Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Xbox 360 Dashboard Update 2011 - 5 Min Quick and Dirty Review

Yesterday (December 6) Microsoft released its newest update for the Xbox 360 dashboard which has completely shaken things up in regards to how it looks, feels, organized, and even operates. Originally slated for at 10am EST release, there were naturally some glitches that meant delays. Well, after a 14 hour delay I was able to get the download. yeah, it's pretty different

Find out more after the jump

First Things First

The new dashboard uses the Metro interface that was originally introduced on the Windows 7 Mobile platform, and is slated to also be the primary interface for the upcoming Windows 8 OS (possibly Q2 2012?). This is a huge departure from the previous dashboard, which used a "channel" system to organize and display things, where you would flip through your channels (video, music, games, friends, etc) going up and down on the screen, and scrolling left and right to see its content. Its still organized similarly by type, but the interface is now a series of different shaped boxes displaying relevant content on the screen. At first I was turned off by this and preferred the old layout. But thinking about it, I looked at nothing if it wasn't enroute to the thing I was looking for (games, Netflix, Now at least its all on one screen and I can see it in addition to what I'm looking for - much smarter.

So Whats New?

While looks are a lot of it, there are some cool new and updated features that I've spent little time on since I kept disconnecting from Live last night, most likely due to epic traffic on their servers. One of the big things is that they've made the experience much more social. You can now tweet or post to Facebook your in-game achievements in real time, making it that much easier to tell your friends how you killed 40 hookers and got your money back in under an hour in GTA IV (the "Waste Not, Want Not" achievement if memory serves). You can also save your profile and saved games to the "cloud" which will allow you to more easily travel 600 miles home for the holidays and pick up where you left off in Skyrim instead of talking to mom about how much she loves decorating the house with roosters this year.

The two biggest new features though, are its expanded streaming media content and search functionality. Lets start with search since thats more exciting right now. So a few years ago, Microsoft was googling stuff and thought "we can do this, so lets do it" and Bing, the Microsoft equivalent of Google search, was born. Its been under some scrutiny in the past (primarily due to it literally using Google search results as its own) but they've effectively have ported it over to the Xbox, so you can now go to the Bing search bar and search for anything you want, and it'll kick back all related results in games, music, video, photos, etc making it easier to find that episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air where Will tells Carlton its ok to be kissing cousins on Netflix. What's extra cool is that if you have a Kinect, you can use the voice search feature. This first video is me trying to use it for the first time: apparently doesn't let you pause and think, you just have to go go go (as if you were in Korea and playing Diablo II). So lets try that again:

It is pretty cool that it can do it, but I can't really think off hand of many times I would use it, but depending on how rich and diverse its streaming media content comes along, that may come in very handy. Kinect in general is a very awesome and powerful device that can do some fantastic stuff, and for being a facial recognition camera for under $200, people who are like me but much smarter than me can do some pretty amazing things. Too bad that its intended purpose has been relegated to doing voice search on a video game console.

Streaming media...the coolest thing ever that will kill off physical media. Over the years its gotten better and better, and with a reliable fast data connection, it can stream video at almost Blu Ray quality. Unfortunately, we can't write it off as a cable killer, since both cable and the studios are still in an old school distribution model, and are very reluctant to allow for it (here's looking at you CBS). All that said, Microsoft has been busy.

In recent times, they have effectively ditched Silverlight (their answer to flash video, which used to power their streaming efforts) and have fully embraced HTML5 (I think, have to find info to back it) which will make it 1000 times easier for studios to create streaming sources to share. In turn, Microsoft has signed partnerships with MLB, TMZ, UFC, SyFy, and others to bring their content to the Xbox in the form of streaming channels. Verizon Fios and Xfinity(Comcast) are on board to offer on demand content via the Xbox as well, though you will need to have a cable subscription with them, so it almost nullifies the deal (to me anyways).

Netflix also gets a facelift, making it "easier" to use with the Kinect, but ultimately these changes actually makes it more difficult to navigate it, both with the controller and Kinect. For movies it isn't that big a deal, but if you are trying to find S4E12 of Battlestar Galactica, good luck. Choosing a tv series will immediately start playing the video, and you will have to try and navigate by season and/or episode, usually at the same time since it doesn't seem to want to decide which it wants you to search by.  Kinect searching isn't much better:

The main problem here is that using the Kinect searching is just clunky and not at all fluid like it is on the Xbox dashboard. Could be just beause its more or less new to Netflix, but I'm hoping over time that they will work out the issues with navigation by controller and Kinect.

A surprise was the inclusion of EPIX with the release. Not because I knew what it was until I saw it, but because its an attempt by Sony to offer a similar experience to Netflix, but with just titles from, well...Sony. The problem however is that at launch (this morning) I can't access it.

Again, I get that its new to the system and so they need to work out some kinks, but with it not at least letting me sign up for me to find out that its probably not that great is just annoying and won't lead me to putting much faith in it in the future. When Hulu Plus launched, it was glitchy and they got it worked out, but I had the opportunity at launch to try it out and realize that everything I'd want to watch via it was either not on there or only available via the web (seriously? why even offer it if I can't watch it?)

Ultimately, this update is pretty drastic from where it was, but it has a lot of potential of being hella awesome. I'd rather see them spend their time and resources on actual Kinect usability development instead of kitchy majorly unhelpful features, but when they work, it is pretty cool.

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