Xbox One: So That's Why 'Xbox' Sounds So Vague

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The name “Xbox,” like “iPod,” has the wonderful power of not being too specific. Apple’s first device to bear that moniker didn’t do much more than play music, but the iPod touch is an all-purpose computer — and in the same way, the Xbox One that Microsoft unveiled Tuesday will do far more than play video games.

Don’t call it a game console. Instead, Microsoft pitches the Xbox One as an “all-in-one home entertainment system” that will let you and your TV “have a relationship.”

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And in aiming to make this device — to go on sale later this year at an undisclosed date and price — a digital living-room hub, Microsoft has given itself a tough job.

It’s not a matter of hardware support: With an eight-core processor, Blu-ray drive, 500-gigabyte hard drive and 8 GB of memory, the One should have all of the power of a “real” computer — including the ability run more realistic games than today’s Xbox — without the usual software-maintenance issues.

With a souped-up Kinect video sensor included, the One can also go beyond the simple gestures the first version allowed to something a little closer to a Minority Report-style interface. And its voice recognition apparently surpasses what the Kinect does today; for instance, you should be able to wake it by saying “Xbox on.”

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(Having Kinect built in can enable easier Skype video chats too, which you can stage alongside TV or games in the same “snap” sidebar you see in Windows 8′s start-screen interface.)

The Xbox One’s own apps shouldn’t be a barrier either, considering that the existing model already plays Internet content from HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube, music apps like Last.fm, Rhapsody and Slacker, and sports channels like ESPN and MLB.TV.

But Microsoft also wants to present a smarter front end to the hundreds of TV channels  most of us watch today through a separate box. Instead of seeing the same old endless program grid, the One will provide personalized recommendations and allow you to control the TV and the DVR with voice commands or a remote-control app on your phone or tablet.

The idea is that you’d run one HDMI cable from your cable or satellite box to the One, then run another one from there to your TV. The One, in turn, would use the Kinect’s IR sensor to send commands to the cable or satellite box.

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This part may sound familiar and should seem tricky: Google promised some of the same things when it launched Google TV in 2010. But that software couldn’t cope with the overwhelming diversity of proprietary TV hardware; at some point in my testing, I always had to resort to a cable box’s remote to finish a task.

Microsoft can’t add a tuner for cable or satellite TV to the Xbox One because no standard exists for third-party hardware to tune in those services–well, at least not in the United States.

(That, in turn, helps explain why Apple limited the Apple TV to playing Web media — and why I think the persistent “Apple will make a television” rumors are nonsense.)

Even the lesser task of just providing a better remote control for existing video gear still thwarts the makers of general-purpose gadgets.

Microsoft could ease its job by only supporting major cable and satellite operators, but it says it wants to “enable live TV through Xbox One in every way that it is delivered throughout the world.”

That’s a tall order. Meanwhile, many of you — especially those who have ditched cable or satellite TV — may already have something close to an all-in-one home entertainment system: the tablet or laptop on the coffee table.

Credits: Images via Microsoft PR

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