Saturday, November 1, 2008

New Xbox Experience: The Last Word

I was privileged to get a sneak peek at the latest revision of the Xbox dashboard, dramatically entitled ‘New Xbox Experience’. The old Xbox 360 blade system has served the system well over the last few years, but you can’t help but get the feeling that the massive jumps in functionality since the 360 launched have crowded the existing front-end, leading to an unsatisfactory, cluttered user-experience.
The new dash backs away from the clean, premium-look of the PlayStation 3’s XMB and instead focuses in an unashamedly Apple-style interface, perked up with Nintendo-style use of clean, bright colours and cuddly, casual-friendly (dare I say child-friendly?) imagery.

Loading up the dash update is only the first phase of the procedure. Once it’s installed, you have an Avatar-less experience. You can still access all your games and demos, but before connecting to Live you need to download the Avatar creation tool – Live downloads have been cripplingly slow for me of late; I'd expect you to be downloading the secondary update a lot more swiftly than I did.

By the way, if you get blank boxes here instead of video players, press F5 on your browser to reload the page...

This cheery intro movie kicks off the proceedings. Yup, chances are that most of that download consisted of this HD introduction...

First things first. It’s time to kick off Avatar creation. It’s Mii-HD to all intents and purposes. Even the backing music has that Nintendo feel. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the inclusion of Avatars can only really be judged once software starts to take advantage of it. Note that gamerpics are still retained; they’re just not as prominent as once they were.

In the meantime, the Friends List certainly looks a great deal more attractive than it used to… a party function has been added, which I couldn’t use as nobody else on my Friends List has NXE...

My Xbox is the hub of the new interface. It’s basically the vast majority of the old dashboard built into one user-friendly system. Note the game artwork for Oblivion (the disc in the drive). That’s being downloaded from Microsoft HQ, iTunes-style.

The welcome panel is a new addition that spells out all the new feature of NXE so even the most mentally challenged will be encouraged to check them out. You can turn this off if you get bored of it.

The somewhat decrepit in-game OS feature has been substantially revamped and is far, far more responsive than it was.

Aha, so here’s the feature that everyone’s been waiting for: the hard disk installation. Yes it works, and yes it’s excellent. Yes I have edited the video as I'm not sure any one could stomach watching 11 minutes of progress bar action.

You all know the score by now – the game disc needs to be kept in the drive, but it’s only accessed once – everything else is accessed from the hard disk. The result is that the Xbox 360 is much, much quieter during gameplay. Play a demo from the Live Marketplace and that’s exactly the same level of noise you’ll be getting. The question is, what other benefits are there? Most Xbox 360 games are already optimised to cache to the hard disk – it’s the main reason why there’s only 12GB available on the original 20GB hard disk.
Although I’ll need to look at this a bit more scientifically (ie checking in stuff like pop-in on Gears of War or GTAIV), there’s no doubt that spooling to hard disk results in a welcome speed bump. Here are a few games I checked out:

And Finally...
Media. As far as I can tell, nothing has been changed in this regard from the last revision of the dashboard. It’ll still play WMV files (even Blu-ray and HD-DVD rips, with all the VC-1 codec extensions in use), it’ll handle XviD files just fine and its h264 playback is the same as it was too. PS3 has upped the bar when it comes to HD playback with its unofficial support for 1080p60, and it would’ve been nice for the 360 to least be able to handle HD h264 content over 12mbps in throughput levels, but clearly that’s just not going to happen. Those looking for support for the Matroska container (.mkv) are also shit out of luck.
On the plus side, Microsoft’s association with NetFlix yields instant dividends in NXE. If you’re in the US, you’re able to stream both SD and HD content. HD content is 5mbps 720p – basically the same as most of the 720p Blu-ray rips seen out and about, but encoded into WMV instead. Great quality, and it’s all legal. You’ll just need to have a whopping great pipe to the internet to enjoy the HD content.
What is disappointing though is that the picture viewer is still rubbish. It takes quite a lot of effort to make a bad JPEG viewer, but Microsoft has done just that with the 360. It’s always been awful, but you’d have thought it would’ve been improved this time around. Support for TIFF, BMPs and other uncompressed formats would’ve been useful too...

On the left is a Digital Foundry HD screenshot from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. The picture on the right shows the shot being displayed with the JPEG viewer in the 360. I’m curious as to how you can decompress a JPEG and actually add blur.

Overall, the New Xbox Experience is a welcome lick of paint with a very nice range of functionality. There’s something for everyone here, with just those using their 360s as media players let down a touch by the lack of innovation in this area (though you have to admit that the Netflix tie-in is excellent – if you can get it). The install-to-hard disk feature is certainly a worthy addition in its own right, and my tests were done with a heavily used 20GB launch drive. The newer 120GB drive is most likely faster (being a newer variation) and obviously allows you to cache more of your games. I somehow doubt that it’s going to yield any additional performance over and above better loading times and quieter gameplay, but that in itself is a major boon.
Also worthy of note is the inclusion of 1440x900 and 1650x1080 resolutions for users of VGA and DVI displays. Content here is letterboxed to avoid the annoying stretching seen on most 16:10 displays.

Update: The Verdict
As a core gamer, I like NXE and what it does for me, and I can see that the iTunes-style interface is going to make the system initially more attractive and sophisticated-looking than the old-style blades. The only problem I have with it concerns who the interface is actually targeted at. Practically all this new functionality is clearly geared towards the enthusiast user, and yet the Avatar system is obviously aimed at the Wii market and I'm struggling to understand how it will be accepted or used by the 360's established userbase.
As it is, the new interface is initially quite daunting - not casual friendly at all, despite looking a lot nicer than it did. More than that, if Microsoft is looking to branch out and attract the Wii audience, it's going to need to do more. It's all about the games. Virtually all of Nintendo's output is geared towards a different user. Even its core games like Mario Galaxy include wand-waving bits so the non-gamer can join in while the enthusiast gets his Mazzer fix.
Releases like Viva Pinata are completely the wrong direction in my opinion. Nintendo's genius has been in getting back to basics and supplying software that everyone can identify with - titles like Pinata don't do that. More than a new dashboard, Microsoft Games Studios basically needs to completely change its focus, and I'm not sure I see this happening...