Regular readers of mine will know how much I’ve made fun of Windows 8 and predicted doom and gloom for the child-like coloured tile interface that Microsoft is championing. But aside from the nonsensical gestures and new UI, Windows 8 actually brings some pretty nifty new features to the table for Xbox 360 owners, which can only be a good thing. Let’s take a quick look at those so you can see if it’s worth the upgrade.
Dashboard, Controller, and Internet Explorer
I know I just said “Internet Explorer”, but please keep reading or you’ll be missing out on the rest of the great features; I honestly didn’t mean to scare you away like that – I apologize - so take deep breaths and just skip this paragraph if you’re squeamish. The most recent Xbox dashboard update brought a full IE10 browsing experience, which works a whole lot better if you use it in conjunction with a keyboard on your Windows 8 laptop or mobile device. Or you could just use the browser that’s built into your other device in the first place and avoid the whole IE experience completely; I suspect this will be a lot less stressful. Moving swiftly on .
Using the Xbox app (more on that below), you now have access to your dashboard, from your mobile or desktop Windows 8 device. In it’s simplest form, this allows you to explore the Xbox dashboard remotely from a second screen (perhaps even while your significant other is watching real TV), and launch apps. In my case, I’ve found this is great for seeing if there’s something on Netflix to watch without having to actually switch over to the Xbox and go through the process; find something, hit play, then switch over from the TV to the Xbox.
As well as enhanced functionality where supported, your remote device can function as an unwieldy controller; you’ll get buttons and a directional pad, but no analogue sticks. This is more just a compatibility mode so at least you have some kind of remote control in apps that don’t yet support SmartGlass.
Avatar customizing and Social features
In the iOS app, these features are all contained within the single SmartGlass app; on Windows 8 devices, the social and avatar features are contained within the Xbox Games tile that comes pre-installed (the same goes for music and video features, again in their own respective tiles rather than lumped under SmartGlass).
These don’t need too much explanation: you can customize your avatar, view achievements, check out games available for purchase, see who’s online and send out game beacons for multiplayer.
Perhaps the most impressive potentially but as yet under developed is Smart Glass, available on the Windows 8 store – and now available for the iOS and Android Xbox apps too. SmartGlass is an official “companion” app to a variety of Xbox content – it’s precise functionality will change according to the content you’re playing.
In supported movies and TV shows, the SmartGlass app will show actors and actresses currently on screen, additional background information, or completely custom content – Microsoft teased the idea of a map of locations for Game of Thrones so viewers will always know where in the world the action is taking place, for example.
For gaming, Smart Glass enhanced games might provide a mini-map, an inventory view, or custom controls. Halo 4 – released last week – seems to be one of the first mainstream games to make good use of it.
Dance Central 3 is another headline title to support SmartGlass; the DJ app allows you to edit playlists and game settings, and a jukebox mode to choose the next song in party play while people are still dancing – this is actually really great for parties to keep the action going without the typical downtime.
The only downside is that your Xbox has to be on already – I would have really liked it if the app was capable on turning on the Xbox itself to be truly considered a remote control.
DLNA has been around for a while now, and it allows for easy media access between products; PlayTo is a feature of DLNA, and Windows 8 implements it nicely with the Xbox. In short, instead of using your Xbox to browse a DLNA media server for a specific file; Play To allows you to use the Xbox as a target for Windows 8 media capabilities.
Simply open the media, and from the charms menu, select Devices -> Play To -> Xbox or select Play To Xbox directly from Xbox Video app. Sadly, I managed to break this functionality on my review Surface RT tablet and ended up having to do a complete re-install to get it working again; it clearly isn’t foolproof or bug-free.
Not all apps support this, such as Netflix (which isn’t a big deal since Netflix is on the Xbox anyway), but it’s a dead simple way to play things like home movies and you can expect to see more of this feature built into media apps in the future. The native Windows 8 Video and Music tiles both support this feature currently.
In fairness, nearly all this functionality is available on a multitude of devices, not just Windows 8 ones; this is both great for consumers and bad for Microsoft, as I personally think these features would make quite a compelling reason to buy into the whole Windows 8 ecosystem. I’ve upgraded my gaming PC to Windows 8 and placed it in the living room; as a media center, Windows 8 is working out quite well despite the lack of TV support. Give me a Modern UI version of Plex, VLC, and the ability to use Kinect, and I’ll be a happy bunny Microsoft, I promise.
Have you used any of the SmartGlass and PlayTo features yet? Do they seem compelling to you?