So as millions of gamers wait patiently for the newest update to their Xbox 360 dashboard to download (and then subsequently wait for Xbox Live connection issues caused by the delayed rollout of the new dashboard to go away so they can actually get online) many are probably wondering just what all has changed. Even if you managed to download the update and connect to Xbox Live in the early morning hours, you may have not had the time to fully to explore the new dash before stupid things such as work and a social life got in the way; so here is a general breakdown on some of the new features gamers can expect to experience, both good and bad (as well as just plain downright ugly).
The new dashboards UI is pretty slick when it comes down to it. Gone are the rows of big square images that run off to the right of your screen, instead, replaced with several interactive square buttons on each “page” of the dash. Somewhat reminiscent of the now ancient blades, users move to the left or right to pull up different categories, each displaying several featured options. The categories include: Bing, Home, Social, Video, Games, Music, Apps and Settings, in that order and will have you starting at the home page. There is a lot going on in the new dash, but it doesn’t feel overly cluttered though. Basically, the new dashboard UI mimics the Windows Phone 7 look, because at the end of the day Microsoft wants you to be using your Kinect to “virtually” touch the various options with your hands.
Speaking of Kinect, literally, the voice controls are really phenomenal. You can get to and launch pretty much everything using a series of voice commands, as well as search for content on Xbox Live using the Bing voice activated search. If you have used the Kinect hub before now most of these controls will be more or less familiar to you. For example, if you say, “Xbox, games” it brings you to the games tab and the ability to just immediately say your next selection remains for a few seconds (no need to say Xbox again). So if you wanted to launch Castle Crashers and were on the home page you would ultimately end up saying, “Xbox, games. My Games. Castle Crashers.” You may end up having to browse through the games a bit before getting to Castle Crashers in that example, but it works, and pretty damn well. Any time where the voice activation is available simply say “Xbox, go home,” to go right back to the home page.
Beacons & Activity is a new feature that allows you to set up what are essentially reminders for other friends that you want to play a certain game, or to immediately know what friends on your list have played the game you just popped into your Xbox. Beacons have ‘bound to end up being ignored by the vast majority of players’ written all over them, but the feature really is pretty cool. When playing a game I’ve played multiple times before, I found several friends who played it that I never knew did. It greatly increases your ability to potentially get into games and matches with people in a more spontaneous manner.
The update also comes with a host of new apps, including The Today Show, Syfy, Epix, Daily Motion and the promise of many more to come. Most of these have a similar, if not identical look and feel to it as the new dashboard itself. Simply click on one of them to install and then start the app and you are good to go… well kinda, more on that later.
Cloud storage is also finally here, but it is a whopping 511mb of space and there are all sorts of issues with moving certain content to the cloud server. The new option also means that with pretty much every game from here on out you will have to specify where you want it saved. Additionally, your Xbox will no longer shut down immediately; instead it will keep working for about a minute as it apparently updates the cloud server. Great idea, a much-needed feature, but it will most likely go unused except for those who often move their gamertag from one Xbox to another.
If you thought ads in your paid Xbox Live service was bad before, well Microsoft will likely make you regret those words. Take for example the home page, which is made up of a total of five squares, with a main square that is roughly the size of the four smaller squares surrounding it. The left two small squares display whatever is in your disc drive and the “Quickplay” menu, which is a list of all the recent games and apps you have downloaded/played. The right two squares are ads of various sorts and the big main square is a set of four rotating ads. That’s right, not only is roughly 75-80 percent of your home page screen covered in ads, unlike the previous dash the ads are actually larger (in one case, nearly four times larger) than your actual content.
Avatar props, and avatars themselves have also gone a bit to the wayside. Selecting the ‘Social’ page displays your avatar and a couple of your online friends, but at a much smaller scale than before and with no props/animations. Said props/animations only appear when you select a friend on your list individually, something that can’t be done by voice activation alone by the way. Those who hate the avatars will cheer; those who have paid for avatar props will likely be upset. Premium themes also aren’t quite as premium with the new theme, with some features being notably less visible (i.e. friends list).
While the Bing search works well, it is also populated with ads. Three legitimate results coupled with two ads that are totally unrelated is common, but the real downside of the Bing search is that everything basically has the same icon (cover art) displayed. It is useful as a shortcut to a game’s details page, but finding one bit of specific content is hit or miss.
Most of ‘The Bad’ amounts to annoyances and stuff that just simply makes everything take longer, but there are a few things that are just plain ugly and ruin the experience.
What many gamers are probably going to notice most though is that while the new dash is great with a Kinect, it is slow and clunky with a controller or remote. It just isn’t designed for them in mind. Microsoft is trying just a little too hard to push the Kinect, especially when the vast majority of what it is being used for in the new dash amounts to an elaborate $150 microphone. The fact that many sub menus require a controller anyway, coupled with the delayed boot time of the Kinect itself means that you are going to be splitting some of your time browsing by voice as well as controller; oddly enough the universal remote (which doesn’t need to be turned on and off) has become rather useful again.
The game marketplace is a mess, and indicative of the all around UI problem the new dash features. So many damn menus. Just for example, to get to Xbox Live Arcade games from the home page you have to go to the games tab, to games marketplace, game type, arcade, and then depending on whether or not your are looking for a specific title you can sort the list by release date, rating, title and so on. One annoying feature though is that if you choose to search by title it simply displays every Xbox Live Arcade Game in alphabetical order. You can search for games by individual letter, but you can’t search just Xbox Live Arcade games by the letter, meaning more sorting through stuff you don’t want. What’s more, the new interface prominently displays the game’s artwork rather than just listing their titles, which means having to browse the games at the very slow pace of three games at a time (there is no list option either).
Browsing games in your own library is equally annoying. Browsing three games at a time, with no ability to display only full games without demos, gets old fast when you have a large library. Another annoying trait is that demos and trials are not labeled as such directly in this screen (rather you have to actually look at the game details). XBLA titles that you have played will display how many achievements you have, but if you haven’t played the game or in the case of XBLIG’s there is nothing that makes that appear different than a demo.
Most notably though is pretty much everything to do with apps. This feature clearly wasn’t ready for launch yet, and feels rushed. Here is a breakdown of everything so far; Epix doesn’t work, so it is impossible to even tell just what kind of content it will be offering. Daily Motion’s videos look, mostly, horrible, and the whole interface is slow and clunky despite mimicking the main dash. Syfy is nothing but show clips and trailers, basically amounting to nothing more than an elaborate network commercial. Oddly enough, the only app that seems to work well, both in terms of what it offers and how it offers it, is the Today app. If you enjoy The Today Show, you’ll probably enjoy browsing the clips from the show, but it should be noted that rather than pausing to buffer the video beforehand, it starts at the lowest bitrate and then increases, meaning that the first couple of seconds of video are of a rather low quality. This may be true of all the apps, but The Today Show one was the only one working well enough to test it out on. For those wondering, the HBOGO and YouTube apps are not released yet, without any detailed date of when they can be expected.
The biggest and probably most aggravating update comes in the new Netflix app (and the Zune app for some). One of the most notable changes is the removal of the party watch feature, meaning you can no longer watch movies with your friends on Xbox Live. Having never used this feature personally I barely noticed it was gone, but there has been quite a bit of anger in regards to this so the feature must have been more popular than I had imagined. The real issue with Netflix comes from both the updated look and the removal of several key UI features. First, the whole presentation is now incredibly cluttered as it displays several rows of movies and TV behind the one you are viewing. While dimmed, this makes it look hectic but also slows down loading times because at any one point Netflix has to load around twenty different cover arts at the same time. Second, everything automatically plays now when you click on it. Gone is the ability to go to a sub menu and select what episode of a show you want to watch, it will immediately start playing the most recent episode and from there, and only there, you can access a menu that lets you pick which episode you want (without much detail to help you if you don’t remember what episode you were on). Also removed for apparently no reason is the option to restart a movie or film other than to rewind it once you start playing it. Both of these are horribly annoying, but are particularly frustrating if you share your Netflix account with anyone at all.
All in all, the update offers significantly more form than function; sacrificing convenience and ease of use for a shiny new face. Realistically, the update seems to have needed at least one more month before launch, a fact made all the more obvious by the fact it basically caused an all out failure of Xbox Live last night. Launching a new UI with a group of half-finished, borderline broken apps doesn’t really do anyone any good, but at least they were able to give everyone one more incentive to buy a Kinect in time for Christmas. Right?
Have you had a chance to try out the new Xbox dash? Tell us your thoughts below!