Feature Article

The Best And Worst Uses Of Xbox One Hardware

The Xbox One is nearly unrecognizable compared to the console announced in 2013--here's how all its big tech ideas changed, fizzled, and sprung up over the generation.

In 2013, console makers Microsoft and Sony looked toward a future they thought was going to completely change the video game industry. Like Nintendo had the year before with the Wii U, the other two platform holders tried to incorporate big new technology ideas into their new consoles, adapting to trends such as touchscreens, mobile app integration, motion control, voice control, and the power of cloud integration. With the Xbox One, Microsoft envisioned a completely new game console that would power your entire living room and tried to completely change the game with its hardware and capabilities.

As we near the release of the ninth generation of consoles and the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, though, things are very different. Most of the ideas that defined the Xbox One when it was announced have disappeared from the console, and new elements that were initially discounted have come to help define it. We're looking back at some of the best and worst tech ideas of the Xbox One, from the ill-fated Kinect to the about-face that made backward compatibility possible. The Xbox One's story is a strange one, and the console has gone through some drastic changes--largely for the better.

Be sure to also check out our rundown of the best and worst PlayStation 4 tech and hardware as well.

Kinect To Everything

The defining feature of the Xbox One at launch was one of the feathers in Microsoft's cap from the Xbox 360 era: Kinect. This natural motion interface camera was a pretty impressive piece of tech with the 360--the camera could map your body and the environment around you, allowing you to control games with your motions without the need for additional controllers or hardware, unlike Nintendo's Wii remote or Sony's PlayStation Move. For the Xbox One, Microsoft expanded on Kinect, making it a required part of the system and packaging it with the system.

Kinect offered voice control, body tracking, head tracking, and augmented reality features for games. You could use it as a webcam while streaming or for Skype calls, or place yourself into different settings with a feature that's not dissimilar to the popular use of Zoom backgrounds in this pandemic era. Microsoft wanted voice control to be a big part of the Xbox One experience, so you could shout at your console from across the room to switch it on and off, change channels or games, or record gameplay for sharing online. The device was also supposed to recognize your voice, allowing you to instantly sign you in to your Xbox One and Xbox Live profiles, so when you fired up the console, you'd get your personalized dashboard and experience.

The Kinect was a big part of what made the Xbox One stand out from the competition. Importantly, however--nobody really liked it.

For starters, though there were a few interesting Kinect games on the 360, developers didn't really gravitate to motion controls in the Xbox One era; perhaps that gimmick had come and gone by the time Microsoft was putting out its new console in 2013. Titles such as Just Dance continued to use the body tracking features, and some major releases such as Battlefield 4 and Alien: Isolation offered head tracking to let you move and peek around corners. Xbox exclusives, such as Dead Rising 4, included voice controls. But there was just never much to play with the device, and while hackers and homebrewers found tons of interesting uses for the Kinect in arenas like medicine and robotics, it just didn't take off as a game device.

What's more, though, the Kinect was an actively annoying inclusion. The device sucked up useful processing power in the Xbox One and dedicated it to constantly mapping your living room in case you felt like waving your hand around to control an interface. The device also sported a microphone, allowing you to use voice controls in games and the Xbox One interface. But the voice controls weren't too reliable--in one infamous Xbox One commercial, actor Aaron Paul called out voice commands that could switch off the Xboxes in people's living rooms. Privacy was also something of concern: the Kinect was a camera and a microphone that was always active in your living room, sucking up data without oversight.

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After a few years, Microsoft ended the Xbox One's Kinect requirement, disconnecting it from the Xbox One dashboard interface and allowing consoles to function without it. Microsoft walking back on Kinect was huge; initially, the console maker had claimed its motion sensor was mandatory hardware and that it wasn't possible to detach Kinect from the Xbox One altogether. After that, Microsoft stopped including the device with the new Xboxes it sold. Though the Kinect was the quintessential Xbox One feature at launch, especially with its ubiquitous use of voice control, the device died an ignoble death about halfway through the console's life.

It's All In The Cloud

One of the more successful elements of the Xbox One, but something players might not even notice, is its various cloud features. When it's connected to the internet and you're signed in to an Xbox Live account, the Xbox One is always interacting with the cloud. It's constantly uploading your saved game information to Microsoft's servers, which helps to back up your data--if anything goes wrong with your local data, you can instantly get it back from the cloud. That also means if you start playing a game on one Xbox and then pick it up on another, you keep all your saved progress, so long as you sign in with your Xbox Live account. And with the recent addition of Xbox Game Pass, you can play the same game on Xbox One, PC, and cloud streaming, and seamlessly pick up your progress on each. It's actually the most impressive aspect of Microsoft's xCloud features for the Xbox Series X because you can play a game on any supported device without having to start over.

Xbox One also makes use of other Microsoft architecture, like the cloud-based OneDrive storage system. On Xbox One, OneDrive makes for a handy place to upload your game content, including screenshots and videos; since the service also is compatible with Windows, you can access your OneDrive and the Xbox content you upload to it from your PC. The downfall was that OneDrive on Xbox One was always a bit cumbersome--uploads were unreliable and sometimes slow, making it tough to easily move and access content right away.

All that cloud integration makes the Xbox One work pretty seamlessly in instances when the internet is required, especially in moving easily between devices. But it's Game Pass that seems to really be leveraging the Xbox One's cloud capabilities better than the console ever has before. Jumping between devices is really satisfying when you want to play games in multiple places and in varying situations, and Microsoft's cloud gaming capabilities seem like they're the most useful and practical of the current slate of competitors, thanks to the integration of both console and PC games. "The power of the cloud" is something Microsoft has been talking about for a while, and while it strengthened the Xbox One in a lot of ways that were never especially flashy, we're now starting to see what the console maker was so excited about.

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...But Not Always Online

The Xbox One had a rough go of it at launch thanks to a lot of features that Microsoft seemed adamant about including in its machine--whether people wanted them or not. The original announced conception of the console was one that required a constant working internet connection. The cloud integration was part of that vision, as was the Kinect functionality--but a constant internet connection also had some serious drawbacks that drove away potential buyers.

Primarily, always having your console connected to the internet was planned as a means of digital rights management, using an internet connection to check that you had paid for a game. Before the console's release, Microsoft said that every Xbox One game you purchased, including those on physical game discs, linking to your Xbox Live account. That meant you would be able to play those games on other machines on your account, but you couldn't loan them to friends or, much more crucially, sell them to second-hand retailers. A lot of potential Xbox owners considered that a dealbreaker in the months after the Xbox One was announced-- they felt the platform maker was locking down their ability to actually own the games they purchased.

The announcement of the always-online requirement hurt the Xbox One significantly. Sony made hay from the controversy by releasing a joking social video demonstrating that you could lend a physical PlayStation 4 game to a friend simply by handing it to them. There was also the issue of internet connectivity in rural areas that many players felt Microsoft hadn't fully considered. Even in the US, not everyone has strong, stable internet service, and with the always-online requirement, many of them would struggle to play games. The same was true of, for example, soldiers overseas who wanted to bring their Xboxes on deployment but who wouldn't have a handy internet connection.

In the end, Microsoft ended up abandoning the always-online requirement before the Xbox One's release.

Though it maintained a lot of the internet benefits it had baked into the Xbox One, like Kinect, Microsoft walked back the requirement to always be online. Lending of games continued through the PS4 and Xbox One generation, although both Microsoft and Sony are putting out all-digital versions of their next-generation consoles in 2020--so it's possible we'll see something like Microsoft's initial plans for the Xbox One finally come to fruition, although a few years later.

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Watch TV, Xbox-Style

When it announced the Xbox One, Microsoft dedicated a ton of time to the console's capabilities as an all-in-one entertainment machine, not just a box for playing video games. Microsoft wanted the Xbox One to be the centerpiece of your living room, where you would play games, stream movies and TV shows, and even tune for cable channels. "For the first time, you're going to have a relationship with your TV," Microsoft said at the start of its Xbox One announcement press conference. It was a big deal.

In a practical sense, Microsoft added HDMI passthrough capability to the Xbox One. Instead of plugging your cable box straight into your TV, you could plug it into your Xbox, which would then take control of it. The passthrough idea would give you voice control over your TV viewing options care of Kinect, and it seemed, early on, that Microsoft intended for the console to offer DVR capabilities, at least through some third-party partnerships. Those features never really materialized--a TV tuner accessory released in Europe allowed for pausing and rewinding TV shows, but that was it. Microsoft also showed off Snap mode when it announced the console, which would allow you to run two apps at the same time. The idea was that you might pull up a web browser window to look up something as you're watching a movie, or fire up a Skype call in the middle of playing a game.

Though it pushed the entertainment box idea, Microsoft couldn't quite take over everyone's living room, even though voice-controlling your Xbox to make it play movies was a cool feature. A lot of the elements of the Xbox One were nice novelties but not especially practical--take away Kinect motion controls and voice commands, which not everyone liked and which didn't always work super well, and suddenly there's no good reason to upend your existing entertainment setup with cable passthrough. Lots of Xbox owners use their console for streaming apps, music, and other entertainment options, but just as many use a PS4, a smart TV, or any number of other solutions--the Xbox One never became a dominant force there. And before long, Microsoft abandoned functionality that might have made the Xbox One more competitive in that space. Plans for DVR were eventually abandoned, and the Snap feature was phased out about halfway through the Xbox One's life.

An Xbox TV Network

The other half of Microsoft's big push into entertainment was on the content side: It planned not only for the Xbox One to unite all your entertainment and TV in one place, but to provide exclusive content you couldn't get anywhere else. On this front, Microsoft talked a big game, and at the center of it was Halo. Way back when the Xbox One was first announced in 2013, Microsoft said a Halo TV show was in the works, and that Steven Spielberg was creating it.

That show never materialized--it's still apparently in production at Showtime today. Microsoft did create some exclusive Halo content for the Xbox ecosystem, though, including Halo: Nightfall, a live-action web series that served as a prequel to Halo 5: Guardians, and Halo: Fall of Reach, an animated adaptation of the novel by the same name. But Microsoft wanted to go farther than just creating synergy between games and entertainment by trying to merge the two while bringing in social and online features. Microsoft even created a division to head the initiative, called Microsoft Entertainment Studios. Apart from the plan for expanding Halo storytelling into a TV show, the poster child for that idea was Remedy Entertainment's time-travel game, Quantum Break.

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When it was announced, Quantum Break was meant to be both a TV show and a video game, with the story unfolding in both halves of the product simultaneously, and with choices made during the game influencing what you'd see in the TV show. But as with other elements, priorities shifted and features got abandoned. The result was the Quantum Break that eventually was released, which features episodes of a live-action TV show mixed into the game, essentially acting as extended cutscenes. A lot of opinions on Quantum Break are mixed, but it's fascinating as an artifact of Microsoft's big TV-meets-gaming plans before they fizzled out. By 2014, Microsoft had closed Microsoft Entertainment Studios, and with it went any inkling that Microsoft might become a force in television content.

Share And Share Alike

As Sony did with the PlayStation 4, Microsoft recognized that easy content sharing was essential in the eighth generation as streaming became essential to the games industry. Some of the best features of the Xbox One are how easily you can save and share content. The console includes menu controls that let you quickly save and share screenshots and videos (though not quite as easily as the dedicated share button on the PS4), and one of the most useful aspects of the Kinect was the ability to say, "Xbox, record that," and save a clip after doing something awesome in a game.

As noted above, the integration with OneDrive made it easy to save your clips to the cloud. Uploading could sometimes be a pain, but when it all worked smoothly, the ability to access your screenshots and videos from a PC made it easier for content creators to make cool stuff. Xbox One helped lower the barriers for creating content among gamers everywhere, and its sharing features are intuitive, easy to use, and among the best improvements of the console over the Xbox 360.

Integrating Everything With SmartGlass

When Microsoft first announced the Xbox One, the idea of it being a part of a greater entertainment whole was huge. Another part of the vision was SmartGlass, a smartphone and tablet app that integrated with Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The idea with SmartGlass was that a bunch of other devices could connect to the Xbox One for second-screen and control capability. During its announcement press conference, when Microsoft showed off watching a movie while using Snap to simultaneously access a web browser, the browser was controlled with a smartphone through SmartGlass.

In practice, the integration with mobile apps is handy in some cases, but not altogether necessary. Microsoft has since changed its apps to drop the SmartGlass branding in favor of using the Xbox, but they're still useful for doing things like controlling your console remotely for switching between apps or watching video, making purchases from the Xbox Live store, setting up downloads, viewing your saved screenshots and gameplay clips, or interacting with other players on your friends list. But there's not a lot of highly-useful second-screen capability with Xbox One's mobile app integration. If you want to flip between apps or control Netflix with your smartphone, the Xbox One apps are pretty good--but you aren't likely to do much else with them.

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The Backwards Compatibility Revival

There was a time, close to the announcement of the Xbox One, when the idea of backwards compatibility was something Microsoft scoffed at. Then-Xbox boss Don Mattrick famously said that Microsoft had a machine for people who wanted backward compatibility: the Xbox 360. But soon after the release of the Xbox One, the company changed its tune on the issue.

Today, the Xbox One has a surprisingly robust backward compatibility library of both Xbox 360 and original Xbox games. Not every game works, unfortunately, because Microsoft had to use software emulation to get its old games to run on the Xbox One. But a lot of them do, which is impressive--especially given that the PS4 has no such backward compatibility offering at all. Microsoft has also improved many of its backward-compatible games by leveraging the greater power of the Xbox One X version of the console, improving resolution, textures, and colors in some cases. The ability to play old games across multiple generations is a major boon for the Xbox One and works surprisingly well, making it one of the console's best features.

In fact, thanks to its success on Xbox One, backward compatibility has become part of the Xbox identity going into the next generation, with the Xbox Series X and S featuring backward compatibility with games across all three past generations of Xbox. Though it wasn't initially in the cards for the Xbox One, backward compatibility is an example of how the console's changing identity, and Microsoft's changing focus, created successes as well as failures that weren't obvious when it was first announced. In the end, it's an example of how much the Xbox One has changed--it might have abandoned some of the elements Microsoft thought was the future, like the Kinect, but it has embraced other things Xbox fans loved from the past.

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philhornshaw

Phil Hornshaw

GameSpot editor in Los Angeles, and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory. Hoped the latter would help me get Han Solo hair, but so far, unsuccessful.

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