Hands on with the new Xbox 360 dashboard

Having lived with the new dashboard update for the past week, we present some initial impressions--the good, the bad, and the ugly.

On November 19, Microsoft is rolling out its most ambitious Xbox 360 system update yet -- an entirely new dashboard that bears little resemblance to the series of panels users currently use to navigate the gaming console.

Dubbed "The New Xbox Experience," this ground-up overhaul of the system's front-end interface also introduces several new features--most notably an avatar system to represent users online and the addition of streaming video content from Netflix, similar to that offered by the Roku Netflix settop box.

Others have gone into great detail about all the design and functionality changes , so having lived with the new dashboard update for the past week, we'll instead present some initial impressions--the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The new dashboard divides content, settings, and functions into eight categories, each represented by a horizontal row of boxes. The new look is clean, easy to navigate, and aesthetically pleasing, although it all seems designed to push the maximum in Xbox marketing materials and advertising come-ons to the user.

Three of the rows are fully dedicated to ads and notifications from Xbox Live, while two others are mostly ads. Only the "Welcome" row, with basic instructional information you probably won't have to refer to more than once, and the "Friends," and "My Xbox" rows are exempt. The "Video Marketplace" row, for example, combines local content on your Xbox with links to (both paid and free) video selections from the Xbox Live Marketplace and Netflix.

If the new dashboard has one killer app, it's the Netflix viewer. Similar to the Roku Netflix Player, it can access and play back content from Netflix's on-demand library (as long as it's already in your viewing queue). The setup is similar to other settop boxes that work with Netflix, requiring you to log into the Netflix Web site from a computer and tie your account to that particular Xbox (you can use your account on up to five hardware devices, but deauthorizing is tricky, so choose wisely). Clicking on the Netflix box in the Video Marketplace row brings up all the item in your Netflix queue, and you can flip through the box covers with the Xbox controller. The setup looks and feels a little like Apple's Cover Flow system for iPods and iTunes.

Controlling the videos with the gamepad is a little trickier, and it takes some time to get used to how the buttons and triggers operate--we were constantly accidentally backing out to the main menu by hitting the "B" button. Using the Harmony Xbox 360 universal remote was much easier, as the play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind buttons on the remote matched up with the Netflix player. While it's a hassle to be restricted to a preset viewing queue and not be able to browse freely from the console, the Netflix player is a big win (as long as you're already a Netflix subscriber), and we doubt we'll fire up the small-form-factor PC hooked up to our plasma anytime soon.

The avatar system is stylistically close to (but more detailed than) the Nintendo Wii's Mii characters, with large heads and exaggerated features. The opening screen throws a bunch of random characters up, and asks you to choose one as a template. From there, eyes, noses, hair, etc. can be swapped out. Some categories, such as clothing, seemed a little thin, but we suspect new outfits and body parts will be added eventually.

Also notable in the new Xbox dashboard is the ability to put entire games onto the hard drive for faster loading (although you're still required to put the original disc in the drive). We tried it on Fallout 3 and didn't notice much of a difference, but other games may yield better results.

Those are our initial impressions after playing around with the new dashboard for the better part of a week. Stay tuned for a more extensive update to our Xbox 360 review, covering all the new features.

 

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