"Xbox comes from a gaming heritage, and is expanding into a broader entertainment brand," Microsoft's Robbie Bach told us earlier today at its first Open House event in New York. Powering Xbox's expansion into "broader entertainment" is the upcoming Dashboard update, scheduled for beta release later this month. Four services included in the update will expand the 360's social networking and multimedia capabilities: Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm and Zune Marketplace.
While each individual service may not offer the same value that Netflix did when it debuted with the NXE last year, it's hard to ignore the breadth of added functionality offered by this new Dashboard refresh. Yes, it's true that the Xbox isn't the most ideal platform to tweet from. And yes, it's unlikely that you'll spend hours sitting in front of your TV listening to online radio. However, each service adds new reason to stay connected to the Xbox ... and adds more purported "value" to that Xbox Live Gold membership.
The most surprisingly well-executed addition to the Xbox experience comes through Facebook. Critics are quick to point out that Facebook can be accessed readily from almost any other device, whether it be a mobile phone or a PC. While much of Facebook's core functionality is replicated on the Xbox, Microsoft's app significantly streamlines and improves the experience, especially when browsing photo albums. Whereas the dot com site is plagued by a sluggish AJAX design, the Xbox app loads photos and galleries instantly, making it much faster and easier to browse through your friend's pics. On the Facebook website, you'll see ads clutter the screen as you browse individual photos. On the Xbox, however, each photo gets the full-screen treatment, with captions minimally presented at the top of the screen. For those that use Facebook as their primary way of sharing photos, using an Xbox will be hands-down the best way of presenting them.
As more and more Xbox users link their Facebook profiles to their Xbox gamertags, the app will help to solve one of the platform's major limitations: finding new friends to play with on Xbox Live. In addition to just browsing through the Facebook friends list, you can filter out pals that have Xbox Live accounts. If they're not already your Xbox Live friend, you can simply send them a request from this menu.
Your average Facebook user has 130 friends, notably trumping the Xbox's 100 friend limit. Our worry is that if most Xbox-owning Facebook users are above that average the functionality will further exacerbate the Xbox's long-standing limitation. For example: your old high school buddy has an Xbox gamertag and plays the same games you do! That's great the first time it happens ... but frustrating if it's the 101st.
Another feature that was mentioned (but not demonstrated) was "Facebook Connect," which will allow future games to automatically update Facebook, a la Uncharted 2, with status updates and even gameplay videos. There's a lot of potential here: imagine being able to post an awesome kill streak in Halo directly to Facebook to share with your friends. It's this kind of functionality that makes Facebook on Xbox more than just a reskinned internet browser. Provided Microsoft continues to expand upon that idea, Facebook is a genuinely worthwhile and innovative addition to the Xbox experience.
Twitter, on the other hand, adds nothing (but also takes nothing) from the overall Xbox experience. All the functionality you've come to expect from a Twitter mobile app is here: you can update your own status, see your friend's timelines, and even see trending topics. Surprisingly, the innovative connectivity options being explored with Facebook aren't present here. Don't expect to auto-tweet your next Achievement! Without being able to find Xbox Live friends via Twitter, the Twitter application feels rather incomplete compared to Facebook.
And far more than Facebook and its suite of apps and services, Twitter is "just" a personalized window into the web, written and curated by your friends; however, without the ability to click on links, or see pictures uploaded to Twitpic (and other similar services), the experience feels immediately crippled and serves as a constant reminder that the Xbox 360 remains the only current gaming console on the market without a web browser. That its creator, Microsoft, makes the most popular browser in the world is all the more notable.
While we're not entirely clear who will sit around the Xbox to stream internet radio, we will admit that the Xbox implementation of Last.fm is very slick. Once again, the core functionality of the website is present in the Xbox app. However, the overall experience looks a lot nicer. While you listen to music, a photo slideshow of the band will take up the screen. It's not a particularly revolutionary feature, but it does make for a good visual complement to the otherwise stationary experience.
Like Facebook's photo galleries, the Last.fm experience is much faster on the Xbox than on a computer. Switching between different artist stations is fast. Clicking on a tag brings up a radio station specifically for that keyword almost instantly.
One obvious oversight of Last.fm currently is the inability to listen to music while playing games. Currently, Last.fm is a standalone application, with no way of launching it while in the middle of a game. A Microsoft representative did tell us they were aware of the demands to expand its functionality, so hopefully we'll see an update that addresses that. (They've got to leave something for next major Dashboard refresh ...)
Zune Video Marketplace
Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is ... well, a rather familiar one. The Zune Video Marketplace is the replacement for Xbox Live's original service. Don't be confused by the rebranding, though! Robbie Bach told us the plan "is very straightforward. Video and music on Xbox is going to be brought to you by Zune. It's not any more complicated than that."
If you do have a Zune, you'll benefit from the corporate synergy, being able to transfer Zune video purchases from the Xbox to the portable. (Rentals will not work though, unlike the PlayStation Store's connectivity between PS3 and PSP.) If you don't have a Zune, the new Marketplace still has one huge improvement over the original service: streaming 1080p video.
The quality of the streaming video is dynamically determined by your internet connection speed, and how much "breathing room" you give the buffer. For example, should you have a fast enough connection, you'll be able to get 1080p video with 5.1 sound. Our demonstration looked good, but videophiles will want to stick with Blu-ray: artifacting was still very obvious in what was supposedly the 1080p stream. Impressively, we were able to fast-forward without any delay. When hitting play, the movie continued instantly. Instead of making viewers stop to buffer again, the Xbox simply dropped us to a lower quality video stream and then slowly returned to the 1080p stream.
While the video quality doesn't come close to a dedicated Blu-ray disc, not many instant streaming services can match the Zune Marketplace's fidelity. Silly rebranding aside, we walked away impressed by Xbox's new video store.
With the exception of Twitter, every major addition in the upcoming Xbox Dashboard update feels like a thoughtful expansion of the overall Xbox Live experience. Both Facebook and Last.fm surprised us by not only replicating the features of the PC websites, but improving upon the experience in a distinctly Xbox way. With the public beta dropping later this month for a select few in the Xbox community (and press), it won't be long until many of you get to experience the even newer Xbox Experience.