The New Xbox Experience Makes Life Easier, Sells Things

By  |  Friday, November 21, 2008 at 8:18 am

xbox360Xbox 360 users got a thorough reskinning of their console’s dashboard this week. The one conclusive opinion I can offer is that “The New Xbox Experience” is markedly smoother and shinier than the old one. Other than that, I’m still debating whether this is actually a slicker way to navigate my console of choice or a veiled attempt to sell me more downloadable content. After the jump, a breakdown of the new features.

Under the old system, each of the Xbox 360’s various features–such as Games, Media, Xbox Live and Marketplace downloads–were accessed through their own screen. The new dashboard breaks things down a little differently, highlighting news, special events, the latest features and, of course, your library of available content. A friends list displays more information up front about your online buddies, but it’s harder to navigate as a result. Aside from that list and the “My Xbox” tab, almost every menu includes a link to something you can purchase for download, now or in the future.

It gives the sense that there’s more to your console than the disc in the tray, but almost all of it comes at a price. Sure, you can plug an avatar of yourself (more on that below) into a few games, but you’ve got to buy the game first. Streaming Netflix videos directly sounds good, but there’s nothing to entice you aside from a free trial, after which your credit card is automatically charged. There is one free video available, but it’s a Nike commercial starring LeBron James. I can’t blame Microsoft for using The New Xbox Experience to make more money, but it’s not fooling anyone.

The Guide Button
Pressing the center button on the Xbox 360 controller brings up a slimmed-down version of the old console dashboard. You can access your friends list, play music and video, skip to various download hubs and adjust the console settings. A new “Quick Launch” button is particularly helpful, allowing users to easily jump to the inserted game disc or downloaded titles. It’s comforting that Microsoft packed so much functionality into this menu, as veteran gamers will likely use it to access most of their content.

As with the Playstation’s upcoming Home dashboard app, the 360’s avatar creator borrows (read: shamelessly rips off) a page from the Wii’s ability to create digital likenesses of each user. The tool itself is more robust in some ways, with customizable clothes and more hairstyles, but somehow my Mii character seems more accurate, probably because features like eyebrow height and size can be better tweaked on the Wii. Also, there’s something creepy about avatar creation on the 360, as if the population of cute, smiley faces doesn’t belong on such a “hardcore” console.

Install to Drive

Retail games can now be installed to the system’s hard drive for faster play and shorter load times. I tried this with Call of Duty: World at War and didn’t notice any difference, but then I didn’t have speed problems with the game to begin with. I imagine the payoff would be greater for games with notoriously long loading screens or those where you’ll often die and reload the last checkpoint. The COD install set my hard drive back by 6.5 GB. If you’re considering a massive Blockbuster run and subsequent installation party, don’t bother: You still need the disc to run the game.

Fortunately, the New Xbox Experience is certainly not one of those updates that makes you yearn for the old days. Despite the excess marketing, it’s more fun to use than the old skin, and it just looks better. The improved Guide Button makes navigation easier than before, and if you have the monetary means, you’ll likely use the retooled menus to enjoy the Xbox 360 in new ways. We plan to explore two new features, Netflix and user-created Community Games, in greater detail next week.

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