Katherine Boehret

Xbox Grows, With Users, Beyond Videogames

With Internet-connected TVs, add-on boxes like Apple TV or Roku, and iPads resting on coffee tables, tech companies are trying harder than ever to capture space in your living room. Microsoft wants to take advantage of something that’s already in a lot of homes: Xbox.

Microsoft claims its Xbox Live users spend more time consuming media—videos and music—than playing games. Over the past five months, the company has brought more than 20 new apps or improved versions of apps to Xbox specifically to entertain nongamers. So if you are a person who put up with looking at someone else’s Xbox console stored under the TV for years, you’re finally getting something out of the deal.

The apps, available from the Xbox Apps Marketplace, provide easier ways to watch movies or video, play music or get updates on favorite sports. Icons are large and easy to see from a couch. I quickly navigated to my recently opened apps from the Xbox home screen.

I’ve been testing the Xbox 360 with a focus on nongaming apps, and it’s clear that Microsoft is serious about them. All apps are free to download onto Xbox, though some, like Netflix and MLB.TV, require paid memberships and others, like HBO Go, require an existing cable account with a specific channel or service. Most apps require an Xbox Live Gold account to use, and this costs about $60 a year for one person or $100 a year for a Gold Family Pack that four family members can share.

A frustrating aspect of using these Xbox apps was that I needed to download updates for them almost immediately after I initially downloaded the app. This happened on several occasions with all kinds of apps. And the Xbox console is a bulky, expensive box compared with palm-size competitors like the $50 Roku and $99 Apple TV, which offer some of the same entertainment apps and don’t require annual fees like Xbox Live Gold.

The Xbox apps I tested work with an included wireless controller or with a Kinect sensor, which responds to gestures and voice commands. A smaller $20 Media Remote also does the job and is sold separately. If you don’t already own an Xbox 360, the 4-gigabyte console will cost you $200; it holds 20 to 25 apps, depending on size—which should offer enough storage for nongamers. For another $100 you can buy the $300, 4-gigabyte Xbox 360 with a Kinect sensor, or for $400, the 250-gigabyte Xbox 360 with Kinect.

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Apps for the Xbox bring more types of video entertainment to the TV.

The ESPN app, one of my favorites, let me scroll through several video clips using a Mini Guide, which appeared at the bottom of the TV screen with thumbnail images and descriptions when I touched a button on the Xbox controller. I could watch one highlight clip on the screen, or use a split screen to watch video while scrolling sports stats.

A double tap on the Xbox controller’s Y button showed a full-screen grid of highlight clips and displayed a category called My Sports. Here, I selected tennis, and My Sports quickly filled with thumbnails representing future tennis events I could set reminders to watch, as well as highlight clips and entire matches that had already taken place. On April 9, I used the ESPN app to watch the final match of a tennis tournament called the Family Circle Cup, even though the match aired April 8.

I tested the MLB.TV app by logging into an existing MLB.TV Premium account, which costs $125 a year. I quickly skimmed through baseball team statistics and watched the live season opener between the Phillies and Marlins. Each time the game went to a commercial, a message appeared on the screen saying “Commercial break in progress.” The MLB.TV app let me choose favorite teams for quick access to stats and news about those teams.

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Some, like the MLB.TV app, pictured, require a paid account.

With the HBO Go app, I watched movies and HBO shows from my Xbox. When I navigated away from the app and opened it again, the show started from where I left off. When I found a show or movie I wanted to watch at another time, I added it to my Watchlist, which is accessed via a tile on the HBO Go home screen along with Last Played, which reminded me of the last episode I’d watched in a series.

Some shows available on a computer aren’t available within Xbox apps. When I searched Hulu Plus for NBC’s “Today” show to see a specific episode, an on-screen notification said, “Sorry, we don’t have the rights to stream this show to your device. It is available at Hulu.com on your computer Web browser.” I later found the clip in the “Today” app made especially for Xbox.

Likewise, several apps—including HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu Plus and Cinema Now—required me to authenticate the Xbox for use by logging into my Xbox account and then entering a code into my computer’s Web browser. This process is usually done just once per app, but stepping back to the PC was annoying.

I fooled around with DailyMotion and TMZ video apps. I watched “Ghostbusters” on Netflix and “Saturday Night Live” clips on Hulu Plus; both services charge $8 a month. Two music apps that work on Xbox 360 are iHeartRadio and Last.fm. Neither charges a subscription fee.

The Xbox continues to grow up and appeal to more people. A smaller, more stylish console would make the device even more welcome in the living room.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com


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