The Microsoft Kinect: A Hands Down Winner?

With the new Kinect motion sensor, Microsoft lets loose the first hands-free gaming system

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Jordan Hollender for TIME

Using Microsoft's new Kinect gaming sensor is better than being a Jedi. You don't have to hold a lightsaber—or anything else, for that matter. You just move your hands as though you were holding a tennis racket or steering wheel or whatever, and your onscreen avatar imitates your movements. It's like miming on steroids.

Unlike the Nintendo Wii or Sony PlayStation Move, Kinect has no handset. Instead, it works a little bit like the computers in Minority Report. You move around in front of a camera that uses infrared technology to track 48 points on your body as well as their distance from the Kinect sensor, which helps Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming console accurately depict what you're doing in three-dimensional space. The tracking is impressive—if also somewhat scary.

Facial-recognition software lets up to eight people jump in and out of a two-player game. And the system can follow voice commands. For example, you can tell your Xbox to pause the movie you're streaming from Netflix just by saying, "Xbox, pause." (You can also rewind or fast-forward by waving your hand to the right or left.) Several TIME staffers tried to fool Kinect by mumbling or faking thick accents, but the system was able to decipher what each of us said with very few issues. We walked away impressed.

That reaction is nothing new to Microsoft's Xbox division. Some tech critics argued that Microsoft had no business jumping into the gaming arena in 2001 against power players Sony and Nintendo—and for years Xbox lost money on every console it sold. Yet the division has not only become profitable but over the past four months took the lead in console sales in the U.S., according to market-research group NPD. The new Kinect add-on, which hits stores Nov. 4, is competitively priced too, sold separately for $149.99 or bundled with a new Xbox starting at $299.99. A PlayStation3 that comes loaded with Sony's new and improved Move handset is $399.99. The Wii costs $199.99.

Over the years, Microsoft has added Xbox services like Netflix for movie streaming and Last.fm for music fans so that what was once just a game console has slowly become a one-stop shop for home entertainment. Xbox Live, an online multiplayer gaming service that costs $50 a year, now draws more than 25 million active users and will likely keep growing with the coming launch of Microsoft's mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7, which will allow gamers to compete with friends on their phones. Meanwhile, Kinect will usher in a new wave of services, including video chat and live streams of sporting events from ESPN.

"With all this convergence comes the potential of increased complexity," says Marc Whitten, corporate vice president of Microsoft Interactive Entertainment. Kinect goes a long way toward making that complexity easy to enjoy. And although hard-core gamers might scoff at Kinect's family-friendly offerings—no shoot-to-kill stuff is included in the initial lineup—a Star Wars game is in the works. My fellow Jedis will be ready.

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This article originally appeared in the November 8, 2010 issue of TIME.