With the new Xbox NXE Dashboard update around the corner, here’s what you need to know about what’s coming. It looks like this update isn’t quite the departure NXE was from the Blades dash, but it does do some significant graphical and performance tweaks.
After the Xbox reboots upon completing the update, you’ll be greeted by what I have to say is a pretty slick looking redesigned Xbox intro splash screen, featuring a series of thick green lines that swirl around and merge into the X of the trademark Xbox spherical icon, clearly coinciding with the new branding artwork on Xbox retail games.
Once past the splash screen, you’ll be introduced to the Xbox interface via a series of preliminary informational help screens giving you a run down on where things are and how to use your Xbox. Those who have already owned their Xbox for some time will be able to blow past these and jump right in.
Now you’ll be thrown into the midst of the daunting series of boxes and menus which was something I particularly was never too keen about with NXE. Little here has changed as they still use the sliding rows of boxes interface that was introduced with the first generation NXE, but they’ve rearranged it so all the boxes fit side by side evenly, instead of how they used to overlap each other slightly, going into the distance at an angle. The downside is that you can only see three and a half boxes on the screen at once as opposed to the five prior, but I do find this to be an overall improvement; the rows slide smoothly, it feels good and it looks clean. Certain applications have seen updates to undergo the same sort of transformation the main interface had.
The sub menus now sport a cleaner, more solid color type of theme. They’ve done away with a lot of the glassy gradients for simpler colors. They’ve also changed a lot of the dark colors to shades of white, so it definitely looks significantly lighter. There also used to be a gray circular platform that rested beneath the menu boxes that would cast reflections. It seems that was scrapped, and instead the wallpaper simply fades to gray. What I find to be an improvement is that now on some screens, the wallpaper is revealed in its entirety. I always found the inability to see the whole wallpaper kind of disappointing.
Some of the apps have also seen some updates which you’ll be prompted to download when you first try to run them. The Zune Marketplace has been sped up a bit so it’s quick to bring up the profiles of different movies, automatically playing the trailer or preview in a thumbnail at the top. You can pop it up to full screen by selecting it with the analog stick and hitting “A”. The stream is fast and efficient, getting up to HD resolution quickly. Even on my particularly unstable internet connection, I had no hiccups at any point during my testing.
Netflix also saw a lot of the same changes to keep everything visually consistent, however in addition, the notoriously non-existent search function has finally been implemented. Now you’ll be able to manually search movies and add them to your queue instead of the previous method of having to go to the website from a computer and adding them to your queue from there. The search works quickly and automatically narrows in real time as you input each letter.
A brand new application that was added to the ever expanding arsenal is ESPN 3, a service that allows you to watch live or archived sports games from that day. Upon first starting the app, you’re brought into a lobby with a bunch of Xbox avatars chillin’ rather aimlessly in the middle of the room. They don’t really do anything significant, it’s just aesthetics. Five giant screens show on the walls of the circular room which you can rotate around. The screens displays select highlight events, some of which are streamable live. It’s pleasing to see here that it’s still quick to jump in and buffer the stream. You can also browse different video news segments of the various sports and tons of on-demand events by scrolling through the familiar NXE style menus. On a low note however, it’s a North American only service for the time being.
On a side note, for those who are to become Kinect owners—Microsoft’s TV top hands free controller device—this update will include all the added functionality for it to operate. With Kinect, besides playing games, people will be able to use their voice or hand gestures to navigate the menus without the need of a physical controller. While people in the beta can’t talk about specifics under a non-disclosure agreement, there are a couple of icons that can be seen within the fall NXE beta that are for Kinect users only. On a semi-related note, all of the avatars, clothing and props are being redone to improve their compatibility with Kinect games.
All in all, the repercussions of all these newly deployed features will be felt most by those who still own a first generation 20GB Xbox. The direction Microsoft has decidedly taken is to create a full digital distribution entertainment platform, and if anyone has been paying attention, even Xbox Live Arcade games have also ramped up in size. Simply put, your 20GB hard drive is going to fill up fast so you will have to upgrade if you want to get the most out of your system. However, if you have an Xbox capable of handling these more demanding and expanding features, your Xbox will certainly be a valuable asset to your entertainment system.
Ultimately, it feels like the changes are for the better. Maybe it’s my imagination but things feel like they’re smoother and more responsive. The simplistic direction for the menus and interface are aesthetically pleasing to the eyes, and call it nostalgia but while inside I kind of miss Blades, it makes a significant amount of sense why they’ve made the changes they did. With the newly redesigned Xbox already on store shelves, an updated design for branding on game packaging and the Kinect device right around the corner, Microsoft is sure to reinvigorate the five year old console.