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Techknowledgy: For a Peek at the Future of Smart TV, Look to Xbox

Microsoft lines up new content partnerships, upgrades Kinect and Bing to get a head start on the rumored Apple TV.

It used to be when people asked my advice on whether to buy a Microsoft Xbox 360 or a Sony PlayStation 3 for their child, I would lay out the advantages and disadvantages of each and let them decide. The two media entertainment consoles were somewhat evenly matched, but now I give the edge to the Xbox.

Notice I describe the two devices as “media entertainment consoles.” The era when these units were “video gaming consoles” is long past. In many living rooms these devices are, or at least could be, the path to the Internet for the family television set.

(Not included here is Nintendo's Wii, which although a popular gaming console, is not a serious competitor to the other two either graphically or in its Internet service.)

You would think Sony would have the advantage in content with its vast media empire. But Microsoft has not been at rest here, and with many recent partnerships it has more to offer on its Xbox Live network than Sony's PlayStation Network.

The additions and changes by Microsoft, announced earlier this month, point to truly “smart” TVs of the future; in fact, the Redmond, WA-based technology giant may have beaten Apple to the punch with its rumored smart TV plans. There are more than 35 million subscribers to the $60 yearly Xbox Live service. That makes the Xbox one of the most common Internet-connected TV devices.

It's true that the PlayStation 3 has a Blu-ray player that sets it apart from the Xbox. But while Blu-ray is a nice feature, the era of watching video on a disc is disappearing as quickly as your neighborhood Blockbuster Video store.

The most important feature now is the network port in the back of these consoles, and what their online services have to offer. In this respect, one important consideration of buying one for your child is what type of console his or her friends use, as the online services are not compatible. So if your child's friends have PlayStations, only another PlayStation user can access the PlayStation Network for multiplayer gaming, for instance.

In regard to features and the interface found on the online services, Microsoft is playing all the angles, and having the right angles is important. While both services offer Netflix, Hulu Plus and CinemaNow for video and TV, as well as streaming music services, Microsoft has added much more, including full-screen YouTube video (especially important to tweens and teenagers).

The partnerships include ESPN for live streaming events, EPIX movies, Bravo, HBO Go, Crackle, SyFy, Manga, UFC, Vevo, Xfinity, MSN with MSNBC, NBC's Today Show, and Verizon's FIOS TV.

It's that last association that's somewhat intriguing, as it means subscribers to Verizon's TV service can watch at least some of the channels without the usual set-top box. Some observers believe Microsoft is positioning the Xbox as a future substitute for the cable set-top box, which would be just fine with a lot of cable providers, who view the devices as a capital- and labor-intensive nuisance.

Adding to the appeal are upgrades both to Xbox's Kinect interface and Microsoft's integrated Bing search engine, which make it possible to use them as a sophisticated remote control. About 10 million of the 55 million Xbox owners have purchased the optional Kinect peripheral, which uses a camera and microphone to sense a user's motions and respond to voice commands.

Using Kinect, a user can say “Bing Anne Hathaway,” for instance, and up would pop a search listing of all the movies and television shows that are available featuring her. Call out one of the movies by name, and if you subscribe to one of the services that has it, it will begin playing.

Kinect can also be used to scroll through channel listings, using different hand motions to navigate.

Anyone familiar with speculation about a coming Internet-connected Apple TV will remember that Apple's personal voice assistant, Siri, figures prominently in the rumors. It appears Microsoft is well on its way to the same concept, and with the growing number of content partnerships and sophisticated multiplayer gaming, Apple will have some catching up to do.

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