The first thing you'll notice is that this new interface looks nothing like what you've known. Gone are the EXTREEEEEEEEME GAMERRRRR "blades" from the previous iteration of software -- they're now replaced with sparse "channels" containing "slots" of live content. The look is sophisticated and spacious, with soft gradients, smooth fades, and classy design touches throughout. From a visual standpoint, the NXE is roughly ten million times more pleasant and accessible than the previous version. For families weighing this and the Wii come holiday season, a lot of this will be tremendously appealing... especially those avatars (more on that in a moment). There are a variety of swappable themes which skin the entire system -- nothing drastic, but a handful of handsome backdrops and color palettes that should please most users. You'll surely see a slew of this content hitting when the NXE is in wide availability.
Navigating the new Dash is simple. You jump up and down with the control stick through channels, and move side to side in slots. Slots contain all manner of content, though they tend towards animated promos and the occasional video (sound kicks on if you move over something in playback). Users can duck into and out of content with X and B buttons, as you'd expect. If you're a stickler for those blades, you can still get a mini version of them (quick access from wherever you are) by tapping the Xbox Guide button.
Beyond the look, what's notable is the speed of the system. There's no lag at all when moving from channel to channel or through the slot content -- and even hitting one of the bumpers, which flies through left-to-right slot data, is super speedy. If people complain you've got an instant gratification problem, you're going to love the NXE.
The comparisons of the NXE's avatars and implementation to the Wii's Miis will be unavoidable. We'll just call it like we see it -- Microsoft is making a play for that moneyed "casual gamer" audience and hoping to stoke deeper user engagement by stealing a trick from Nintendo... and who can blame them? Like Miis, the avatars are adorable, cartoonish, huggable bundles of virtual joy that will have kids oooh'ing and mommies pocketbooks' hitting the counter. Like Miis, they can be customized with different facial features, heights and weights, though the NXE adds jewelry, clothing, and other accessories to the mix. While the characters don't give you exactly the same kind of customization you're used to on the Wii, they sport a pretty wide range of options, and most users should find something to like. Reps from Microsoft tell us they'll be adding avatar content as they go, as well, such as game-related clothing and accessories.
The avatars aren't just static, either -- they can be incorporated into games (like Scene It? Box Office Smash), feature animations that can be triggered with the controller, and are used to interact with friends in the dash. Bonus? You get to take driver's license-style snapshots of your character for your profile picture.
This is one of the big daddy features as far as we're concerned, and the two companies have pulled off this integration to near-perfection. The Netflix slot is offered in the "Video Marketplace" channel, and takes you speedily to an app which allows you to shuffle through movies in your queue. Unfortunately for right now, you can only add selections on a computer -- we hope that they expand the service to allow for adding and deleting choices right from the console. Once you've made your selection, you get a screen of info about the movie or TV show where you can also change its star rating. Once you jump into the content, the service determines your play quality based on bandwidth and transports you to the player. The player boasts a "scene" rewind and fast forward which Netflix is using in its Silverlight player, a nice touch that skirts around the narrow pipeline.
Video quality was excellent on our end, with SD content looking terrifically watchable. A small perk -- but huge deal as far as we're concerned -- is the inclusion of a limited amount of HD content. We previewed Heroes in HD, and the quality was stunning. Right now there's only about 300 titles on offer, but we think after folks get a taste of this, they'll be begging for some expansion.
With the inclusion of the service for Gold members, it's clear the system is moving further outside of the straightforward gaming realm into a larger market. This combo has loads of appeal.
The NXE greatly expands on the interactivity between you and your Xbox LIVE friends. Now there's a channel dedicated to viewing their current activities and avatars which also gives you options to ping them with messages or invite them into a party, all in a glorious, quasi-3D setting.
The party mode is interesting because it allows you to join up with friends engaged in different activities or games, all the while keeping a conversation going. You can invite people into games or simply talk to them while you're in separate games (or not playing at all), and it endeavors to keep parties together even if you're logged out for an update. The system isn't quite perfect yet -- but there's loads of potential for it, and generally its implementation was solid. Where it succeeds most is limiting that break in flow when you want to change up titles, or someone needs to take a quick break, and it makes planning activities far easier.
The Marketplace for content and games hasn't drastically changed, but it's much easier to find what you're looking for and see how it connects to what you already have. You can now browse for titles alphabetically, by genre, or by more esoteric groupings like "most popular." Game titles now have virtual boxes with art, give you full screen sample pictures, and skin the background when you browse. Regardless of how they dress it up though, it's now a pleasure instead of a chore to find content, and it puts an end to the mess that was the Marketplace.
An emerging component of the Marketplace seems to be the Community Games slot, which allows XNA developers to distribute their games in an App Store-like environment. The inclusion of this as a feature in the NXE gives the impression that Microsoft hopes to stoke an all-in, user-created-content fire, and we're definitely for that. Right now there's not a load of games on offer, but we assume as they work up to the November 19th release, this slot will seriously flesh out.
When we spoke to Marc Whitten, general manager of LIVE and one of the driving forces behind this update, he made it clear that this wasn't just about surface -- this is an overhaul inside and out. The team has revamped this platform to not just look pretty, but has changed its core functionality. The NXE now operates more like an OS rather than a closed set of static panes -- developers can build off of it with apps like Netflix and Photo Party, and the long view is that what we see now is just the tip of the iceberg.
On top of the beautification and betterment of the Experience as a whole, the team has also continued to embrace its core gamer market by adding in new features like the ability to copy games to the hard drive -- which the company claims cuts down load times by 30 to 50 percent (and kills system noise by 7dB). In our experience (and the experience of other gamers we know), the load times weren't as noticeably cut as we'd like them to be, but there's a definite bump in speed for segues, and we're not exactly complaining.
Overall we're highly impressed with what Microsoft has done. This isn't just PR-speak or phony praise -- the company has demonstrated a tremendous understanding of the needs of the market and its customers, both with this software update, and the recent price cuts on the low-end Xbox 360 packages. If this is "just the beginning" -- as the team claims it is -- we're going to see some pretty exciting stuff in the future. For now, however, the combo of rock-solid, next-gen game console, multi-tiered entertainment delivery system, and robust social networking engine leaves little to be desired. Let's just hope that developers can live up to the system's potential.
Hit up Joystiq's massive video expose of the whole thing. Just follow these links to the multi-part feature: