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

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If I had to single out a feature in Microsoft's New Xbox Experience that towers above all others, it actually wouldn't be the ability to stream Netflix videos. I know that's the one Microsoft's excited about, and it's surely where the real action's at. But for me -- what can I say? It's all about installing games to the Xbox 360's hard drive.

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

Silent Running

Installing games to a console's hard drive? I know! What's the difference between a game console and a PC these days? (Hint: Not lipstick.) Still, if it means I don't have to listen to my 360 buzz like an old window-propped air conditioner and my games load faster and run smoother, sign me up, with or without the optional mouse and keyboard.

How's it work? Easy. Pop the disc in the drive, scroll to the "My Xbox" view, click on disc options, and voila, there's one to "install game to hard drive." A button press and about 10 minutes of thumb-twiddling later, you're in business. Regrettably, you still have to leave the disc in the drive, but that disc never spins up again (it's really just insurance that people won't "buy once, install many" in violation of basic licensing principles).

Be aware that if you're sitting on an old 20GB hard drive, you'll quickly fill it to capacity with just a game or two. Want to install more than that and it'll cost you. Interestingly, while the NXE is free, the price of Microsoft's official 120GB hard drive upgrade is $150. Not a typo. I've called that extortionate, because it is, especially when you consider the fact that you can buy a laptop-sized 120GB hard drive for less than a third of that price (if you can even find one that small anymore).

"But there's no hard drive install option on the PS3!" True enough. That's because Sony's optical drive is comparably subdued (about 10 dB quieter, in fact -- a 10 dB increase in volume is perceived as a doubling in loudness).

So even though the new hard drive install option gets two thumbs up from me, it's worth remembering that it's a band-aid to a hardware design flaw, and if you're a 20GB (or no) hard drive owner, also a pricey one.

Kicks With Net Flicks

Otherwise known as Netflix, these are the highly successful folks that let you rent flat-rate videos through the mail (aka "renting for either extremely busy or pathologically agoraphobic people"). With the NXE, they've also made themselves nice and cozy with Microsoft as part of a resource-pooling strategy that could well launch a digitally downloadable video empire.

How's Netflix work? On its own, it's a simple monthly fee based service that lets you select so many videos in a given time period, then hold onto them for as long as you like. No late fees, and as far as I know, no relentless collection agencies barking threats at your answering machine. The kicker: You have to return your current holdings before you can rent something new. Doesn't matter what you've paid, you only get new stuff once you've mailed back your old stuff. I've never used it, but a lot of my friends do, and they swear it's fast, friendly, and completely indispensable.

You'll find the NXE's Netflix bookmark located under "Video Marketplace" with the trademark marquee-style Netflix logo. The service actually isn't installed by default, and you have to pull down a small 3MB file to get the ball rolling. Not a big deal, but step two's a bit less trivial: Any time you want to add or subtract content thereafter, you have to get up, walk over to a computer, and use a PC. Yep, you get to watch stuff on the 360, but your account and basic transactions aren't managed on the 360 at all.

Really? Really. I wouldn't call it a deal-breaker, but it does shatter the illusion that your Xbox 360 is an island. It's also bound to confuse the very secondary users Microsoft and Netflix seem interested in selling to, e.g. other household members who might not play games, but who'd use the 360 purely as a Netflix tool. Instead of plucking their Netflix disc out of its envelope and popping it in the DVD drive and hitting "play," these folks now have to 1) leave the room, 2) hunt down a computer, 3) log into an different account, then 4) navigate around a completely unique interface to queue and organize stuff. Kind of annoying considering you don't have to "PC" anything when you're pulling down movies and TV shows on the PS3. Fingers crossed Microsoft and Netflix quickly remedy this in a manner that puts control of adding/deleting content on the 360, where it belongs.

Defining High Definition

I wasn't able to give streaming videos a go because the Netflix service itself is region locked (I get a sad "sorry, content not available for your region" when I try to make it so). But I can certainly pass along what I have seen and know.

In addition to gaining access to Netflix's considerable library of titles, the big lure here is that you can now watch movies instantly without downloading them first.

Oh, and they're high-definition.

Sort of.

What do I mean? Just that the sample rates on these videos are going to be fairly low. Think compression rates, like with MP3 music files, meaning that like compressed music, compressed video lacks the overall color depth and clarity you'll find in a 1080p HD DVD or Blu-ray title.

That's neither Microsoft's nor Netflix's fault, by the way. It's just the business reality of current broadband speeds and local storage limitations. A dual-layer Blu-ray disc holds around 50GB of data. A typical TV season consisting of 22 episodes ships on four or five Blu-ray discs. Imagine trying to stream 250GB (50 x 5) of data to your Xbox 360 and you can't help but see the problem (not to mention the trouble you'd get into if your ISP has a "fair access policy" restriction in the 100GB range on your supposedly "unlimited" monthly usage quota).

As a hep new way to watch movies that cuts out the mailman, the Netflix partnership looks like a great idea. As either a non-gamer-friendly set top movie box or a digital rental service that'll feed your wildest videophile desires, however, it has a few issues to sort out.

With a Little Help From My Friends

Nabbing the "most socially intrepid" award is the NXE's option to create "parties" of up to eight friends, then keep that party rocking even as you're switching in and out of games. Want to chat with a friend while quitting Gears of War 2, then pop in a movie without dropping the call and reconnecting? Do that with a whole group of friends, each one playing or watching something completely different?

Now you can.

I wouldn't want to guess whether a feature like this is going to catch -- with "social networking" features, no one ever does -- but the notion that you could grab up to eight pals from any place in the world to simultaneously watch a movie or TV show or just sort of prowl around the game-o-sphere sounds fascinating. (I'm sure there's a social sciences grant in there somewhere...) Now they just need to sort the logistics of wearing the Xbox 360's clumsy headset connected to the bulky not-really-a-remote gamepad while fumbling around for the popcorn and beer and Cheesy Poofs.

And the Verdict is...

It's a work in progress but it feels awfully progressive just the same only three weeks from launch. Put it this way: If you're a PS3 owner, the only theoretically compelling feature is Netflix, and then just because Netflix has catalog muscle. If you're a Nintendo Wii owner, same deal. Netflix do or die -- the whole Avatar thing isn't designed to woo you away from your Wii-motes. The big winner? Xbox 360 owners, because they're getting a freebie update to the operating system that'll change the way they relate to everything from the games to social activities to digital media.

And if you own none of the above systems, Microsoft just added a very formidable and seductive arrow to its quiver of compelling buy-me arguments.

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