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Title: Taking on all challengers once again!

A Look at the New Xbox 360 Dashboard Update

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We've come a long way since the “blades.” Where once the 360's interface was merely for purchasing content or checking out your friends lists, it now has to juggle more balls than Sasha Grey on a casting couch. With games, movies, music, avatars and social networking apps, Xbox Live's overflowing content list demands a robust and sophisticated operating system.

So while the original blades OS was fine for its time, and its replacement, NXE, has done a good job in recent years, tomorrow sees a major step forward in the 360's evolution. An entirely new operating system is coming, bringing an influx of new services, apps and content with it. We've had a taster of it and here's what we thought.

As those that have been part of the limited preview program will know, the most striking aspect of the update is the operating system's new look and feel. Built to reflect both Microsoft's Windows Phone OS, as well as the upcoming Windows 8 for PC, it's a clean and simple 'Metro' interface composed of large, bold, easy to navigate tiles.

This simplicity of design allows the OS to adapt equally well to a range of inputs. You can now navigate the menus with ease either via Kinect motion controls, a plain old controller, or most impressively, Kinect voice commands. Taking into account the tech's foibles – you have to speak quite slowly and deliberately – it's hard not to see this as a little glimpse of the future.

This is due in part to Bing integration. Every single piece of content available across Xbox Live is indexed and searchable. So all you have to do is say “Bing: Call of Duty,” and all of the games and content relating to the franchise will pop up on screen, ready for selection. It's a process that works across music, television and movie content too. It's fantastic, but has one notable shortcoming.

The problem is with the way Bing finds content. Bark Christian Bale at your Kinect and it will dutifully find every film that Christian Bale has starred in, and offer a variety of ways to watch that content, be it via LoveFilm, Sky, or whatever. Impressive, right? Say Cliff Bleszinski or Peter Molyneux, however, and the only content it will return is interviews with the developers on say, Inside Xbox. None of the developer’s work will appear.

The same goes for development houses too, as well as publishers. It's a terrible shame, as implementing such a feature could both educate consumers and lead them to similar content. Like the Halo games? Then why not search for Bungie and check out their early work in Marathon: Durandal? It's just not possible. But you can access all the Jennifer Aniston films available on XBL in a flash.

Now, of course, this is indicative of a larger issue with games and a general ambivalence to the people that make them. But Microsoft are in a privileged position to help bring about change.  During our presentation numerous references were made to the “curation” of the content on XBL - about how Microsoft make sure everything hits their very high standards. If this is true, then they should slap a few extra tags on the game content and let us search via the talent involved. It would make a world of difference.

Broadly speaking, however, this update isn't about games. It's about turning the Xbox 360 into an entertainment hub for your living room, about delivering one piece of tech that can provide everything you need. One box to rule them all, you could say. With this new update, Microsoft come mighty close to achieving just that.

Tomorrow sees an explosion of XBL apps from third-parties, across live and on-demand TV, music and movies as well as internet services and social media, all available via an Apps Marketplace. UK will be able to access iPlayer, 4OD, Demand 5, LOVEFiLM, YouTube and more. Even established XBL services have been upgraded, with the likes of Facebook getting a makeover to bring them into line with the style of the rest of the dashboard. Consistency of experience looks to have been a key goal. 

There's some decent bonuses on offer too. LOVEFiLM for example is rolling out a free 30-day trial for all Xbox Live Gold Users, meaning that you can try out the service for a month, without obligation. It's a nice touch. More apps and features are going to roll out over the coming months and years. The value of the service is soaring.

Meanwhile, gamers haven't been completely forgotten. Cloud saving is a highlight. Now, when prompted to save your data you'll find an extra option titled merely "cloud." There's just over half a GB's worth of space in there, accessible from any XBL-connected 360 in the world, at any time. Your Gamertag just got a whole lot more portable.

Beacons also stand out. These allow you to communicate to your friends exactly what it is you would like to play. You just pop in, pick a game from your library, and then click on it to communicate your desire. You can even set a beacon to post to Facebook too, for you friends that are not currently on Live.

It's hardly a revolutionary addition, but it is indicative of Microsoft's desire to provide a compelling social experience for its users. From the very beginning, Microsoft has pushed to connect as many Xboxes as possible. It shows. Socially, Xbox Live remains far in advance of its nearest competitors.

Ultimately, despite the fact that the new update brings scant new features that directly relate to games, this is a profound improvement of the service. Microsoft are keen to say that they are effectively providing a brand new console, delivered for free, six years into the platform's lifespan.

That's clearly overstating the case, but the truth is that the new dashboard represents an entirely new way to interact with your Xbox. It's a system that looks, feels and most importantly works incredibly well, with a ridiculous amount of content delivered in a uniform, coherent manner. Attractive and easy to use, very little about it disappoints. We've come a long way since blades.

Microsoft’s new Xbox dashboard will be available to download by all users tomorrow.


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