Xbox One dashboard preview: Here's how your next-gen console will work
When it comes to the Xbox One, we've seen a lot of games, we've read a lot about features, we've been following the news up and down as Microsoft fleshes out the details heading towards the 22 November launch date.
There's one area of the Xbox One that we haven't had the chance to play with much: the dashboard. When you power on your next-gen console, this is where you'll land, it's the interface you'll use day-to-day, the framework around which all the Xbox One's features are linked.
We sat down with Microsoft to have a good look at how the new Xbox One dashboard will work, what it will bring and see some of those new features in the flesh.
Microsoft explained that it was still a beta build and that there's still polish to be applied before the Xbox One launch, which perhaps explains why we've not seen so much of it in real life.
The Xbox dashboard follows the Microsoft family trend of using tiles. The Xbox One doesn't break from this design language, so from as soon a you turn it on, it all feels familiar.
It's actually simpler than the Xbox 360, as the Xbox One dashboard has three main sections: pins, home and store, which are pretty much self-explanatory. Microsoft has demonstrated this in a new video, below.
The home page is where you land, giving you your last activity in the main window, be that TV or a game you were playing, as well as offering tiles for major apps you use and the option to fire-up whatever disc you might have loaded in the drive.
Once you're signed in, there's a friends bar down the left-hand side, that carries your profile information, friends online and lets you edit your profile, customise the dashboard tile colours and so on.
For friends the limit on numbers has been lifted, so you can have 1,000 friends, but there will also be a "follow" option where you can track people, follow celebs and so on. We didn't see this in action, but it seems to tap in on social trends like Twitter and we're guessing that it will let you follow people like Xbox's Major Nelson.
To the left of the home page you have pins. This, just like Windows or Windows Phone, lets you pin things you like. That means that you can pin apps like Netflix or 4OD so you can get to them quickly.
Flip to the other side of the home page and you have the store where you can find games, TV and movies, music and apps.
Multi-account sign-in through Kinect
Much has been said of the new Kinect that's coming with the Xbox One. It's an integral part of the new Xbox One experience, bringing the cameras and microphone that will give you navigation without using the controller. Of course, you can, if you wish, use a controller, but it's clear that the vision for the Xbox One extends beyond button pressing.
When our Microsoft demo guy stepped in front of the console and sat down, Kinect recognised his face, said hello and signed into the console. That takes you from the generic layout to whatever your customise set-up is, with all your content.
But there are a huge number of people who'll get an Xbox One and don't live alone. That's not a problem, because when someone else joins you on the sofa, Kinect will recognise that person and can sign them into their account too.
We saw this in action and it's slick and fast. Xbox One will support up to six profiles at the same time - there are five in the screen shot above - so you can have a whole family on the sofa, all signed in.
It doesn't then mash the profiles together, but means you can tell Xbox to switch so that the other person can then instantly view their profile, but saying "Xbox show my stuff". The clever beamforming tech used in Kinect means it can detect who is talking and then switch to the appropriate account.
That means that when one person leaves the room, for example, the other can just switch using voice, rather than having to sign one person out and then sign in the other. Switching seems incredibly fast too.
Voice control and switching functions
When the Xbox One was first unveiled, we were all wowed by voice-control switching between different features. In the flesh, it's just as impressive, if you can handle talking to your console.
Voice control isn't new, it's not new for games - we used it on SOCOM II on the PS2 10 years ago - and it’s not new for Xbox either. But on Xbox One, it feels like that's how Microsoft thinks you're going to interact with your Xbox.
We've now witnessed Xbox One switching from TV, to Forza 5 to Skype and back again pretty much instantly. If nothing else, it seems that asking Xbox to do what you want is going to be faster than using the buttons to navigate around.
There's a lot going on in the background which makes all this worthwhile too. We've all been there, waiting to set-up a multiplayer game with a friend who's not there yet. You no longer have to sit in the lobby and wait, you can flick out an invitation and then go and watch TV until everyone is ready.
With Xbox One being a connected entertainment experience, notifications are perhaps more important than previously. Xbox 360 would always tell you that friends were online, but with increased functionality, Microsoft hopes you'll be spending more time in the world of Xbox than ever before.
Notifications will pop up to alert you to things like incoming calls, as well as to tell you that multiplayer games are ready to play, so you can simple tell Xbox to switch to that game or call.
You can also silence them if you don't want to be disturbed when you're watching the latest blockbuster movie.
Switching tasks, whether via voice or on the controller, shows us that Xbox One is going to be a great multitasker, but the ability to snap things into the sidebar really puts your huge TV screen to use.
You can have a Skype conversation open while you're watching a football match on TV, you can pull up Internet Explorer to look up cast details for a movie you might be watching and so on. You can have TV snapped to the side while you're playing a game.
There's also some clever functionality coming from the likes of Machinima, with the app knowing where you are in a game, so you can open a sidebar to watch related video content, such as tutorials to help you through a game.
Integrating the Skype experience
It's no surprise to find Skype integrated into the Xbox One experience too, with Microsoft telling us that the aim was to make Xbox the bet Skype experience on the big screen.
There's also some clever stuff here that's enabled by Kinect. We've now seen the camera tracking in action, meaning that the Skype call is centred on you when you're talking. If you shift position or move around the room, it will follow you, to a certain extent.
The inclusion of Skype means that you can be contactable whenever you're sitting in your Xbox One and given that Xbox wants to own your big TV entertainment experience, that basically means all the time.
You can switch to take a Skype call, or open Skype in a sidebar so you can keep an eye on what you're doing while taking that call.
Skype will offer four-person group calling, you can opt for audio only - ie, no video - and there's going to be an incentive of 100 free minutes a month on first sign-in to encourage you to make outgoing landline calls. We're not certain on the exact details of this offer, but we'll update when it's confirmed.
Upload Studio for clip sharing
Tapping in on the social trend, Xbox One will be able to record video from your games for you to share. You simply have to say "Xbox record that" and you'll get your clip.
You can then tell it to share and it will upload your clip, but there's also an Upload Studio app that will help you prepare your killcam clip for the wider world. You'll get the normal functions like the ability to trim your video, but also add frames or record voiceovers. It's going to make it really easy to share clips and customise them.
One of the interesting options that we looked at was recording a picture-in-picture commentary. If you want to explain what's going on or taunt the friend you just wasted, you'll be able to do all that without getting off the sofa.
The clip will encode in the background and can then be shared for friends to view. Microsoft told us that this feature will grow and develop and what you get on Xbox One launch day will evolve.
TV has been one of the big talking points of Xbox One. Not only because you'll be able to access the sorts of TV apps that Xbox 360 currently offers, but because the console will have HDMI pass-through, you'll be able to connect your Sky, Virgin Media, YouView or PVR box to access it through Xbox.
It means that you can keep that TV experience you currently have, but you'll be able to access all the other Xbox features seamlessly. You'll be able to control your TV box as you normally would with the regular remote so there's no worry that everything will be changing: Sky will still be Sky.
However, you'll get the benefits of multitasking, so if you currently don't have one of the latest Smart TVs, then Xbox will essentially give you those sorts of functions. That's the impression we get having watched TV on Xbox One: all the work that the likes of Samsung or Sony are putting into enhancing the options that their TVs offer could be laid to waste by Xbox One.
Where Xbox wants to take the TV experience further than you get from your provider is through the OneGuide. This is designed to be a TV interface that pulls together your TV and apps to help you get to the sort of content you like. It reminds us of the sort of thing that YouView set out to achieve, focusing on content rather than schedules.
Then OneGuide will give you your favourite channels so you can see what's on, or dive over to an app. The OneGuide will be launching in the US first, and coming to the UK in 2014, with Microsoft telling us that working with all the different providers meant that the process would take some time.
We're yet to really see this in action and it's one area of entertainment that will need more examination. It has been confirmed that the following apps will be coming to the Xbox One in the UK, rolling into place between launch day and spring 2014: 4oD, Amazon/Lovefilm, Blinkbox, Crackle, Demand 5, Eurosport, Machinima, Muzu TV, Netflix, Now TV, TED, Twitch and Wuaki.tv.
Get set for 22 November
Xbox One launches on 22 November when we'll get the chance to really see how these element of the Xbox One platform come together. Microsoft is promising a better multiplayer experience, with dedicted servers in place for Call of Duty, smart matching on Xbox Live so you'll play against people of similar skill in games and a whole lot more.
The Xbox dashboard isn't a radical departure from what we have at the moment on Xbox 360. Microsoft isn't reinventing the wheel, it's just shaving it down and making it run smoother.
Xbox One seems to run at its best when using that voice control, so for a lot of us, it looks like we'll have to embrace that to get the most from our next-gen console.
We will be bringing you a full Xbox One review as soon as we can, so stay tuned.