The New Xbox Experience

First Impressions on the New Dashboard

It’s that time of year again when the nights start to close in, the leaves begin to fall from the trees and Microsoft releases their annual Fall Dashboard Update (unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere in which case you can ignore the first two points). This year however, something is slightly different, and unless someone has altered the orbit of the Earth while I wasn’t watching it’s got nothing to do with the seasons.

All the talk recently (in Xbox 360 circles at least) has been about the New Xbox Experience. The term Microsoft has coined for the complete revamp of the Dashboard due to be released on 19th November. Being honest, I hadn’t been following its development that closely, but when the opportunity arose to sign up for a chance to get an early preview of the update I gladly filled in my console’s ID and just under a week later I was informed that I had been selected to take part in the preview.

On 31st October I turned on my 360 and was greeted by a familiar “Update Required” screen. After a very short download the console rebooted and I was greeted with another screen stating that an update was available. This update was the important one and after downloading the console once again rebooted. This time, after the usual 360 logo screen I was greeted with an entirely pointless intro animation which had pretty much nothing to do with the update.

Avatars

Scryypy's 360 Avatar
The first thing I was prompted to do was to pick a starting point for my new “Avatar” and was shown a selection of randomly generated characters. A quick press of the X button and a new selection of random avatars appeared. At this point the avatar you pick makes no difference apart from choosing its gender. It does appear to be possible to skip creating an avatar by opening up the new guide (more on that later) and choosing to go to the dashboard although each time you sign in you will be prompted to create your avatar.

There are a large number of customisation options for your avatar with a wide range of hairstyles, eyes, eyebrows, noses, mouths, ears, chins and facial features (freckles, scars etc.) as well as the ability to choose the height, weight and skin colour of your avatar.

After choosing your avatars physical appearance you can then dress them in what I think is a fairly limited number of clothes (although this may change with the full release of the dashboard, however it may not as Microsoft plan on opening a new Avatar Store to sell clothes and items). You are also given the option of taking a picture of your avatar to use as your Gamer Picture although you can keep using your old one instead.

Dashboard

Upon saving your avatar you are taken to the new dashboard and the first thing I noticed was that half of the background image from my dashboard theme was obscured by a large grey area (although this was to be expected if you had seen any of the screenshots which had been released). To be honest though, even on the old dashboard most of the background images were obscured by text and other menu options.

NXE Dashboard screenshot

The first major change to the dashboard is the removal of the blades system (although they’re not completely gone as I’ll mention later), replaced by navigating up and down through a list of the different pages as I’ve decided to call them. The first page to be displayed is a Welcome page with a few options providing information about the new dashboard, and also providing and an option to hide the welcome page. The other pages on offer are My Xbox, Friends, Inside Xbox, Spotlight, Game Marketplace and Video Marketplace. The My Xbox page provides access to the main features of the console, the first tab allows you to load the game currently in the tray, the second provides your Gamercard, and the others provide links to your Game Library, Video Library, Music Library, Media Centre and Console Settings.

As it stands and the minute the Friends page is entirely useless. As no one else on my friends list currently has access to the NXE there are no avatars to display although it still provides the Gamertag and the game they are currently playing. There also appears to be no differentiation between users who are online and offline and as such I find myself using the more traditional friends list accessed through the Guide.

The Inside Xbox page provides much the same as the currently dashboard link to Inside Xbox and the Spotlight page appears to be where the adverts will appear. The first two options on the Spotlight tab are completely superfluous as they are the exact same as the first two options on the My Xbox page and the rest are meant to show dynamic content dependant on your playing habits such as Video or Game Marketplace downloads it thinks you might like. The Marketplace has been split into two separate pages for the Game and Video marketplaces. While this isn’t anything major it provides a nice differentiation between the two.

The Guide

The guide appears to have been given the biggest overhaul; while the dashboard’s update is mainly cosmetic apart from a few features I’ll get into later, the guide has been completely revamped. A press of the button and you are greeted with a screen fairly similar to the old guide allowing access to friends, messages, your party (the dashboard now allows 8 person parties who can play and chat together), Chat & IM and a “Quick Launch” which essentially acts as a link to your Game Library.

NXE Guide screenshot
The major change is the addition of the old dashboard’s blades to the guide. There are blades for Games (allowing you to see your achievements and open your Games Library), Marketplace (allowing quick access to the two marketplaces, active downloads and the redeem code option), Media (for videos, music, pictures and media centre options) and Settings to change your profile, notifications, preferences and console settings.

While none of the features of the guide are new it does make it a hell of a lot easier to access some of them (and some options are easier to find through the guide than through the dashboard itself).

Other Features

A major new feature is the ability to install games to your Hard Drive to decrease load times. Another major advantage of this is that it means the console doesn’t have to access the disc drive while you’re playing meaning that the console is quieter and also producing less heat (leading to less RRoDs?). I installed FIFA 09 to the HDD and it took up 6GB of space, so if you plan on using this feature a lot you’re going to either need an Elite, a new Premium console, or you’re going to have to fork out for a standalone 120GB or 60GB HDD.

NXE My Xbox screenshot

Another, less major feature which I’ve come to like is the Gamercard option from the My Xbox page. Choosing this tab loads up a screen with the Gamercard, a link to your messages and the options for editing your profile, customizing your avatar, changing the theme and managing your account. However, what I like most is that each tab on the page shows your achievement progress for each of your games as well as the icons for the last 12 achievements you received for each game.

I can also see the new parties being a very useful option for a lot of people as it allows private voice chat for up to 8 people, which is much better than having to use in-game chat if there are more than two of you wanting to play together.

Final Thoughts

Overall the dashboard appears mainly to be a cosmetic update apart from the addition of avatars and hard drive installs (unless you’re in America in which case you get Netflix too). Personally, I prefer the new aesthetics over the old dashboard (I know a lot of people might disagree) as everything has more room to breathe making it seem less cluttered while still providing all the same options and content as before (although it might take marginally longer to navigate to them, I haven’t found this a problem so far).

Avatars don’t appear to make much impact at the minute (they appear on your Gamercard and the dashboard friends list but I’ve yet to see them anywhere else yet) their use is likely to expand in XBLA games and many of the more casual games due to be released.

Hard Drive installs are definitely a useful feature although you’re definitely going to need one of the two larger HDDs if you plan on have more than one game at a time installed. The fact that the disc no longer needs to spin in the drive (although it does still need to be in there) means that the console runs much more quietly and those with louder disc drives like myself are bound to find this a welcome respite.

In general I’m quite pleased with the new dashboard and although I know a lot of people who don’t like the look of it so far and others who are generally adverse to change (some are still protesting about the Facebook redesign) I’m fairly confident that it will at least grow on people and hopefully they can learn to like it.

P.S. Please excuse the shoddy screenshots but I don’t have a capture card in my PC so they’re all taken on a point and shoot camera (and no, that avatar doesn’t really look anything like me).


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This entry was posted on Monday, November 3rd, 2008 at 19:02 and is filed under Gaming. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Comments

TiggerishJen

03/11/2008

Actually I thought the avatar wasn’t that dissimilar to you. Apart from the self-consciously camp pose, obv…can you make it move or does it just stand there?

WindowsObserver

03/11/2008

I thought I saw a video with the offline friends avatars “dozing” to show they were offline.

Los Havros

03/11/2008

I have to admit that this is a bold move for Microsoft, and one that could potentially be a major boost for them. Hopefully it will strike the right balance to appeal to both new and existing gamers.

Rockers Delight

03/11/2008

Noooooooooooooo. No. Stinky avatars :(

Andy

03/11/2008

Jen, they do animate, although at the minute they aren’t used anywhere apart from on the My Xbox page and on the dashboard friends list.

WindowsObserver, that would seem like a good option, however because no one else on my friends list has avatars yet there doesn’t appear to be any way to tell as they all show up as silhouettes.

Los Havros, I’m not sure it’s that big a move to be honest. The redesign is fairly radical in its differences but it’s a nice improvement. Avatars have little use at the minute and I think their success is going to be based largely on the games that incorporate them.

Rockers Delight, they aren’t brilliant, but like I’ve said they’re barely used at the minute. The only places I’ve seen them are on the dashboard and to be honest I don’t spend that much time looking at it. The types of games that do try to incorporate them don’t seem likely to be the type of game that I’d be interested in.

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