I awoke this morning to find an email saying "Congratulations!" For once, I hadn't won the Nigerian lottery, and no, I didn't have some free penis enlargement pills to collect. That was last week. No, I'd been chosen as one of the few (thousand, probably) to try out Xbox's newest features, including the much anticipated Facebook and Twitter applications. I say "chosen" but I think if you signed up for it, you were almost guaranteed a place on the preview. Nevertheless, I was excited to be one of the first to get a taster of things to come on the 360 and I immediately pressed the guide button to hear the familiar whirring of what I can only imagine is a little person inside the big box, pressing all sorts of buttons and frantically pedelling on an exercise bike connected up to a generator. Yes...I turned the Xbox on and began previewing all the new features.
Now, for the purposes of this articles I'll separate the features and talk about them individually, in the hope that it will make things easier to read. Also, it means you can skip to the one you're most interested in first. Preferably though, read through them all, you might be pleasantly surprised. I know I was. For each review I'll try and keep things quite short, but just in case you don't even have the time or inclination to read each bit, I'll also put a Good/Bad list after each one too, to fully sum things up.
Also, it's worth noting that the Sky Player application isn't featured on this preview. The launch date for Sky on the Xbox is slated to be 27th October, as previously revealed on Faptoid in this article. For now, on with the preview review in the exact order that I clicked on them myself:
It's a huge phenomenon and it was only a matter of time before Facebook linked up with one of the major console manufacturers. Microsoft got there first and now we have a new medium to endlessly tell people about our lives, find out about theirs and wonder what the hell went wrong with society. The first thing worth noting about the Facebook application, as was the case with all these new features on this preview program, is that it needed a download, so you're going to need a hard drive or memory card to enjoy these new additions.
However once it's been downloaded and login details have been entered, it does look very stylish on screen. It's very easy to navigate and I immediately noticed that statuses were refreshing instantly, without the need to exit and re-enter the application as I had previously feared. Pictures loaded straight away and there are options to find Xbox friends on Facebook and vice versa...good start Facebook. However, the main feature of Facebook is status updating and this was where I found my first problem; I don't have a chatpad adapter for my controller or a USB keyboard. Without these extras, which of course cost extra money Microsoft...thanks, it is very awkward to type anything. It seems okay if you're writing a quick message to someone who's just quit a game early or humped your humiliated carcass, but when it comes to typing an extended piece of writing it becomes very, very annoying.
My major worry about these sorts of applications on a console though came true, as Facebook is a stand alone feature and completely separate to gaming. It would make sense to me to have it linked in to the whole Xbox experience somehow, such as status updates about games you are playing or achievements...achieved. Perhaps even have a notification come up while you're playing if somebody has commented on your status or sent you a message? Hopefully in the future this kind of feature will be added. It's a nice addition but I'll definitely be sticking with the web version for now.
Major good points: Great interface, easy to navigate and quick loading.
Major bad points: Needs a chatpad or keyboard, is a stand alone application and doesn't link to games.
Load time from dashboard: 13 seconds.
Ahh Twitter. Even those who use it (including myself of course) wonder why they feel the need to constantly tell the world what they're doing. Whatever the reasons, it's huge. Just like Facebook, it was only a matter of time before it found it's way onto the console market somehow, and here it is! Once again, like the other applications it requires a quick download and for the user to login with their details, but once these things are done, boy it looks beautiful on screen.
The interface is a joy to use, it really is. Tweets pop up in little thought bubbles and the whole experience is seamless. Depending on how many users you follow and how often they actually use Twitter, the updates come thick and fast and in real time when compared to the web version. Also, just like the Facebook app, it's very easy to navigate. Both give you the option to quickly press X if you want to update your status, but then Twitter suffers the same downfalls as it's rival. Without a chatpad or keyboard, I found it very awkward to type long statuses. Even worse for Twitter is that there's no warning of when you've run out of your limit of 140 characters. How such a basic flaw was passed through any checks is beyond me. It's the same story with the fact that you can't view web pages or twitpics on the Xbox and as every Twitterer knows, this has become a major part of the experience.
The other downsides are also in sync with the Facebook application, in that Twitter is not linked up to gaming at all. Personally, I already have a separate program tweeting whenever I unlock a new achievement or play a new game, so why isn't this feature available on the Xbox? It's such a basic and obviously idea that it really does seem strange that it's not implemented. If things are improved, Twitter has a valid place on Xbox. If not, it seems out of place and just a bit of bandwaggoning from Microsoft...surely not?
Major good points: Beautiful interface, very quick updates.
Major bad points: Needs chatpad/keyboard to fully enjoy, not linked into gaming, no character limit shown and not able to view pictures and links.
Load time from dashboard: 7 seconds (including quick login)
Last.fm is the Xbox's update to the music service provided on the console. Regular users of the service will already be familiar with it's finer points, but for those not-so-in-the-know, here's how it works: Last.fm acts as a music manager; organising playlists and recommending new artists and songs to it's users. As you listen to a song, it "scrobbles" it to last.fm's website or desktop program, showing the world what you've been listening to. Personally, I love it. I've discovered many new bands thanks to it's recommendations, based on your current musical tastes, and I also like to keep track of my overall listening habits. Last.fm allows you to view which songs and artists you've listened to most and also puts you in touch with other users with similar tastes. Simply put, it's musical stat heaven. However, I had my doubts as to how the service would translate to the console market, given that the only music I listen to on the Xbox is gaming soundtracks. If I want to listen to my own music whilst playing various games, I tend to just stick iTunes or Spotify on my laptop and then turn the volume down on the game...and to be honest, I think that's the route I'll be sticking to.
It's becoming a regular theme of the preview program, as Last.fm is once again a stand alone application, only available from the dashboard. It's not linked into gaming and doesn't do the one thing that I thought would be a great feature; scrobble a game's soundtrack while you play it. Once again, I really don't have a clue why this feature isn't available. However, I found that this was less of a problem as it was on the previous two applications. In fact, I've already found a great use to Last.fm on the Xbox, as it's been playing in the background while I've been writing this article. I've already found a couple of new bands that sounded pretty cool. (Hey Monday, and Cash Cash for the record). Although, I could do this on my laptop through the web service, so why would I choose to do it on the console itself? Well, I guess time will tell with this application and how much I use it will have to be revealed on a future article. However, I get the feeling this could be the new feature that I use the most.
In terms of presentation and features, it's fantastic. The interface, much like Facebook and Twitter, is very easy to navigate and is easy on the eye too. While you play music, a slideshow of the artist is shown and you can also listen to music while browsing other stations and menus within the app. While doing this, a transparent bar at the bottom of the screen can be brought up with a quick tap of the X button. Within this bar, you can skip to a new song, "love" the track or simply exit that station. It's very intuitive and a classy way of bringing the service to the console market. Other brilliant features are the stations themselves. To go along with their new found home, Last.fm have produced gaming radio stations. They range from "8-bit radio" to video game soundtracks. It's nice to know that they've made a particular effort to bring a smile to a gamers face, and it really does make the service feel more at home than any other. The popular stations also show what other listeners are listening to round the world and "tag" stations allow you to listen to particular genres with a couple of clicks.
The major downside I can see of the Last.fm application, is that you already have to be a regular user of the service to get the most out of it. I have loads of recommended artists but I can't help but think it's only because I've been a user of the service for a number of years. New users may take a bit of time to get the most out of it. Overall though, it's the most thought out new feature and, as such, is the most polished and impressive.
Major good points: Most features of any new applications, great range of stations
Major bad points: Not linked to gaming, have to already been a regular user to get the most out of it
Load time from dashboard: 8 seconds
Microsoft have decided to rebrand their video streaming service as part of the new dashboard update and predictably use their own Zune label. Those who have already used the video streaming service on the console will find things haven't changed that much. Okay...it looks lovely just like all the other applications but it's pretty much just the same old, search for a movie, rent it, eat some popcorn and have a jolly old time. However, one word really caught my eyes on the menu: party.
Xbox introduced the party feature a while ago, so friends could talk privately while playing alongside or against each other on any game. You can also talk to each other while playing different games...so it's a well rounded, good idea. Here's where things get interesting for the Zune service then; you can enter a party to watch movies together. That, to me, sounds fantastic. Just like it excited me for the Sky Player, watching live sports together, it excites me to think that I could rent a movie and invite some friends to watch over Xbox Live. You could do it in person, sure. However, I've got friends scattered all over the country and I like to think it'd be nice to share more experiences like this and so Microsoft have provided it. However, at this moment in time I'm not so certain as to whether everybody has to pay for the movie, or just one of the party can and invite all the others. If everybody has to pay out for it, this could be the service's major stumbling block.
Just like the other new features, Zune marketplace is presented nicely and very easy to navigate. You can choose to search by genre or alphabetically, or just browse through the new releases. It has to be said, I was surprised with how many movies are very recent releases and how many I immediately put onto a mental list to watch at a later date.
However, it is just a rebranding. The video service is still pretty much the same and the costs are a bit much for some movies. That said, HD streaming is brilliant and we're promised that it no longer requires a huge download, which is a bonus for those without much space on their hard drives. It's a valid addition to the Xbox lineup and one that I've already used a few times. I'm pretty sure I'll use it again, especially with HD streaming and a whole host of new releases.
Major good points: Party viewing, HD streaming
Major bad points: Much the same as previous video marketplace, costs of movies
Load time from dashboard: 10 seconds
So, what's the overall review of the preview then? Well, it's good, but not great. Each application will find it's own audience and I'm sure some will absolutely love them. Personally, I can't see the point in Twitter or Facebook on a console when I've got a laptop sitting next to me which aren't limited in features at all. For those without the luxury of a nearby computer, I guess these features will probably have more meaning. However, I just can't get over the feeling of this being a genius bit of marketing from Microsoft. The words "ching ching" must have been uttered quite a few times during the whole process of bringing these applications to the console. For those on the look out for a new console this Christmas, these features will probably raise an intrigued eyebrow. I know that if I was still working in a games store, I'd be using Twitter and Facebook functionality to my advantage when trying to sell the console to a potential customer, and this has got to have been on Microsoft's minds when they approached the various companies.
They all arguably have their place in the console market and I can definitely see massive potential for them. However, until the flaws are solved and the services become truly brilliant, I'll still be using the web versions myself. For the time being, I get the feeling that is going to be true for the huge majority of Xbox users.