Microsoft has a problem, and it?s called the iPad. Ignoring the fact that Apple?s mobile device has effortlessly managed to create a desire for tablets when there previously was none, it?s really the integration of services, applications and media that has Microsoft spooked. Particularly as the company has been trying hard for many years to get it right with Windows Media Centre.
But there is a product already on the market that finally gives Microsoft a bona fide chance to succeed in this regard - the Xbox. It?s certainly no coincidence that software updates on the console have been engineered to slowly reposition the product as a general entertainment device rather than a pure gaming machine. With today?s New (New) Xbox Experience dashboard redesign, that push is being made even more apparent.
Not that this is particularly a bad thing. According to the Microsoft engineers and designers behind the new Dashboard, 40 per cent of Xbox 360 users actually spend at least an hour watching TV every day. As a result, you?re going to be seeing a bigger emphasis on video content whenever you turn on your games console, with the big draw being a vast amount of on-demand material from a range of broadcasters.
Companies such as Channel 4 and Five have now jumped on board the TV Marketplace, and the partnership with Sky is being strengthened with the addition of the last seven remaining movie channels to its live TV service. Movie streamers such as Lovefilm are also offering a 30-day trial period starting today to entice curious Xboxers.
The most striking change however is in how the new Dashboard looks - whereas before you had a standard user interface for your controller and a special one for those using Kinect, now there is just one method of navigation for both control methods. Tabs are arranged horizontally now, and are browsed in a similar fashion to the XMB on a PlayStation 3.
Each section page is presented as a selection of big bright boxes, each one representing a shortcut to the areas that you are most likely to want to use. This interface - dubbed ?Metro? by Microsoft and adapted from the design of its Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 tablet operating systems - makes it easy for players to use Kinect to explore the Dashboard. It?s not so bad with a controller either, but the lack of text lists and the abundance of boxes and images really emphasise a gesture-based experience.
While TV and Kinect integration are the main additions of the new Dashboard, there?s a lot going on elsewhere that shouldn?t be ignored. Chief of these is the inclusion of third party applications for your Xbox 360. At the moment, these apps are limited to video partners such as YouTube and social networking facilities like Twitter and Facebook, but the potential for other kinds of software is massive - particularly when you consider that Microsoft aims to closely tie the Xbox 360, Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 experiences together.
Along with other features like Avatar Parties in Sky TV and Bing content searching - which works better than you?d imagine, but is logically limited to content on Xbox and the Marketplace (which might confuse the non-gamer who is marketed to believe that ?Bing? equals ?Google?) - core gamers have been catered for as well. Sifting through your online friends is an easier experience, and there?s a few new features that will hopefully make your games-playing time a lot more hassle-free.
The first the ability to place Beacons. These allow you to inform your online buddies that you?re available for some multiplayer gaming, so that they know when to fire you a game invite. If you hate getting constant Gears of War 3
Horde requests while you?re immersing yourself in Skyrim
, then this is the perfect remedy, letting you tell the world exactly when you want to play and what game.
Beacons can be posted to Facebook with a little message attached, and you can set up to three activities that friends can send you invites for when the Beacon is active. There doesn?t appear to be an option to set a beacon that isn?t tied to a particular activity, but maybe that?s something that Microsoft will add in the weeks to come.
The second gamer-friendly improvement is cloud storage for your Gamertags and save games. Xbox Live Gold subscribers get free access to half a gigabyte of online space, which can be used for backup purposes or to allow for easy access to your data from a friend?s Xbox 360.
The only problem I see with this is that the process is not an automatic one - it ain?t no iCloud. When saving a game, the cloud appears as a storage device option, but you can?t choose to save to the hard drive and have your save automatically pushed to the cloud. You have to save twice - which isn?t a big deal per se, but if you lose your internet connection and forget to duplicate a save on your console, you?re screwed until you get back online.
Overall however, the new Xbox 360 Dashboard is a sophisticated evolution of the console?s system software. Menus are less cluttered, the ability to use Kinect or a controller with the same interface is a big step forward and the array of new services - and the Metro design of the apps - helps transform Microsoft?s console from a box that you keep in the bedroom to one that takes pride of place in the living room.