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Preview: The new design of the Xbox 360 dashboard

11:00 PM on 09.11.2011 // Wesley Ruscher
  @wesleyruscher

The current Xbox 360 dashboard is kind of a clusterf*ck. Netflix, Hulu, and ESPN integration are great (as I use them pretty much daily), but a redesign is clearly needed. You can point the finger at Microsoft for its state of disarray, but really the madness can be attributed simply to the rules of Chaos Theory: the belief that everything constantly moves from order to disorder.

When the last Xbox 360 dashboard makeover (NXE) arrived, everything was peaches n' cream. Avatars were populating like rabbits, and Facebook, Zune, and Netflix found a nice balance among the Xbox Live marketplace. Everything was in order.

Then Twitter, Last.fm, and Hulu joined the mix, the XBL marketplace exploded with content, Kinect finally launched, and thus the chaos began. Longtime 360 owners have learned to deal with how all these crazy things work. But for those unfortunate to have just stumbled into the dash, finding the latest and greatest through a sea of tabs and ads can be a chore. Oh, and for the 10+ million Kinect users out there who were promised voice and gesture connectivity innovation -- the kind the world has never seen -- well, don't get me started.

Performance, discoverability, and voice. These three simple things were etched into my brain as Albert Penello, Sr. Director of product management and planning at Microsoft, walked me through me the new dashboard last week. After meeting with Penello to check out this fall's dashboard refresh, I have to say Microsoft might finally have all the entropy they’ve created under control.

With the new dash fired up, speed and performance improvements were instantly noticeable. Whatever your navigation tool of choice is -- be it controller or gestures/voice for Kinect users -- getting from one end of the dash to the other is lightning-quick. Everything has a home under a much-better-structured tab system. Friends now fall under the social tab, and all the apps you’ve come to love or hate are under an appropriate app tab that “potentially opens up the possibility to do non-gaming apps," Penello said. It's not in the plans as of now, he added, but is definitely something Microsoft has thought about or is open to, at the very least.

Along with performance, Kinect integration is another aspect of the new dash I was taken back by. While the NXE eventually shoehorned in some functionality, support was very limited outside of starting and stopping videos with voice or pantomiming to pop up a separate interface. With the latest update, everything on the dash is Kinect-enabled. I watched Penello slide tabs over with his hands while sitting down as effortlessly as he would have with a controller.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Kinect support is just how well voice commands work. Like the gesture support, everything on the dash is accessible via speech. "The voice stuff is getting better and better all the time," Penello said. "A lot of the learning for voice is in the service; it's up in the cloud." And speaking of the cloud, it's still coming along with roaming profiles and some other unnamed gaming features.

While the new look is quite sexy, it would be a complete waste if Microsoft couldn’t deliver on discoverability with the new dash. For starters, the new layout -- which is very similar to their Windows Phone 7 "Metro" setup -- is extremely easy on the eyes. No longer do ads clutter up the navigation experience, nor are you required to scroll endlessly though sections to find the latest deal of the week. Everything is organized, and thanks to Bing Search, can be discovered in a matter of seconds.

As the cornerstone of this for the new dash, Bing Search makes finding content quick and reliable via voice or text. If it exists on XBLA, Zune, Netflix, or any other service on the network, Bing will find it. At the moment, Bing is limited to title search -- it can't handle in-depth searches on categories such as actors, directors, and genres -- but the possibility wasn’t ruled out. One thing that is cool about the search results is being able to have it display only movies, music or games via Kinect, simply by saying “Xbox show movies” or “Xbox show games.”

My only concern with Bing, right now, is how it delivers its results. The user interface isn't final, and thus there is currently no way of telling which service content is being selected from. For example, the show 30 Rock exists on both Netflix and Hulu, but how Bing will separate the search in case of multiples is still undecided. However, it’s still quite amazing to be able to find content without having to enter any applications.

Outside of design and functionality aesthetics, the biggest addition for gamers is the new “beacons” feature. Essentially, beacons are game invites that don’t expire. Want to play Halo or watch Netflix with friends, but don’t want to wait for them to get online to invite them? Set a beacon. Your friends will get an alert -- called a “toast” -- anywhere they are signed into Live (Windows Phone 7, Internet, and Facebook). They’re a great way to organize all online activities.

For the Achievement whore, Gamerscore will now be tied to Facebook without the help of a third-party program. Don't worry about being bombarded with updates, though, as the process is completely manual. Get a rare Achievement and want to rub it in your friends’ faces? The choice is yours. One interesting thing about Facebook that Penello did discuss -- more as a vision than an actual feature -- would be the ability of sharing thoughts about a movie you just watched, straight from the dashboard, rather than logging onto Facebook afterwards and typing it up.

Unfortunately, the much-anticipated Live TV, On Demand, UFC, and YouTube features weren’t ready to be shown. Microsoft is absolutely committed to delivering live TV and promised to have great announcements this fall. If they are as equally executed as the rest of the new dashboard, then Xbox 360 users have a lot to be excited for later this year.

What do you think of this redesign? Order achieved?

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Wesley Ruscher, Former Contributor
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