Xbox 360 Gets A Big Dashboard Update, But Is It Any Good?

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xbox 360 dashboard updateTo coincide with the launch and hubbub surrounding Windows 8 and perhaps to a lesser extent Windows RT, Microsoft updated the Xbox 360 dashboard last week so if you haven’t turned your console on recently now would be a good time to do so.

In addition to a UI facelift, this year’s annual update brings with it some exciting new features like better Kinect support, a more customisable dashboard and something Microsoft held off doing for a long time – Internet Explorer. On your telly. So, is it the dashboard you’ve always dreamed about?

Don’t Call It Metro

Last year’s dashboard update was, in my opinion, the worst Xbox Dashboard in the current generation’s history. Microsoft championed a slew of new social features, debuted the upcoming then-Metro UI and seemed to lose track of how important games were to 360 owners. Video, social and other “apps” took priority over games, which is the main reason the overwhelming majority buy a 360.

In short, if you really want something to watch Netflix on there are cheaper and quieter ways of doing so, and this time round it looks like Microsoft have listened.

xbox 360 dashboard update

Gone are Facebook and Twitter integration, instead the social menu is now dedicated solely to your avatar and your Xbox friends. No longer can you “watch” your Facebook stream on TV, which is a good thing because that’s what your smartphone and laptop are for. Games has been brought forward in the menu, meaning less button presses to get to the meat-and-gravy of your games console. Video, TV and other streaming services have been lumped together under the tv & movies label which now features your video apps, Netflix, Lovefilm and Microsoft’s own rental service.

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The interface is now customisable too, and you can pin individual items (though not menus, only apps and games) to the My Pins section of your home screen. This is a very good thing, though it would be nice to be able to pin a shortcut to the demos and Xbox Live Arcade menus too.

xbox 360 dashboard

Xbox Music, a feature that is as much about Windows 8 as it is the 360 makes its first appearance, providing streaming music for a monthly or annual fee on your console, mobile or Windows 8 PC. While Windows 8 early adopters get six months of free music (which drops to 10 hours per month thereafter), Xbox users only get a trial period of 30 days free listening. Unfortunately the service is ultimately crippled, with streaming only possible from within the Xbox Music app. Why Microsoft didn’t think about adding an audio player to the standard dashboard and properly integrating the service is beyond me.

Prices start at $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year for those in the US, which makes the £8.99 a month (nearly $15) or £89.99 annual (around $145, ouch) cost in the UK seem like a bit of a cruel joke with Australians getting a slightly better deal at AU$11.99 monthly. On the plus side, the app is pretty quick to launch and not at all reminiscent of older Xbox apps that seemed to take an eternity to show up.

xbox 360 dashboard

At the very end of the menu (before settings, anyway) is an area simply titled apps which allows you to browse all available apps for all available sections, and access Internet Explorer. The UI has had a little facelift and paint job, with a new row of tiles added to the new interface. A more attractive shade of green and slightly lighter grey greets you on the initial profile login screen, and it’s clear that in this department Microsoft have made progress.

Internet Explorer, Now With Kinect

There was a time when a fully fledged browser on my TV would have excited me, and there was also a time when I would have used such a feature. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel that this time is over – especially now mobile devices do the job just fine. Then again, Kinect support is a nice addition – right?

xbox 360 dashboard

Yes and no. The browser itself is actually very good at rendering webpages, displaying each with a thin border that only your pointer than cross. The result is a clean-looking web browsing experience with and a ton of control options. You can use the standard Xbox controller which is performs as well as can be expected, SmartGlass from a compatible iOS or Windows Phone device and Kinect. Controlling IE with Kinect is done solely through the use of your voice, and works fairly well if you take an authoritative tone with your console.

Unfortunately support is crippled by an inability to search or input any text using your voice, so instead of saying “Xbox search make use of” you instead have to use the controller (or SmartGlass) in addition to your voice.

xbox 360 update

This would be fine, but this latest update brings with it support for voice searching on the dashboard using the “Xbox bing <query>” command. And so, I was left banging my head against a controller wondering why. It’s like Microsoft put in a lot of work, added some neat control options and then spoiled it all by failing to integrate things properly.

xbox 360 update

Voice control, though improved, is still patchy as I learned from repeated “Xbox bing make use of” turning up results for “make us over” and “make yourself” but never quite getting it right. Similarly “Xbox bing the verge” decided to search for “search”. Maybe it’s my accent, but my repeated requests by my girlfriend were equally as frustrating. By comparison, Siri understands us both with very few issues.

xbox 360 dashboard update

The shortcomings are mirrored elsewhere, you still can’t search by voice using the YouTube app, even worse you’re still forced to use the painfully slow instant-search style horizontal row of alphabetical letters. Microsoft lay down the rules governing app development on the platform and it’s nigh time they started enforcing a standard QWERTY keyboard like the one used in Internet Explorer.

Final Thoughts

The Xbox brand is probably Microsoft’s last concern at this stage in the Windows 8 game. With bets hedged on the new Windows 8 UI, Microsoft Surface and Windows Phone 8, the Xbox is pretty much the only product in Microsoft’s arsenal that doesn’t need to impress at the moment. The new dashboard has its moments of brilliance – the UI is more useful and better looking, and the ability to pin your favourite items to the home screen is brilliant. At its core, even Internet Explorer is an impressive browser that chews through websites and puts the PS3 equivalent to shame.

Ultimately though, the experience is still flawed. Voice searching (regardless of how patchy) should have been integrated into Internet Explorer, because it’s already there for the main dashboard. Text input should be unified across the system and Xbox Music should probably be called something else. So to mirror the many Surface reviews that have popped up online over the last week or so, there are glimmers of hope and tons of promise here – but it’s not quite ready yet.

What do you think of the new Xbox dashboard? Sound-off in the comments, below.

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