, more washed out. CNET didn't find an issue with the Xbox One throughput, but -- whether it's a placebo effect or not -- I see a slight difference. The real problem here is that the Xbox One doesn't do anything magical with TV; it just allows pass-through, and split-screen app-viewing, and gameplay.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I tried demonstrating the Xbox One's clean TV-listing interface, the ability to search for shows across streaming services, to pause live TV with a simple voice command. It didn't win over my harshest tech critic.

And meanwhile, that massive new Kinect sat below our TV, staring at us. It doesn't whirr and move like the last Kinect, but it's ever-present. I haven't gotten many complaints about it yet, but maybe that's because I've had a Kinect under my TV for at least a year before that.

Scott Stein/CNET

Smart TV? Not really, not yet
What can the Xbox One do for my TV viewing, I ask again? Not all that much at all.

I don't use "snap" split-screen much at all, even with a 59-inch TV. Audio from the TV channel and the Xbox game either gets mixed or can't be heard at all sometimes, and it gets too confusing. Also, the apps for that split-screen just aren't great. I tried watching the Jets/Ravens game with the NFL app snapped to the right, and expected -- or hoped for -- greatness. All I really got, mostly, was a score/stat rundown that matched what my phone could already give me -- and it was slower to update for some reason.

I couldn't say, "Xbox, show me passing stats," or, "Xbox, replay third down," or, "Xbox, show game schedule." I wanted the NFL app to be my virtual man-in-the-booth, feeding me relevant stats and interesting analysis as the game kept going on. It's just not that smart yet. If the Xbox One could eventually do that, great, but, split-screening just doesn't do all that much all that well right now.

The Wii U has off-TV play, unlike the Xbox One. Sarah Tew/CNET

Hey you, get off my TV
Now, because we only have one TV, there's also a lot of screen-sharing. I watch my shows, she watches hers, the kids watch theirs -- or I play games, and we strike a balance.

The Wii U and PlayStation 4 both have a brilliant second-screen proposition to ease the pain, if you have the gear. Nintendo's console comes with a GamePad that plays many games on a second screen very easily.

The PS Vita, PS4, and remote play work well. Sally Nieman/CNET

On the PS4, if you have a PlayStation Vita, it's possible to connect to Remote Play to stream games in much the same way, and it works pretty impressively. This is second-screen potential at its finest, because it frees up the TV for others while you're still playing a console game in your hands.

The Xbox One has second-screen capabilities via its SmartGlass phone and tablet app, but it's a different story altogether. SmartGlass is a huge help as a remote for video playback, and can be used in some games and video content, but it can't currently play games while someone else watches TV. I don't see why that can't happen in the future, but you'd need to figure out button controls, too.

Scott Stein/CNET

Another small problem happens when the Xbox One occasionally pings messages in the middle of a show someone else is watching, or someone's voice accidentally brings up a video-control menu or even changes the channel. Those moments are rare, but any additional annoyances add additional straw to the camel back of "why am I subjecting my family to this, again?" If everyone isn't quiet while watching on the Xbox, something odd is bound to happen sooner or later via an unexpected voice command.

Hey you, get off my Xbox
There's another problem with TV pass-through: suddenly, my wife's using my Xbox One all the time just to watch TV. Does that sound selfish? Well, it is, in a sense; I think of game consoles as personal devices.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I haven't made a user ID for my wife to log in as, and maybe that would help things. But she's getting inconvenienced by having to root around for the controller, and clicking on the "TV" icon, or not having the Kinect understand her voice. And sometimes she forgets to turn the Xbox One off, which is understandable -- it's one more box. And no, saying, "Xbox, turn off" isn't exactly intuitive yet to the average person, even if it's easy to do.

I do love how the Xbox One seamlessly and impressively auto-identifies you and logs you in to a particular profile, which could mean a "family-friendly" mode in the future for when my kid or wife uses the machine, but right now user accounts are useless to me. This isn't an Android tablet or an iCloud account. My family doesn't have different Xbox profiles, nor do they seem to care to. If I were visiting a friend, I could log in as myself, and that's great, but that doesn't do much for my home.

Xbox and the man-cave: Good if you're Ray Lewis
Look at one of the latest Xbox One commercials, featuring smack-talking NFL legends. Ray Lewis looks like he's strapped into a head-up display in a personal virtual bubble: TV, friends, gaming, all at his command. He's in his own media cave.

How does someone else share that cave? The answer right now is you're not really meant to. The Xbox One seems best for one controller, one user, one online experience, one voice to command all its elements into place. It's personal technology spread across a big screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

After the first day: Tired acceptance
Eventually, I wasn't asked to disconnect the Xbox One. Inertia had won the day. But I can't keep expecting my wife to keep hunting for the Xbox controller. This experiment, for now, is just an experiment. I'll switch back, because this current setup just doesn't make any sense.

HDMI-in on the Xbox One is like that extra port on a laptop you don't need now but you could in the future. Microsoft hopes the Xbox One will add more robust DVR control and deeper cable access down the road. How soon, or how easy that is to enable, I have no idea. But I'm tempted to just yank the cable box out of the Xbox One until that day arrives.

I still think the Xbox One is the most advanced gaming console of this new generation, but to someone trying to sneak one into a living room, ironically, its "living room-friendly" elements make it the hardest to accept. And apologies to my wife, who's the unwitting subject of this article. Believe me, she likes new ideas and new technologies when they make life better. And I don't think she's alone.

 

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