I had my first real experience with Windows 8 last week. After I convinced my father that it was likely not in his best interest to continue using his seven year old Dell laptop that practically had steam pouring out of it whenever it opened a program, I talked him into upgrading to a new computer.
Naturally, I was fearful about his ability to master Windows 8, the much-derided operating system that by all accounts was Microsoft's latest misstep. If I hadn’t even used it yet, how could he hope to figure it out?
But as it turned out, my fears were unfounded. Not only did I discover that between the touchscreen capabilities of the new laptop and traditional mouse controls, I could navigate and understand the system with ease, the same was true for my less technologically inclined father. Once I set up all his favorites as “tiles,” email, Excel, weather, and so on, he was navigating like a pro within minutes.
The Xbox One uses the Windows 8 tile interface as inspiration, but is woefully behind the PC/tablet operating system in terms of usability. I’m opening myself up to inevitable bias accusations here to say explicitly that after owning both a PS4 and an Xbox One, the Sony interface is worlds ahead of Microsoft’s, even if it isn’t particularly spectacular itself. It’s the reason I use apps like Netflix on PS4 and not Xbox, even if both system are sitting side by side and it should theoretically be a coinflip.
While the Windows 8 tile system functions perfectly well for touchscreens or mice, the same is not true for a controller or god forbid, Kinect motion control. When I first bought my One which was forcibly bundled with a Kinect 2.0, I had a vision that the new system would allow me to flick and air tap my way through the interface menu like I was Tom Cruise in Minority Report, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Trying to control the interface with gestures is like playing patty cake with an octopus, and constantly ends in frustration. What should be the most intuitive way to use the system barely works because despite all the promises, we’re a long way from Minority Report yet.
The same can be said for voice controls. Though they function better than hand waving, they’re probably about 80% accurate on a good day (and assuming you have all the commands memorized). That seems like a high success ratio, but it doesn’t feel that way when a mouse click or button press works 100% of the time. As such, I find myself not using voice controls as a first choice, but only as a last resort when I can’t find whatever it is I’m looking for among the myriad of tiles.
But that’s all Kinect drama, and that’s not what I’m trying to focus on here (thought the peripheral’s failure to operate as expected is substantial problem for the system nonetheless). Rather, it’s the interface itself, and its functionality and accessibility even when it’s being navigated by a controller which should leave nothing to chance.
The central “preview” screen is where many of the problems with the interface design originate. It’s meant to show you a picture of your game as you zoom out and access the dashboard once you start playing. Or you might have a little TV screen there if you’ve hooked up your cable box to the system.
This is all well and good, most of the time. I’ve recently run into an exceptionally annoying problem that if I left my digital copy of Titanfall running for a stretch of time, and tried to come back to it, though I could zoom back in through that mini-window, my controller ceased to work in tandem with the game. I was stuck at whatever menu they put me at, and worst of all, nothing short of a hard reset would allow me to access my game again. That’s either holding down the power button for a lengthy stretch of time, or outright unplugging the system from the wall. I shouldn’t have to reboot my brand new next-generation console like my five year old wireless router to get it to work properly.
But the mini-preview screen fails from a clutter perspective as well. If you access different menus within the interface, settings or friends and so on, then hit the “Xbox Home” button, you find yourself greeted with “Interface-ception.” The little screen now shows a zoomed out version of all the tiles or menus you were just looking at, and that screen is itself surrounded by other tiles. This happens frequently and while it allows easy access the menu you were just browsing, most of the time when I’m hitting “home” I want to quit that menu completely, not stare at a miniature version of it.
The tiles on the home screen behave…strangely. While I haven’t pinned them all to “favorites” yet, I often see tiles repeated. Call of Duty Ghosts often has two tiles side by side for reasons I can’t explain (as seen above in a system that isn’t even mine). I currently have a Titanfall beta tile hanging around that I don’t know how to get rid of, as I keep clicking it by accident instead of going to the full game. The worst use of these tiles is when they show a game that is downloading, patching or installing. Crammed into a 2 by 2 inch square is a little tiny progress bar, but it’s complete unclickable. There’s no way to see details of your active downloads or patches, like say, the speed at which something is downloading. Or if there is, I haven’t discovered how to access that data yet. When patches and games are 20 GB or more, that’s information I’d really like to see.
Further confusion sets in as I hunt for my “settings” menu, often forgetting I have to press the “start” button on my controller while on the homescreen to get to it, and it’s not accessible through any of the tiles in the normal interface. To this day, I’m still relying on Kinect to sign me in by scanning my face, but that only works half the time, and I can’t figure out how to go back to the days of Xbox 360 where my main Gamertag would auto-sign in whenever I started up the console, whether I was sitting in front of it or not.
All of these things may seem like nitpicks, but when put all together, they create for a very unpleasant user experience. I thought it was just the fault of Windows 8 and Microsoft’s new obsession with tiles, but now that I’ve experienced the PC version of the software, I realize there’s no excuse for how poorly the One’s interface performs. Perhaps there are solutions to some of the problems I’ve mentioned here and people will call me an idiot for not figuring out how to do this or that. But if I can’t find the answers intuitively, the system has failed regardless.
Between these issues, constant glitches like the game freezes I mentioned, and the knowledge that the One just is not quite as powerful as the PS4, it leads me to believe that Sony’s PlayStation is just a technically superior system, exclusive IPs aside. And for $100 less, to boot. It may not be “fair and balanced” for me to say that, but after owning both consoles for months, it’s a declaration I can’t avoid making at this point.
This isn’t to say the Xbox One can’t be improved. Between price cuts, UI overhauls and digging deep into the specs to find more power for games, it will get better over time. For all my complaints about the dashboard, I shouldn’t forget that the Xbox 360 went through many UI changes over the years, and the One will too. But right now, it can’t happen soon enough for me.