Hands On with Microsoft's New Xbox Experience, Part One

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One of Microsoft's longstanding problems is that it's never quite figured out how to combine functionality and visual grace in its interface overlays. Its creaky Windows Mobile platform remains a muddle of buttons and tumbledown menus while Apple's lithe and comparably youthful iPhone looks more and more like the future. Windows Vista's 3D Aero mode looks pleasant enough even compared to OS X, but "features" like its default security measures impose themselves on the simplest actions like a thug clumsily grabbing your arm and twisting it behind your back when all you want is to access a new program or flex a control panel widget.

In short, Microsoft and "elegance" rarely seem to go hand in hand.

That said, the Xbox 360's beveled and bladed dashboard always felt different from what I'd come to expect out of Redmond, Washington. While it retained nothing of the original Xbox's business-first spectral green template, it remained simple and straightforward, just the fact, no frills or funny business. Want to play a game? One click. Want to go online? Another click. Want to download demos or check your achievements? Manage music files and videos or change system settings like network parameters or visual reference levels? Just a few clicks more and you were set. My only beef with the 360's dashboard was that it occasionally devolved into a chug-a-lugging mess when you tried to conjure it up during gameplay, as in "Be back in a few minutes with coffee and bagels while you're bringing up my achievements list" -- a minor quibble with an otherwise highly accessible setup.

Why change? Because change is inevitable, and stasis doesn't sell consoles. That, and in three years time -- remember, the Xbox 360 debuted in November 2005 -- a lot about the market's already changed, from the way we interact with our game devices in terms of controllers to what we're able to access online in terms of media like TV shows and movies.

Microsoft's answer? How about a brand new totally free operating upgrade for every single Xbox 360 owner?

I'm talking about Microsoft's New Xbox Experience or NXE, a "total conversion" for the Xbox 360's dashboard I previewed a few months ago that adds several new features while radically altering the way you interact with them. I've had my eyes and fingers wrapped around the NXE for the past week, and before I run you through its primary features, I'll just say that it's pretty impressive stuff, well worth getting excited about as the official rollout on November 19th inches closer.

(This is Part One of my NXE hands on. Here's Part Two.)

Ready, Set, Go!

The first thing you see after the NXE downloads and updates your 360 is a snazzy new introductory video that glides and swoops around a magnified version of the green-crosshatched Xbox 360 logo. Don't worry, it only comes up once, sort of like the groove that plays the first time you launch Windows XP.

Next, you get to create a Mii...erm, I mean "Avatar." That's a bit misleading, actually, because the NXE's avatars look only fleetingly like Nintendo's cutesy bobbleheads. Oh, the Avatars are cute enough, sure, but the way they move and stand, they just look cooler (or like they're trying to be, anyway). You can tweak the "coolness" factor by playing with conventional physiology like eyes, ears, nose, mouth, while a second option lets you play dress-up with hats, shirts, pants, makeup, and accessories. Finish by snapping a picture of your Avatar (it replaces your gamer pic, though you can override this later) and you're ready to rock and roll.

What do Avatars do? Not much out of the gate, it seems, but they do fold right into currently available stuff like Scene It? Box Office Smash. Think party games and more casual fare and you're probably tracking what Microsoft has in mind. Competition for the Wii? Not really. The Wii's selling based on cost and the motion-controller's novelty factor, not its operating interface. Miis are interesting for all of five minutes, after which they're there to flavor the games, but they hardly sell systems. Neither will the NXE's Avatars, though they may help soften the 360's image as a game box geared toward enthusiast's.

Blades of Bygone Glory

After Avatar creation, up pops the new interface, and it sure looks different. For one, the old interface's "blades" are completely gone. What the heck are "blades"? The term refers to the full-screen panels you shift between in the current dash to access categories like "Xbox Live" or "Games" or "System." The NXE's interface strips them out and inserts something that looks a little like the Aero-styled task-switching mechanic in Windows Vista, where rectangular panels slide into or out of the foreground at your command.

Microsoft's probably going to hate me for saying this, but imagine taking the center point of the left-right, up-down XrossMediaBar interface on Sony's PlayStation 3, then shifting it into the lower left corner of the screen. Presto New-Xbox-Experience-o. You've still got the left-right, up-down thing going on, but it also has the feel of the "start" button in Windows -- a really, really big start button, granted -- wed to the stacked index card look of Vista's task-switcher when you've got the Aero 3D interface enabled. On the left-right axis, you get actionable items or "channels," things you click on to launch or drill into. On the up-down axis, you get self-explanatory categories like "Spotlight" and "Game Marketplace" and "My Xbox."

It takes some getting used to, say a couple of game sessions scrolling around and figuring out how to get back to your music and video files or the latest game demos and system settings. Thereafter it's second nature. Navigating in two dimensions instead of tabbing across pages also feels quicker and somehow leaner, despite the fact that the number of things you can click on has ostensibly doubled.

Menu responsiveness is lightning fast and each of the windows is beautifully tinted and shaded. The text scales perfectly and looks even crisper, in my opinion, so that you're never left squinting or wondering where you're at in the matrix. Also, by moving your eye to that lower-left-hand focal point and setting everything else off at distance, Microsoft created a sense of openness to the dash that's pretty compelling. It's a simple enough optical trick that smartly decompresses your entire view-space.

Minor gotcha: You'll want the d-pad to navigate and not the thumbstick. It's really easy to accidentally push the thumbstick diagonally and suddenly find yourself scrolling up or down (which reseats the view all the way to the left) when you meant to go left or right.

Next: Silent running, kicks with net flicks, and with a little help from my friends...

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