If you read the fine print on the Xbox One, nearly everything cool requires a $60 per year Xbox Live Gold subscription.
The futuristic Xbox One lets you change channels with your voice, log into your account with nothing more than your face, and instantly flip between gaming and live TV, but Microsoft's wunderbox can't stream Netflix without a $60 per year Xbox Live Gold subscription.
It's a surprising restriction when nearly every other device, from the $35 Chromecast to the $400 PlayStation 4 to a $2,000 TV, doesn't charge for access to Netflix's streaming service -- a service that already carries its own $8 monthly fee.
Netflix is the most bewildering service to live behind the Live Gold paywall, but it's far from the only one. Nearly all of the marquee Xbox One features require Microsoft's subscription fee, including OneGuide, Game DVR, Internet Explorer, online multiplayer gaming, virtually all of the streaming media services, and Skype. At least the neat multitasking "Snap" functionality isn't limited to Live Gold, but there's not much point in multitasking if most of the features aren't available to you.
The fact that the Xbox One is little more than a single-player gaming machine without a Live Gold subscription makes it a tough sell for more casual gamers. Hardcore gamers won't complain -- they were going to pay extra for online multiplayer gaming anyway -- but it's hard to expect more occasional, offline gamers to pay for the right to access services like Netflix and HBO Go, which are free on every other platform, besides their own subscription fees. And while many Xbox One buyers probably already have another device capable of streaming Netflix, having to switch inputs for your "House of Cards" fix is antithetical to Microsoft's "One Box To Rule Them All" philosophy.
Sony isn't nearly as pushy with the PS4's premium subscription service, PlayStation Plus. Online multiplayer gaming, automatic game updates, and cloud saves require a subscription, but essentially everything else is free, including all of the PS4's streaming services, game recording and sharing, internet browsing and live streaming of games via Twitch. It feels like a much fairer divide between basic and premium services. Features that require pricey upkeep, like online gaming and cloud saves, cost extra, while everything else is considered a feature of the game console you already paid for.
When you include the near-mandatory Xbox Live Gold subscription, it pushes the price premium of the Xbox One even higher than its current $100 over the PS4. Let's say you don't game online, but still like to use your game console to stream video from Netflix and HBO. Even if you're able to score Xbox Live Gold at the frequently-discounted rate of $45 per year, the five-year cost of ownership for the Xbox One is $725 vs. $400 for the PS4. It's a huge difference in cost.
Microsoft isn't going to do away with the Live Gold subscription fees anytime soon, but it feels like the time has come for a re-evaluation as to which services fall behind the Live Gold paywall. At the very least, Netflix should be free to stream without a subscription, along with most other third-party streaming-services, such as Hulu Plus and HBO Go. It would be nice if the Microsoft also matched the other features the PS4 offers for free, like Game DVR and Internet Explorer. That would leave OneGuide, Skype and online multiplayer gaming as the main Live Gold step-ups, which feels a lot more reasonable than the current structure.
Without those changes, the Xbox One will remain tough to recommend to more casual gamers that weren't planning on paying for online multiplayer gaming. If Microsoft wants the Xbox One to truly rule everyone's living room, it needs to offer a pricing structure that works for more kinds of gamers.