New Xbox Experience

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Along with wireless controllers, upgradeable firmware has to be one of the best things to come out of this generation. The 360 and particularly the PS3 have come on massively since their launches, far beyond the days when a CD player and memory card manager were the best you could hope for.┬áThe ‘New Xbox Experience’ is the biggest update yet, completely overhauling the old dash – a good interface stretched thin as more functionality has been crammed in – keeping the bits that worked well and stealing cherry-picking a few ideas from the Wii and Sony’s XMB.

First of all, Avatars. I don’t care for them, and I don’t like the visual friends list because it’s a lot more unwieldy than the text-based version. They don’t have the personality of Nintendo’s Miis, which would justify such a prominent implementation, and once the novelty wears off I just imagine that they’ll just become more screen furniture. But hey, they might not do it for me but they don’t hurt, so whatever.

What I’m really interested with are the two features that are most clearly aimed at gamers like me: installs and system-wide parties.

I hate the forced installs that that are so common on the PS3 – I had a bit of a rant about it here – but the handful of PS3 games that have an optional install that lets me shave off a few seconds of loading if I want to but can also be popped in and played immediately cut a happy medium, and that’s fine.

What the NXE has done is expand this feature to almost every single game on the 360, past and present. Every game can be played completely from the disc, but since I have that lovely 120GB drive and am not inclined to download movie rentals, I can now play with loading times ranging from a few seconds saved to dramatically improved, and, most importantly, without my 360 sounding like a jet engine. The NXE actually makes late-night 360 gaming when everyone else is in bed viable. Never thought I’d see the day.

It’s an excellent feature that I’ll certainly be using for a handful of frequently played games as well as whatever is floating my boat in that particular month. Gears 2, Fable II, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, and Rock Band 2 – being able to hear the music over the console is an overlooked but fairly important feature – are all on there now, and silence really is golden.

Parties have been overlooked as the other feature, while the aforementioned two steal the headlines for casual and hardcore audiences respectively, but for me, who does maybe 80% of his online gaming with the same crowd of people and who knows the pain of trying to get everyone back together after changing modes, games, hosts, or whatever, this is brilliant. I’ve wanted parties to be a standard feature since I first used them in Halo 2, and while this doesn’t quite have the hot-swapping mode-hopping of the Halo games, as a retrofit it’s a great effort. Hopefully Microsoft now sees it as an important enough feature to include it as standard in the next Xbox to give us truly contiguous parties across all games, but this is great.

Considering the issues that survived three years of updates to the original Dashboard, I’m amazed that it’s all working this well this early on. The early teething problems from when the network was getting hammered have smoothed out and there’s the occasional hang when opening the much-expanded Guide, but hey, I haven’t heard widespread reports of it killing 360s, so that’s an improvement. Hopefully the niggles will be optimised further whenever we get the next update.

Now how about Netflix or some equivalent outside the US, Microsoft? What happened to that BT Vision deal anyway?

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