The New Xbox 360 Software: It's Not About the Games

On December 6th, Microsoft will officially release a new Xbox 360 dashboard update to all Xbox users. We've played around with it for a while now and can say that the Xbox has never looked so good.

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And it's all thanks to Metro. What's Metro? It's the design language that's giving Microsoft software a gorgeous sheen. Heavy on typography and flat squares and live tiles and swiping, Metro lives in Xbox, Windows Phone 7 and the upcoming Windows 8. It's a fresh yet familiar take on UI; Metro looks so good because you already know how to use it even if you've never used it before.

What's New

Illustration for article titled The New Xbox 360 Software: Its Not About the Games
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The looks. The UI. It's better. It's Metrofied. And that's a very good thing. With Metro on Xbox, Microsoft can elegantly pack more content onto one screen. A horizontal menu details the various categories on your Xbox (Games, Video, Music, Apps, etc.) with each category getting its own hub organized neatly with independent tiles of content. For example, the Apps tab will show a Netflix tile, an ESPN tile, Zune tile, etc. Games will show tiles for games. And so on. It makes complete sense. You shift over to a tab and you'll see exactly what you want to see, all in one hub. Metro keeps everything tidy and up front, there isn't much stuff hidden beyond what's on your TV screen which means you're no longer scrolling for days anymore. Even better, there's a new Quickplay tile on the home screen that can launch recently used apps (like Netflix). So even less scrolls! There are a lot of ads though.

All Kinect Everything

The new Xbox 360 dashboard places a huge emphasis on Kinect. From gestures to voice to design, Kinect has become front and center in controlling the Xbox. Or I guess, you are now front and center in controlling the Xbox (without a controller). Just wave your hand and you can swipe screens and access any tile you want without having to jump into the separate Kinect-only screen of yore. Kinect is integrated nearly system-wide now so you can Minority Report your Xbox to your hand's desire. Very cool.

What's most impressive about the Kinect controls is how well voice controls are implemented now. You can actually talk to your Xbox and it'll do things for you. And though the initial startup phrases are inelegant, it's easily the best way to navigate around the system. You initiate voice control by saying 'Xbox...' and then you can say Videos or Games or Apps etc. to navigate to that specific tab. Useful!

Illustration for article titled The New Xbox 360 Software: Its Not About the Games
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On top of that, you can search on your Xbox too. Not actual Bing search because that would be silly but search for movies and music and other content accessible via Xbox. Start with 'Xbox Bing...' and say something like 'Batman' and the Xbox will show you all the Batman content you can get on your Xbox (movies, shows, games) from all the various sources you can get it from. It's absolutely lovely and most importantly, fast and intuitive. I'm not touching a controller again.

Games? What Games? Say Hello to Apps

Illustration for article titled The New Xbox 360 Software: Its Not About the Games
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What's perhaps the boldest change in the new Xbox software update is something that's been building for a long time: the Xbox is not all about the games anymore. Seriously, in the hierarchy of categories, Games comes after Social and Video. That's purposeful. Along with the new software update, there'll be a ton of great looking, Metro-inspired new 'apps' from different content partners too. From HBO Go to UFC to FiOS to Crackle to YouTube, VEVO, TMZ, MLB.tv and more, you don't even have to buy one video game to enjoy an Xbox anymore. Combine those new apps with what's already on the Xbox like Netflix and Hulu Plus and the Xbox 360 is realizing and embracing its potential as much more than a game console.

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For gamers, that may be annoying. For the rest of us, say hello to the cable box of the future.

Here's the full list of content partners:

Dec. 6:
• EPIX. United States
• ESPN on Xbox LIVE. United States
• Hulu. Japan
• Hulu Plus. United States
• LOVEFiLM. United Kingdom
• Netflix. Canada, United States
• Premium Play by (MediaSet). Italy
• Sky Go (SkyDE). Austria, Germany
• Telefónica España – Movistar Imagenio. Spain
• TODAY (MSNBC). United States

Later in December:
• 4 on Demand (C4). United Kingdom
• ABC iView (Australian Broadcasting Corp.). Australia
• AlloCiné. France (AlloCiné), Germany (Filmstarts), Spain (Sensacine), United Kingdom (Screenrush)
• Astral Media's Disney XD (Astral Media). Canada
• blinkbox (Blinkbox). United Kingdom
• Crackle (Sony Pictures). Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, United States
• Dailymotion. Available in 32 countries globally
• Demand 5 (Five). United Kingdom
• DIGI+ (CANAL+). Spain
• GolTV (Mediapro). Spain
• iHeartRadio (Clear Channel). United States
• Mediathek/ZDF (ZDF). Germany
• MSN. Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, United Kingdom
• MSNBC.com. United States
• MUZU.TV. Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom
• ninemsn. Australia
• Real Sports (Maple Leaf Sports). Canada
• Rogers On Demand Online. Canada
• SBS ON DEMAND. Australia
• Syfy. United States
• TMZ. Canada, United States
• TVE (RTVE.es). Spain
• UFC on Xbox LIVE. Canada, United States
• Verizon FiOS TV. United States
• VEVO. Canada, Ireland, United Kingdom, United States
• Vudu. United States
• YouTube. Available in 24 countries globally

Early 2012:
• Antena 3 (Antena 3 de Televisión). Spain
• BBC. United Kingdom
• CinemaNow. United States
• HBO GO. United States
• MLB.TV. Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, United Kingdom, United States
• Telenovelas/Sports. Brazil, Chile, Colombia, France, Italy, Mexico, Spain, United Kingdom
• Xfinity On Demand (Comcast). United States

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DISCUSSION

I've been beta testing it for a month now, and while it does look good, and there are some nice new features, overall, it's probably their worst user interface yet.

To start off, there are almost no speed improvements. It's all cosmetic.

Ads are more dominant than ever, they're absolutely everywhere. The most prominent part of the home tab is an ad channel. You'd think paying for Xbox Live Gold would get you off the hook, but that's not the case at all.

Ads wouldn't be such a big deal if you could rearrange things and do some level of customization, turn off things you don't/won't use, but you cannot customize anything at all. Obviously this is nothing new since you couldn't before, but it's needed now more than ever.

Additionally, it now takes more clicks to do just about everything. Just checking what friends are up to takes extra clicks (You can still use the guide button). Parties are a whole separate section now, so just seeing what friends are in a party takes an additional click, but it only shows the first person in the party. If you want to see who else is in a party, add in an extra click.

Beacons are a great idea on paper, but once you start using them, that it too is plagued by many many issues. First, you have to dig through menus with it just like I mentioned above. Setting one isn't so hard, but removing one, have fun clicking some more. And don't get me started on the amount of notification spam you'll start receiving once you set a beacon. In fact, notification spam is more prevalent than ever.

When you get tired of the notifications, you can try digging through settings in order to figure out where to turn off all of the new ones, but they still haven't simplified settings at all. Things still aren't where you'd think they'd be. The groupings don't make sense and you'll continue to find yourself in the wrong place to update something simple.

The good news is, they left the home button functionality mostly the same. So you can still do most of the stuff you want without even messing with the dashboard. It's not any faster, but it still works.

So yeah, it looks nice, but overall it's just another example of how Microsoft excels at screwing up UI. But, since they arguably still have the best console out there, we're stuck with it.