updated 01:45 am EST, Mon December 5, 2011
We try Xbox 360 fall 2011 dashboard early
Microsoft is about to launch its Xbox 360 fall Dashboard update, and we've had the opportunity to use it early on our own system ahead of when it goes live December 6. The update is Microsoft's second major revamp in the Xbox 360's history and is geared around turning the Xbox 360 into a media hub. Read on for hands-on time and why it may be the definitive answer to the Apple TV.
The entire interface is based on the tiled look of Windows Phone 7 (and next year, Windows 8). This is both to put a new emphasis on apps but also to give Kinect users a way to control the entire interface: previously, they had to go to a special menu. It's a real help, although it's still slow and really best for when your hands are messy from popcorn. Voice commands are much better, now, and will recognize when you look for a specific TV episode or tell it to play a game in the DVD drive by name.
Even if you use a gamepad, though, it's quick to navigate by using the bumper buttons to jump between top-level sections. Most tasks aren't necessarily quicker, but we'd say they're less confusing to newcomers.
No matter where you live, a few features are persistent. Bing search lets you scour content that's not only on your Xbox but the various Marketplaces as well. Kinect works best for this by letting you search from anywhere in the system, but even if you have to use a gamepad, hitting a few characters will start producing live results. At that point, it's like Mac OS X's Spotlight -- or any web search with as-you-type results, for that matter.
Gamers will probably find the most help in Beacons. Instead of having to sit inside the game you want to play, you can set a Beacon for what you'd like to do and then launch whatever you'd like in the meantime. It's a simple addition in the Friends list, which itself has been revamped.
There's also a slight catch-up feature in cloud save games. You can now choose to move the data to Xbox Live instead of keeping it locally, which can be helpful if you regularly sign on to a friend's system or know your pre-slim Xbox is near its inevitable red ring death. It's useful, although it unfortunately only applies to saves after you get the update. You can't move your original Mass Effect save to the cloud unless you load it and save fresh.
Most of Microsoft's efforts have been put into the media features, and it shows. Special services like Netflix, Dailymotion, and YouTube weren't active when we tried and will only be partially live on December 6, but even ones like Netflix that had existed before will have had major remakes to go with the Metro-based interface. We'd add that there will also be a Windows Phone Xbox Companion app coming Tuesday that should act as a rough parallel to Apple's Remote for iOS, although the Microsoft app is better through its awareness of content; it's not just a button substitute.
Even with what was present during testing, though, it's apparent that much more thought has been given to the media side, and non-gaming apps in general. Going to the tiled presentation provides a better showcase for what's in the Zune Music or Zune Video Marketplaces, for example. We'd add that many parts of the OS will let you share if you're signed in, although we're not sure how many will post their most recent movie rental or trial game download to Facebook.
As of now, apps outside of games and video are largely limited to those that were in before the update, such as Facebook, Twitter, Kinect Fun Labs, and Video Kinect chat. Still, they now have their own dedicated section, and it's clear Microsoft envisions a point at which you're getting utilities that have very little if any connection to gaming.
The overall effect of the update does partly come across as Microsoft trying to shoehorn the Metro interface into the Xbox, but at the same time it comes across as finally turning the Xbox 360 into an "everything" device. It's not as flexible as something like the Boxee Box is, where a web browser and support for obscure media formats can catch most anything. However, once the video services are active, it could very well be a catch-all for mainstream sources: you can watch it live on Epix, HBO Go, or UFC, or watch it pre-recorded nearly anywhere else.
As for rivals? Some of Microsoft's support is admittedly niche -- not many will queue up Crackle or Dailymotion videos -- but it's honestly hard to recommend anything else on the TV for the everyday user, at least in North America. Apple TV is exceptional for AirPlay sharing and still has services Microsoft is missing, such as Vimeo, general Internet radio, and (naturally) iTunes. Without an app platform, though, it's hard to recommend unless you either stick to the most common video sources or want wireless video from your iPhone. Anyone who likes console gaming might as well get an Xbox 360 for now.