Xbox dashboard update’s additions welcome, but interface feels janky

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Microsoft’s recent update to the Xbox Live dashboard offers gamers a new look as well as additional social features and content that make dropping the controller to pick up your laptop or smartphone to fully enjoy your veg-out less of a necessity. Hell, Kinect users don’t even need the controller.

User interface

The most obvious change is the new look. It’s an adaptation of the Metro interface from Windows Phone and the future Windows 8 with all your menus stashed away in various “hubs.” Each hub has four to seven boxes within it. Anyone who frequently uses the ESPN app and hears “boxy interface” immediately groans, but don’t fret. Microsoft somehow found a way to make it elegant. I think the photo selection and varying box sizes are what’s helping. One slight beef is that I’d love to see the dashboard use more of the space at the top and bottom of the screen.

One of the smartest moves I see in the interface is the Quickplay box on the home hub. From here, you can start any app or game saved to your hard drive without having to rummage through other menus.

Speaking of the menus, here’s the first major complaint: Within the hubs, Microsoft has decided that it knows what you should play or listen to. Its featured content and ads hog the boxes of the video, music and games hubs. If I want to watch a video on a networked computer, I must swap over the video hub, go to “my video apps” and then I’m finally given the option of the Xbox’s default video player. For some reason, it doesn’t show up in quickplay. Despite my love for quickplay, when I want Netflix or Hulu, by association I naturally jump to the video hub, where I’d expect them to be on the front of the hub. Not so. They’re also within “my video apps” (though they do grace the front of the apps hub for now).

Another navigation frustration comes in the social hub. One of my favorite parts of the old dashboard was that I could quickly see who all was playing what in which party right away. That feature is another step inside the social hub here — only 3 friends show up on the main social hub page. Looking to join a party? Yet another step. In the end I’ve found it’s quicker to see who’s playing what with whom through the old Xbox button menu.

Protip for navigating between hubs faster: Use the left and right bumper or press up and then go left and right.

Cloud save and roaming profile

The new features sure to earn the highest praise from gamers are cloud storage of game saves and roaming profiles. Going to somebody else’s place to play usually involved the 983-step process of recovering your gamertag on your friend’s console with that damn, dirty on-screen keyboard. Then when you return home you have to re-recover it on your own console. Not anymore. Your gamertag can be saved on both consoles. Sanity saved.

The new features sure to earn the highest praise from gamers are cloud storage of game saves and roaming profiles. Going to somebody else’s place to play usually involved the 983-step process of recovering your gamertag on your friend’s console with that damn, dirty on-screen keyboard. Then when you return home you have to re-recover it on your own console. Not anymore. Your gamertag can be saved on both consoles. Sanity saved.

Storing your game saves in the cloud makes them available on any Xbox as well. You get about 500 MB of storage, but considering you can keep only your saves in the cloud — not DLC or Arcade games — that’s sufficient. The jump drive can stay at home. But take note that if your friend hasn’t purchased Bastion, he’ll still have to buy it before you can access your saves.

New content

Microsoft’s biggest brag with this update is all the new non-game content being added. They’ve been touting this part of the update since E3. Cord cutters like myself are closer to heaven. Syfy, Epix and the Today show (the Kathy-Lee and Hoda get drunk hour) are among the immediate additions.

Microsoft’s Major Nelson has a list of future content additions, including iHeartRadio, UFC and MSNBC. If you’re looking to buy things, the Zune Marketplace still has an extensive menu of music, TV and movies. Verizon and Comcast cable subscribers will also get access to their cable subscriptions through the console soon. These updates are definitely showing Microsoft wants to push the Xbox as your lone living room appliance.

Social features

New ways to interact with friends are another big part of this update. Microsoft has introduced beacons, which you can use to tell your friends what you want to play with them, even if you’re playing another game at the time. The beacon will show up above your head in their Friends menu. You will also receive a notification when one of your friends starts playing a game you’ve set up a beacon for.

For those who use Facebook or Twitter to coordinate their gaming, beacons can be shared to those services. The social network integration also lets you share achievements that you earn in games. Though don’t overshare; I’ve blocked PS3 friends for this before.

Kinect

Microsoft has been trying to integrate the Kinect’s motion controls and voice commands into its UI for some time now. With the new update, the Kinect is now capable of doing almost anything you can do with the controller, only slower. The Kinect allows you to interact with the new Dashboard directly, rather than forcing you to work with a separate Kinect version. This means that the interface is the same, you are simply giving it commands with gestures or with voice commands. When faced with the options of moving your fingers, waving your arms or nearly shouting, I would take the controller most of the time. The best use of the new voice commands is allowing me to start up a movie on Netflix while I make a sandwich. Most of the apps have also received a certain amount of updating to incorporate the Kinect’s controls. Netflix, ESPN, Zune and Hulu are much more versatile, allowing the same selections with motion controls or voice commands. Microsoft required most available aps to completely incorporate the Kinect and the attention clearly shows.

Bing

The final addition is Bing search integration. You can type out your query or shout it to your Kinect. Bing returns all Xbox-related content from the Zune Market place, Xbox Live Arcade, third-party apps and your hard drive.

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