Xbox 360 fall update hands-on

The fall 2010 dashboard update for Xbox 360 includes ESPN and Zune Music functionality, along with Netflix search and a new overall design.

Jeff Bakalar/CNET

Microsoft is using this November's release of the company's motion-sensing initiative to revamp the Xbox 360 dashboard. The new update, due out later this fall when Kinect hits stores, gives the dashboard a complete cosmetic upgrade, zippier navigation, and more features and functionality. We should note that Zune, ESPN, and Netflix features require an adult Gold membership on Xbox Live.

You'll notice the change right away, as the opening splash screen has a different look and welcoming sound byte. Mostly all of the current dashboard's sounds have been disregarded, save for the iconic "pop-up." Instead, the interface now carries with it more soothing sounds. Visually speaking, Microsoft has opted for a minimalistic and angular presentation, with more concentration on grays and whites.

Performance-wise, there have definitely been a few tweaks under the hood. The Xbox Guide is definitively faster--absent now is the lag the previous version suffered from when launching the Guide mid-game. Browsing through the Game Library seems quicker too, and items installed on the hard drive populate the screen with ease.

Among the updated features is a new version of Netflix. Most notably, the option to now search the entire Netflix library has been added, and items not available for instant streaming can now be added to your traditional queue with the click of a button.

ESPN makes its debut on the Xbox 360 with the fall update, but users with an ISP (Internet service provider) that has not signed a contract with Disney won't have access to ESPN3 HD content, which includes the streaming of out-of-market sports. We experienced this issue firsthand as Cablevision in Northern New Jersey has yet to agree to terms that allow for such services. There's better news for customers in New York City as Time Warner has come to an agreement with Disney, but there has yet to be anything signed. You can check to see if your ISP has a deal in place by heading over to ESPN3.com.

If you're among these unfortunate souls like we are, the ESPN on Xbox 360 experience is a bit watered-down, but does include plenty of streaming highlights and clips from ESPN's various networks and items appear to be frequently updated. Buffering is minimal, and most videos begin to play within a few seconds. The interface is easy to navigate, consisting of three large home screens, the left-most one giving you access to all of the additional features and content.

Jeff Bakalar/CNET

Some more features of ESPN on Xbox 360 include scoreboards, chatting with up to seven friends during games, and "Predict the Winner," an option that lets the viewer choose the winner of a current game and compare the results with other Xbox Live users.

Zune music functionality has been beefed up in the new update, allowing users to subscribe to Zune Pass, which provides unlimited streaming of millions of songs. These tracks can also be searched through the service while Smart DJ will create customized playlists generated by your unique musical taste. The program will also recommend tunes your Xbox Live friends are listening to.

Jeff Bakalar/CNET

The new Xbox 360 fall update also makes room for Kinect interactivity with the menu system. Though we didn't have Kinect at our disposal to test it out, we did see the option to set up the device in the new dashboard. Within the Kinect section users will be able to video chat using Video Kinect with Xbox Live members across the planet.

We also noticed a few additions to the overall feel of the dashboard as well. The last option in most of the menu rows features a "hide channel" box that lets the user customize which menus appear. Xbox Live members will also notice in-menu video ads like the Jack Link's beef jerky one we were treated to. Clicking on the ad brought us to a screen that offered a month of Xbox Live Gold Membership for $1.

The main focus of the dashboard update is aimed at introducing new ESPN and Zune Music functionality, but we're impressed with the performance tweaks and overall aesthetic design improvements. We'll have more on the fall update as it approaches and a full review of Kinect in the coming weeks.

 

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