The Xbox One may primarily be a gaming console, but one of the major focuses of Microsoft's press event was One Guide: the Xbox One's new interface for navigating your live TV content.
By including an HDMI input, the Xbox One can integrate cable TV content right into the Xbox Dashboard, serving up a prettier grid of channels than what your clunky cable box offers. It's not all that different from Google's major living room initiative -- Google TV -- and the Xbox One faces some of the same challenges if it truly wants to be the "One" box to rule your living room.
1. Which cable/satellite providers are supported?
Comcast got a shout out during the press event, but otherwise Microsoft hasn't gotten specific about which cable and satellite providers are supported with the Xbox One's TV functionality. Microsoft's current response in its list of Xbox One FAQs isn't inspiring, either:
Q: Do I need to have a specific cable or satellite TV provider to watch live TV on Xbox?
A: Our goal is to enable live TV through Xbox One in every way that it is delivered throughout the world, whether that's television service providers, over the air or over the Internet, or HDMI-in via a set-top box (as is the case with many providers in the U.S.). The delivery of TV is complex and we are working through the many technologies and policies around the world to make live TV available where Xbox One is available.
I wouldn't be surprised if One Guide's simple overlay functionality works with most major providers, especially since Google TV has pulled that off for years. But for more advanced features...
2. Will there be DVR support?
Program guide overlay is easy, but DVR support is hard. The phrases "DVR" or "recordings" weren't mentioned during the event, which seems to indicate that television integration might be limited to live TV.
That's not surprising, as true DVR support is the stumbling block for every device that promises to control your TV experience. (Google TV only has tight integration with Dish Network; the Wii U's TVii is similarly limited to TiVo.) Without access to your recordings, you'll find yourself frequently digging out the cable remote, which spoils a lot of the intent behind Xbox One in the first place.
3. Does anyone want to talk to a TV?
The television experience has long been coupled with a familiar, iconic device: the remote control.
Yet, all of the TV-oriented demos shown today were done using Kinect's voice recognition feature. That may be a bigger hurdle than Microsoft is expecting, as the traditional remote control is a comforting mainstay of TV watching that everyone is accustomed to, especially when it comes to frequent tweaks like volume adjustments and DVR controls. I even prefer a standard remote when using streaming-media services like Netflix or HBO Go on my Xbox 360.
If the Xbox One really wants to be the living room centerpiece, a TV-style remote control accessory may be in order.
4. Will it require clunky IR blasters?
If you look closely at the back of the Xbox One, there's a small minijack-size port that says "IR out."
That hints that the Xbox One will be controlling other devices, such as your TV and cable box, using standard IR commands. What we don't know is whether it will have built-in IR blasters, like Google TV devices, or require awkward external IR blasters that harken back to the original TiVos.
There's also the issue of how many types of devices the Xbox One will be capable of controlling. If you need to pick up a separate remote to adjust the volume on an AV receiver (or sound bar), the magic, hands-free TV experience goes away pretty quickly. "Xbox One controls your cable box" sounds like a great idea, but the real-world details get complicated in a hurry.
5. Will it require an Xbox Live Gold-style subscription?
As great as the Xbox 360's suite of streaming-media apps is, all the good stuff requires a $60-per-year Live Gold subscription. For a relatively infrequent gamer like myself, that's too much to ask for basic features like Netflix and Amazon Instant access. The One Guide interface might be sleek enough to attract people tired of poorly designed cable box interfaces, but if there's a required, recurring fee, it's going to kill a lot of interest.
6. Will TV content be integrated into Bing Video Search?
As it was presented today, One Guide seemed isolated from the Xbox One's other impressive video capabilities, which includes tons of apps (Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon Instant) and even live TV via some providers like Verizon Fios. One of the Xbox 360's strength is its excellent cross-platform searching capability, and it would be a shame if your cable TV content wasn't included in those results.
One Guide is the right idea, but it may not be enough
Out of all the console makers, Microsoft currently has the most forward-thinking vision for merging the worlds of television and gaming. Sony barely mentioned entertainment in its PS4 press event, while the Wii U has some neat ideas, but has been painfully slow to implement them. Microsoft's sleek live TV demos made for great press conference fodder, but when you get down to the details, there's not much there that differentiates the Xbox One from previous approaches.
The all-new Xbox One
At least yet. Microsoft is holding another Xbox One-centered event at E3, where we're likely to get more details. And it's easy to forget that none of the last-gen consoles launched even with Netflix, so even the launch version of the Xbox One might be far from what it ends up becoming. The Xbox One is a step in the right direction, but it has a long way to go if it wants to win the cable TV war.