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The latest update to the Xbox system has been released, bringing tighter integration with Kinect and voice control, a shiny new Metro look, and a slew of new media capabilities (with more promised in the coming months). Read on for a full and honest review of everything it brings to the table.
The New Dashboard
The dashboard layout has gone all Metro, and I’ll be the first admit it’s quite nice. While I’m not a fan of the style for a general computing experience, it does look beautiful on a 50″ HDTV. The previous incarnation of confusing and hidden layers has been broken down into clear sections that you can switch through effortlessly. Additional functionality is provided by apps.
Voice control is now across the board without needing to jump into a separate Kinect area. Say “Xbox” and speak whatever’s on-screen, or jump to a specific tab. I found it works well – it’s responsive and accurate. It stays in a listening state for a while, so you needn’t preface everything you say with “Xbox”.
The cross-media Bing voice search also seemed to work pretty well, pulling up a liberal torrent of content from all areas of the system – the Zune marketplace, live TV, movie contents, game tie-ins, videos – they’ve really worked on getting the Kinect stuff down and done well.
Gesture control is very much as it was before – clunky in my opinion – and unless you’ve got your Kinect set up in just such a way, you will find that your gestures will bounce all over the place making fine control for any kind of useful selection almost impossible. That’s obviously specific to my setup too – but I prefer voice control anyway.
In the UK, the streaming movie service is supplied only by Lovefilm, but I gather it’s basically the same thing as Netflix. After downloading the app, you enter your credentials and everything seamlessly integrates – voice control, Bing search, pulling content into the main dashboard – it’s nice, and best of all it doesn’t feel like an app – it just feels like part of the complete XBox dashboard experience.
I think with a little more choice in the way of apps and integrated services, this could really become the ultimate family media environment. As it is now, it’s a premium on top of your Xbox Live Gold membership (LoveFilm starts from about £8/month), but there are more free options like Crackle coming out soon also.
Unfortunately, there’s no full integration with media centers – it’s just running the same old tired Media Center Extender experience as before. Rumor has it that we may see some tighter integration with a Windows 8 Media Center, but that has yet to surface in the real world – and Microsoft has gone so far as to say that fewer than 6% of it’s customers even use Media Center.
I’m afraid I’m not able to test this in the UK as the only option is Sky TV – and that’s at least £20/month. If you’re able to test this out in either the UK or US, do leave a comment and let us know how it works out for you. We’ve been promised both BBC iPlayer later this month, and 4OnDemand next year, so hopefully this is one area that will really improve with time as more services come on board.
Lack of Customization
As far as I can tell, the content displayed on the various tabs is not customizable at all. I am therefore destined to see Zune crap on the videos screen, despite the fact that I have deleted the app and would never pay to rent a movie when I have LoveFilm.
What I would like is for the LoveFilm app to give me multiple views on the video tab, one for a highlight movie, maybe one that suits my favourite genre, or trending this week – instead, the app is limited to one ‘tile’, and that one single tile will display whatever the LoveFilm developers want it to.
I can’t even access the LoveFilm app from the videos tab without saying the name of the highlighted movie – instead I have to go via Apps – LoveFilm. A minor irritation perhaps, but the lack of any real tile customization is very disappointing.
On every single tab, in the bottom right, is a small video advertisement that rudely starts playing if you hover your selection there.
Frankly, I’m kind of disgusted that this is even here is the first place. Since when is it ok to randomly insert advertising onto my console? Remember – I’m already a paying XBox Live Gold Member. The live TV feature requires a paid Sky license; the Lovefilm service is paid too; everything on the Zune marketplace needs to be purchased; when they eventually add BBC iPlayer that’ll be paid for by my TV license money – so why the hell are you showing me advertisements Micro$oft? What additional content are you providing me with that warrants advertising on every screen?
In summary – it’s a fantastic update that really demonstrates Kinect voice control done right, even if the gesture based controls are still sketchy. For accessing media content, I don’t think we could ask for more at this point and the choices will only improve with time.
Has it made me rethink my opinion that Metro UI sucks and will be removed from Windows 8 faster than you can say “desktop gadgets”? Not in the slightest – what works for my TV is very much not going to work for my personal computing experience.
I also think including advertising was really a low blow, considering that making use of all the functionality provided would already mean upwards of £50+ ($100) per month anyway for various services. And yes, I realise the Xbox already had advertising before, but it was fairly hidden away in the multitude of menus – now it’s on every damn screen.
Have you upgraded yet? What do you think of it? Let us know in the comments, if you can pull yourself away from Skyrim for long enough.