The Xbox One is a PC in console’s clothing. Here’s why it matters

Is the Xbox One pretty much a PC

Microsoft has spoken at length about the many features of its new all-in-one entertainment console. Besides gaming, the system will also support control of cable television, streaming apps, and can hook up with a home network to read media files. The Xbox One will also include an upgraded version of Kinect that improves hands-free control and (mostly) removes the need for multiple remotes.

All of this is important, even revolutionary, but there’s more going on under the hood. A closer look reveals that even the label “all-in-one entertainment” doesn’t cover the broad potential the Xbox One presents. This is not a console as we’ve previously known it; instead, it’s a PC in console clothes. 

The heart of a PC

Underneath the Xbox One’s exterior is a range of components derived from a standard PC architecture. As described in our deep-dive of the console, the One includes eight x86 cores tied together with DDR3 RAM and paired with an integrated Radeon-class GPU. The system also includes USB ports, an optical drive, and all the other extras you’d normally expect to receive from a mid-range desktop computer.

Xbox One ComponentsThat’s not to say the One is exactly the same as a PC, as a few notable differences have been confirmed. Most important is the super-fast 32MB ESRAM chip designed to offset the limited bandwidth of DDR3, and custom silicon designed to ship information around the system and help the console’s many functions communicate. 

Even so, the One is very similar to a PC, and it’s deviations are minor speed-bumps compared to the hurdle of porting current-gen console software to an x86 computer. Developers will now be tweaking code designed for x86 rather than porting code from one instruction set architecture (PowerPC, the basis for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) to another.

The mind of a PC

Sony’s PlayStation 4 has an architecture that’s even more closely related to a desktop PC because it uses far less custom silicon to enable system functions. Yet, in spite of this, the PS4 will never have the capabilities of a PC. Why? Because it doesn’t ship with Windows, and, in the eyes of many consumers, that’s the computer operating system.

You only need a sliver of imagination to envision users replacing many traditional PC roles with the combination of a console and tablet.

However, the Xbox One does ship with Windows. While it’s doesn’t run Windows 8 exactly, it does use the same kernel and the same interface design language, which means it can in theory run the same applications without much effort by developers. A preview of this appeared during the 2013 Build conference when Microsoft showed real-time debugging of an Xbox One via Visual Studio on stage.

While the hints dropped at Build were small, the consequences could be huge. Could an app for the new console guide you through how to make a stew, geo-locate your friends, or remind you to go buy some milk? Does this potentially serve as an avenue for indie developers to self-publish their titles? And will developers be able to monetize as they do elsewhere, effectively creating an app store for your television? Porting Windows apps into the One’s environment would help developers make money and let consumers use the One for more than just entertainment.

Why PC compatibility matters

The battle for dominance among next-gen consoles hasn’t even begun, but with the Wii U still struggling, only Sony offers serious competition. There are certainly enough gamers in the world to sustain two consoles, so the One looks set to sell well even if it occasionally bursts into a ball of confetti.

Xbox One Living Room In other words, Microsoft is poised to send millions of PCs directly to consumers. They run x86 hardware, they run a Windows kernel, and it’s all but confirmed that they’ll be able to run Windows 8 apps (with a few tweaks, most likely). In addition to this, they’ll have access to all the media features that PCs are known for, plus they can be used to watch cable TV – something computers never made easy.

The One could be an extension of Windows into a new territory (the living room) that’s traditionally been unfriendly to Microsoft and has weakened the company’s ability to appeal to consumers. Extending the Windows 8 app environment to the living room could help developers sell software and help Microsoft unify the user experience. This could even help push users towards the company’s unpopular smartphones and tablets.

And the potential doesn’t stop there. Smartglass, the Xbox remote control app, could allow the One to operate as if it were a PC with a keyboard and mouse attached. You only need a sliver of imagination to envision users replacing many traditional PC roles with this combination of console and tablet. The two would complement each other perfectly – the console providing the horsepower, the tablet providing a friendly interface and remote control. Users could edit photos and movies, create presentations, or open spreadsheets right in the living room.

Will Microsoft innovate or fight itself?

This is where the story gets tricky, because Microsoft is a large, complicated company. None of the potential functions we’ve outlined are outlandish, and there’s no technical reason why they shouldn’t be possible. But what if the Windows division steps in to cripple the One’s capability, seeing it as a threat to Windows sales? Past in-fighting killed Courier, delayed ClearType, and destroyed early expeditions into eBooks, so such a move would be far from unprecedented. 

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, declared at the beginning of this year that his company’s “core philosophy is to never fear cannibalization. If we don’t do it, someone else will.” Microsoft should listen to its competitor and make sure that divisional jealously doesn’t hamper what might be. The One grants a rare chance to move before other tech giants are ready to respond. But, if this chance is squandered, others (including Apple) could quickly outflank Redmond. Again.  

Computing

Nose cam no more. How Dell avoided a notch and fixed the XPS 13’s biggest flaw

The new Dell XPS 13 moves the webcam from the below the screen to the top, finally vanquishing the one obstacle facing thin, sleek laptop displays. We have the exclusive story on how it was done.
Home Theater

What are HDMI ARC and eARC? Here’s how they can simplify your home theater

HDMI ARC is one of the coolest TV features at your disposal. But if you're like most folks, you have no idea how it works, if you even know what it is at all. Here's our primer on HDMI ARC, as well as the next generation technology, eARC.
Computing

Yes, Android apps can run on your PC, and it's easier than you think

Wish you knew how to run Android apps in Windows? It's easier than you might think and there are a number of different ways to do it. In this guide, we break down the steps so you can follow along with ease.
Deals

Start your fitness journey with the best Fitbit deals available now

If you're ready to kick-start your fitness regimen (or just take your current one to the next level), we've created a quick rundown of the best, most current Fitbit deals to help you decide which one is best for you.
Deals

From Chromebooks to MacBooks, here are the best laptop deals for January 2019

Whether you need a new laptop for school or work or you're just doing some post-holiday shopping, we've got you covered: These are the best laptop deals going right now, from discounted MacBooks to on-the-go gaming PCs.
Computing

Keep your laptop battery in tip-top condition with these handy tips

Learn how to care for your laptop's battery, how it works, and what you can do to make sure yours last for years and retains its charge. Check out our handy guide for valuable tips, no matter what type of laptop you have.
Product Review

LG Gram 14 proves 2-in-1 laptops don’t need to sacrifice battery for light weight

The LG Gram 14 2-in-1 aims to be very light for a laptop that converts to a tablet. And it is. But it doesn’t skimp on the battery, and so it lasts a very long time on a charge.
Computing

Protect your expensive new laptop with the best Macbook cases

If you recently picked up a new MacBook, you’ll want something to protect its gorgeous exterior. Here, we've gathered the best MacBook cases and covers, whether you're looking for style or protection.
Computing

Watch out for these top-10 mistakes people make when buying a laptop

Buying a new laptop is exciting, but you need to watch your footing. There are a number of pitfalls you need to avoid and we're here to help. Check out these top-10 laptop buying mistakes and how to avoid them.
Computing

Don't spend a fortune on a PC. These are the best laptops under $300

Buying a laptop needn't mean spending a fortune. If you're just looking to browse the internet, answer emails, and watch Netflix, you can pick up a great laptop at a great price. These are the best laptops under $300.
Computing

Dell XPS 13 vs. Asus Zenbook 13: In battle of champions, who will be the victor?

The ZenBook 13 UX333 continues Asus's tradition of offering great budget-oriented 13-inch laptop offerings. Does this affordable machine offer enough value to compete with the excellent Dell XPS 13?
Gaming

Take a trip to a new virtual world with one of these awesome HTC Vive games

So you’re considering an HTC Vive, but don't know which games to get? Our list of 25 of the best HTC Vive games will help you out, whether you're into rhythm-based gaming, interstellar dogfights, or something else entirely.
Computing

The Asus ZenBook 13 offers more value and performance than Apple's MacBook Air

The Asus ZenBook 13 UX333 is the latest in that company's excellent "budget" laptop line, and it looks and feels better than ever. How does it compare to Apple's latest MacBook Air?
Computing

AMD Radeon VII will support DLSS-like upscaling developed by Microsoft

AMD's Radeon VII has shown promise with early tests of an open DLSS-like technology developed by Microsoft called DirectML. It would provide similar upscale features, but none of the locks on hardware choice.