Midweek Tech Scan: Xbox updates offer a look into the future

The Xbox as the center of your home TV entertainment system? Here's our view.

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Xbox game page tiles

The Xbox as the center of your home TV entertainment system? Here's our view.

Just in time for the Christmas buying frenzy (but too late for Black Friday), two long-promised and potentially game-changing software updates have arrived in recent days for Microsoft’s Xbox and the long-suffering Logitech Revue — once the flagship for Google TV.

The Xbox upgrade is a major upgrade: a clearer view of the home entertainment template that Microsoft sees as the future of the Xbox platform. For the now-discontinued Logitech Revue set-top box, the new version of its Google TV operating turned out, ironically, to be quite good and worth looking at a second time.

Let's take a closer look at the Xbox today. A look at the Logitech Revue, will run this weekend.

For the Xbox, this update is no less than a game-changing event: the latest chapter in its metamorphosis from a gaming console to a full-on living room entertainment center covering live TV, multiple Internet services, movies and, of course games. With a new user interface based on the upcoming Windows 8 operating system plus the Kinect controller, which adds voice recognition and gestures to the ways you can select programming, the Xbox is an intriguing contender to the battle for home entertainment supremacy.

No small part of that expansion will be the addition of more media sources for Xbox users to choose from. Currently, the headlined extras consist of Netflix, Hulu Plus, and ESPN 3 but coming in the future will be, among others, Comcast Xfinity on Demand, VEVO, TMZ, YouTube, Vudu, MLB.TV, HBO Go and CinemaNow.

The update is more of a concept introduction than the complete package. Most noticeable is the replacement of the older dashboard to a series of “tiles” that will be instantly familiar to anyone following Microsoft’s new Metro operating system for Windows 8 and Windows mobile phones. When you turn on the Xbox, you see tiles labeled ”My Video Apps,” “Quickplay,” “My Games, “My Music Apps,” and other tiles letting you buy movies and music from the Zune marketplace.

This is where the fun begins. While you can use the Xbox game controller to access each area, you can also use the optional $99 Kinect either to use a hand gesture or a voice command to access the contents. For example, if you want to play a game, you find the “open tray” tile on your home screen and say, “Xbox: open tray” or put a virtual “hand” on the tile. Either way, the tray opens.

Similarly, if you want to see a Netflix movie, you scan the dashboard for “My Video Apps” and open it with either a voice or hand command. It takes some getting used to, but it’s an oddly likeable system. People have likened the Kinect onscreen control to the visuals in “Minority Report,” Steven Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi film. It’s not quite there, but it’s getting there.

The voice controller is activated by saying the word “Xbox.” You can also use the Bing search engine to locate games or people whose content is on the Xbox. To activate it, you say “Xbox ... Bing.” As a test, I said, “Xbox … Bing … Jason Statham” and in seconds a few Jason Statham films were available to be watched from Netflix.

There’s much more to implement throughout the system. While Hulu Plus is now a service you can see on your Xbox, the voice commands won’t help you search within Hulu Plus for show titles; you still need the manual game controller. Nor is Bing search implemented yet within the app. But you can clearly see the potential.

Microsoft has also added a variety of other features, such as Cloud storage of gaming data, etc. More techie details are available in this Engadget review.

There are a few negatives in all this.

This system is better served with new Xboxes. I have an original Xbox, and while the system works OK, I needed to buy a wireless connection as well as a USB hub to duplicate the newer box’s functionality. The picture quality isn’t all that great; the older unit uses a 5-wire component cable, not an HDMI cable, to connect to your TV.

I also found the voice recognition software disappointing in the age of Apple’s Siri software for the iPhone 4S. For what it does, the Xbox software is good, but it doesn’t have the “wow” factor: the opportunity for an interactive conversation between the Xbox and me that I would have hoped for.

Also, the new and improved Xbox is an expensive proposition. The units start selling for $199. Adding Kinect costs between $99 and $149; gaining access to added services beyond purchased games requires a $60 annual Xbox Live subscription. If you watch Netflix or Hulu, you’re already paying those subscription fee. And there are few if any freebies in the Zune media libraries.

I also wish that the Xbox had an Internet browser, which is included in the Google TV operating system. If you’re saying you’re the new center of home entertainment, you know that full Internet access is a major part of the game. Why it’s missing is anyone’s guess.

And something should be done about “Nelson,” the Xbox spokesman who explains the latest innovations about the system via a video clip in the Xbox information center. Should a plodding past-middle age white guy be the image of the exciting new Xbox? So 1980, guys! Watch someone such as CNET’s Brian Tong to see an example of what Xbox could have as its evangelist.

Since the system is still in development — as I was writing this article another Xbox upgrade needed installing — a better picture should be available in a few months. But if you have an Xbox, upgrading your software for free and adding a Kinect is a good investment and an excellent way to see Microsoft’s version of the future of your home TV.


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