- Voice can be overpowered by media playbackController still required for delicate operations
If you didn't catch the hint from Redmond's Windows Phone and Windows 8 interfaces, let Xbox Live deliver the final word: Metro is Microsoft's new baby. Last year's dashboard update flirted with the new look by flattening out NXE's cascading tiles. The contemporary update keeps the Metro, but abandons NXE's crossbar-style navigation for a horizontally oriented experience. The console's various channels now headline the top of the screen, listing the familiar "games," "music" and "video" sections between the new Bing search feature and the console's settings page. A few of the channels have been renamed -- "My Xbox" is now "home" and a very Zune-esque "social" replaces "friends." Core content hasn't changed much, but the way you access it has, with yesterday's single-file tiles retired in favor of single page Metro layouts, packing more than twice as much information on screen as the previous Dashboard. Sound cluttered? It isn't. Most of the space was saved by cycling spotlight content through a large, central tile, and the entire layout is padded by a liberal amount of free space. If anything, the new design highlights how much extraneous content each channel has -- two to three tiles in each major category seem to be exclusively dedicated to advertisements or spotlight content.
That's not to say there isn't plenty of content to sift through; each channel leads to a wealth of subcategories. Games, for instance, ultimately ushers users to the games marketplace, which pulls up a six page line-up of categories, listing Picks, Featured, Games, Add-ons, Extras and Demos, each with their own layout of options. You can scope out a "season pass" subscription landing page, various advertisements, a pre-defined "most popular" filter, or simply dive in to the alphabetized games marketplace.
Although we typically dig the cleaner Metro layout, the games marketplace was the one place where we missed the old dash's crossbar. At its core, the revision is quicker, more efficient and a generally better experience, offering a horizontal scroll of five items per page, teasing a sixth one off of the end -- but if you want to hop to another letter in your alphabetical search, you'll have to retreat back a level and start over. A minor gripe to be sure, but we would have liked to flick a thumbstick north or south to switch letters. Overall, the marketplace layout is clean, and is shared by most apps. Category filtering and other options sit just above the horizontal scroll's west side, creating a uniform look across the games, music and video marketplaces that's easy to navigate.
The new Dashboard layout is sleeker, snappier, and just a hair quicker than its predecessor. Placing all of a channel's options front and center make it easier to find what you're looking for, and the single page revision eliminates all but the most necessary and basic of scrolling. By embracing Metro, the Xbox finally looks like a Microsoft product, donning the same uniform as the outfit's smartphone OS and upcoming Windows revision.
Kinect integration: sound and motion
When we last saw the Metro Dashboard update, it reminded of us Windows 8, with Metro pages sliding left and right at the flick of a finger -- or at least the wave of an arm. Today's Xbox brings Kinect integration to the top level, refining the ideas behind the now defunct Kinect hub, and implementing motion control through most of the console's menus. The process isn't new, but the console wide implementation is. Waving into Kinect summons the familiar hand-shaped cursor, allowing you to hover over menu items and navigation icons to select them, and hovering over the teasing slivers of the next and previous pages will allow you to swipe your arm to change screens. With the exception of the settings menu, a few pop-up windows, and the Xbox guide, Kinect motion control permeates the entire Dashboard experience. It's a neat, satisfying trick, but performing somewhat grandiose gestures just to navigate a menu can wear on a man. Tired of holding our arms in front of us, we decided to try something else.
"Xbox," we commanded, "games." Whoosh, went the console, quickly landing us in the games hub. Voice control goes almost as deep as gesture control, and is infinitely easier to use. This too, was once available in the Kinect Hub, but the contemporary implementation is heavily refined. Choosing an item on screen? Now you can call it what it is -- picking "Netflix" from an app list instead of "item 3." The console prompts you for the correct command, pulling up a menu at the foot of the screen with a list of option, and peppering the menus speaking text for each item. Generic "item" prompts do pop up from time to time, but most content can be called upon with its own name.
Even though everything about voice control is a marked improvement over the basic functionality of the Kinect hub, it has its share of rough edges. Utilizing the new Dashboard's media controls by voice was an exercise in frustration, movies and music repeatedly overpowered the Kinect's microphone, leaving us shouting awkwardly at our TV and reaching for a proper controller. We stuttered a bit on navigation as well -- although voice control is fairly persistent, the Kinect sensor will stop listening if you jump between applications of functions. Hopping over to the games marketplace after finding the title of your choice in a Bing search? Be ready to prompt the console to listen again, voice control will close in the interim. Hiccups like this break the flow of control, stopping an otherwise smooth experience dead in its tracks. We also had a tendency to mix up the console's "previous" and "go back" commands, which backpedals search or list results, and return to the previous menu, respectively. Despite a few minor gripes, Kinect voice control is by far the laziest content navigation system we've ever used (the good, relaxing kind of lazy), and stands out as an exceptionally cool novelty. It's not the most efficient way to navigate the Dashboard -- that honor is still held by the traditional Xbox 360 controller -- but it is by far the most fun.
Much like Metro itself, Microsoft's single-syllable search brand is becoming a staple in the outfit's products -- it's integrated into Windows Phone, it's bound to make an appearance in Windows 8 and now it's on your Xbox. Despite the search engine's digs on the web, you won't be perusing the archives of Engadget on your console anytime soon -- Bing search Xbox is a strictly local affair, and will only sift through content available over Xbox Live. Sound limiting? It isn't -- the Xbox games marketplace is jungle, and until now navigating it was a tiresome, unintuitive task.
Looking for the classic X-men cartoon? Great, Bing found it -- now do you want to buy it on the Zune video marketplace, or watch it using your Netflix subscription?
Today? "Xbox, Bing Fallout 3." There's your game, plus a wealth of related trailers, premium themes, add-ons and even related music selections. Bing search is comprehensive, it doesn't just search the games, music, video marketplaces independently, it searches everything simultaneously, even apps. Looking for the classic X-men cartoon? Great, Bing found it -- now do you want to buy it on the Zune video marketplace, or watch it using your Netflix subscription? The console gives you the option upfront, immediately telling you where you can find what you're looking for, and giving you the chance to choose how the content is delivered.
Bing doesn't mind unspecific searches, and allows you to search by title, director, actor and genre. The experience is very sleek, and is one of the finest features of the Dashboard update. It's worth noting, however, that a lot of the joy of the Bing experience is tied to its implementation of voice recognition -- yes, the same comprehensive search is available to Kinect-deprived gamers, but the hunt and peck text entry the traditional controller offers is decidedly less magical. Silent types and diehard Xbox 360 chatpad users aren't too bad off though, Bing autofills suggestions as you type, which ought to keep chicken-peck data entry to a minimum.
As you may have guessed from the "friends" section's modified moniker, Xbox Live is a social community -- playing with friends is half of the point. If you're hankering to use your Gold status for more than convenient access to Netflix, you'll want to pay attention to Beacons. Quietly announced at E3, and recently introduced on Xbox.com, Beacons let Xbox users flag their multiplayer cravings and broadcast them over Facebook. We didn't get to put Beacons to practical use during out testing period, but our friends' flagged games hovered over their avatar's head in our friends list -- had any of us actually wanted to play the same thing, our consoles would have notified and nudged us in the right direction.
We noticed, however, that not all Beacons are equal. Set your flag on Xbox.com, and you'll be immediately be able to add a custom comment, but won't be able to broadcast it to Facebook. Activating a Beacon via the Xbox Dashboard gives you easy access to "share on Facebook" option, but initially forces you to use a generic "I want to play this game with friends," comment, only allowing you to edit the Beacon after the fact. Both avenues lead to the same Beacon, but the discrepancy seemed a bit odd. Still, we see these flags as a welcome addition to Xbox Live; they're easy to use and ought to make multiplayer sessions a little easier to organize.
Achievements are getting a social bump as well, scoring their own "share on Facebook" brag button. Selecting and sharing a particular achievement is a fairly minor update, but at the very least gives you something to throw back in the face of your PSN spamming friends.
Apps and TV
The old Dashboard can still be seen peppered throughout a handful of old apps (last.fm, in particular), something Microsoft told us would be rectified as new and updated apps roll out in the coming weeks. A new set of design standards have been pinned to ensure that partner apps don't stray too far from the Dashboard's uniform experience, while still adding their own touch of flair. Netflix is a prime example -- while the Hulu Plus, Epix and Dailymotion apps embrace Redmond's Metro layout, the stream king offers its own design evolution. The new Netflix app retains its vertical list, but previews each category's horizontal scroll in a vertical cascade of film covers. Highlighting a title drops a brief description at the foot of the screen, and selecting it jumps right in to the program. A mini guide is available while content is playing, allowing users to change episodes, rate the title, and even jump to related content without exciting the stream -- these features area all unique to Netflix, which, in contrast to the basic design and function of its neighboring apps, shows how vanilla or custom a particular app can be.
The beta Microsoft lent us wasn't equipped with the Dashboard's impending live TV integration, but we visited some representatives from the outfit in San Francisco to get a brief look. Like Netflix, Hulu, and Last.fm, TV on Xbox is an app-based affair -- but don't ditch your cable box just yet, most of the console's television offerings will only be available to subscribers of each respective service, and even then some networks will only offer on-demand content, or limited selections of their full library of channels. Still, the app integration is appealing, offering an aesthetically pleasing (and Metro flavored) alternative to your chosen provider's standard program guide.
Xbox Live profiles are now universally accessible from the cloud. Players behind the Xbox Live Gold paywall also have access to cloud based storage for save games -- a boon for gamers who migrate between consoles, or upgraded to slimmer Xbox, for various reasons. The Xbox's cloud storage feature needs to be activated through the console's settings page before it can be used -- our system offered us 511MB of cloud space after we switched it on. Uploading data to the cloud was as easy as saving games to a memory card, we effortlessly traded data with the Xbox hard drive using the console's data management tools.
Naturally, cloud saved games won't be available if you aren't connected to the internet, but a sudden disconnection won't ruin your day. We pulled our console's ethernet connection out midway through a session of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but the Xbox had no trouble loading or saving our game, and didn't default back to its hard drive until we exited to the Dashboard. When we plugged the console back in, the saved games we created while offline were right there, in the cloud, seemingly stored locally in the interim. Half a gig of cloud storage isn't a ton of space (heck, our Skyrim save data totals over 1.3GB in of itself), but we can definitely dig the convenience of accessing saves remotely without lugging around a memory card. We didn't get the chance to access our Xbox Live profile remotely via the cloud, but as we understand, it's as simple as signing in at home -- the old "gamertag recovery" feature is dead and gone.
We were pretty tickled by this year's dash update when we played with it back in September, and not much has changed today. The final product is sleeker than the developer build we saw last, which was already a cut above the old dash. The flat, Metro squares put the console in a Microsoft uniform while providing better access to content in a more appealing style. Navigation is quicker, snappier, more enjoyable, and downright futuristic feeling when paired with a Kinect sensor and voice integration. The new dash even seemed to boot our old Xbox 360 Elite up a few seconds faster than the old guard, clocking in 22 seconds from "on" to home screen as opposed to the previous Dashboard's 25 second clock time. By the time the new dash caught up to the old, the Kinect sensor had finished its warm up and was ready to take commands.
We would have liked to see motion or voice control dig a little deeper -- there are still some corners of the Xbox that need a controller to be navigated properly, namely the settings page, Avatar editor, and a handful of prompt screens. But, other than these minor shortcomings, the Dashboard's Metro overhaul succeeds in revamping the console interface into a more intuitive, user-friendly and appealing environment. It is, without a doubt, the biggest and best change since NXE, and we won't miss the old "new experience" one bit.