Xbox One: Will non-Kinect users miss out?

Yesterday, Microsoft announced a new retail version of Xbox One, without the Kinect included. This gives it price parity with PlayStation 4 at $399, but undermines some of Microsoft's messaging about the device as a core component of its new console. The new company line again raises a question that's been looming since Microsoft announced that you could simply disconnect the camera: just what are non-users missing out on?

The answer, in my experience, is not much--with a few notable caveats.

The new Kinect is a marked improvement over the old one, and it certainly offers the gee-whiz appeal for gadget-lovers, but it has become a non-entity for day-to-day use. Turning it on with the sound of my voice is a nice feature to show off to friends, but it's no more convenient than simply pressing a button on the controller--especially considering that to play any but a handful of Kinect games, I need to be holding the controller anyway. Snapping between apps with my voice is a similarly nifty showpiece, but it quickly fell out of any real-world use.

The automatic sign-in, on the other hand, has consistently remained handy since I've had the console. Xbox One's Kinect recognizes faces in a snap and usually without any prompting necessary, so I enjoyed simply walking into my living room and finding myself instantly signed in. However, after disconnecting the camera to test its capabilities, I found that I was already signed in on start-up anyway, as it had apparently been in sleep mode. When I turned it off and on again, I had been signed out and had to sign back in manually. The convenience of handling this without Kinect will depend on the system's (somewhat inconsistent) sleep function.

As the sole user of the system, I haven't had any problems with other people signing in or cross-talk. However, the Kinect occasionally perked up and tried to interpret my commands while I casually talked with friends or family. Overall, it's rare issue, but having a Kinect entirely absent would remove it altogether.

Microsoft has floated the idea that with the Kinect no longer required, more processing power could be given to game functions. If it turns out to be a significant difference, my hope is that Microsoft will patch in some way to completely power down the Kinect instead of just muting it. If not, I could just unplug it when necessary. The performance boost could end up being negligible, but I like having the option of using a Kinect.

The camera recognition does come in handy for one infrequent but time-consuming task: redeeming codes. The Xbox 360 system of inputting codes always felt more onerous to me than the PlayStation 3 keypad, but XBO outdid them both. A game or Gold card bought at retail includes a QR code, which really does work just as fast as Microsoft boasted. This isn't something I've had to deal with often, but when I have, I've been thankful.

The lack of voice recognition also creates an issue for the so-called game DVR. A great shot in Titanfall or an epic finish in Forza 5 aren't the kinds of things you can predict, so the "record that" command lets you capture a moment immediately after it happens. As far I know, the system doesn't currently support a method to do this without the Kinect attached. It's the sort of thing that probably can (and should) be patched to allow for a controller-based method, but for the time being it's just better with Kinect.

In fact, that's been my experience on the whole with the device. It tends to make a slight improvement to everything it touches, but I put heavy emphasis on the word "slight." Nothing about it feels absolutely vital, and so going without didn't feel like too much of a burden for me. I missed a few minor conveniences, but most of those could be mitigated by firmware updates. The experience of using Xbox One without Kinect is sub-optimal, but only just.