The idea of Xbox One as an all-in-one entertainment device helped to nearly cripple the console’s launch in 2013. Microsoft unveiled the device to a hardcore fanbase eager for new games by demonstrating how the console could control a TV with voice and seamlessly switch between playing games and watching football.
While other issues plagued the console’s pre-launch — like an always-online digital rights management system, controlled used game sales and a constantly plugged-in Kinect — the non-gaming focus during the console’s May 2013 reveal seemed to be the last straw for many of the most vocal fans.
The console’s poor showing at E3 in June appeared to wake Microsoft up and within a month the DRM was gone, then head of Xbox Don Mattrick was out and former games head Phil Spencer took over, introducing himself with the promise of an Xbox One that put games first.
"With me you're going to get a focus on gaming first and a best platform to play games on," Spencer said at the time.
And games continue to be the console’s first focus, but not the only one.
Xbox One as all-in-one entertainment device may no longer be something so vigorously marketed for the console, but it remains a core tenet of success.
"That’s still very much a priority for us," said Richard Irving, who leads the engineering team at Microsoft that oversees things like user interface and the TV-fueled OneGuide on the console. "Having the one device that really is your all-in-one entertainment experience; it is a vision that we hold near and dear to our heart."
This past November, Microsoft rolled out a massive update designed to speed up the console dashboard, drop some unused Kinect features and completely overhaul the console's ability to parse media from a wide swath of video providers and present it in a more cohesive manner to gamers. It was called the "New Xbox Experience."
"I think we're moving it in a really good direction," Xbox Live senior global product manager Mike Lavin said at the time.
He said the team was "on the road right now" meeting with partners like Netflix to talk to them about including their content on Xbox One's new take on video apps. It wouldn't be mixed in with the cable TV content anymore, but still just a button press away in a familiar Xbox-powered experience.
I balked at the idea of Microsoft's being able to make their OneGuide work effectively. The last time I tried putting my Xbox One console in control of my cable box and television it was a mess, I told him.
Try it again after the November update, he said.
The premise behind the Xbox One's OneGuide is solid, I think. Beyond solid. It's a really smart idea. If you're a television user and you play games, wouldn't you want to be able to go to one place to see what's showing whether it's on traditional cable, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu or what have you? And being able to flip to a video game on the fly when you get an alert or decide Halo is more interesting than The Walking Dead, that's just the cream on the cake.
The integration works by plugging your cable box's HDMI cable into your Xbox One and then your Xbox One's cable into the television. So the TV signal passes through the console before going to the TV.
But in practice the concept was a mess for some at launch.
When it first rolled out, the OneGuide relied heavily on the included Kinect and its voice and gesture commands. The problem was that didn't work for everyone all of the time. When what is essentially a remote control doesn't work once, it's an annoyance. When it doesn't work often, it's maddening.
There was also the issue of a slight delay in input response that the console sometimes introduced. And the console didn't exactly support all of the features of the cable box. If you wanted to control your DVR options, you were likely going to have to switch back to your television remote.
Then there were the little problems, like the console booting up to the Xbox One dashboard initially. It sounds small, but those added seconds begin to eat away at your experience.
But Microsoft diligently, quietly worked to fix a lot of those problems. It added a setting allowing the Xbox to boot up directly into live television without the need to switch to it or select a channel. It worked to sharpen the experience and, Nichols told me in October, it did a lot of research into what was and wasn't being used.
The result was a complete rework of the OneGuide. One designed to be faster and one that split out non-cable TV into its view.
Most importantly, Nichols told me, it added universal search capabilities. The idea being that you could search for a TV show or movie and the Xbox would look through everything you have access to, to tell you where you could find it.
This sounds like putting the Xbox One back at the center of your entertainment experience, I said to Nichols.
"That's exactly where the engineer team's head is at," he said.
Family for the holidays is both a blessing and a curse. It's wonderful to have so many people you care about around to share in the big meals, the cozy weather, the celebrations.
It's also the time of the year when the television gets the most use. People need breaks, there are parades to watch, concerts, the annual viewing of Elf.
So I figured, with my non-gaming mom and step-dad headed in for the holidays, giving the Xbox One full control of that television was the best way to test just how far the experience has come.
The first thing I noticed, almost immediately, was that if I didn't want to use the game controller — and who wants to change channels and adjust volume with a game controller? — I was going to have to set up Microsoft's official Xbox One media remote.
The black plastic controller is much smaller than your typical cable box remote and, I soon found out, not nearly as powerful. The diminutive controller uses IR, not the wireless communication tech used by the game controllers, to control your Xbox, which in turn then controls the cable box.
If this daisy chain of IR bouncing around to change a channel or adjust volume sounds like a problem, then maybe you've tried it yourself.
I found that there was a distinct delay between when I pressed a button and when that press did something. Being an immensely impatient person with electronics, I often skipped right over the channel I wanted, and then skipped back over again, and maybe skipped it a third time for good measure before finally taking a deep breath and letting the beams do their things before pressing too much.
It was a little annoying but it wasn't terrible. It just took some getting used to.
But that wasn't the only issue I faced when using the official remote. Because it uses infrared to communicate with the Xbox One's IR receiver (it's located just to the side of the eject button, but you can't really see it) I wasn't able to close the glass-faced door on the cabinet that housed the console. Doing so weakened the signal enough — or maybe it just bounced it — that I wasn't able to successfully control the cable box with any regularity.
And this IR issue is also a problem with the signal going from the Xbox One to the cable box as well, whether you use the Kinect or an IR emitter. That meant I would push a button, wait a second to make sure it wasn't the slight delay, and then move my hand and push the button. Repeat until something happened and hope it doesn't happen twice.
Not being able to close the cabinet door wasn't a deal breaker, but it was another annoyance. The cable remote uses radio frequencies to communicate with the box and I could be in another room, cabinet closed, walls in the way, and it still worked like a champ.
Worse still, even with the door open, if I wasn't sitting in the middle of my couch there were problems.
So I tried buying IR receivers and emitters. I reinstalled the Kinect. I removed the Kinect. I moved the console and the cable box. Basically, I tried everything I could think of to see if I could improve the signal. No luck.
The best, most reliable way to control the Xbox One is with an Xbox One controller. Though you still need to either have the Kinect attached or a IR emitter plugged into the back of the console. Once it was set up, the only issue I ran into was making sure the emitter could get the signal to the cable box. But even if I did get that to work correctly, my non-gaming relatives weren't just not OK with using a gamepad to control a television; they were confused.
When my mom asked for the TV remote and I handed her a controller she looked at me like I just slapped a raw liver into her hand.
I tried getting them to use that little black puck of a remote, but they couldn't get it to work and weren't up for the yoga needed to get the thing to react.
So this is a complete failure with my relatives, I figure. But once they leave it's just my gamer son and my wife who has put up with nearly decades of me screwing around with electronics in and around the things she uses. Surely we can make it work.
Enter the other weird issue.
For some reason, Comcast's fancy new X1 cable box, which is a really slick, almost console-like device, starts acting very strangely when connected to the console. I'd turn on the TV and the closed captioning pops up. Or maybe it's the foreign language option, the help guide, or, my favorite, the service that reads the descriptions of what's happening on the screen to you, in case you can't see it.
Each time this happened, I'd spend a few minutes with the cable box remote buttoning my way through menus until I could figure out how to turn it off.
And as if the problems weren't bad enough, the OneGuide still hasn't finished delivering on that mission of a unified search that can point out where to find what you want to watch from a universe of apps, stores and services.
Chief among the services missing is Netflix.
Where I was pitched a OneGuide that would bring together all of my entertainment experiences under one roof and deliver a "Can I Stream It" service to my console, what I got was a messy stand-in that seemed to get in the way of the experience more than improve it.
Richard Irving’s engineering team has been focusing on bring a more cohesive Xbox experience across all devices from console to computer. In a recent interview, he told me that the New Xbox experience delivered with the late 2015 update had one chief goal.
"If you go back to the first principal for the New Xbox experience, it was about making everything you do faster," he said. "Gaming was about instant access to your friends list, bringing back the guide you loved."
When it came to video, he said, the desire to speed things up manifested itself as a searchable, cross-app catalog that combined the individual video offers of all of the services into one database, essentially.
"We wanted to help you find that content across the catalogs," he said. "We also had this notion of app channels which provided little peeks into the apps and integrated that with the standard guide."
To achieve that efficiency, Irving's team did away with that singular view that combined live television and app offerings. In its place were individual listings for each app, each highlighting its video content in different ways. Amazon, for instance, might show you what's new, or what you might like. While it takes a bit of getting used to, I found that it did in fact speed up my browsing quite a bit.
But that cross-catalog search seems much less useful when it doesn't include a major player like Netflix, I told Irving. The problem seems to be that Microsoft doesn't want to demand changes from what Irving called its app partners.
"It isn’t 'You must do it this way,'" he said. "Our position is we have some cool ideas and we’d love for you to participate.
"It really is kind of up to the partner."
Irving couldn’t say why Netflix hasn't yet opted to include that experience, but said that with a lot of these apps the video service providers have so many devices to support that everything has to be prioritized.
"They have to prioritize the things they think will be best for their business," he said.
Priorities, it turns out, are also what is to blame for an official Xbox media remote that uses IR and not the same tech as the game controllers.
"As we are designing the accessories there are all kinds of trade-offs," he said. "If you look back on Xbox 360, we had the universal remote that had a 10 key keypad and other functions. It really was universal. But when we factored in where we were in in our lifecycle on the Xbox One, in designing our media remote, we deprioritized those features."
The result is the tiny remote that requires line of sight to work.
Irving pointed out that the Kinect has a number of emitters built into it and continues to support voice features, though he said gestures have been "deemphasized."
The best solution for the remote, it seemed when talking to Irving, is the SmartGlass app. A powerful tool that can be downloaded to a phone, but one that isn't really designed for communal use.
Irving's engineering team continues its work on Xbox One's non-gaming features, including the recently announced DVR support. A feature that will eventually allow Xbox One owners to record shows on television. A feature that would typically never be found on a gaming console.
I asked Irving if things have changed for Microsoft in terms of its decision to so completely back away from the original pitch for the Xbox One. At the time, after the strong initial negative reaction from gamers, Microsoft refocused the pitch of the console with a clear emphasis on games first and much less said about non-gaming apps.
"That's all still incredibly important," Irving said. "One of the important takeaways coming out of our announcement was our fans want to hear about gaming first. They love to do all of these other things, having an all-in-one entertainment system is important but the conversation has to start with gaming.
"We need to lead with gaming."
And, Irving added, his team knows video on the Xbox One is a work in progress.
"When it comes to video, and the video experience, the problems people want solved are aligned with the problems we’re trying to solve."
Correction: An earlier version of this article mentioned that Xbox One controllers used Bluetooth communication. The article has been updated to correct that.
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