The NewER Xbox Experience: Preview Program Impressions

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It’s that time again!  What’s “New” with the Xbox Experience!

I just got into the preview program last night, and I think “modest update” would be the correct term for this most recent dashboard update.  Here is a quick breakdown of the features I’ve stumbled across so far (this list isn’t exhaustive, but these are most of the major points):

The Good:

  • Netflix update.  Although there is supposedly some updates to how Silverlight is integrated into the Xbox OS, this is still technically a standalone update from the dashboard (you are prompted separately to update the Netflix app).  Anyhow, once it is updated, you are treated to a much more usable and integrated Netflix experience.  For example, you are now able to browse 100 titles in each major genre you frequent (for me, they are Sci-Fi, Comedy, Indie Horror, and Action Adventure…I feel you judging me right now…); I’m assuming these get rotated out on a periodic basis.  You can either play these immediately or add them to your instant queue (a nice touch).  With the above mentioned tech improvements brought about by updated Silverlight implementation, there is now dynamic video streaming quality for playback of Netflix movies.  Also, there are now a few very small but welcome pieces of info attached to the movies in your queue, such as whether the title is in high-definition or not, and when the movie will expire from the Netflix Instant Watch catalog.  All in all, this makes the Netflix Instant Watch function a much more inviting portion of the dashboard.
  • User ratings!  You can now rate content on the Marketplace (welcome to the turn of the century, Microsoft…)  There are now “top-rated” sorting options in each area of the Marketplace, so you can see which Halo people like best.  :)  The implementation is pretty great overall, with a quick pop-up that allows you to give 1-through-5 stars.
  • In-game achievement browser.  This one is just flat-out brilliant.  When the NXE launched last fall, they added a nice sub-screen in the dashboard for your profile that allows you to see the titles you have played and the achievements you’ve earned.  When browsing the achievements here, you can simply navigate between the items to see what the requirements are without having to go into each achievement to find that requirement (contrast this to the in-game Xbox Guide, where you DO have to enter each achievement to see the requirement).  In short, they’ve brought the much-improved achievement browser to the Xbox Guide.  Once you use it, you’ll be upset it didn’t happen sooner.
  • Sorting for your Xbox Guide friends list: by activity, Gamertag, or online status.  I’ll take it.
  • Party improvements.  Adding someone to your party is pretty quick now with one-button invites, and even accidental disconnects from your party will now be handled by the service, connecting you right back up to the folks you were hanging out with inside cyberspace (we already had this “reconnectivity” for Xbox Live updates, but now even wonky internet connections and locked-up consoles can’t keep you and your friends apart).
  • An “eject disc” button (“X”) when you are selecting the disc in the tray!  (It’s the little things, people).

The Meh:

  • For the Netflix update: The other major piece of the update is the party watch feature.  You can demo this without anyone by suggesting a movie and starting it; as other sites have covered, this is a MST3K-style movie den where you can “emote” about the movie experience.  I don’t really mind this feature, and it’s actually a bit mind-bending that it syncs viewing with up to 7 other folks in a virtual living room of sorts, but my major problem with it is that there isn’t one button press that will switch to full-screen (currently you need to choose the “Display” option that typically cycles through aspect ratios?)
  • For the user ratings: The two things that stood out as a natural evolution to the experience would be a better visual cue that you’ve already rated something (currently the stars “cycle” between the current group rating and your rating, but you have to wait for that cycle to get to your rating; perhaps have your rating show first?), and the ability to rate the items in your dashboard achievement list.  This second one makes the most sense, since this is verifiable proof that you’ve actually played the game you’re rating (at this point, anyone can rate anything, regardless of whether or not they’ve played or even seen the title).
  • Avatar Marketplace.  w00t, I guess.  I do like the ability to earn “awards” for my avatar in addition to achievements, but Microsoft will probably never get me to buy virtual clothes or props for my virtual self, as generous as they’ve been with the free clothing options for the past several months.  It’s well-implemented and easy-to-use, for what it’s worth.
  • Xbox Live Gold Member badge.  How many years were you paying for this?  Oh, that many.  Cool.
  • Xbox Live Indie Games update mechanism.  First of all, a revision to this was sorely needed; I purchased Weapon of Choice awhile back (EXCELLENT little Indie Game, btw), and when updating the title the first time, I was awkwardly dumped to a screen to re-download the full version of the game.  Only after launching the game did I see that the version number (which not all games sport on the home screen) was incremented.  I assumed when I had read they revamped this process that it’d be just like the update process for regular Xbox titles (By the way, why are we still getting kicked off of Xbox Live for these updates?).  That’s…not the case.  Instead, the splash disclaimer screen for the Indie Games informs you an update is available for your title.  THEN you are awkwardly dumped to the screen that has you re-download the full version of the game.  It is then added to your active download queue, but doesn’t begin to download.  When you choose continue, you receive another prompt to inform you that you are getting sent back to the dashboard.  So, instead of migrating to the much more streamlined title update procedure, we got more steps.  Oh well, better luck next time.  At least I know what the hell is going on now.
  • There is a Tips/Tricks/Help section near the end of your My Xbox channel now.  This isn’t a terrible idea, but it’s basically just a collection of links to other parts of the NXE.  Not really quite as exciting as I had thought it might be.

The Not-As-Good:

  • The NXE now lags and gets choppy with no rhyme or reason as to why.  Fix it.  Now.

I think those are the highlights.  Anything else cool/terrible you’ve found in your travels?

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