Controlling the Xbox One S

With my Xbox 360 I always enjoyed the fact that there were plenty of ways to interact with the console and the same is true for the new Xbox One S.

The New Controller

The most obvious way of interacting with the console is through a controller. Microsoft’s controllers are widely considered to be some of the best controllers on the market. The Xbox One S comes with a new controller which is a slightly improved version of the original Xbox One controller.

This time the Xbox team managed to reduce the number of components making it cheaper and easier to manufacture. One of the benefits of this new process means that Microsoft provide the option of completely custom controllers: you can choose the colours.

I loved using different coloured controllers with my Nintendo Game Cube, and If I need to get myself another controller any time soon I will be going for the custom designs. The only tricky thing will be deciding which colour to get!

The New Xbox Controller

Another benefit of the new controller is the Bluetooth support. It works with Windows PCs without the need for a dongle and I’ve used this controller with my Surface for a couple of games and has worked really well.

The Elite Controller

While Microsoft found a way to reduce the costs of manufacturing their standard issue controller, they also found a way to appease the more hardcore gamers with the Elite controller. I’ve lusted after this thing since I first heard about it. The plastic feels a lot nicer to the touch with a soft texture. The triggers and bumpers are made out of metal and the sticks can be customised.

The whole device has a high-quality weight to it.

The Elite Controller

It has a switch on the front which allows you two switch between two sets of custom settings. I use a standard setup in the first position and the second position is configured with a custom setup which works really well for games like Halo and Gears of War.

It is no surprise that this has become my main controller!

I am really impressed by the Elite controller and I wish Microsoft would put the same kind of effort into doing mice and keyboards for the PC. I don’t play PC games with a mouse and keyboard but I do use them every day for software development. I’d really appreciate some high quality gear, especially as I spend so much time using them.

The Chat Pad

Being able to enter text using a physical keyboard and not pecking around on the screen is something that I enjoyed on the Xbox 360 and wanted to have the same experience on the Xbox One too. As soon as I got the Xbox One I was entering text on the screen and looking over at my old controller enviously so I decided to get for the occasions I enter text.

It does add some bulk to the controller but it doesn’t bother me at all. I can always remove it if I wanted to.

Chat Pad

The Media Remote

The top device used to control my Xbox 360 must have been the remote control. I knew that as soon as I got an Xbox One I would have to get a remote to go with it. The Xbox One version is a lot smaller than its predecessor and it lacks the number keys (which I never used anyway).

Most of the time I don’t really need to see the controls, but the new backlight is a welcome addition too.

Using the remote I can turn the Xbox on and navigate around the menus. There are dedicated keys for bringing up the OneGuide television interface, as well as changing the volume of the television itself.

Media Remote

I use the media remote a lot and find it extremely useful for apps like Netflix… but I have to say it is probably my least favourite piece of the Xbox hardware I have. It doesn’t feel that great, it doesn’t look very impressive, and to me the design is flawed by the fact that it is rounded on the bottom and doesn’t sit flat on a table without wobbling.

I’d like to see them release a new version of the media remote to match the Xbox One S style, or at least just ‘premium it up’ a bit and remove the rounded underside. Until then I will be continuing to use this version as it is still extremely useful.

The Xbox App

The Xbox App for Windows 10 has become a very useful way of interacting with the console. Like SmartGlass before it, you can use purely as a controller or for text input. But now it’s a fully featured Xbox experience for the PC, with the ability to stream too.

Xbox App

I’ve used this more than I thought I would already, and I get the feeling I will continue to use it more and more as updates for the Xbox One come out over the next few years.

The Xbox App also works with the HoloLens too!

What I don’t have

I haven’t bothered to get a Kinect. Not because I don’t think it is technically good, but because it seems that Microsoft has abandoned it.

The lack of Kinect’s microphone means I cannot use Cortana on the Xbox One. This is a bit frustrating as she’s something I use all the time on my Surface computer and Lumia phone. As I mentioned in my previous Xbox One S article: I am surprised they didn’t add a microphone to the console itself.

Maybe they’ll add a microphone to an update media remote in the future?

Upgrading to the Xbox One S

The original Xbox One was announced over two and a half years ago, but I skipped that version and continued to use an Xbox 360 for my living room entertainment.

The new Xbox One S is much smaller and slightly faster than the original, but mostly it is the same. For me this upgrade is perfect timing, as I have been waiting for a hardware refresh before making the switch from the now-discontinued Xbox 360.

Watch the Xbox One S announcement

For people who already have an Xbox One: it may be better to wait for “Project Scorpio” – which will be a significant upgrade to the Xbox coming late 2017. Microsoft have stated that all three iterations of the Xbox One will be compatible with each other – so I am not concerned about being left behind, though “Scorpio” will almost certainly support VR as well.

Watch the Project Scorpio announcement

Hardware

The industrial design of the Xbox One S is absolutely fantastic. Anyone who wasn’t keen on the “VCR” looks of the original Xbox One would agree that Microsoft has gone in a different direction this time.

Xbox One S Design

At the moment the device only comes in white, though I know plenty of people would have liked to see it in black. To me the white polycarbonate really shows off the features of design itself – it would be a lot harder to make out some of the nice touches if the device was just black and in the shadows.

Internally the biggest noticeable improvement is around storage: the disk in the launch edition is 2 TB – that’s four times larger than the disk that shipped with the original Xbox One. You need it too, as games are regularly over 80 GB.

No Kinect in the box this time

In contrast to the original Xbox One launch bundle, the Kinect sensor is not included this time. In fact, it is prohibitive to get the Kinect for the Xbox One S: you’d have to buy both the £80 sensor and a £30 adapter to make it work over USB. The adapter is free if you are upgrading from an original Xbox One – but I am not, and so I will skip this expense for now. However, skipping the Kinect does come at a cost…

At a high level the Kinect provides three main features to the Xbox One:

  • A camera array which supports video and motion capture
  • A microphone array for voice commands as well as chat functionality
  • An infrared transmitter for controlling audio and video equipment

The infrared transmitter is now built in to the front of the Xbox One S. This means I can control my TV without the need for the expensive Kinect add-on.

But the other two features are not included.

I can understand the fact that the camera and motion detection technology is not built in, as most games don’t use it, but I don’t understand why the Xbox One S didn’t include a microphone array by default. Especially as being able to turn on the Xbox with your voice was one of the most impressive features of the Kinect, and the new Cortana assistant requires a microphone to work.

If they can include an infrared transmitter, why didn’t they include a microphone array too? I don’t get it.

Software

The Xbox One S comes pre-loaded with the “Redstone” version of the operating system which matches the Windows 10 Anniversary Update. It includes features like Xbox 360 backwards compatibly, background music, Windows 10’s Universal apps, Cortana, and loads of other tweaks. This update is available for the previous model too, but for me this is a massive leap from the experience provided by the Xbox 360.

Switching between apps is fast

On the Xbox 360 there was no way to pause a game and then watch Netflix for a while, the Xbox One’s software allows this with ease, allowing seamless switching between games, live television, and apps without long loading times.

Being able to use two apps at the same time is supported, but it isn’t as great as I’d like to be. Some applications don’t support snapping at all, and the interface for snapping unintuitive when compared Windows 10.

Xbox One Dashboard

As a Groove Music user the new background audio features work really well – all of the music from my Music Pass and OneDrive collections are available to stream from the same Universal app that I use on my Surface and my Lumia.

While I could access my music through a subpar app on my Xbox 360, I couldn’t multitask at the same time – there was no way I could listen to music on Groove and then go looking for something to watch on Netflix or iPlayer. As an entertainment device this makes a lot of sense, and I’m really pleased they’ve added it to the Xbox One.

Background Audio

Television

In the UK you can use a USB adapter for the Xbox One to gain access to Freeview. In my area of England this includes over a hundred television channels – including 17 in HD. This works without having to do IR blasting to a cable box, and integrates well with Microsoft’s OneGuide software.

I’m not a big television watcher, but now you have to have a TV Licence to watch iPlayer it makes sense to have Freeview as well.

At least this way everything is handled through the Xbox One itself.

Streaming

The Xbox app for Windows includes access to all of the Xbox Live features you’d expect. Including friends, messages, achievements, and (most importantly) game streaming.

Xbox App for Windows

I have been impressed by how well the streaming works – at the medium quality settings there is no noticeable lag, and the compression doesn’t look bad at all.

Personally I have no interest in installing 80 GB games directly on my Surface Book (which I use for software development) but having the option of streaming directly from the Xbox One S means that playing in another room is now an option.

Streaming TV and Games to Surface…
…and HoloLens

And yes, streaming even works with the HoloLens. In the photo below you can see me streaming Halo 5: Guardians onto the wall in my office.

Halo on the HoloLens

More to come

The Xbox One is still early in its life cycle – especially when you consider how much the Xbox 360 changed in the 10 years it was in the market. I still have more to write around the various options for controlling and using the device, and my thoughts on how the software needs to be improved… but that will come another day.

For now I’m pleased to have finally made the jump to the Xbox One platform, and I’m glad I waited for this beautifully designed Xbox One S.

Xbox 360 Ends Production

This week Microsoft has announced that it has stopped production of Xbox 360 consoles after a little over 10 years. The Xbox 360 has been an extremely useful machine for me, and formed an integral part of my computing life.

J Allard

I closely watched the development of the 360 back in 2005 (I was a bit of a fan of J Allard too) but I didn’t make the purchase until a year after the original release of the console.

My first Xbox 360 was the Premium version. It was white and huge with a very loud fan. I actually didn’t time my investment all that well as a slightly upgraded Elite version came out soon after I got mine, but they all supported the same software so it didn’t matter all that much.

Original Xbox 360 Dashboard

Back then the 360’s operating system was very different to the one we have today. The original Dashboard included different colour blades which you navigated through left and right to find the section you wanted. I mostly used it to play Xbox Live Arcade games like Geometry Wars, as well as some of the more blockbuster titles such as Gears or War and Crackdown.

I used a VGA cable to connect the Xbox directly to desktop computer monitor – so I was either using my PC or using my Xbox which meant I often ended up using video and entertainment apps in a window while multi-tasking on the PC and the Xbox 360 usage dwindled.

In 2012 I switched around my computing platform in general and essentially replaced my desktop computer with an Xbox 360 S model. It was way quieter than my original Xbox 360 and has been the only thing plugged into my living room screen since then. (I don’t actually watch any broadcast, cable, or satellite television.)

Over the years the software has seen a huge amount of updates too. The current version is such a long way from the original that it’s quite impressive to think how far the device has come.

Current Xbox 360 Dashboard

I still use my 360 pretty much every day when I am at home. Over the years the main use of the console has changed and now it is mostly used to watch video on Netflix or listen to music on Groove.

Most of the time I just use the media remote which is able to turn on my TV, change the volume, and control the 360 software all without using a controller. Essentially my Xbox 360 has become a Roku – with the option of playing games when I want to.

This year I plan on replacing the 360 with an Xbox One. There are plenty of games I want, but the general improvements to the software and user interface are enough to make a noticeable difference to how I get my entertainment. The coming addition of universal Windows apps means that (hopefully) more Windows applications will run directly on the console.

I won’t lose anything with the upgrade either, as most 360 games are backwards compatible with the Xbox One.

Currently I plan on moving over to the Xbox One after this years Electronic Entertainment Expo. Who knows, there may be some new hardware innovations on the way…

Watching Gravity on Xbox Video

I don’t own any movies on DVD or Blu-ray. None at all. I gave up on DVD at the same time I stopped buying CDs, and I have never been interested in getting myself a Blu-ray player for movies either.

Most of the movies I watch are on Netflix, but once in a while a new movie comes along that I want to watch as soon as I can. In previous years there weren’t any decent (legal) ways to do this, but these days there are a number of options for getting movies online.

As a happy user of Xbox Music, I thought I’d give Xbox Video a try.

Xbox Video

Xbox Video is a streaming video service that lets you either rent or purchase movies, and watch them directly on your Xbox, Windows device or in a web browser.

The only video I’ve purchased on Xbox Video previously was Mean Girls – but that’s a 10 year old movie and didn’t include any of the fancy extras you get with SmartGlass.

When Gravity became available I purchased the HD version for £14.99. Because it’s purchased, rather than rented, I can watch it as many times as I want, including the SmartGlass extras.

Gravity

In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone is a mission specialist on a Space Shuttle mission to Hubble, when an accident causes the rest of the crew to perish.

In a slightly unrealistic-but-more-realistic-than-most-movies turn of events she finds herself at the International Space Station, then to a Chinese Space Station in an attempt to get back home.

SmartGlass on Windows Phone

Through Xbox SmartGlass you get access to special content – which I believe is also included on the Blu-ray release. I have the option of accessing the extras through either my Windows Phone, or my Surface tablet. There are also apps available for both iOS and Android too, but I don’t have either of those devices.

My favourite part of the extra content was actually the video short, however I couldn’t get it to play full screen for some reason. Bit of a shame.

Xbox SmartGlass

In “Aningaaq”, we see the other end of the radio conversation that Stone has while in the Russian space craft. Aninqaaq, a fisherman in Greenland, is also dealing with death in his own way. This time we are provided with a translation for his side of the conversation, which is a great little extra to the movie.

Overall the Xbox SmartGlass experience was good, and more interesting when I watched the movie for the second time. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a movie specifically for the extras before, and I’m not going to start – but it’s a good little bonus.

Gravity

Controlling the Xbox 360

There are a huge amount of different options for controlling the Xbox 360 console, and when I got mine I had a little think about what ways I’d like to use it.

Xbox 360 Wireless Controller and Chatpad

Obviously the default way of using an Xbox is with the usual wireless controller. I’ve had a few different ones over the years, but I’m currently using a full black one that came with the console as standard, as well as the black chat pad. There are other versions of the controller, including wired and the transforming D-pad. (Though the transforming D-pad doesn’t come in black.)

The Chatpad itself was marketed for enabling Messenger integration into the Xbox experience, though for me it’s mostly just for general text input, standard Xbox Live messages and searching. Personally I wouldn’t want to give it up now, and I’d recommend one to anyone with an Xbox 360.

Xbox 360 Media Remote

One of the things that really sold me on the Media Remote is the way it can control many types of television, which means I don’t need to have two remotes on the coffee table. I can switch on the Xbox and launch various applications, including apps like iPlayer and Lovefilm without having to touch the controller – in fact sometimes I don’t touch the controller at all (unless I’m doing text input with the Chatpad!)

The remote includes the usual coloured YXAB face buttons, a guide button, and plenty of media controls including play/pause and fast forward/rewind as well as ones more geared towards live television, which I know is supported by Sky in the UK and many other providers in the US.

Xbox Companion for Windows Phone

An interesting addition to the Xbox is using a companion app from either Windows 8 or Windows Phone. I might write about this separately, but I would just add that I have often used this app, mostly for changing music on Zune while I’m in another room. Handy!

What else?

One of the things I didn’t bother getting is the Kinect, it may be something I want in the future, but right now I just don’t think it’s that important. some of the voice stuff at E3 2012 was pretty cool, but not enough to make me change my mind.

I am very interested in Xbox SmartGlass though, and as soon as I get myself a Windows RT tablet I’ll be sure to write about it.