Microsoft's user experience in 2016: Xbox One to Surface Studio

, 2,384 words

Microsoft's new Surface Studio looks every bit as exciting as the new MacBook Pros appear underwhelming. The Surface Studio looks impressive, and it suggests Microsoft has come a long way. Beautiful adverts and big screens aside, perhaps commentators forget how painful the Microsoft experience can still be in 2016. The detail of integration between software and hardware is easily overlooked. I bought Microsoft's latest Xbox iteration to remind myself. How smooth was it in the last flagship gaming device, a category that seems somewhat simpler?

I have a handful of fourth generation Apple TVs in the flat. I love them; they just work. They're much maligned, though, so I was curious to see how Microsoft's equivalent added up. I bought an Xbox One, and here's what I found.

First, though, we need to backtrack. Buying an Xbox is hard. Really hard. If you look on Amazon, there are 13 different models on the first page of search results. Do you want the Xbox One? The S? The Elite? The 500Gb, the 1Tb? Which colour, controller, games? Which deal is the best? I took a few days to read around, on and off, on the best bundle, and ended up buying with the sinking feeling I'd bought the wrong one. It was so hard to tell.

If you want to know what the price of an Xbox One is, it's simple. It's £219.00. Or £248.95. Or £252.99. Or £245.99. Or £224.00. Or £279.99. Or £283.99. Or £430.36. But that's only for the editions shown on the first page of Amazon. There's more! The prices don't differ because the vendors differ, they differ because the product options do.

Buying an Apple TV is much simpler: a single page with a choice of two sizes, and a link to a guide to help you choose. Even on Amazon it's easy.

In the end I bought a simple 500Gb model with no games, but when it arrived it had three big game pictures on the side. I thought I was in luck: I didn't fall for the paying extra for getting games included when it comes with some anyway. Once I'd got it up and running, though, there were no free games. I've no idea why the box has the pictures on the side. Confusing and underwhelming as that is, it's a good preparation for the rest of the Xbox experience.

Once unboxed, I was struck by how large and heavy the device was. It's huge. And it has a massive external power brick which on its own is bigger than the Apple TV itself. What sort of devices have external power bricks these days? Laptops aside, I don't own a single device which has a power brick.

On turning it on, the Xbox insisted on a 1,600Mb software update which took 20 minutes; it was necessary in order to continue. At this point one couldn't help but think that the Xbox was basically a Windows 10 box, with all the same issues.

With the update and a reboot completed, various steps are needed. Logging into one's Microsoft account is reasonable enough, and an on-screen keyboard pops up. But it's terrible. It's like an keyboard from an early model smart TV. I can't hold on characters to get capital letters, and the buttons for toggling keyboard states which are supposed to represent controller buttons don't make sense. Even though there is an Xbox app on my mobile phone, and an Xbox app on a Windows machine I have, I can't do keyboard entry with either of those devices in the way that I can with an Apple TV.

It turns out that none of the buttons on the controller are whichever button is the right one to toggle caps.

With the password entered, a video plays for a few minutes, introducing the Xbox One. No questions are answered, and then you're in, left on a menu screen. No games. Where's the list? I don't know. On the left hand side of the screen, an indicator teases me that the device has 357GB space free, factory fresh. On the 500GB model. Why? Was there a problem? There are no clues.

The most striking thing about the Xbox's menu is that it is covered in adverts. Nags for Xbox Gold and EA Access everywhere. Connect with Facebook? I have no idea what is going on, and the visual style reminds me of HotBot, circa 1996. Busy green madness.

A prompt to use Cortana, the Xbox's equivalent of Siri appears, but it informs me it won't work without a separate microphone or Kinect module. OK. All of the main menus are slow. Jolty. If I scroll across the top panes it jars. The sound stutters. Every time I click a link in the store the next page is black until it loads, which takes a second or two. I wonder whether buying the Elite model of the Xbox would have avoided this.

Having realised no games -- not even a demo -- ship with the Xbox, I need to get a game on it to try it out. When I use Bootcamp to run Windows 10 on my Mac, I see that it has an Xbox Live app, and they give me a copy of Minecraft. When I load Minecraft on the PC, it makes me sign into Xbox to play it. But I can’t play Minecraft on the Xbox, I need to buy it again. Why? I search but am not able to find an answer.

I'm tempted by the idea of some local-multiplayer gaming, as I've heard the Xbox is great for that. I have some lovely SteelSeries Nimbus controllers which appear to be functionally identical to the Xbox's controller. But after some fooling around with bluetooth pairing, I discover I can only use an Xbox controller. In keeping with every other part of the Xbox experience, I cannot figure out why this is. I'd much rather use my own controllers, not least because they're rechargeable, where for some reason the controller that comes with the Xbox is bundled with some non-rechargeable batteries. With all of Apple's peripherals having been natively rechargeable for a few years now it doesn't seem like a lot to expect. If having a rechargeable controller bundled with the Xbox isn't an option, at least they could bundle a wired controller, so there's no need to burn through batteries or get a separate recharger. But no.

I look at the game store, it is confusing. Battlefield 1 appears to cost £100. Then I realise that it is the Ultimate Edition. I can buy Battlefield 1 Ultimate, Battlefield 1 Deluxe, Battlefield 1. Which do I want? I do not know. The main menu of the Xbox has a top-level heading titled Battlefield 1. Is this because I looked at the game, or is it an advert?

So I buy a game. At 30Mb/s, it takes over an hour to install. It’s 20GB, which seems to be twice what an equivalent game might be on Steam. The graphics are amazing, and the haptic feedback is interesting, but I can't help feeling it's a lot weaker than it is on my phone. The game store clearly says “no refunds” on every title, but that isn't legal here in the EU. Even Apple got dragged into offering refunds back in 2014.

After browsing around the store more, I realise there's a subscription mechanism with EA, called EA Access. If you pay each month for this, you get some games. I was a mug to have bought a game straight off, as if I'd subscribed first, it would have been cheaper or free.

So I subscribe to EA Access, and it offers me a Need for Speed game and Battlefield 4. I click to install both, before seeing there's a separate title named Battlefield 4 Premium. I tell it to install that, too, but now both editions of Battlefield are queued. I figure out how to cancel the first Battlefield install, but I can’t figure out how to get the Premium edition to skip the queue, and have to wait 3 hours for Need for Speed to install. It’s terrible and gummy. I have to wrestle with a terrible forced sign-in to EA Network before I can play the game, typing and re-typing passwords. It is truly awful.

Whilst I'm waiting for the install, I decide to test the Xbox's DVD playback capabilities. I put in a DVD, and up pops the Store to install an app called Blu-Ray player. I need to install it. That's silly, but OK. I hit install, but the player won’t install (29MB) until Titanfall (19GB) and Battlefield 4 (38GB) finish installing. I tell the Blu-Ray app install now, and it says 0 of 38KB. Then the size updates. 400KB of 1MB. 1.2MB of 3MB. So there is no reliable progress indicator for installing Microsoft apps. When it's done, it's done.

The Xbox won't play the DVD. It's of the wrong region. It tells me this with a black error message on the screen, and a scary error code similar to 0x87de2712. Quite why Microsoft need to give me an error code, I don't know. Later, I note with amusement that the second stage for debugging disc playback on the Xbox One's support site is "try playing the disc on another Xbox One console". How many Xbox One consoles do they expect you to have?

I try to eject the DVD but I can't. The Xbox light on the box flashes when I press what must be the eject button to the left of the drive, but nothing happens. I Google around, and to my surprise I realise that -- yes -- this is a thing. There are wide-spread problems ejecting discs from the Xbox One, and there's a special workaround where you have to turn the player off, and... well, you get the picture. The machine arrived with a sticker on the front: "do not move console without first removing any disc inside". The problem goes deep, yet my Blu-Ray player is a slot-loader and it has never had this problem.

Whilst I mess around with this, Battlefield 4 Premium installs. It turns out it is only 8Mb. When I run it I get a grey screen with a big grey X in a box. Why? The A and B buttons on the controller do nothing, I can only get out by pressing the white lit X button but not the blue X button. Why are there two X buttons? There's a blue X button on the right of the controller, and a white X button in the middle of the controller. Which one of these is the X button and how did this get past testing?

I realise that the middle button is the Xbox One's logo. The Xbox's logo is not a box but a sphere: the incongruity of that fits with the rest of my experience with the device.

So I install the non-premium Battlefield 4 instead. That seems to install. When I run it I just get a blurry picture on the screen, with no status. I figure it must be a loading screen. After a minute an advert appears for Xbox Live subscription. I cancel. The game’s menu loads, but before I can play it tells me I can only play multiplayer with an Xbox Live Gold subscription. Why isn’t this clear from the offset?

I look into getting an Xbox Live Gold subscription, and I realise I've been tricked again. If I had got that in the first place, I wouldn't have needed to buy a game straight off, or to have got an EA Access subscription, as Xbox Live Gold also comes with free games.

I buy the subscription and get into Battlefield 4. Starting up multiplayer, I'm put in a matchmaking lobby, but the first two quick-join attempts time out after a minute. Only on my third attempt am I able to join a game. This is like PC internet gaming back in the mid-2000s before Steam was so popular.

Having been serially frustrated by most aspects of the Xbox One, I decided to check out the other apps. I install the YouTube and Netflix apps, but give up when I realise that I should log into them, but that there is no way other than using the painful character-by-character picker. I give up: with complex passwords and 2FA enabled, logging into YouTube is a battle I can't stomach.

I realise what I have bought. The Xbox One is a Windows machine with a primitive, ad-laden interface over the top of it. A controller that hasn’t been thought through, and a really ugly big screen mode. Microsoft had a vision to create similarities between the Windows and console interfaces, but it doesn't gel. My Windows 10 machine forces me to use an Xbox app to play games, and my Xbox refers to Windows 10, yet my Windows games must be bought again for my Xbox, and my Xbox games must be bought again for my Windows computer. I do not understand any of this. It gets hot. It’s noisy, it has a fan in it. It has a big lumpy brick of a PSU. It eats DVDs, and it's way slower than my computer.

At the start of my career Microsoft were a force to be reckoned with. I recall how incredible Windows NT 4 was when it came out, and how much I loved it. Perhaps Steve Ballmer was right: getting into hardware a lot earlier would have got Microsoft past these stumbling blocks sooner. The Studio has potential, but despite the strides taken to recover from Windows 8 there's reason to think it won't deliver coherently. Not yet, anyway.

In the meantime, I suspect the new MacBook Pro might actually be pretty good.