On the hardware end of things, the Xbox 360 has seen more than its share of troubles, whether it’s the red ring of death, a lack of integrated wi-fi, or even a standard hard drive. But when it comes to software, Microsoft clearly gets it.
A few years ago, the PSN was an unproven (albeit free) competitor, and we already knew that Nintendo wasn’t really going to invest in online gaming. So there are gamers out there who picked the 360 as their console of choice because of the comprehensive Xbox LIVE service.
This is why.
We have finally gotten a chance to test-drive the “New Xbox Experience” dashboard update coming to Xbox 360 owners November 14, so hit the read link to see our thoughts thus far on the new interface.
There isn’t a whole lot to say about avatars right now. Basically, they are like Miis with more detail and more options (namely clothing). Their primary function is to hang out on your friends list, and they are currently usable in a few games like Uno and Hardwood Hearts on XBLA. You can also pose your avatar, select the background color, and take a photograph for use as your gamer picture. It seems like Microsoft is aiming to create a more personal online community on LIVE with this feature, and as simple as it is, we like it. In the future, you should be able to use Avatars in Xbox LIVE Primetime, which are event-based games like 1 vs. 100 that occur at a specific time that all LIVE subscribers can join in on.
This might be an overlooked feature by many, but we found it to be the best part of the “New Xbox Experience.” I didn’t have Netflix before the update, but decided to sign up for a free trial to test it out, and it won me over instantly. I do have on-demand services from my cable company and a Blockbuster across the street; I don’t want to wait for DVDs to come in the mail, and I don’t care about streaming to my 19-inch monitor when I have an HDTV in the next room. I’m sure a ton of Xbox 360 owners feel that way, and they are going to be floored this coming Wednesday. It took about five minutes to setup my account, and within seconds of adding it to my Watch Instantly queue from the computer (or any internet device), I was watching The Orphanage in HD. Aside from highly recommending that movie, I can say that the Netflix streaming is a perfect solution for people who don’t already have a standalone player (and who does?). If you already own a 360, an unlimited one-movie-a-time plan is all you need, which only costs $8.99 per month after the free trial. You get the instant gratification of on-demand, with a larger selection than your local Blockbuster or cable company can hope to provide. Even then, a single rental is generally in the $4-6 range. If you rent at least one movie per month, it is totally worth it.
The new friends list is where Themes 2.0 come into play (of which you get four free). Each of your friends is represented by their avatar, and each will stand in front of a number of different environments depending on your active theme. For example, the Night theme will have your friends hanging out in front of bars, graffiti-tagged skate ramps, cop cars, and more. Offline friends will be asleep toward the end of the list, and online friends will be near the front, awake, and have a billboard showing what they are doing/playing on Xbox LIVE. It’s fun, but if your friends list is long, it is much easier to use the guide button than to scroll through all the avatars
Hitting the guide button now calls up a miniature version of the old blades system that occupies a small rectangle in the middle of the screen instead of the sides. The condensed menu system is a lot more responsive than the laggy blades, presumable because they require less screen real estate. It’s all better-organized too, with common functions out front and easier to find.
Hard Drive Installs
There is already a plethora of data available on this subject, so our own analysis would be redundant.
The ability to hold a private chat with anyone on Xbox LIVE, regardless of what each person is doing, is probably the most underrated feature on the service. Just look at what Nintendo is trying with Wii Speak, and it is easy to appreciate the versatile VOIP that LIVE already has. NXE ups the ante considerably in this area, with up to eight people now able to join a “party,” which is a group private chat that can move from game to game together.
The Community Games channel is a new service that delivers downloadable games separate from XBLA. Anyone who pays the $100 per year XNA Creators Club fee can put their own game on LIVE after a short peer review process. There is not much to go on at the moment, but that will hopefully change on November 19. What is available isn’t that great, with Weapon of Choice being the most recommendable title. At least the games are cheap, averaging about 400 points each.
Organization/Ease of Use
Everything looks better and is easier to find. The only gripe we have is the lack of a text search. A game will always have its related downloads next to it, but typing is always going to be simpler than navigating pictures.
When we first saw the blades interface, it was a major leap forward in what a console is capable beyond games. The “New Xbox Experience” feels like another significant step forward, giving gamers something to be thankful for come Turkey Day. Then again, we do pay a subscription fee unlike the other consoles, so maybe we deserve it.
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