So put yourself in Microsoft’s shoes. How do you make an already great video game system better? How do you take what is already the hands down best on-line service for video game consoles, and improve on it? Simple. You offer to try and fix the few complaints people had about the current dashboard and main menu layout . You offer a complete overhaul of the dashboard appearance and design. You offer around 13,000 movie titles that you can stream instantly at a very low cost. You offer the ability to have faster load times on just about every game. But most importantly, you offer to do all of those things, while keeping the already popular features and consistency of X-Box Live the same. Mission accomplished.
You really have to hand it to Microsoft, because they’ve done something great here. I mean, the complaints about X-Box Live and the layout of the previous dashboard were minimal. You could find them if you looked, but you really had to search hard to find anyone that was horribly unsatisfied with how it all used to look and run. Granted, I’ll be the first to admit that the old dashboard looked like something straight out of 1995, and some of the Marketplace search options were not the greatest, but at the very least, it was perfectly functional, and there was nothing really wrong with it. Despite that, Microsoft took the good thing we had, and made it great. They started with a complete re-design of the dashboard we all knew. After getting past the brief learning curve, I found that everything was easier to find, and the menus were a breeze to navigate. The addition of the new 3D “window” viewing system that replaced the old 2D “list” system makes it easier to see what’s ahead of you when looking through almost any menu, and some of the options that have been moved to new menu categories have made finding just about anything effortless. A few new subtle changes to how you look for things in the Marketplace have also helped, and overall make the experience of finding something specific a lot easier. Putting more options of things to change on the fly under the in-game dashboard window(which now pops up in the center of your screen instead of off to the side) gives you better access to your preferences while playing a game. Also, the addition of the party system is great, and now you’re not limited to two people chatting per line. You can load a room full of your friends, all talking on the same channel, and all doing different things at the same time.
One of the small complaints about the new setup is the learning curve. After all, we had all been used to the old look for almost 3 years, so like any drastic change, it takes time. Some options have found their way to new categories, and figuring out where everything is and becoming comfortable with it, can take a day or two. What by far is the most spoken complaints are the avatars. Some people think they look too juvenile, some think they’re a rip-off of the Nintendo’s Wii’s “Mii” avatars, and others just plain and simple don’t think they have a place on the 360 dashboard. Well, like them or not, they’re probably not going anywhere. The 360 is the cheapest console on the market now, and the number of under-18 gamers is likely to grow even higher that it already is this holiday season. It’s pretty obvious that’s the crowd that Microsoft was aiming for with the addition of the avatar system, and my guess is it’s sticking around for the long haul. No worries though, as you’re not really forced to use them. You can easily back out of the avatar design system it throws you in after installing the update, and rather than going to the “My X-Box” or “friends” section of the main menu where all the avatars live, you can simply press the guide button and escape the cartoon mayhem, all the while keeping your options intact.
Aside from making everything look and feel better with the dashboard and menu layouts, Microsoft also fixed one of the biggest gripes about the hardware itself… it’s too loud! When you put a disc in the tray and it loads, you begin to think that it’s very possible your system may start flying around the room. The fans kick up and the console starts to become obnoxiously noisy. You get used to it, but now we have another option besides just dealing with it. Assuming you have a hard drive, you can now install games on to it, making for a much quieter gaming experience. It takes about 10 minutes per title, and the size of the files it installs range from 4-9 Gigs. Even after you install the game, the original disc still has to be in the tray for piracy reasons, but after the console has verified the copyright code on the disc, the disc drive shuts off, successfully eliminating all the noise we’ve had to listen to for the last 3 years. Besides making it quieter, you’ll also notice that load times have gotten better for almost every game after it’s been installed, giving you even more incentive to let the hard drive do the work.
Now to the best part. Streaming those awesome movies from Netflix. In order to access the feature, you must have a Gold X-Box Live account, and any one of the unlimited Netflix accounts (which start at only $8.99). From there you dive right in to all the streaming goodness. On-line, Netflix.com now has the option to search for only “play instantly” movies, which can be streamed. From there, you line up those movies in to your queue, head over the 360, and there they are. Any movie in your queue that can be streamed is now available and ready to go, and along with them is access to the movie summary, and the ability to rate them after you’re done watching. A good internet connection will be able to start the streaming within a matter of seconds, and while even the best video quality isn’t fantastic, it’s still good, and well worth every penny you pay for the service.
The bottom line is Microsoft didn’t pull any punches. Sure, you’re going to run across people that don’t like it, and you’re going to find people that don’t like having to search for everything while using the layout for the first time, but in my mind Microsoft set out to do something great here, and they’ve done it. The plethora of new goodies, and the easier to sift menu arrangements are just the tip of the iceberg. Take what they had and make it better, without sacrificing anything along the way? Done, and done.