Xbox 360 - The New Xbox Experience (NXE) Review

In all my years as a reviewer this is the first time I’ve ever penned a critique about a software OS update. Not only that, it has nothing to do with Windows, Linux, OSX or any other desktop or server operating system. In fact, it has nothing to do with computers whatsoever but rather, video games. That’s right, for the first time in history a video game console maker is upgrading their OS through a downloadable, mandatory, patch and will wonders ever cease, the company responsible is Microsoft. Yes, the same Microsoft that has been accused since time began as not only being an industry bully but also ripping off every original idea from their competitors. Don’t fret though, this is not a sign of the apocalypse nor are pigs flying either. For once, Microsoft seems to actually be leading and for gamers the results are surprisingly substantial, as they have managed to add enough features that enhance the current Xbox 360 skill set.

The patch, appropriately named the, “New Xbox Experience” or NXE for short, is much more than just your standard Windows patch that usually just plugs security holes but rather does a complete overhaul and extreme makeover of the GUI. Think of it in terms of scale as if your Windows XP or Vista install suddenly getting a mandatory patch they turned your entire visual interface (icons, font, background, sound) into something resembling Mac OSX. Not only that but they have added a whole wealth of features that where previously not included as well as tweaking and enhancing current functionality all in an installation process which takes less than five minutes and one reboot. Not too shabby.

I have had my Xbox 360 since launch day (although I’ve had 2 RRODs already) and I remember during the period leading up to it that Microsoft spent much time harping upon their 360 “Blades” interface which was supposedly thoroughly tried and tested to be the best and easiest to navigate. Microsoft spokesmen constantly demoed the new look and walked journalists through the various sections to highlight the console’s various functions. This new look was a definitive upgrade from the previous XBOX GUI that, nowadays, looks incredibly dated. While the original XBOX went for the quasi-high tech look with the black/green contrast it seemed that it was clunky and betrayed its PC roots while trying too hard to exude a “cool” atmosphere. How else do you account for having the GUI look like it was suppose to be from some futuristic hologram technology? Microsoft, like it has been known to do, added many extraneous graphical flourishes that seemed to do nothing but add flash.

The new 360 blade motif jettisoned most of that and instead distilled every function into four primary blades, each one having a specific purpose – Xbox live, Games, Media and System settings that clearly delineated the console’s primary features. Now, you could also buy or make your own custom themes much like changing your wallpaper in Windows that added more individual personality to each console.

Add the inclusion of the Xbox guide button (you know, that huge circular xbox logo button on your controller) that a user could call up at any time, even during game play, that made all the console features easily available and the console’s OS seemed light years ahead of it’s original Xbox predecessor.

Now there was nothing particularly bad or painful about the blade interface and for the time it was very easy to navigate but as Microsoft began to add more features many issues reared their ugly head. First and foremost in my experience was the relative lag or general slowness that occurred especially when accessing certain areas or using specific features. The original Xbox also displayed instances of this but never, in my experience, to the extent of the 360. There were times when I went to download new content such as videos or game demos where the entire GUI would freeze for an inordinate amount of time that reminded me of all the bad things that occurred in Windows – I almost expected the OS to crash but it thankfully didn’t. Sometimes as I switched between blades it too would freeze or it would take too long for simple text to even display in the dash. When I attempted to queue multiple downloads everything would stagnate causing me to curse in frustration at the apparent lack of polish.

Couple that with the logistical nightmare that occurred as more and more downloadable content was added and it was clear that the blade interface was becoming detrimental and a turn off for more casual gamers. Instead of easy access to content things became buried in numerous menu layers and that made finding a specific item a time consuming process of menu hunting.

Thus it was time for a change although I doubt anyone except those in the know at Microsoft had the slightest inkling at how much different it would end up. Let it be said that there is no doubt that the NXE upgrade has two primary functions one of which is the aforementioned upgrades to the GUI but perhaps the greater goal that can’t actually be seen is Microsoft’s changing business plan to bring the 360 into better direct competition with the Nintendo Wii’s core “casual” audience that has so far eluded both Microsoft and Sony. The Wii might have started as a fad but it has become much more than that as it has energized and drawn in people who traditionally have not cared about video games. This new market of “casual” gamers is propelling the Wii to unimaginable heights all the while leaving Microsoft and Sony far behind in its wake. A cursory glance at monthly NPD sales figures shows the Wii outselling the 360 by a comfortable 2:1. About the only bright spot for Microsoft is that the 360 is currently outselling Sony’s PS3 by the same 2:1 margin which makes Sony’s position all the more precarious. Who would have thought the once great Sony Playstation brand would be languishing in last place at this point in the race?

Regardless, the new NXE update coupled with the recent price drops that put the 360 Arcade SKU at a lower price than the Wii show that, if nothing else, Microsoft is gearing up for a serious attempt to win over more fans and increase the 360s installed base. So what exactly has Microsoft done with this new patch?

GUI MAKEOVER

XBOX One Dashboard ----- >














XBOX 360 Blades Interface ----- >














XBOX 360 NXE Interface ----->














As you can see the Xbox dashboard has come a long way since the original Xbox’s overtly green design all the way to the NXE’s almost Apple-esque influenced motif. Actually, the NXE seems like an amalgamation of Apple’s OSX, Sony’s XMB, Microsoft’s own Media Center with a dash of Nintendo’s charm.

Gone are the huge horizontal scrolling blades of the 360’s original interface, replaced with sharply defined box islands that can be scrolled either vertically to different categories or horizontally for added features within that particular grouping. The top half of the screen is made up of your background theme or wallpaper while the bottom half is a shiny grey that reflects the various boxes giving the whole presentation a high touch of polish.

The NXE separates everything into seven distinct categories:

Spotlight: This is the first category you see after your 360 boots. As evinced by its name this is the area most like online advertising where Microsoft highlights its current picks for games, movies, current contests or new hardware like the 60GB Live Starter Pack. It also draws attention to new NXE features like the Photo Party (only currently available to Gold members) where you can share photos with your friends through Xbox Live.

My Xbox: This category contains all the relevant info on the current user as well as showing you what is currently in your Xbox 360’s DVD drive. This is a new feature that is pretty cool. If you are connected to the Internet it will show you a nice picture of the game you have in your drive which is perfect for those of us with lousy memories. Your gamertag, current achievement points, the last few games you’ve played as well as your spanking new avatar are here as well. This is also where you access your game library like your downloaded demos, videos, music and arcade games. Finally, this is where you have the commands available to connect your console to Windows Media center as well as the console’s system settings.

Game Marketplace / Video Marketplace: The old marketplace blade has been split up into two now, one for gaming and another for videos. This is a welcome relief as now you don’t have the two entertainment mediums rammed into the same menu system. As expected the games marketplace contains all the game demos, add on content, and live arcade sub areas. What is new is that you now get much better segmentalized information when you pull up a certain item. For instance if I were to click on a new live arcade game like Street Fighter II Turbo HD, I now get boxes showing up that contain info such as: all other related downloads to this game; numerous screen shots of the game that I can enlarge to fill the whole screen, details on the developer and publisher, box art, how many players can play, what the max screen resolution is and finally a nice summary of what the game is about. The video marketplace functions more or less the same way although there you get different information displayed like whether or not the download is in standard or high definition, what language is the movie or TV show, whether there are subtitles available and short credits that list the various actors and director/producers.

Friends: One of the nicest upgrades in the NXE is your friends area. Now, not only do you see all your friends in your list you get to see their avatars as well (more info below) as what they are currently playing or even if they are on-line or off. It’s kind of cute to see someone’s avatar who is sleeping denoting they are off line. The only problem I can see here is if you are some sort of social monster and have hundreds of friends. If you did you’d be scrolling horizontally for ages to find someone you want – or you can use the Xbox guide button and call up the text based menus for easier navigation.

Inside Xbox: This is another new category and it works similar to the spotlight one although this one focuses more on short streaming videos showing you things like tips for certain games, developer interviews, or short tutorial videos helping you create avatars.

Welcome: It’s kind of funny that the first category you see is spotlight instead of Welcome but that’s Microsoft’s design choice. This area is probably the one you’d use the least with the only real purpose as being the “Hide Channel” command that, you guessed it, removes the Welcome channel from your view. About the only people who would use this category would be newcomers to the Xbox 360 console. You can pull up a condensed 360 user guide explaining the overall features of your new console but the information is a bit redundant if you’ve already read the instruction manual. Then again, this might be good for those who never read the manual at all. The only other feature in this channel is the NXE intro video which is rather odd as I doubt you’d want to watch this over and over again unless you are some sort of sadist.

AVATARS

Perhaps the most glaring example of Microsoft’s newfound thrust into the casual gaming market is the inclusion of Avatars in the NXE patch. Now, before you shout the obvious that these avatars are just knockoffs of Nintendo Miis let’s at least agree that the very idea of having an onscreen representation of yourself belongs to no one person nor company. Nintendo was not the first company to invent or use them nor do they have some sort of legal patent pending to that affect. Avatars have been used in numerous other online internet applications like instant messengers and even some massively multiplayer on-line games like Second Life. Heck just about any mmorpg like World of Warcraft, Everquest, Age of Conan etc uses avatars although, in those cases, they are not meant to resemble the real life you.

That said, Microsoft’s avatars reek of that perpetual stereotype that the company just steals everything from their competitors not because they have decided to include them but precisely because they bear a striking resemblance to Nintendo’s cute Miis. Microsoft seems to have instructed Rare, the video game makers of Banjo Kazooie, Perfect Dark, Conker, and previous second party Nintendo software firm to make their avatars a natural progression from Miis. Even the sound effects that play while you are creating them bare more than a passing resemblance to Nintendo’s aural style. I swear you could have both a Wii and a NXE patched 360 playing at the same time and not know which console was which if you had a blindfold on.

More so than other thing else in the NXE patch, the inclusion of avatars have drawn a decidedly violent reaction from hard-core gamers who want nothing to do with them – they didn’t care for them on the Wii and they care even less for Microsoft’s version. I found it amusing when I read online comments where gamers damned Microsoft for having the gall to turn their 360 into a kiddie Nintendo-like console. You would have thought the world was coming to an end listening to these folks.

However, although Microsoft’s avatars might seem “inspired” by Miis the end result is more than a decent upgrade. With high definition graphics and a plethora of clothing and facial features available these avatar’s look pretty spiffy. They have a more humanistic feel and proportion than Miis albeit still exuding a decidedly non-threatening visage and, for the most part, most people can create a close approximation of themselves using the available templates and styles.

These design features are quite robust letting you change not only your clothes but your hair, nose, face shape, ears, eyebrows, eyes, height and weight. About the only questionable design choice missing is that you can’t change the colour of any of the clothing which is somewhat a downer. Hopefully, Microsoft doesn’t get greedy in the future and charge players for extra clothing downloads that are just recoloured versions of what is currently available.

As an extra feature, Microsoft has included a rather neat feature where after you create your avatar you are given an option to “take a picture” of its face for use as your new gamer picture.

Still, if you want to create some sort of mutant looking homicidal avatar, chances are you are going to be out of luck as all the features you can customize are designed specifically to avoid those looks. Microsoft is serious about reaching out to the casual gaming market and staying away from anything that might jeopardize that.

Which brings us to perhaps the bigger reason why Microsoft doesn’t allow you to make psychopathic avatars – you can use them in select games. In a brilliant, albeit easily ascertained move, Microsoft has allowed software developers to incorporate your new avatars in their games. This means you can actually play “yourself” in upcoming games, a feature currently not found on the Wii. It is actually incredulous that Nintendo has never ventured into this particular application for their own Miis. Anyways, this feature potentially opens up some really cool avenues that companies can use in future software. Now there are sure to be restrictions and as I mentioned earlier this is the reason why you can’t make psycho avatars. The games that will use this, “play as your avatar feature,” will be non-violent or as family oriented as possible. Thus games like virtual quiz shows or something like Electronic Arts, The Sims, sound reasonable but I don’t think Microsoft will ever allow a company to make Grand Theft Avatar where all your avatars go on a murderous rampage killing each other. That’s NOT exactly family orientated.

Your new avatar’s don’t really do much in the new interface after their creation. In fact, they just stand around when you are in the GUI’s My Xbox area. You can use your controller to issue them basic commands like wave at the screen or turn their heads to look at different areas of the screen. You can see however all your friends’ avatars in the friends area. Now you can see what your friends looks like in their virtual form which is both good and bad I guess depending on how they made their avatars. Of course, you can always buy a Xbox Live Vision Camera (Xbox’s version of a webcam) and see how they really look like but in my experience this is something I’d rather not know.

In the end the inclusion of avatars adds a bit of spice to the xbox experience but only time will tell if Microsoft has managed to integrate them more into their console’s features. It seems they are already a step ahead of Nintendo’s Miis in their application but we really have to wait a good 6 months or more to see if software developers find new and innovative ways to use them in real games.

MULTIPLAYER PARTIES

This is one of the features I haven’t been able to try out for myself but in essence it should allow groups of friends to easily follow one another from one game to another without going through the tedious process of dropping out of a game and then finding each other to reconnect in another. If you are currently in party chat you and your friends don’t need to drop out of the call – in essence you can keep chatting away while you drop out to a lobby or during loading screens all the while not being disconnected.

I must admit since I don’t have many friends (sniff) on Xbox live I can’t really comment much on its functionality but I can see how it would affect those who constantly play with the same group of mates.

HARD DRIVE INSTALL

One of the biggest issues surrounding the 360 is what is known as the dreaded RROD. For those who do not know what this means it translates to, “red ring of death.” As you may or may not be aware, the Microsoft X360 suffers from an unusually high failure percentage due to overheating that causes the graphic chip to basically dislodge itself from the motherboard. Even if you take extreme care in not running your system too long and give it the proper ventilation there’s still a chance it will eventually, literally, melt. When it does the green ring of light that appears on your system turns a hellish red which is usually, although not all times, fatal. The only way to fix your 360 in that case is to phone up Microsoft to ship you a box, affectionately named a coffin, so that you can mail your dead console back to Microsoft for repair.

The other big negative surrounding the 360 is that it is LOUD when it plays games. I don’t mean mildly loud, I mean LOUD. If you are really unlucky your 360 will have a combination of loud DVD drive coupled with a rather loud fan. This doesn’t matter much when your speakers are turned up high as they drown out sound anyways but it can be extremely irritating especially if you are playing a horror / intensely atmospheric game that relies on subtle sound effects to heighten your senses. In these cases the jet engine noise coming from your 360 console is sure to drive you up the wall.

Thankfully, Microsoft has included the new feature of full game installs to the 360 hard drive. If you chose to do that you still need your original game DVD to be in the drive but thankfully it only spins when you start the game in order to verify that you indeed own it. After the initial boot the game runs straight from your hard drive thus eliminating the jet engine noise from your DVD drive. This is a great upgrade as the console becomes super quiet – not quite as soundless as your Wii or PS3 but darn close anyways. Also, supposedly, this cuts down on fan use as well and generally will hopefully reduce RRODs from happening (although I have no idea how someone can prove this without some sort of high-tech equipment).

As great as this new NXE feature is, it predisposes the fact that you have a hard drive with sufficient space on it or any hard drive at all. For those gamers who only bought Xbox 360 Arcade units you are flat out of luck since you don’t have a hard drive anyways. Those users who bought the previously available 20 GB Xbox 360 Pro unit will undoubtedly find that they are going to be pressed for space. Although it says you have 20GB in reality you have around 12GB as the rest is taken up by reserved space. You can basically install two games onto your drive before you run out of space. In other words, you are going to have to use your hard drive space wisely. Of course, those gamers with Xbox 360 Elites and 120GB drives are going to be laughing in their sleep with this new feature.

My advice if you haven’t bought a Xbox 360 yet is that you’d be doing yourself a favor if you buy the new 60GB Xbox 360 unit or the larger 120GB Xbox 360 Elite. If you, unfortunately, have a Xbox 360 Arcade at least Microsoft has done the right thing and released a new 60GB upgrade kit that comes with 3 months of Xbox Live, an Ethernet cable and a wired headset as well for about $100. Trust me, once you install a game to the drive and basically kill the jet engine wail coming from your console you can never go back to playing games straight from the DVD drive again.

PREMIUM THEMES

With the changes in the GUI Microsoft has also seen to it to include, for purchase of course, new premium themes that, when done right, really integrate well with the new look. A lot of these themes contain 3D elements which add a lot of character to the interface especially on the friends menu. Depending on the premium game theme you purchase your online friends will be seen lounging around (or asleep if they are off line) 3D replicas of game assets such as different cars if you bought the Forza theme or carriages and carts from Fable 2. Depending on the developer, some of them really stand out such as the Forza theme which makes the entire bottom half of the screen seem like an extension of the race track replete with concrete and tire stack barriers. Others seem to have been rushed to market looking more like upgraded wallpaper. You can really tell if a developer has put a lot of thought into their design.

However, in a bizarre and frustrating move Microsoft still has not included a way for you to preview how a particular theme will look like making the whole process hit and miss. It is like asking you to buy a new car without ever seeing how it looks like. The only way you can preview these new premium themes is to go online and do a search for them hoping someone or some developer has posted pictures of them on their sites. This inconvenience wouldn’t be so bad if the price of the theme was like a throwaway cheap purchase but at 250 Microsoft points the cost is too prohibitive to just wing it and hope that you like the theme you end up buying. Remember, there are no refunds so if you get a theme you are not satisfied with you are out of luck. I’m sure there is a higher cost to program these new premium themes as they add 3D elements into the landscape but does it really justify shelling out $3.57 Canadian for what amounts to fancy wallpaper? I don’t think so unless it is your favorite game of all time.

Another annoying little quirk, or huge issue depending on your point of view, pertains to themes bought before the NXE patch. These old themes were designed with the old blade GUI in mind and though they do work in the new interface they just don’t look optimized in the least. In the worst case scenario they look absolutely dreadful and resemble hastily created images by some Photoshop novice as all the crops and sight lines are in the wrong areas. Anyone who spent a ton of Microsoft points on old themes might just end up cursing as they are basically less the ideal in the new GUI.

NETFLIX

Of all the new features added to the NXE, the addition of Netflix seems to be the one that people have been most enthusiastic about. It’s a feature that basically brings your local Blockbuster store directly into your Xbox 360 console. Think about that – no more trudging through the snow to return a DVD or pay late fees! Actually, this new functionality adds so much more than that it’s actually mindboggling. Basically, if you are a Netflix subscriber (with the unlimited plan) and own a Xbox 360 with a Live Gold you can now stream a ton of movies and TV series through your console directly to your television. In fact, save for new releases you have virtually unlimited access to over 12,000 movies and shows which you can watch at your own convenience.

Netflix previously offered unlimited watching through your personal computer but the very fact you can stream from your 360 direct to TV makes this new feature of the NXE a godsend as the whole family can now join in the fun. The integration is super easy to set up. Just download a small Netflix patch from the NXE, get the code generated and then enter said code online at the Netflix website. Now you have access to all the available content. You then just pick what you want to watch through your PC and can even queue up multiple titles to download. Once you enter the Netflix part of the NXE interface you’ll see nice digital DVD covers from all the items you’ve added to your queue on the screen. Just pick what you want and start watching. You even get regular DVD commands like fast forward, rewind and pause. Let me say it again, this is almost unlimited content. You can keep queuing up content and watch for days on end and in some cases you can watch TV shows which are in their current season.

Picture wise the quality is around what you’d expect from a regular DVD (albeit with not as many frames per second) and like Quicktime or Real Player the movie will buffer the information for about 30seconds to 1 minute before actually playing. If you have a good internet connection you should be fine as the movie will play smoothly although bad connections will degrade the experience with frequent pauses.

One point of contention though – this is only available in the USA right now unless you “know” how to get around the restrictions. Hopefully, Microsoft will roll this Netflix integration out ASAP to other regions of the world. If they manage to do that you can cancel your movie cable channel subscriptions altogether and just sign up for a Netflix account.

COMMUNITY GAMES

One of the most overlooked features of the NXE is the inclusion of community games. I’m actually surprised that more video game blogs and outlets don’t draw more than a passing mention of this new feature as it has the potential for truly making gaming explode on the 360. So what exactly are community games and why should you care? To put it simply these are games made by amateur programmers using Microsoft’s XNA development tools that anyone can download for free off Microsoft’s website. Actually, downloading and installing them on a PC are free although you later need to pay $99 per year for a premium membership that allows you to play and debug your games on your Xbox 360 console. Basically, you download XNA, program your game and then release it to the XNA community for peer review. If it passes you then get the opportunity to sell it through Xbox Live. Presto, you are on your way to a career as a video game developer and you can earn money to boot!

The closest example I can think of is Apple’s app store for the iPhone and iPod where you can buy content like applications and games through your PC iTunes interface or directly through your iPhone apps link. I’m not sure of the process Apple uses to filter and approve content for its store although many developers online hint that it is a very draconian process. Then again, the Apple app store has been a massive success and one of the defining features that differentiates the iPhone from its nearest competitors like the Blackberry.

Regardless, the new community games section of the NXE really opens up a whole new arena for amateur developers to ply their wares and gives the 360 is huge arena that its competitor’s cannot come close to matching in opening up the console for independent game makers. It gives a perfect opportunity for any novice programmer to try and break into the industry while making cold hard cash and it’s surprising that this initiative comes from Microsoft, the very company which guards their code for Windows with an army of lawyers and super-robot killing machines.

I’m actually surprised that in a short few weeks since the launch of the NXE to find over 50 new community games available although I have an inkling many of them were completed long ago and were just waiting for the NXE to come out.

Although this could be the start of something exciting there are two huge hurdles for Xbox 360 owners. First and foremost is the hugely varying level of quality of these games. Many of them are, for a lack of better word, junk, showing little or no polish and a lack of intelligent or compelling game play. This is no surprise as even Apple’s app store is saddled with the same problems with too many underachieving titles. However, there are many diamonds to be found if you decide to try everything available which is easy since every game can be downloaded and played for free for two minutes. At first glance the 2 minute hard cap might seem to be too constricting but for these types of games you really can form a decent impression of the overall competency of the product in such a short period of time.

The other quirk with these games is how they are priced. While you can find many games available for 200 Microsoft points (roughly $3 Canadian) there’s a surprising number of them at the 400 ($5.71) and even 800 ($11.42) price points. Now, I’m happy to support independent developers and the creativity that this feature represents but at these higher price points these community games cost as much as full-fledged professional Xbox live games from industry giants such as Capcom, EA, Namco, Sega etc. I have no doubt that some community games can be worth this price but a few of them have left me baffled why their creator’s have placed such a high cost for their products. I think you can ascertain part of this reason as the same phenomenon that occurred when the Apple app store launched a few months ago. Developers had no idea what other developers would charge nor how much the public would be willing to pay so prices were all over the map. You could search for, let’s say a mahjong game, and find four or five offerings ranging from free all the way up to $9.99. I have no doubt the developer who released his game at $9.99 was probably cursing when he found out his competition was way below his intended price. Hopefully, this price adjustment will occur for the 360 as well as I just can’t see many users shelling out close to maximum price for independent software unless the game is truly extraordinary.

OVERALL

In the end the NXE patch comes off as an unequaled success, changing the very nature and feel of the console through software without a hint of hardware revision. This is the same physical Xbox 360 as ever but now the focus has been fine tuned with a more user-friendly GUI and a plethora of feature upgrades that leave Sony and even Nintendo scratching their collective heads. That is not to say that this patch will somehow magically make more XBOX 360s fly off the shelf or cause their competitor’s to panic but rather it plays up to Microsoft’s core strength. Regardless of how you feel about Windows or Office as products there’s no doubt that Microsoft’s primary competency lies in its software. People can deride and flippantly use Microsoft as an example of shoddy programming but this is just fanboyish mutterings from people who use the old clichés about the company. After all, how many jokes have you heard in your life about Microsoft sound speakers blaring out the Imperial March from Star Wars whenever Bill Gates enters the room? Say what you will about Microsoft and their business practices but there is one other cliché we need to highlight as well that might be more apropos here -- Microsoft never seems to nail a product in version 1.0 but watch out as they inevitably “get it” when 2.0 rolls around.

The NXE is a patch which certainly showcases this. It takes all the elements which made the original blade interface a joy to deal with and multiples it by 10. The final product is quick, robust and easier on the eyes. There is definitely room for improvement but it makes one begin to wonder just what exactly Microsoft has in store for the Xbox 720.
Posted on 2:03 PM by Mousie Pillow and filed under , | 2 Comments »

2 comments:

evie said... @ December 9, 2008 at 9:32 PM

It is a very detailed review of the XBOX 360 new interface. Love your review. Love your avatar too, it's super super cute. ((smooch))

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