The 2010 fall update for Xbox Live has finally arrived. Live subscribers were forced to download it when they logged into Xbox Live last Monday. The update brought with it a complete cosmetic overhaul which has been causing quite a stir on the Xbox forums. Additionally a host of new functionality was added to both the dashboard and the Xbox Live service. The merits of the dashboard’s new look were discussed in another article. Right now, let’s take a look at the new features offered by the update.
More Responsive Guide Button
According to Microsoft, the users will notice an increase in responsiveness when they press the guide button. What this translates to is that the Xbox guide (the small, bladed interface that pops up when you press the big button in the center of your controller) should pop up faster than it previously did. In our tests, we didn’t notice a significant improvement. The guide may open slightly faster than before but the overall experience of using the guide seems to be pretty much the same as before.
Along these same lines there is no improvement in loading times when navigating the dashboard in general. If anything, loading times seem to be even worse. The “My Games” blade is especially bad, taking upwards of thirty seconds to a full minute to populate its lists with your recently played games and game library. It would have been nice to see some improvement in this area.
ESPN Sports Channel
The new ESPN Channel is a sports lover’s dream. Offering live and on demand sporting events in 720p high-def, the new channel should get a lot of use by sports fans. The content is basically the same as what’s offered on espn.com but now you can watch it on your TV. The caveat being that your local internet service provider has to have cut a licensing deal with ESPN. So the service may not be available in your area.
At any rate the channel’s interface looks great and is easy to navigate, which is a good thing since there is a lot of content to explore. There are live events (although no NFL or NHL games yet) and enough archived events to keep you watching for endless hours. Other features that round out the ESPN experience include sports highlights, games at a glance and a really neat lobby that you can interact with your friends in; It’s a well thought out package that will give sports fans plenty to do.
Improved Zune Marketplace
The Zune Marketplace has been given a complete overhaul with a new interface and additional content. With more movie and TV show offerings than ever before, it could begin to rival cable television as an entertainment provider. Buying TV shows in high def has never been easier and it puts more control in the hands of the customer, letting them decide when and how to watch their programs, commercial free. You can buy individual shows or buy a “season pass” that gives you access to all new episodes as they are released. What is really amazing here is how well Microsoft’s streaming technology works. Instead of waiting hours for a high definition movie or TV show to download you can stream it and watch it right away, in glorious high-def.
It’s a little disappointing that they didn’t include more functionality for user’s music collections. All the focus seems to be on the video side of things with a nice browser for your video collection; which includes anything you’ve ever bought, even if you’ve deleted it from your hard drive. There is nothing like this for your music collection. You sill have to use the music player within the Xbox Guide, which looks like a software utility from ten years ago. It doesn’t even support the display of album covers. As more people start to use their Xbox as their main music player, increased functionality and a more aesthetically pleasing interface would be most welcome.
The new Netflix browser will also be warmly received by anyone who uses Netflix on Xbox. The new, flat layout of the interface actually serves Netflix well. When you scroll through your movie list you no longer get the nausea inducing motion sickness caused by the old, cascading style menu. The biggest addition to functionality is the ability to search for movies on your Xbox. If the movie is available for streaming you can add it to your queue and watch it, if not you can add it to your DVD mailing list. Previously you had to go to the Netflix website on your PC to manage your movie queue.
In general the Netflix channel seems to run faster and smoother as well as looking better and more modern; all great changes
The update also features improved voice chat, sleek avatars and family programming. Everything else is pretty much the same but with a fresh coat of paint. Whether or not you like that coat of paint is a matter of personal taste and is being discussed to no end on the official Xbox Live discussion forum. The majority of the people participating in the discussion, clearly falling into the “do not like” camp.
There are some new security settings to explore but virtually no options to customize the look of your dashboard. While not surprising (Microsoft has never given users many options for customization in any of their products) a simple thing like choice of color schemes would have been nice. You can still apply a personal image as your dashboard background, but since the dashboard interface takes up eighty percent of your screen’s real estate it seems almost pointless.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of whether or not you like the new dashboard, you must download the update to continue using Xbox Live. The new features outweigh any cosmetic issues you may have with the stylistic choices Microsoft has made. At the end of the day, the Xbox is still a great entertainment hub and plays the games you love. If you really hate the dashboard you can set your Xbox to automatically launch the game that’s in it when you start it up, thereby passing the dashboard altogether.
Gamers should adjust regardless of the wailing and lamenting going on in various forums. If the new dashboard make the system more accessible to casual gamers then it’s a win, win for Microsoft. More subscribers means a larger revenue stream and more features added in the future. What’s wrong with that?