The biggest change with the Xbox Dashboard, and arguably the biggest since the New Xbox Experience debuted in 2008
, is with panel presentation -- which is a mixed bag if you ask us. No long do they cascade, providing what was an admittedly obstructed view of six selections; instead, we're shown three panels in their entirety, with just the subtlest of hints that there's more to the right or left. It's much cleaner and panels themselves more aesthetically-pleasing, sure, but to be honest, we thought it was functionally easier to have a hint of what's further down the menu. Again, though, we can't say we're disappointed -- after all, navigation feels much snappier. As we saw briefly on the Featured tab (with an advertisement, naturally), Microsoft allows for full-motion video presented even on non-highlighted panels.
Also getting a welcome UI overhaul is the Customize Avatar screen. Your virtual doppelganger now stands front and center as you go through the selection of wares and facial adjustments. There aren't any surprise features, but navigation does feel much less cumbersome.
As far as new features go, ESPN3
is top of that list. For the cost of Xbox Live Gold
and having an affiliated ISP (here's a list
, and not to worry NYCers, Microsoft assures us Time Warner Cable will soon be partnering up), you can watch live sporting events and replays of anything ESPN has the rights to stream -- and trust us, that's a lot. (Don't have an affiliated ISP? You'll miss out on the live events and full replays, but all other clips and highlights should still be available.) The initial screen features a crowd of avatars wandering on the bottom, while giant displays serve as the screens for the featured videos. Hovering over one selection for more than a few seconds and the video will autoplay; pressing X will make the video full screen, which you can do immediately at the cost of a brief bout of low-resolution footage as it buffers the HD stream.
More highlights can be found in a menu accessible via the leftmost panel. It's a setup familiar to Netflix owners: a textual list of categories and a horizontal smorgasbord of related videos. Here's where we come into some hiccups, however: when we last checked live event replays, there were 241 games in all -- not easy to navigate. Microsoft alleviates some of this by adding the My Sports tab, allowing you to select and quickly peruse your favorite ball game, but even then, expect some sifting. We've been promised more more integration with ESPN's online suite -- including being able to select specific "My Teams" to follow -- some time in the not-too-distant future.
All the video streams in HD using the same variable bitrate technology as Zune video
. You're also given the same controls (pause, fast forward, rewind, etc.) and the portal will remember where you left off in a certain video if you want to jump in and out of a handful at a time. The best part is with live events, being able to rewind to parts you missed even if you tuned in late. Unfortunately there's no jumping to key moments à la the web browser stream, but like we were told with My Teams, it's on the proverbial roadmap. At any point during any video, you can press Y to bring up the scores for all current, recent, and upcoming games, sortable by sport, and if it's on at the moment, you can quickly jump to the game with a press of a button. Again, the repeated mantra here is that there's potential for more and it's in the works. That's not to downplay anything that's being offered out the gate; what we have hear is pretty impressive for sports fans, if for nothing else as a great way to stream matches from your living room set without having to invest in a cable TV.
Netflix has been an enduring staple to the Xbox 360's entertainment side, and for a long time one of the biggest non-gaming reasons to pick up the console. The only problem was that you still needed another device altogether to explore the library, as the software limited you
to a pre-selected array of films (organized by category) and what was already added to your Instant Watch queue. Thankfully that's all been changed with this update. In addition to eschewing cascading navigation in favor of something on the same plane of depth (notice a trend here?), search
has now has been added. It works well, opting for a line of letters instead the classic Xbox 360 virtual keyboard, and the results update with each letter added. If a selection isn't available to watch instantly, it'll still show up on the list as "DVD Only" and offer suggestions to similar titles. Needless to say, this still remains one of the best Netflix experiences out there.
Zune video got a handful of UI tweaks -- its selection menu for video is thankfully much more streamlined -- but newcomer here is music and Zune Pass
. Unsurprisingly, it works similar to Zune video and most other entertainment panels, as far as navigation is concerned. Search presents you with multiple separate panels for results that updating with each additional letter: artist, song, album, playlist. The artist page sorts songs by album and individual popularity, and even provides bios with hotlinks to other artists, a nice little touch. All the Zune functionality you'd expect is here, including Smart DJ. Pick an artist as a jumping off point and adjust the playlist according to your likes. The program itself works great; whether or not you want to devote your TV to streaming music is entirely your call, but at least the option's there.
Screen from E3 2010
We didn't get a chance to bring Kinect home to give it a spin (no beta for us
, we're afraid), but Microsoft did invite us to its offices to try it in studio. By and large, though, it's what we saw back at E3
with some refinements -- and yes, it does work while sitting down. If you're calibrated to your profile, walking in front of the Kinect camera will automatically sign you in (if no one else is already). Waving your hand will engage the gestures, swiping from one side to the other will navigating through the special panels (so long as you connect the hand cursor to the proper arrow icon ahead of time), and you still have to hover on a panel for multiple seconds to select certain items. That part seemed quicker than before, but it's still a hassle compared to quickly moving through via a controller. Voice commands are again limited to select options, and it'll prompt you on what does and doesn't work. Using your hand to grab and fine-tune where in a video you are is still a nice touch, but really, this is just an alternate method for navigation. Great for novelty's sake or if you can't find the remote / are out of batteries, but we're still a ways off from Minority Report.
We hate to use the revolution vs. evolution analogy here, but that's exactly what the new dashboard is: an evolution of the New Xbox Experience. Aesthetic revisions and impending Kinect integration notwithstanding, the big takeaway from this update is a vastly improved Netflix and a strong debut for ESPN, which really is going to make some people rethink their cable TV subscription. Sure, it's mandatory, but don't worry, it's pretty much an improvement in every way imaginable -- unless, of course, you like cascading panels.