Xbox 360 Dashboard update (2011) review: A glimpse at a sophisticated console future...
5th Dec 2011 | 11:02
Tomorrow (Tuesday, December 6) all Xbox 360 owners will be asked to download the new Dashboard - the so called Metro design - which brings the 360 in line with Windows phones and the new Windows 8 OS (the update isn't optional, so kiss goodbye to the Dashboard as you now know it). But is it a change for the better?
The answer has to be 'yes'. While the new Dashboard isn't perfect, lacking a number of key features and only really achieving its true potential when paired with Kinect, it's tough to be too critical of something that costs nothing.
Not only that, it gives us all a glimpse of where Microsoft is heading with its software and hardware - the stuff that'll find its way into the next-Xbox, and for us that's the most intriguing thing about the Metro Dashboard.
So, what can you expect when the update installs? Instantly you'll notice that it feels much more like the original 'blades' than the current system. You scroll through categories from side-to-side, rather than up and down. Shifting to a new area of the dash brings up a block of large panels, which you can then click on to go deeper into that part of the Dashboard.
Example? Select Video and you'll be greeted with a selection of the latest TV and film content and panels that take you though to the Video Marketplace and to My Video Apps. Click through to the marketplace and you get another set of options - films, TV, video collections - that let you dig deeper into each part of the dash.
It's much more intuitive than the current system of scrolling across the screen to get to where you need to be, and the way things are labelled feel a bit more obvious.
Most areas of the Dashboard are self-explanatory, but there are two new exciting parts. First off the Game options have been expanded. Click through to the Game area and you'll find your Avatar and all your friends, which you scroll through as you would in the current set-up.
However, one of the most exciting new options within games is to send a 'Beacon' out to everyone on your friends list. A beacon is a general invite to play a specific game (you can beacon up to three games at once), which appears in the message box of every friend who turns on their console while you're online.
So, if you want to play Battlefield 3, just stick up a beacon - you can even ping all your friends on Facebook too - and your buddies will know you're up for a game of Battlefield. Easy.
The other area of note is Apps. Metro will launch with 16 apps available, and they're all free to download. They're essentially custom interfaces for the various features Xbox offers - 4OD, Sky, LOVEFiLM, YouTube - things like that (see the list of TV content and release dates for more).
What's great is that they all follow the same format as the new Dashboard. On PS3 each 'external' app feels different (the iPlayer design is atrocious), but on the new 360 dash they all feel and look the same - so you instinctively know how to use each one.
New apps will trickle out throughout 2012, bringing essentials like BBC and HBO to the console.
So, now you know what's in the Dashboard, how does it feel to use? With a pad it's business as usual - finding what you need by tapping through each panel and scrolling from left to right etc is a little easier than in the current set-up. There's more 'featured content' wherever you go.
On the one hand this gives you a good idea of the wealth of content available, on the other it feels like you're constantly being sold to. Microsoft makes no apologies for this 'content heavy' approach - it wants you to use your Xbox for more than just games, and that means buying movies and subscribing to features like Sky.
Got Kinect? Now that's where the new Dashboard really shines. It feels like Microsoft fulfilling the promise it originally made to sell its motion-tracking tech - the Minority Report style interface that was meant to be the future of gaming.
Kinect allows you to control your Xbox in two extra ways. The first is motion; wave at the Xbox to activate a small hand-like cursor and you can use this to click on panels (hold your hand cursor over a panel to activate it) and swipe through the Dashboard areas from side to side.
The motion-tracking is fairly accurate, although no match for a mouse or the stickiness of a pad. We suspect this feature will be the least used, but hey it'll look cool when you're showing off to your relatives at Christmas.
The best Kinect feature is voice control. Saying "Xbox" will activate voice control. After that you can select something off the screen just by saying it. For example you'd say "Xbox. Video" and you'd be taken to the Video screen.
Where it gets really fun is when you start searching or making more specialised selections using voice. So, you're on the Video panel and you see X-Men First Class is the suggested movie. Saying "Xbox. X-Men First Class" will take you through to that film. Want more X-Men films? Search for them by saying "Xbox. Bing. X-Men", which takes you to every available piece of X-Men content on Xbox.
This search includes any external apps you've got set-up, so you'll get results from services like LoveFilm and Sky in addition to Zune Marketplace.
Voice recognition isn't perfect. You need to repeat yourself occasionally, usually dependent on the complexity of what you're saying. Background noise has an effect on the quality of control too. However, it's the best voice-sensing tech on console, and even regional accents register with ease.
Stronger accents, though, will have to repeat commands more often and it's here where the advantage of voice-control becomes more hassle than it's worth compared to pad or motion inputs. Microsoft claims that voice-commands make the Xbox easier to use than pads or remotes, but it's really the large panels and clear labelling of the new Dashboard that make more of a difference.
Perhaps the best feature of all, though, is something Microsoft hasn't trumpeted as much: cloud storage. Every Gold member gets 500Mb of online storage for free. You can select Cloud Storage as a save option (in the same way as you'd select a Hard Drive or Memory card) and either directly save to the Cloud, or transfer your existing files there as back-up.
So, if your Hard Drive is damaged you won't lose your saves, however, if Xbox Live goes down for some reason you won't be able to access your Cloud saves. Again, it's a free feature, and it's something that makes Gold Membership better value for money. You might never use it, but it's there...
Now, at the risk of starting a flame-war in the comments we'll quickly compare the new Dashboard to the PS3's XMB. The PS3 interface remains slicker to use, but the new Xbox dash feels deeper and better sign-posted.
The Xbox now does a better job of advertising the content available, and its combined search features make everything easier to find. Online gaming options on Xbox remain light-years ahead of those on PS3 - something strengthened by Beacons and a slightly more responsive Avatar display.
It almost seems a shame that pushing in the Xbox button still brings up that clunky 'blades-style' menu. PS3 remains free, but with Cloud storage you feel as if you're getting slightly better value for your £40 with XBL Gold.
However, one huge advantage PS3 still has over Xbox is that it's third-party friendly, which means it already has the likes of iPlayer and ITV Player - two huge TV services Microsoft has up until now failed to sign for Xbox.
More than anything, the new Xbox Dashboard is a glimpse at what the company is thinking for the future. On the surface, the motion and voice commands tell us that the next - and future Xbox consoles - will be completely Kinect-integrated.
For Microsoft, Motion control isn't just a fad: it's the future. Look deeper though, and the Metro interface reveals that Xbox is destined to be a media-hub - a one-stop-shop for everything you can do with a television. We've already seen reports that Microsoft is looking to integrate Kinect in other manufacturer's TVs, further adding weight to the theory that the company is keen to dominate your living room as completely as it does your study (via Windows-based PCs).
The new Dashboard then - on a day to day basis - won't change the user experience drastically. Avid Kinect users will get the most out of it via voice and motion control, while standard pad-jockeys will enjoy the extra features and ease of use.
It is, however, an incredibly sophisticated user interface, a well put-together glimpse into the future of console gaming, with features that largely shame the opposition. Oh, and in case you forgot - it's completely free of charge...