When Microsoft launched the Xbox One in late 2013, the message to cord cutters was that they hardly mattered.
We heard all about how the Xbox One was an all-in-one entertainment hub, combining video games, linear TV, and streaming video on a single device. But at the time, Microsoft's definition of television didn't include broadcast channels from an over-the-air antenna. If you didn't have a traditional pay-TV service, tough luck.
What a difference 18 months makes. Last week, Microsoft released a $60 TV tuner for the Xbox One, letting users hook up an antenna for watching free, over-the-air channels such as ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox through the console. Antenna users get the same channel guide and time-shifting capabilities that cable-TV users do, along with one unique benefit: With Microsoft's SmartGlass app, the Xbox One can stream live broadcast TV to iOS, Android, and Windows devices over Wi-Fi.
I've been using one of these tuners, on loan from Microsoft, for about a month. It mostly works as expected, aside from a few minor nitpicks. If only it supported DVR (and perhaps had extra channel tuner), it could actually become the all-in-one entertainment box that Microsoft has been promising for so long.
The hardware itself is not fancy. Microsoft has basically slapped its name on an existing WinTV-HVR-955Q tuner from Hauppauge, put it in a green box, and chopped $20 off the sticker price. In fact, if you have the existing tuner, it should work just fine with the Xbox One.
The tuner plugs into any of the Xbox One's USB ports, though it's a bit too fat to do so directly. Fortunately, the package includes a USB extension cable, which lets the tuner hang freely behind the console. (The lack of a slicker design is nitpick number one.)
Keep in mind that you can't watch broadcast channels with the tuner alone. You'll also need an antenna, which screws into coaxial input on the back of the tuner. How much you ought to spend on the antenna depends largely on your proximity to local broadcast towers, but Microsoft is bundling the tuner and a Mohu Leaf 50 — one of the better antennas you can get — for $100. Instead of the rabbit ears you might remember from childhood, the Leaf is a flat, floppy slab that you can hang in a window or paint to match your walls.
The hardware options don't end there. If you have a Kinect sensor ($150 more than the console alone), you can change channels with voice commands. It feels like the future, but is not really necessary. You can also pick up an Xbox Media Remote for $25, and while this lets you control TV volume without a separate remote, the lack of a number pad and a previous-channel button make it less useful than it ought to be. A set of cheap IR emitter cables will let you control the TV's volume and power with the Xbox controller, and is worth considering.
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