Friday 30 September 2016

Xbox One remade: Microsoft gives console a makeover on the inside

New Xbox One Experience looks pretty but backwards compatibility is the real killer app

Published 11/11/2015 | 21:39

SOFTWARE is the magic ingredient that brings hardware alive. A computer or console just sits there, a useless pile of chips and wires, unless infused with life by lines of code.

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Even better, software can be updated and improved, transforming the host device beyond recognition. Turn on your Xbox One tomorrow and you won’t recognise the screen that greets you after its software automatically updates.

With little fanfare, Microsoft is rolling out the grandly titled New Xbox One Experience (NXOE) worldwide, a free but obligatory redesign of the console’s dashboard that radically alters the interface present since its birth in 2013.

Under the hood, Xbox One has changed dramatically too, closely aligning the code with Windows 10, theoretically making it more responsive and capable of supporting new app-style features in the future.

The New Xbox One Experience
The New Xbox One Experience

“The New Xbox One Experience integrates the power of Windows 10, elevating your gaming experience and enabling you to get to many popular gaming features up to 50pc faster,” says Mike Ybarra, who leads the Microsoft team rebuilding the software. “The completely reimagined interface is inspired by our fans and represents the craft of hundreds of Team Xbox members.”

But whatever your feelings about the refreshed menu system, one new ability makes NXOE an instant win: backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 games. Not all of them, mind, but more than 100 including some of the most popular titles to grace Microsoft’s previous console.

Based on a couple of months’ trialling the NXOE in beta mode, it’s safe to say this technological marvel ranks up there with the discovery of penicillin. Um, maybe not, but Microsoft has pulled off seamless emulation of 10-year-old technology, unlocking dozens of my treasured old games from their dusty resting place in the attic.

Unlike Sony – which is going down a cloud-based (and costly) route to achieve backward compatibility – Microsoft requires no subscription or constant internet connection.

Slot a compatible 360 disc into your Xbox One, wait for it to download to your hard drive and away you go, the game unaware it’s running on new hardware and yet capable of being recorded and broadcast. Compatible digitally owned titles appear automatically in your library, ready for download.

If you had used Microsoft’s cloud-save service on 360, you can even take up where you last left off on your old console. It’s still possible to copy your old local saves to the cloud even now, if you have an original 360 to hand.

It all runs flawlessly, with no visual glitches or performance issues – well, none that weren’t present in the originals anyway.

How cool is it to step back into worlds such as Fallout 3, Just Cause 2 and Assassin’s Creed 2 after years away? Better still, Microsoft promises many in the months to come – including all the Bioshocks, the original Black Ops and Burnout Paradise.

If Microsoft had done nothing than add backwards compatibility, it could have sat back, satisfied with a good year’s work.

But in the quest to streamline the dashboard, the horizontal flow of the sections – games, apps, video, store – has been extended to include vertical scrolling of useful content, such as recent games.

To my mind, it’s not necessarily any better but at least it makes the dashboard a tad more sprightly, removing some of the pregnant pauses familiar to long-time Xbox One owners.

NOXE does add at least one useful shortcut, putting friends lists, messages and parties with a double-tap of the guide button.

Owners of Windows 10 machines can also stream gameplay to their screens, enabling you play Xbox in a different room from the console, controlled by the XOne gamepad. It’s a solid feature, though entirely dependent on the efficiency of your home network. Playing over wifi is prone to slowdowns and streaming artifacts.

Microsoft isn’t done extending the functionality of Xbox One, promising to add Siri-like voice assistant Cortana sometime next year.

But veterans of the last generation will remember how regular updates eventually brought the 360 to its knees, reducing the dashboard to a slideshow. Let’s hope XOne doesn’t suffer the same in updates to come.

 

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