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The New Xbox 360 Experience In-depth Review
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Date: Dec 01, 2008
Section:Misc
Author: Devin Pastoor
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Introduction and Avatars

On November 19, Microsoft released its new dashboard, dubbed "The New Xbox Experience". This free firmware update is mandatory for all consoles that connect to Xbox Live, and aims to redefine how users both use the Xbox and interact online. The new update completely overhauls the existing blade-style interface, moving to a much more flowing, intuitive design. It promises to keep and improve upon legacy features, while adding new content and functionality. Existing themes, gamer pictures, or backgrounds will work just fine in the new interface. However, the previous dashboard, which provided a mazelike jumble of movements to get to places of interest on each blade, has been replaced with smooth vertically revolving themes, with each expanding out horizontally for related content.

The new Xbox Experience promises a lot but does it truly deliver in both increased usability and speed? Let’s take a look at some of the features that have been revamped and added, and then we'll have a chat about what we think is still missing.

Avatars
WIth the new Xbox experience, users can now choose a custom avatar. The avatars, which are very reminiscent of the Nintendo Wii’s Mii portfolio, provide each user with a highly customizable character. There are quite a few initial options, however, there is a degree of rigidity in how you can individually tailor each choice.  The avatar system also hints towards future clothing and customizable apparel micro transactions. Making an Avatar was very easy, starting with a choice of basic body types:

After choosing a body type you are presented with options to change features, clothes, take a picture, start from scratch, or accessorize.

You can change 9 major features: hair, eyes, eyebrows, ears, nose, freckles, mouth/teeth, and chin/neck. In each feature, you have a plethora of options. For hairstyles, there were over 90 male and female options.

 

As you move around to different options your customization appears in real time, so you can preview all of the styles quickly. Some styles look the same at first glance; however, usually the changes are in the back, such as pony-tails for example. To see these changes, a mirror appears to show you your full profile.

 

After you’re done, you can snap a shot of your virtual self and upload it online to copy to your hard drive or anywhere else you please. The avatar is also presented next to your gamer tag in your profile, and anywhere your virtual self could interact with others, such as in the friends list.

The incorporation of avatars is clearly an effort by Microsoft to gain entrance into the casual and younger gamer circles.  With the wealth of options for customization, it will surely appeal to many and give the Xbox another layer of interactivity all together.

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Navigation: My Xbox and Games Marketplace
Navigation
Navigation was clearly a priority in this update. The blades were completely dropped on the dashboard, in lieu of a more intuitive, interactive interface. The contrast between the two is quite clear...

 
 
Old vs. New

The new system has been designed for users that have never used an Xbox, in an effort to make it easier for them to find their way around easily. This caused Microsoft to move some things around, however.  If you’ve spent a lot of time in the old dashboard, it might take you while to get acquainted, but it very quickly becomes evident how much more natural navigation has become.

There are eight vertical scrolling options, lets break those down and see what each has to offer...

My Xbox is your starting point, this section contains the areas to launch your games, your profile, and your game, video, music, and picture libraries, along with Windows Media Center and System Settings. Each of these has its own icon that you can pan through horizontally and is accompanied by a related icon, and a label.

Game Marketplace – The games marketplace offers you Xbox Arcade games, demos, add-ons to games, and your game library. In the old Marketplace organization was rather disjointed, this has been fixed.

Initially you can search alphabetically, by genre, or by the type of download – whether an expansion, full game, demo, or add-on. From there, when you get to a game you’re interested in, by selecting the game, you are greeted with information about the it, its cost, related content, and even screenshots.

 

This interface makes it much easier to locate the games you’re interested in, and find the related content. It also helps that your Games Library is synced with the Marketplace, allowing you to directly jump to the Marketplace from your library to find related content. Finding map packs or add-ons, instead of being a chore, is now incredibly easy to navigate.  One thing to note, all these features are available in the new Xbox Guide, which will be covered later.
 
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Navigation: Video Marketplace and Other Options

Video Marketplace - The Video Marketplace, the new home to Netflix, also has a movie database of rentable or preview-able content.


We’ll go into Netflix later on, so for now let’s check out the other content in the Video Marketplace. The James Bond films option seemed intriguing, and upon entry you are greeted with both a James Bond theme and the option to rent in SD or HD any of the James Bond movies up to Casino Royale. Unfortunately, the movies can only be viewed alphabetically, no options to organize by release date exists, so you’ll have to use external resources to find the order of releases easily.

Picture quality for an SD preview was a little better than streaming Netflix, but definitely softer than even a cheap upconverting DVD player. Control was the same as it was in the old Xbox menu, with a straightforward, simple interface scheme.

An SD rental is 240 Microsoft Points for a 480p video with a file size of 1.5 GB. HD is 360 Points, with a file size of 5.4 GB. In order to play, a brief buffering occurs before the movie starts to stream if you want it to play instantly. You can, however, download the movie and it is available for the next 14 days. After you hit play it is available for 24 hours. While I didn’t try out a full movie, the HD version of the preview started instantly and played without a hitch. Messing around with navigation was very easy and straightforward.

The other vertical options are:
  • Spotlight – a mix of options.  The spotlight is what’s ‘interesting’ at the time.  The spotlight feature for us consisted of a couple game demos, a movie, information about our avatar, how to personalize our experience, and a couple other random options.
  • Friends – Each friend online is displayed first. Everyone is shown with his gamer tag, avatar, and some sort of Xbox related icon or structure behind him.
  • Inside Xbox – Takes you to Microsoft related events and information
  • Events – Shows all scheduled events related to the 360. Some include a ‘community Guitar Hero World Tour Party and a ‘GamerchiX Ladies Night’ for Gears of War 2.
  • Welcome – Welcome helps you become acquainted with getting around the Dashboard and can be removed whenever you’d like. It is the only folder that you can modify.

 

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New Features: New Xbox Guide and Play from Hard Drive

The New Xbox Guide
The new Guide, instead of being an area to access only a few select options, has now become a one-stop quick launching area. You can instantly access the Guide via the Xbox button on your controller, giving you control over your games, media, and settings. It is immediately noticeable how much smoother the new layout is compared to the old system. Upon closer inspection, not only is it so much smoother, but it essentially is a modified version of the entire old Xbox 360 dashboard.

 
 
Old. vs. New

The Guide offers five blades: ‘Your Gamer Tag’, Marketplace, Games, Media, and Settings. Upon pressing the Xbox button on your controller, you are greeted with a blade named after your gamer tag. From here, you can check messages, chat, launch the game in your drive, or check on your friends. Further inspection reveals access to the game and video marketplace through the Marketplace blade. The Games blade gives you access to your achievements and game library. While at first, this seems like nothing more than a way to see what games you’ve played, it is much more powerful.  From the Games blade you can launch any game in your library that is located on your hard drive. Tired of Gears of War 2? Instantly access your favorite Xbox Arcade game and fire it up without skipping a beat. That’s not all unlike the previous marketplace, where if while playing a game, you wanted to purchase a related item, you’d have to search through the marketplace to find it. By going to your games library, you can directly link to downloads, expansions, and other information, along with your achievements for that game.

The Media blade gives you access to your Music, Video, and Picture Libraries, as well as Windows Media Center.  However, to access any of these, you have to leave your game and access the dashboard. You can, however, choose the ‘Select Music’ option and directly choose tracks off your hard drive or IPod while you play. Finally, the Settings blade gives you access to all your settings such as your profile, family controls, etc. Most of these, similar to the Media blade, cannot be accessed in game, however, the benefit of having these in the guide takes out the middle step of having to go back to the dashboard, and will directly jump to where you want to go. Baring the rest of the update, the Guide itself is a substantial, and much appreciated upgrade.

Play From Hard Drive
There has been much speculation and hope about the ‘Play From Hard Drive’ option. Many imagined swapping games with friends, building up an enormous library of all their favorite games. While it is true you can do this, games can only be played when the accompanying disk is in the hard drive. What is the hype behind this then? Well, by copying disks to your hard drive, it offers a number of benefits. First off, load times are supposed to be faster. In testing this, unfortunately, the difference between load times of disks copied to the hard drive, and those left to play straight from the disk was almost negligible.  And while in some cases there was a nice jump in speed, there were also times when the load times actually increased.

One such instance is in Halo 3 multiplayer; loading maps actually takes longer as they’ve been optimized to run from your disk. There are, however, other noticeable benefits making this a welcome improvement. When the disk is copied to the hard drive, apart from a cursory check to make sure the disk is in the drive, the optical drive does not spin. This significantly decreases the noise of the Xbox 360, especially in Xboxes produced with the new manufacturing processes, whose fans are much quieter than previous generations. Similarly, as the disk is not continually spinning, accidental movement of the Xbox while it is running will have a much lower chance of scratching the disk, as well as prolonging the life of your optical drive.

 

If you decide to go the route of playing from the hard drive it’s a short process.  Simply go to your game library, select the game, and then the option ‘Install to Hard Drive’. Next time you launch your game library you can play the game from the hard drive.
 

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Features: Netflix and Party System
Netflix & Instant Queue
Another highly touted upgrade that came with the Xbox experience update is the ability to stream Netflix directly to the Xbox.  The two ‘catches’ with this are you must have a Netflix subscription and a Gold membership to Xbox Live. Luckily, we have both, so we selected the Netflix Icon. All it asks is to enter a activation code for your Netflix account. We entered the code, and in less than a minute our instantly viewable queue appeared.



It is very easy to navigate through the queue, and selecting a movie or series in your queue gives you a wealth of information such as, how much you’ve watched, reviews, information about the movie, the various episodes in a series, and your own personal rating. We decided to check out the experience with an episode of Jericho.
 
     

Control of the show while watching is very similar to watching a DVD, you have basic controls that can easily be navigated via the Xbox controller.  Video quality was on par with streaming from the computer, which equates to about DVD quality. As for HD content, it looked excellent. As Netflix continues to roll out more and more HD content, being able to stream directly to the TV without using the Xbox as a media extender is going to make catching up on our favorite shows much easier and more pleasurable.  While watching was an easy-going experience that will no doubt be appreciated by the technically inept among us, this is clearly a first iteration. There is no ability to search content other than that already in your queue (which if you update, takes only about 30 seconds to appear on the Xbox). This can prove frustrating as the computer is still necessary to keep the queue updated.  It will be interesting to see where Netflix takes this partnership in the future. This is definitely a step forward in creating a one stop media and gaming experience out from the Xbox.

Party System
Another addition to the new experience is the ability to create parties out of an individual game. This allows groups of people to stay in voice chat, jump between games together, and even stream and watch movies together.  We tried out the party system and for the most part, it worked well. One thing to keep in mind is that partying together, especially using voice chat, does consume additional bandwidth.  So if you are on a slower internet connection, going into parties in games like Halo 3, where lag can significantly distort your experience, may not be advisable.
 
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Whats Missing and Final Thoughts
What’s Missing: As impressive as the New Xbox Experience is, there are still many things that keep the it from being truly complete.  Here are a few things we think could use improvement...
 
  • No Web Browser – This is one thing that keeps the Xbox from being a truly one stop system.  With built in USB connectivity, it’d be easy to hook up a keyboard and mouse to turn the Xbox 360 into a nettop.
  • More Streaming Internet Content – Netflix is a great start, hopefully sites like Hulu can be added giving access to even more media and content.
  • Wider CODEC Support – It’s great that the Xbox 360 can link so easily to a Media Center PC, but not so great when you can’t play content on your PC because the CODECs still aren’t supported. VLC360, please.
  • .iso Support From Hard Drives – You can rip games to the hard drive, but what about movies?  We'd also like the ability to access movie files saved as an .iso on an external USB hard drive.
  • Customize What Goes To The My Xbox Section – Being able to rearrange what you deem most important to you would add even more layers of customizability to this substantial upgrade. Being able to place Netflix in the section, so you didn’t have to go to the Video Marketplace whenever you wanted to stream something would be nice too.

The New Xbox Experience has proven to be a great upgrade for the Xbox. Its flow is much smoother, it rarely hiccups, and what you can do while in game, such as party creation, multiple voice chat, and music control, all leads to a much more pleasant experience. None of the hiccups that frequently arose when navigating about the old blades reared their head for us.  We were impressed by how well Microsoft integrated the additional features and functionality without making the interface look cluttered or feel overwhelming.

Overall, this upgrade is a definitely a big step forward, and it allows Microsoft to better interact with consumers.  By providing both a family oriented design, that's flashy enough for even hardcore gamers, combined with relatively low cost that falls below the Wii now, we think the Xbox 360 is going to be a recurring draw for consumers this holiday season. One thing to note as of right now, however, is that some features of the update require additional hard drive space.  So, Xbox 360 arcade version owners may not have access to everything we've shown here.

Lastly, keep in mind none of these pictures truly capture the ‘feel’ of the NXE interface.  The colors continually shift and flow, icons sweep in and out with swooshing noises, avatars look around, the bottom right corner has a pulsating Xbox icon, and there is much more glitz  to see.  In general the new Xbox experience just looks plain "cooler" now.
 


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