The first of November brings with it a big change
for Xbox 360 users in the form of the much-anticipated Fall Update, which does
just what its name implies by ‘updating’ the console’s Dashboard UI, and is now
available for everyone to download and install. While not the earth-shattering
update that 2008’s NXE (New Xbox Experience) heralded, this latest update from
the good folks at Microsoft brings with it a host of new changes and features
that really do freshen up the five-year old console’s interface.
This isn’t a ‘patch’ as some has suggested; it’s
the next step that Xbox 360 users will have to use and manage their
gaming/online services around. There's a whole list of smaller updates worth
mentioning to, including better voice-chat quality while online, better virtual
keyboard, improved interfaces in the Game Market, a better Zune Marketplace
experience (go Smart DJ!), and other incidentals that will either be just what
you’ve been waiting for or so trivial you won’t even notice they’re there.
The result is a speedier, cleaner interface that just feels and responds better
than ever. I'd easily recommend everyone downloading and trying it out for
themselves, but they'll have to anyway - it's mandatory!
For the most part, the new update doesn’t change
the overall look and feel of the Xbox 360 Dashboard, as it retains its charming
hybrid that falls somewhere between the Wii’s aesthetic and the PlayStation 3’s
XMB navigational bars. Subtle changes like boxier boxes and a bevy of
accompanying sound effects are some of the first things longtime Xbox users will
notice once they boot up for the first time, but they won’t be the first.
While some may have refused to acknowledge the truth, observant Xbox users have
known for a long time that with the impending arrival of the Kinect sensor,
hardcore gamers are no longer Microsoft’s main focus on the console. 2010
is the year when the Xbox 360 went Family Friendly!
The very first moments of using the Fall Update
provide users - both new and old alike - with a guided tour of just how to use
the Xbox 360 Dashboard, via controller, via soft music and quirky Avatars.
After pushing yourselves through it, you’ll come back to the Dashboard itself to
begin playing around. A new Family First channel is front and center (featuring
the most racially-diverse family I’ve ever seen), no doubt to accommodate the
expected wave of new users who aren’t that familiar with the platform.
The new Family settings are enormous, allowing
parents (or practical jokers) to micro-manage just about every setting for
content that runs through the console itself. This includes movies, TV
shows, music, and even videogames. Users can now set exceptions by rating,
adjust allowable timers, and even ‘boot’ members of the family (sorry grandma).
Once set up, the Dashboard experience can cleave out what parents might consider
‘offensive’ ads and similar content, meaning sensitive youngsters won’t have to
see zombie updates or other ‘mature’ content.
To be honest, these options feel more like
concessions than heartfelt design implementations, almost as if Microsoft might
have had an easier job simply starting from scratch and creating an entirely new
console for the endless stream of younger girls, soccer moms, seniors, and
practically everyone who doesn’t live, breathe, and dream in hardcore Halo.
The Xbox 360 has a very well-earned reputation for helping evolve the
sub-culture of naughty words, racial epithets, and practically everything
negative that’s most often associated with the videogame industry. Previous
attempts at ‘parental controls’ were a joke - a perfunctory CYA - to appease the
odd parent who picked up the console for their kindergartener. These new
measures and design choices are worlds better than what came before, and much
needed, but time will tell just how effective they end up being.
But Family Friendly Xbox gaming is only one half of
the coin; the other is the arrival of the Kinect sensor. Microsoft’s new
hands-free motion-controlled interface hits retail shelves in just a few days,
and don’t worry if you haven’t reserved or pre-purchased one yet, as the new
Dashboard absolutely bombards you will ‘reminders’ and upsells to help you with
the transition. The Kinect branding-stamp is the real reason for the
update itself, as it’s a clear signal to anyone who may have been enjoying (or
been disappointed) with their Wii consoles or thinking about picking up Sony’s
Move controller for the PlayStation 3 might think this whole ‘controller thing’
a bit passé, and interface with the future, Minority Report-style. We’ll have to
see how that goes, but those who do join the Kinect Club will have a lot to play
with and ways to ‘kinect’ (sorry, couldn’t help it) with their console like
This includes practically everything on the
Dashboard, as most features and services can be controlled via the Kinect’s
motion-sensing and voice-commands, including Netflix, Zune Marketplace, and
more. Of course, not having a sensor to test any of this at the time of this
writing makes it difficult to say just how accurate communicating hands-free is
on the console, but it’s clear the future of the Xbox 360 has been linked with
Then there’s the downloading. Expect lots and
lots of downloading, even if it’s for features and services you’ve already
downloaded in the past (i.e. Netflix, Zune Marketplace). Practically
everything requires a new download and/or update to take advantage of the Xbox
360’s new features (read: Kinect) and while a bit of a pain at first, it’s best
to run through to download and install them all quickly.
Wii Wannabe or The Next-Level?
No surprises here, as Microsoft has all but issued
an official press release indicating their desire to turn the Xbox 360 into a
pilfer bring over as many features that Nintendo’s best-selling console
helped pioneer to the Xbox 360 X-perience as they can. They began this transition with the original NXE,
which brought a softer look and customizable Avatars to the Dashboard,
but it seems they weren't quite done.
If the Fall Update doesn’t finish the job, it
comes awfully close, as particular sections (see Avatars) are now so
fundamentally Wii-like that you might be confused what console you’re using.
The same type of soothing background music now accompanies you while you glide
through your updated Avatar styles, clothing, and other more ‘realistic’
features (said to help your digital doppelganger better interact with the Kinect
sensor), and there’s even a mewing kitty in there. No doubt the Kinect
sensor will add the necessary motion-controls to the interface and navigation,
and coupled with voice-commands for most current and upcoming Dashboard
features, Microsoft banking that a good number of Nintendo loyalists will
migrate over doesn't seem to far-fetched as it did.
One of the biggest new features to Xbox Live is the
inclusion of EPSN, which Microsoft says adds more than 3,500 live and on-demand
sporting events a year, including games from “college basketball, college
football and college bowl games, MLB, NBA, international soccer.”
Many will be in HD, and fans can even enjoy out-of-market- games when they’re
not watching live plays (as well as updated scoring from ESPN.com) with up to
seven other friends through voice-chat. The service will also let you
predict the winners and see how your prognosticating skills stack up against
other Xbox Live users, as well as customizing your ESPN channel with favorite
teams, leagues and so much more. I wasn’t able to test these features at
length, but from what I could see ESPN on Xbox Live should be one of the
platform’s most potent bragging rights in the coming year. And as you’d expect,
a Gold Membership is required to partake.
One of the biggest features that accompanied the
NXE was the arrival of Netflix streaming, a first for a home gaming console and
one that added tremendous content and value to the service. But over the
past two years Netflix streaming has come to just about every device that can
handle it, including those ‘other’ gaming consoles, Wii and PlayStation 3.
The last batch is of the most importance as both have just recently received
their own massive software updates, making them disc-free (a key bragging point
among Xbox 360 users) and packing them with new interfaces and features -
including search. For all Microsoft’s confidence and bravado in ‘selling’
Netflix streaming to Xbox Live users, it’s strange that its platform would be
the last to receive these much-needed critical updates.
Well, Netflix for the Xbox 360 has finally been
updated and outfitted to match the rest of the console’s Dashboard, unlike
recent Wii and PlayStation 3 updates (which feature the same UI). The
biggest new features is the ability to search through Netflix’s massive catalog
of content without needing to browse the website to manually search and add
favorites to your Instant Queue. You’ll now have access to the entire
database - both streaming and disc - by simply typing your choice using the
onscreen keyboard. I can’t stress how much of an improvement this is over the
original interface, as users can now play, add, rate, and even put contents in
their disc-queue without having to get up. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem
the Xbox 360 version received the other new features that both Wii and PS3
versions did, which include subtitles, captions, and in the case of the PS3,
1080p playback and instant previews. Oh well, at least there’s
controller-free access via Kinect…and having to pay for Xbox Live Gold.
Also accompanying the new Fall Update (but
strangely not so heralded) are the string of price increases for the Xbox Live
service itself, it’s first since launching way back in 2002. Those looking
to sign-up for Xbox Live Gold will find that the cost of a one-month membership
is now $9.99 (up from $7.99), three-month is now $24.99 (up from $19), and
12-month is now $59.99 (up from $49.99).
But worry not, as Microsoft is offering a choice
bundle to keep your overhead low and your experience high. Like much of the
update itself the focus here is definitely on the new Family Pack, which
includes four (4) individual Xbox Live Gold memberships for the reasonable price
of $99, which is less than half the cost of two individual Gold Memberships
($120). Of course, this sounds great, but those thinking they can ‘game’
the system and pool their resources to buy the Family Pack and save money should
look into the Pack’s heavy restrictions first before plunking down the cash.
It seems that, one way or another, the hardcore Xbox Live fans are still going
to be paying the premium.
The Xbox Live Fall Update continues the Xbox 360's mission to branch out from
its original mission, and while it's not the fundamental change that 2008's NXE
was, it remains an intriguing portal into a world of purchasable
content. It's also less cluttered, faster, and a more pleasant experience one
all around. Some will scoff at Microsoft's continued foray into casual markets
with products like Kinect, but this was to be expected as they continue to
branch out and capture the imaginations (and dollars) of markets they once
largely ignored. New and updated features like ESPN, Netflix, better Zune and
Game Marketplaces, and so many others really do help make this the best
Dashboard yet, although the need of having a paid Gold Membership for
practically everything continues to tarnish an otherwise forward-thinking