The Xbox One Anniversary Update, a giant free software upgrade for your Microsoft game console, is nearly here. It's rolling out to Xbox Preview Program members this very week, and more widely over the next few months. Last year, we got a totally redesigned interface and the ability to play older Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One, plus a major speed boost.
What's new for 2016? Cortana voice commands, Windows apps on your TV, and the ability to see what your friends are playing on their gaming PCs. Plus a whole lot of tweaks. (Missing in action: the promised ability to play your own music in the background. Microsoft says that'll arrive later this year.)
Here's the rundown on the new features.
Microsoft's Halo-inspired digital voice assistant is coming to Xbox at last. Whether you've got a Microsoft Kinect or just a simple headset, you'll be able to say "Hey Cortana" and ask her to take care of a variety of business. You can invite a friend to a party, launch a game or ask all sorts of knowledge-related queries such as, "Who are the Padres playing tonight?" or, "What's good to eat around here?"
While the Xbox already supports some voice commands, it's only a short list of very specific prompts. "Today, talking to your Xbox is a little bit like talking to your dog," says Albert Penello, a senior director of product management on Xbox. "All the old Xbox commands will work, but there's a much more robust set of grammar that Cortana understands."
Cortana's also smart enough to ask you when it doesn't know what you mean. If you say, "Hey Cortana, play Tomb Raider" and you have multiple Tomb Raider games installed, it'll ask which one you want to launch. But if you've only got one of Lara Croft's adventures, it'll immediately start.
Cortana won't do everything its Windows counterparts do, though. You shouldn't expect to access your calendar, email or other such personal assistant tasks. You can ask how long it'll take to get to work if you've set your "work" and "home" locations on a Windows 10 PC, but it won't actually remind you to stop playing games so you can get to work on time.
You should also know that one old Xbox voice command is going away: if you're used to saying "Xbox On" to turn on your game console from across the room, you'll need to say "Hey Cortana, Xbox On" once the Anniversary Update rolls out.
Cortana is coming to the US and UK this summer, and will be in preview for France, Italy, Germany and Spain. There's no word on other countries, including Australia.
Windows and Xbox app stores, together at last
Technically, the Xbox One runs Windows 10. Later this summer, you'll finally be able to take advantage of that fact. The Anniversary Update unifies the Xbox and Windows app stores, allowing you to download a variety of Windows apps onto your Xbox and use them on your TV screen.
Mind you, we're not talking about running full Adobe Photoshop or heavy-duty PC games on your game console. Here's a short list of caveats you should probably be aware of:
- Only "modern" apps will be coming to Xbox -- the kind you already find in the Windows Store.
- Even Windows Store apps won't automatically appear on Xbox: app developers need to proactively publish them there.
- It's easy for developers to publish Windows Store apps on Xbox. " ," says Penello.
- Don't expect to see many Windows games on Xbox, though. Microsoft won't let developers self-publish those. They need to go through the ID@Xbox program and jump through contractual hoops.
- You probably won't see any of these apps if you get the update early through the Xbox Preview Program: they won't launch until later this summer.
Hanging out with friends on PC
If your friends use the Xbox app on their Windows 10 PC, you should be able to see what they're playing and communicate with them more easily. The Xbox app on Windows 10 should soon recognize when they're playing hundreds of different PC games (including League of Legends and XCOM 2), update their Xbox Live status accordingly, and let Windows and Xbox gamers engage in party chat no matter what they're playing.
On Windows, you'll soon be able to add your Xbox Live contacts to the People app, and send messages directly to your friends' game consoles.
Besides the big features, there are quite a few smaller changes as well. Here are the highlights:
- Your game library now scrolls vertically instead of horizontally.
- There's a progress meter now so you can see how quickly games are downloading.
- You can decide whether or not to share achievements, screenshots and video clips to your Xbox activity feed.
- You'll be able to download Game DVR clips from Xbox, edit the video with a PC and reupload them to share with other gamers.
- You'll be able to share screenshots and game clips to Twitter from Xbox Live.
- Facebook Friend Finder will let you find friends on Xbox based on your Facebook contacts.
- On Xbox, the app store will stop suggesting you buy special bundles of games you already own.
- On Windows, the app store will now offer preorders and DLC packs for games.
- On Windows, you'll be able to record game clips at 60 frames per second.
- Developers can use a retail Xbox One console as a developer kit to test and debug their apps and games.
All the new features will roll out in waves to Xbox Preview Program members, starting this week. Regular Xbox One users should see them over the next few months.
Of course, a software update isn't the only thing that Xbox gamers should expect in the coming months: Click here for our guide to rumors about the next Xbox One.