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The New Xbox Experience

Microsoft

Middle-age is a difficult period. By the time most find themselves at this point the everyday has become mundane, predictable, without surprise: a comfortable rut. Sure, we can splurge on a new car, some hair plugs and a variety of nips and tucks, but how does a multi-billion dollar technology manufacturer deal with a comb-over?

Around 2 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 19, Microsoft rolled out their second take on the content-heavy Xbox 360 dashboard, dubbed the New Xbox Experience, or NXE for short. A massive user interface change for a three-year old videogame system, the NXE was prepped to give users easier access to content, expand on media use, and streamline the menu system for both appearance and usability.

Tentative checks all around.

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While some users may not take to the minimalist approach their dashboard has fallen under the guise of, the NXE is the sleek, sexy take on Microsoft’s blades-and-buttons approach that none of us knew we wanted so badly. Adding a more workable route to finding…well, anything at all, the NXE is a welcome resolution to this consoles mid-life crisis, the red Corvette to it’s over-the-hill balding pattern.

Following the mandatory update via Xbox Live, a sleek marquee video showcasing Microsoft’s new “digital” perspective on the Xbox 360 leads users to the Avatar creation menu, where the digital representation of our nerdy selves comes to life. A pleasant albeit somewhat shallow addition, the Avatar system adds a personal touch beyond a simple gamer photo, despite lacking in options in terms of creation.

By the numbersIn the past year the average number of unique visitors to Xbox LIVE each day has risen 66%, and since the New Xbox Experience launched on Nov. 19 the number of new friends added per Xbox LIVE member has risen by 33%.Compared to other Avatar creation tools such as Yahoo, and certainly to the liberally-borrowed-from Nintendo Mii’s, the Avatar system isn’t anything terribly new or groundbreaking, sticking with a few options for wear and appearance and relying on style and pleasing aesthetics to get by. The Avatars themselves are solid, eye-pleasing, but probably won’t come too close to resembling their creators beyond a broad stroke, lacking the blank-canvas appeal of Nintendo’s Mii’s.

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After the avatar birthing process users are thrown into the New Xbox Experience headfirst, free to browse the introduction line of windows or simply muss with their new dashboard. Most will notice the almost-billboard feel of Microsoft’s design, with features and advertisements lining the screen. Flicking horizontally browses the menu options current selection, and vertically moves between these major sections, such as Friends, Marketplace, and Events.

While there is a bevy of content to sift through in each of these menus, the windowed mode and use of appealing photos and graphics for each item is much more inviting than a half-paragraph description and little-to-no other information, as with the previous UI. I quickly found myself watching Major Nelson videos and reading upcoming events despite never having much interest before. While some instances will surely come off as an overload of information we may not care about, the content is displayed in an almost channel form and is fairly easy to digest.

Aside from the graphical overhaul, the NXE has incorporated a couple of new features aside from the Avatar system. Netflix users can now stream their Instant Queue through a downloadable program on Live, a feature that existed via some third party applications prior. While those of us who used Windows Media Center or PlayOn to enjoy our digital distribution before the update may only show slight interest, the Netflix/NXE program is stable and a good addition for users who haven’t dabbled in outsides avenues when streaming media from PC’s or their subscription services, making playback a little more user-friendly. But despite this new option in digital entertainment, movie downloads increased 49% and TV episode downloads were up 30% the week after the launch of the NXE. While the Netflix option is a definite plus, it apparently won’t deter users from the tried-and-true digital distribution of Live.

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The digital domainIf LIVE were a U.S. city, it would be the largest city with over 14-million members. The equivalent of New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago combined.Unfortunately video quality isn’t that grand as the program automatically fits the content to screen, resulting in content that seems a bit stretched and fuzzy. Still watchable, but somewhat distracting, a menu option to alter quality would have been a welcome addition or at least some control over the display.

The other addition to the Xbox 360’s list of features is the ability to install game discs to the HDD, a feature that will aid in speeding up load times for some titles games and, at the same time, gobbling up your hard drive space like so much Thanksgiving turkey. While a somewhat useless feature to users with the sad, full-to-the-brim 20GB hard drive, 360 owners with the heftier memory slots have the option to save on a few seconds at the cost of a few gigs of space. Unfortunately a number of titles will not make good use of this feature, and the usefulness of installing data on the drive but still requiring the disc to start up is very questionable. The inclusion of this new feature doesn’t hurt the NXE, but it looks to be the most underused.

For the nostalgic, the classic blades are still about, but in a much more friendly way. Hitting the home button on the controller will now bring up a full set of options in blade form, a mini-version of the classic UI for use in-game and out. Quick jumps to the Marketplace, dashboard, music and video player, as well as most other sections of the console are made readily available, and with the new interface existing on the HDD, the load is extremely fast.

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While an improvement on a number of levels, the NXE doesn’t cover all of the bases unfortunately. The lack of a simple “search” option makes browsing through some content still a chore despite the menu upgrade, and the neutering of user themes is a disappointment, especially considering that many themes were paid for. With money. Real money.

The Avatar system is nice, but obviously a crutch for capitalizing on transactions. The sad set of clothing and accessory options only points to a future ruled by clothing packs, hat packs, pant packs, and appearance packs, all at a premium price. The basic take on character creation is also a bit of a disappointment, as I couldn’t pick my Live friends from a lineup using their Avatars. Until future features are implemented the avatars are window dressing, bits to lure in family-friendly consumers with a cute but currently useless element.

However it’s worth noting that the Avatar system is doing wonders in promoting compatible Live Arcade games, and Live downloads in general. Arcade games overall have seen a massive surge of downloads, tripling the normal rate from users. Avatar-friendly games have seen massive download spikes, as Keflings registered the second-best first week of performance ever and UNO jumped 650% in sales after the game updated to make use of the new system

Despite its shortcomings the New Xbox Experience is a breath of fresh air, a pleasant aesthetic and utility change that is somewhat humbling of Microsoft. Admitting to fault is a good trait to have, and working to better your product is a sign of a good manufacturer. Now if only we could do something about these three red rings…

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in September 2008.

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