Sunday, November 16, 2008

New Xbox Experience Impressions

While the New Xbox Experience officially launches on Wed. Nov. 19th, I was fortunate enough to get into the final wave of the Preview program. As of 5:00 pm this past Friday, the New Xbox Experience was made available to me, though I wasn't able to actually fire up my Xbox 360 until yesterday morning.

Thus far, the New Xbox Experience is an impressive overhaul of the Xbox 360's Dashboard. It is cosmetically beautiful, easy to navigate, and even the sissy little Avatars haven't annoyed me. But of course before you can check out any of that, you'll need to install the Update.

The installation process is a painless one. When you power up your Xbox 360 console and connect to Xbox LIVE, it'll pop up telling you there's a new Update that needs to be downloaded, just like any other System Update. The download will commence, and this will take approximately one minute. Your console will then reboot itself, and a launcher will execute downloading and installing whatever else it needs. This process took about 5 minutes overall.

After the installation is complete, you're greeted to a brief and stylish intro video and then you're introduced to the sissy little Avatars. A bunch of the wusses will run on screen, and you can choose anyone to use and either stick with that, or immediately customize him/her.

I took several minutes to make my Avatar look as close to me as possible (complete with receding hair line), and then after having him burp several times by clicking the Right Stick, I took a snap shot to use as my Gamer Pic (which should display to you all on Wednesday), and saved and exited to the new Xbox 360 Dashboard.

As I mentioned above, the Dashboard is now really slick and easy to navigate, and once you log into Xbox LIVE, you're presented with several Channels that you can easily peruse using the Left Stick. Up and down scrolls through each Channel, and Left and Right scrolls thr
ough the contents of that Channel. It somewhat reminds me of Sony's XrossMediaBar, only inverted and much more animated. According to the wonderful wealth of knowledge known as Wikipedia, the New Xbox Experience actually uses the Twist UI that's also used by Microsoft's Windows Media Centre and Zune.

The Chann
els available to you (scrolling Up) are Welcome (which you can hide/unhide), Spotlight, My Xbox, Game Marketplace, Video Marketplace, Friends, and Inside Xbox.

The Welc
ome Channel has several beginner tips and details which most of you can quickly by-pass. The Spotlight Channel is used to highlight whatever's big in the Xbox community right now, such as Gears of War 2 being released, and Iron Man available on the Video Marketplace.

My Xbox is
where I've spent most of my time, and it allows you to open/close/and play what's in your DVD Tray, shows your Profile which you can expand along with your sissy Avatar (and Achievements and Played Games are integrated as one and oh so easy to peruse), shows your Games, Video, Music, and Picture Libraries respectively, allows you to connect to Windows Media Centre (if you've got that configured), and has your System Settings.

Generally speaking, the My Xbox Channel is essenti
ally the set up of the old Blades Dashboard and can function very similar to it. If you're using a Theme, the main Xbox LIVE Blade picture is everywhere over the new Dashboard except in this Channel. Your Games Library has the Games Blade picture, the Video, Music, and Picture Libraries has the Media Blade picture, and System Settings has the System Blade picture. Note that while you can use all your previous Themes, they seem to look a little stretched, I suppose to fit a slightly adjusted re-sizing. You can also use all your Gamer Pictures for your profile, or use your Avatar as a picture, or a combination. So all our fears of these items no longer being available for use are completely moot.

The Game Marketplace and Video Marketplace Channels respectively are a re-org
anization of the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, splitting into the obvious categories. I've found them each very easy to navigate at least on the surface, and the Video Marketplace has been greatly expanded upon, which is a great thing. What's odd though is that often times if I select a new item to view, instead of taking me straight to download that item, it'll take me to the game's main info page; most games have a complete "profile" of their own now. While it's cool that this provides featured downloads, screenshots, and game details, I'm then forced to navigate through another menu just to get to the content I wanted, and if I go back, it takes me back to the root Dashboard and not the original menu I was browsing. This here is my major con towards the New Xbox Experience thus far, as one of Microsoft's primary goals was to make things easier to navigate, and while they've succeeded everywhere else, the Marketplace seems to be a step backwards and now saturates me with info I wasn't even looking for.

The Friends Channel is a nicely animated section showing your Friend's Avatars:
if they're online, and what game they're playing with that game's actual box art. You can then select any individual Friend to view their complete Gamercard and interact with them (sending messages and game invites) like you would have of old.

Finally, the
Inside Xbox Channel boasts all the videos that you use to find on the Inside Xbox option from the Xbox LIVE Blade of the old Dashboard. The collection of videos is nicely sorted by category, and very simple to navigate.

The Xbox Guide has also been completely overhauled, and uses a Blade setup si
milar to the former Dashboard itself. While originally we were shown earlier incarnations in which the Xbox Guide was just a mini re-placement of the former Dashboard, it's now been overhauled to be more unique and simply much more useful.

The Xbox G
uide now starts you off in a centre Blade named after your account name (or "Home" if you're not signed in), and from here you can return to the Dashboard, quick launch a game, browse a classic-styled Friends list which also allows you to sign in and use Windows Live Messenger, interact with a Party (which won't work for me. Apparently my Privacy Settings are in the way, but I can't see how), check your Messages, Chat & IM, and Open/Close the disc Tray. Very similar to the Xbox LIVE Blade.

To the lef
t you have the Games Blade which lets you view a classic listing of Achievements and your Game Library, and to the left of that you have the Marketplace Blade, which is a better organized version of the classic Xbox LIVE Marketplace on the surface, but basically seems to re-direct you to the appropriate Marketplace Channel based on what option you select.

To the right of the Home Blade is the Media Blade which is a combination of the classic Media Blade and the original Xbox Guide's music player controls, and to the right of the Media Blade is the Settings Blade which allows you to manage your Profile, Notifications, Preferences, Family Settings, System Settings, Account Management, and Turn off Your Console. Overall, the Settings Blade is a hybrid of the old Xbox Guide and the former System Blade.

System S
ettings, whether accessed via the My Xbox Channel or the Xbox Guide's Settings Blade, is laid out almost exactly the same as the former System Blade with a few extra options tossed in under Console Settings; allowing you the option to disable a disc's autostart and to hide/unhide the Welcome Channel.

Now, the big thing I was really looking forward to about the New Xbox Experience was being able to install games to my HDD. While Sony's PlayStation 3 has already allowed games to perform partial installs to their HDDs, the New Xbox Experience allows you to copy over the entire game right onto your HDD, and you'll then only
need to have the disc in the tray for verification purposes, very reminiscent of PC gaming, and a nice counter to the storage space offered via Blu-ray Disc.

I tested this feature out with Gears of War 2, and the game weighs in at 6.7 GB and took approximately 12 minutes to install. Overall, this was not a bad wait time, though for those of us with an original 20 GB HDD, we really will only be able to have one game installed at a time, two if we're lucky. I presently have 809 MB of free space remaining because of Gears of War 2, when prior to the install I had about 7.5 GB free, close to half my HDD's overall available space.

The two m
ajor advertised benefits of HDD installation are decreased load times, and a much quieter gaming experience since the console no longer needs to continually access the DVD drive. From my short test period with Gears of War 2, I can't say I noticed any load time improvements what-so-ever, but by Krom is it quiet! The Xbox 360 has always had a loud DVD drive, the volume of which depended on who was the manufacturer of the drive in your console, and I presently have the quietest BenQ model and with the HDD install, the lack of noise is clearly evident and very welcome. For this reason alone, I am seriously considering purchasing a 120 GB HDD now so I can simply install my games on it as I play. Considering my Xbox 360 hardware issues have always been failing DVD drives or DVD tray ejection issues, the lack of needing to use the drive for any real capacity is a major plus for me.

One thing I haven't really tinkered with is Offline mode. The New Xbox Experience is much more Xbox LIVE centred than the previous Dashboard was, and for me this is a good thing as I'm almost always online when using my Xbox 360, however I did quickly check out an Offline Profile just to see what would happen.

Basically, you get to select and customize an Avatar just like an Xbox LIVE account does, but the Channels are a little different. There is no Spotlight Channel since this is Xbox LIVE dependant, and you start at the My Xbox Channel. The other Channels are present, however they all just contain quick details of what they could offer if you were connected to Xbox LIVE. In brief, if you have an Offline account, you will only really be using the My Xbox Channel and in a very similar manner to how you used the original Xbox 360 Dashboard, but considering the excellent new layout and cosmetics, this is by no means a bad thing and you will benefit greatly from the System Update. The Xbox Guide also has any Xbox LIVE dependant options either missing or greyed out. If you have an Xbox LIVE account and for whatever reason go to Offline mode, my expectation is that this is the setup we'd also have.

So after tinkering for about a day thus far, those are my impressions of the New Xbox Experience. Overall, a very nice cosmetic change, and save for the Marketplaces, much simpler and easier to navigate. The install to HDD option is a dream, assuming you have the space, and Microsoft has really gone above and beyond with this System Update. Considering the Xbox 360 turns three years old next Saturday, the simple fact that an Update of this magnitude is not only being released but being released for free is an excellent display from Microsoft, and will certainly help the Xbox 360 maintain its competitive edge for as long as Microsoft chooses to support it.

Now let's just hope Xbox LIVE is prepared for the server load come Wednesday...


marko said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Flame_Kettle said...

How do I change my gamer pic to my Avatar?


Juxtapose said...

When you customize your Avatar, there's an option where you can take a pic.

Afterwards, to to edit your Profile in the My Xbox channel and change your Gamer Pic there.

Hope this helps!

Flame_Kettle said...

AH thanks! I saw the take a pic link and just assumed it had something to do with a Xbox camera ..

Thanks again!