Microsoft Xbox One: Five important things we still don't know

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For all the things we do know about Microsoft’s Xbox One, there’s a lot of things we still don’t. For instance, how much will the console cost and when it will be released?

Microsoft did have a lot to say in the Xbox One’s introduction on Tuesday. We know the new Xbox console comes bundled with an updated Kinect motion sensor. We know that its guts include an eight-core processor, 8GB RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. We even know what the box will look like, which is a step up from Sony’s PlayStation 4 reveal in February.

But Microsoft left a lot of unanswered questions about the Xbox One and, in some cases, way more confusion than there needs to be. For instance, how will the used games market work? How critical is it to keep the Xbox One connected to the Internet? And where do Xbox Live subscriptions fit in?

Questions, questions, and more questions. Let’s examine.

Pricing and availability

Microsoft had nothing to say about pricing or availability on Tuesday, which is typical of Microsoft’s initial major product reveals. All we know is that the console will come out some time this year. Both the original Xbox and the Xbox 360 were released in November, so the penultimate month of the year is a good bet. Regardless, Microsoft will want the Xbox One on store shelves in time for the holiday shopping season.

As far as pricing goes, the big outstanding question is whether Microsoft is planning a subsidy program as it has done with the Xbox 360.

In late 2012, Microsoft started offering the 4GB Xbox 360 for $99 if you signed up for a two-year subscription to Xbox Live Gold. If you want a large number of people to integrate your console with their living rooms then a subsidy program makes sense.

Based on the latest rumors, however, a subsidized console may not happen.

For example, Microsoft watcher Paul Thurrott said on Monday via Twitter that the company has scrapped plans for a subsidized Xbox model. If Thurrott, who has numerous contacts at Microsoft, is right, then that leaves a full upfront price for the console. Most critics are currently betting on a price tag in the neighborhood of $500.

Trade-ins and borrowed games

Games on the new Xbox One will work similar to PC games and apps. Let’s say you want to play EA’s Battlefield 4. You insert the game in the machine, install it, and then you never need to use the Battlefield 4 disc again on that machine. The problem is that disc is now tied to your Xbox Live profile, which calls into question whether you will be able to resell used games for the Xbox One.

Microsoft will still allow you to take a disc to a friend’s house, install the game on that Xbox One’s hard drive and play it there, according to a blog post by Xbox Live’s Major Nelson.

To play it for free, however, you will need to be signed in to your Xbox profile on your friend’s machine. Once you sign out and go home, if your friend wants to continue playing Battlefield 4 (which is now installed on their machine), they will have to pay up.

The result is the era of borrowed (not to mention rented) games appears to be over, unless you are willing to hand over your Microsoft account credentials to your friends. And that’s an extremely bad idea, to say the least.

As for reselling used games, it’s not clear what’s going on.

The Major Nelson post says Microsoft “designed Xbox One to enable ourcustomers to trade in and resell games at retail,” but declined to go into details. Microsoft corporate vice president Phil Harrison reiterated that view to Eurogamer. “We will have a system where you can take that digital content and trade a previously played game at a retail store,” Harrison said. “We’re not announcing the details of that today.” A Wired report also says Microsoft has a plan for how to handle used games, and that more details would be coming soon.

If I had to guess, I see this playing out in two ways.

Perhaps Microsoft will have a system to “reset” a gaming disc by thoroughly scrubbing your Xbox One hard drive of a game install. This would be similar to restoring a smartphone to factory condition, thereby allowing you to resell it.

However, this method would require some way for used game retailers like Gamestop and GameFly to confirm that a disc was ready for resale. This theoretical system would also encourage a whole lot of Xbox hacking to try and save the game while at the same time reselling it.

Another method would be the oft-cited scenario where you buy a disc, throw it in your Xbox One, and then have to pay another fee to the game maker to activate it.

How often do you have to be online?

As expected, the Xbox One will require a persistent connection to the Internet, but just how persistent is unclear. Microsoft says that while the Xbox One does require a connection to the Internet, it does not have to be connected at all times. That’s good news for those times when your broadband connection goes out, and you’d still like to play a game or watch a movie on Blu-ray.

But how often does the Xbox One need to be connected? Once a day, a week, a month?

Microsoft’s Harrison told Kotaku the Xbox One would have to phone home once every 24 hours, but a later Polygon report said Microsoft declined to confirm how often the console needed to go online.

But even if the Xbox One doesn’t always require a connection to play, software makers might.

With Xbox One, game designers can rely on Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, to do some of the heavy processing. That takes some of the computing pressure off of your console and, Microsoft says, allows for “new gameplay, persistent worlds, and deeper experiences.” That also means you could end up with two kinds of gaming experiences on the new Xbox: one that requires an Internet connection to do anything and one that requires an Internet connection to do most things.

Accessing non-gaming features

With the current Xbox 360, Microsoft requires you to have an Xbox Live Gold subscription to access streaming media apps such as HBO Go and Netflix. But entertainment services were an afterthought to the original design of the Xbox 360 and only appeared years after the console was first released.

Xbox 360

The Xbox One is the culmination of Microsoft’s attempts to conquer the living room with the Xbox 360. Instead of a gaming machine that happens to offer other entertainment services, the Xbox One is a full-service entertainment box that also plays games.

So will the Xbox One require an Xbox Live subscription to access online entertainment services and apps, the way that an Xbox 360 does? If Microsoft is hoping to attract more people to the Xbox One than just gamers, it will need to make the new console as enticing as possible. An annoying yearly subscription to access apps you can use for free on a Roku or Apple TV just won’t cut it.

About that cable overlay…

Who will be able to use the Xbox One’s new pass-through feature where your cable box connects directly to your Xbox One?

What’s supposed to happen is that the Xbox takes the signal from your cable box and slaps its own interface on top for the channel guide and other features. But for that to work, Microsoft has to work closely with the cable providers to ensure a seamless experience. So which cable providers will Xbox One support when it rolls out the door? Microsoft isn’t saying yet.

“Our goal is to enable live TV through Xbox One in every waythat it is delivered throughout the world,” Microsoft says on its Xbox One Q&A site. “The delivery of TV is complex and we are working through the many technologies and policies around the world to make live TV available where Xbox One is available.”

These are the big questions that need answering. We should learn more about the Xbox One in a few weeks during Microsoft’s presentation at E3.

If you’re looking for more clues about the Xbox One before then, you can check out a live online chat Wednesday with Xbox’s Major Nelson starting at 4 p.m. EDT.

This story, "Microsoft Xbox One: Five important things we still don't know" was originally published by TechHive.

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