Features & News

Hands On: Xbox 360 Dashboard Update 2011

December 5, 2011, Author: Stephen King

The Xbox 360 is now six years old and with the evolution of the console experience, the dashboard has inevitably been changed to keep up with the times. The original Xbox 360 design with the blades would be considered an eyesore by today’s standards, and every feature new update caused it to become more out of touch. Looking at it now actually makes my eyes hurt a little, and I find it very difficult to believe that this was classed as good UI design not so many years ago.

A blast from the past

This then prompted the NXE, or New Xbox Experience, which is the dashboard that we have all been getting used to for the last couple of years. Its earlier incarnation saw improvements in navigation, but most of all in style. This was the sign of things to come and Microsoft began to add onto this with additions such as applications, and the proliferation of the Zune brand. However, the time eventually came and once again it needed alterations to make it usable with all of the new improvements.

This brings us to what those who haven’t updated as part of the preview have right now. To be perfectly honest, I think what we have at the moment is actually pretty good. There are no major criticisms, with the exception of it becoming a little bit bolted together. The dashboard experience was great to start with, but was created at a time with particular types of content in mind. With the fluid nature of the Xbox system itself, you can understand why this new iteration has come around.

Old faithful

The other reason being that they are looking to make the Kinect experience even better than it was previously. Rather than having a dedicated area of the dashboard for Kinect, the entire dashboard is optimised using the new Metro layout to allow easier use of motion and voice controls. In the new update, what we have is a very sexy looking layout accompanied by great responsiveness; a genuinely worthy successor to the NXE.

Not only does it look beautiful, it performs far greater than its predecessor. The new Metro design has all of the sections appearing in neatly formed squares, much like the Windows Phone 7 layout and the future Windows 8 tablet layout. However, there are many things to talk about in the new dashboard experience. One massive change I feel is that the advertisement panels are now set up in a carousel, so that the user can flick through and change them to the advert they are looking for rather than having to wait for it to spin round again. They are easily changed using the right analogue.

The first of many new features is the Bing search. It doesn’t surprise me one iota that Microsoft have managed to shoehorn in their floundering search engine into their enormously successful console. As I mentioned earlier, they did this with Zune too, and it gave it a greater awareness.

Using the Bing search you are able to find anything you desire from any of the Xbox services at the type of a word. If you have Kinect, you can simply use voice commands to get Bing to search for you. Unfortunately I am sans Kinect, and even more annoyingly they have not allowed the use of the voice commands to work with a microphone; or at least I couldn’t get it to work, the half an hour I spent shouting Bing at my TV made me look like quite the fool. Not entirely unexpected as Microsoft are trying to push 360 owners to purchase their incredible camera tech, but at the same time I feel a little let down that they were so quick to forget the rest of us.

The new hotness!

Since the last update, Microsoft have been  trying to push the social nature of gaming, and have been doing a great job with their service Xbox Live, but they also included Facebook and Twitter in the mix. In the previous incarnation of the dash, these were added on to once again push the social features, but now they are back with a face lift. They look a lot better with the new style, layout and once again are more responsive like the rest of the new experience.

The inclusion of greater social integration has given birth to an interesting new feature known as Beacons and activities. What this allows you to do is publicly post your interest in doing an activity to all of your Xbox Live friends, and even leave post on Facebook! This is a pretty clever idea in my opinion, as I have a lot of friends who have Facebook apps on their phones and this would let them know I was looking to play a game, or watch a movie or listen to music.

Now that there are more and more applications such as Zune, Twitter and Facebook on the Xbox, it seems like they have made the right call to have a specific dashboard segment for apps. Sadly, the beta doesn’t give a full picture of what we will be getting this December 6th, so the likes of the new TV channel and YouTube applications are still missing.

With the promise of all the new applications, streaming television, new social interactivity, streamlined controls and much more, this new experience feels a little bit like Christmas has come early. Despite not having a Kinect, which seems to be where the dashboard’s updates have been aimed at, I have had a great time using the new design. I think that Kinect users and non-Kinect users a like will benefit largely from what this update has to offer. Come the new year, we will all have entered a new era of social gaming, and this is the start of it all.