Last year, Microsoft kitted out the Xbox 360 with its then-budding (and recently renamed) Metro interface – flattening out the Dashboard's cross-bar style navigation into a series of panel-laden channels that offered their primary functions on single page layouts. It looked good, it presented more information to the user at a glance and it was more efficient than its predecessor. So, what does the Dashboard's 2012 Fall update bring to the table? Even more trademark tiles, of course – though more isn't necessarily better. The various sections that make up the Xbox experience now feature between nine and twelve tiles per category,each serving up a mish-mash of system functions, product advertisements and recommended content. Of the nine panels on the Dash's new home screen, for example, three were essential, five were advertisements and one was dedicated to a Kinect-specific sub menu. To be frank, there's a lot going on here, and not all of it is useful. So, what happened?
Microsoft simplified a specific piece of the Xbox Dashboard, resulting in a more cluttered desktop – it shed its pseudo live tile. The live-updating panels that Windows 8 and Redmond's mobile platform utilize were never truly present on the Xbox 360, but last year's update offered a passable facsimile in the form of a rotating "featured" tile that cycled through select content. There was one on almost every channel, each offering up to five rotating spots for advertisements or recommendations – the new Dashboard instead deals this content out individually, granting each item its own dedicated panel. At first, this almost seems like a better use of space – serving users all available items simultaneously, rather than making them wait (or trigger) a carousel to digest more information – but since the majority of the information available is advertisement, it comes off as a bit of a marketing mess.
Admittedly, these are harsh words, but our true frustration is rooted in the lost potential of these extra tiles. It all stems from the updated Dashboard's poor implementation of "pinning." On Windows Phone and Windows 8, pinning snags favorite apps, content or shortcuts and "pins" them to the home screen, letting users kit out their device's landing page with their most used items – across both platforms this is a fairly uniform action, and adds a lot of personality to the user's work environment. Pinning on the Xbox doesn't work like that – yes, items can be "pinned," which adds them to a special "My Pins" sub menu, but pinned items don't take up residence in any of the Xbox's tile-laden channels. The feature uses the same terminology as its desktop and mobile cousins, but fails to deliver the same functionality. This nonconformism teases a feature that would have allowed users to make use of all those extra tiles, customizing unique home screens that was representative of not only their own use, but of Microsoft's entire design aesthetic. While the pin menu does offer quicker access a list of favorites, its halfhearted implementation robs the plentiful panels of their full potential.
The update also tweaks and rebrands the "quickplay" item that was introduced just last year -- removing the app launcher from the Xbox guide, and renaming it to "recent" on the console's home screen. This is a minor, but notable tweak for users who strive to navigate their console from the guide exclusively. Fortunately, recently used items can still be accessed through the guide's "Games & Apps" menu.
The additional ad-space is handled better in some channels than others. Music, for instance, offers
Zune Xbox Music Pass subscribers quick links to new releases, a top 100 playlist and popular music videos. Similarly, both the Games and TV & Movies categories feature a pair of tiles showcasing content tailored to the user's interests based on previous activity, with a third tile offering a wider selection of recommended content. These recommendations are still advertising, but it's smarter advertising. Been playing Mega Man 10 and Turtles in Time: Reshelled? Why not try Earthworm Jim HD? Not all of the engine's leaps of logic hit the mark, however. Would you recommend Barbie as Rapunzel to a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas? Our Xbox did. Thankfully, recommendations can be culled using the new Dash's rating system -- thumbing the X button on the recommendation page allows you to pin an item, dismiss it or rate it out of five stars. Games can also be rated on their individual pages within their parent channel, but for some reason the rating option doesn't appear in Xbox Video, despite being available for movies that pop up within the recommendations sub-menu.
Finally, it's worth noting that while the music and video channels in the beta shed the Zune moniker, the apps themselves had not changed. Microsoft told us that the new Dashboard was little more than a minor branding tweak, as far as the media services went, and that it wasn't representative of the future of Xbox Music and Video. We'd be willing to bet that TV and Movie ratings will come in the official update, as will some additional branding swaps: we still found a few Zune logos hiding in the deeper levels of the new Dashboard.
Microsoft's Aaron Greenberg once described web browsing on a TV as a poor experience, explaining to Edge Magazine that the Xbox 360 simply wouldn't be getting a web browser. "Sure, you can go on the PS3 and go to Facebook and try to navigate" he argued, "but it's an absolute nightmare." Foot, meet mouth. The web browser Microsoft announced at E3 is finally here, regrettably living up to Greenberg's predictions. It just isn't a good experience.
Internet Explorer on Xbox 360 is a temperamental and often sluggish browser. Some sites, like The Onion, load with nary a hitch -- playing videos, scrolling smoothly and loading at a decent clip. Sadly, America's finest news source is the exception, not the rule. More often than not, Xbox's flavor of IE will drag its way through the web, strolling through your high-speed connection at dial-up speeds. Some sites -- like Fox Sports, one of the browser's default featured sites -- won't even scroll smoothly while fully loaded, stuttering their way across the screen. Even in best case scenarios, most pages have trouble keeping up with the user's movement, and are very obviously loading as you scroll. Most of the sites we tested averaged somewhere between a jittery stutter and a quick render, usually leaving us to wait for a few seconds while a new portion of the page loaded.
The browser is also notably incompatible with most streaming video, and lacks the plugins required for the much web's richer multimedia experiences. Xbox's own website and the Onion's streaming content played fine, but YouTube, Viddler and most embeds we came across either wouldn't load at all or asked us to download Flash. Microsoft's own Silverlight is equally impotent, so don't get any cocky ideas about loading up Netflix on the 360's web-browser. HTML5, on the other hand, hobbled along at a workable pace (see the above mentioned video content), but not necessarily a strong one. Contre Jour, for instance, limps at a jittery and uneven framerate -- offering a playable, but not entirely enjoyable experience. This certainly isn't the fast, fluid, more beautiful web Redmond has been waxing poetic about recently.
The browser isn't particularly easy to use, ether. Entering a URL, for instance, requires pulling up an on-screen keyboard -- hardly a departure for text entry on a console, but this keyboard requires you to click on each letter using an analog controlled cursor rather than the traditional locked-gird hunt-and-peck setup consoles have trained us to expect. Dragging the virtual mouse over the letters is awkward and imprecise -- often missing the desired key. The left-analog controlled mouse works well enough once you get to page, as does the scrolling action of the right stick, but beyond basic navigation the browser's control scheme feels incomplete.
One thing that is nice about the 360's version of Internet Explorer is the Web Hub. Tapping the Y button brings up the URL bar and a horizontal list of featured, recent or favorite web pages. It has a minimalist design that fits right in with Microsoft's new standard aesthetic flair, and it looks great. Sadly, it too is plagued by an underutilization of control, requiring the same awkward cursor to manipulate most of its functions. Both the keyboard and the greater hub could have used a toggle to switch between a cursor mode and a item-based navigation method similar to how the main Dashboard itself responds to gamepad input. At least the hub has the saving grace of Kinect -- allowing you to navigate most of its features through voice control. Even so, the motion sensitive cursor Kinect brings to the Xbox Dashboard is oddly absent here, which seems like a missed opportunity.
The more time we spent with the Xbox's awkward browsing experience, the more it seemed clear that it's missing a vital component: SmartGlass. We peeked around the settings menu and found a cursory mention of the upcoming cross-platform control setup, but Microsoft told us what we found was mostly groundwork and branding changes. SmartGlass is coming, but it isn't here yet -- and its second-device control could make all the difference for the console's web browser. The compatibility issues, on the other hand? Well, let's just say we're looking forward to regular patches.
Is the Xbox 360's 2012 update worth its weight in bandwidth? Maybe not. Despite introducing an fairly fun and entertaining ratings and suggestion engine, the new Dash's plethora of panels leaves it looking like a messy billboard. The new Pin feature could have alleviated some of this mess by allowing a form of desktop customization, but instead only manages to pass as a rebranded favorites menu. The new features are handy, but the cost is visually aggravating.
And the web browser? It's tolerable for some light browsing, but fails to surpass the convenience and overall better experience of simply loading the same content on a smartphone. It stands as evidence for Microsoft's old argument: some experiences just aren't made for the TV. That said, it has some potential -- at least after Microsoft launches SmartGlass apps for Android, iOS and Windows Phone. In the meantime, we doubt you'll have any trouble ignoring the sub-par browsing experience. If you somehow need tips, find a friend with a PS3. They'll tell you all about that browser they never use.