Thoughts on the new Xbox 360 Dashboard and the new My Xbox Live iOS app

The launch of the new Xbox 360 Dashboard update on Tuesday didn't exactly go without a hitch, but after a delay from the planned roll-out around mid-day to the actual roll-out in the middle of the evening, and some wonkiness logging into Xbox Live and various apps, the update is now out there and running correctly for the majority of users.

The Windows Phone 7 Companion app also launched, as did a surprise for iOS users: a new app called My Xbox Live that runs on any reasonably up-to-date iOS device. I couldn't test the Companion app but I did install My Xbox Live on my iPad 1 running iOS 4.3 (I'll upgrade one of these days).

For me the app had no sound, but I haven't heard widespread griping about that, so maybe I'm just lucky. Otherwise it worked, which means I could see which of my friends was online and what they were playing, send them messages, edit my avatar, check my achievements and other things of that nature. There's also a selection of videos onboard (the same kinds of things you'd find on the Xbox itself). You don't get the super-tight integration that you apparently get with the Windows Phone 7 Companion, but My Xbox Live is worth every penny you'll spend on it (it's free) if you're an iOS user.

Android users are left out in the cold.

As for the Dashboard update itself, I personally like it well enough. I spent an evening maneuvering around the UI using voice commands (via Kinect) and it works pretty well. I found a few rough spots: scrolling through really long lists (like my Netflix queue) can take a lot of voice commands (and could drive family members crazy) and when I used Bing search to look up Star Trek I couldn't figure out a way to pick Star Trek: The Original Series instead of Star Trek, the movie from 2009 (both are labeled as just "Star Trek"). Error messages that pop up from time to time also can't be dismissed via Kinect.

Gesture commands didn't work as well for me, but then my apartment isn't really big enough for them. Microsoft really needs to work on the amount of room Kinect needs. If I'm sitting far enough away from my 55" TV to watch it comfortably, that should be enough room for Kinect to work. For whatever reason, it goes really flaky on me more often than not. Maybe it's because the dog is usually laying on the couch next to me. Anyway I'm lazy...I'd rather talk (or push buttons, for that matter) than wave my hands around.

I'm not going to be stashing my controller in the closet just yet, but the tighter integration of Kinect in the new UI is very welcome. Now I just want to be able to set my own 'key word.' Right now you have to say "Xbox" to get Kinect to pay attention to you. How cool would it be if you could name it, or just choose to say "Computer" or whatever? OK yeah, I always want more. The fact is once you turn on the Xbox you can tell it to play a Netflix (or any other) video, manipulate that video (pause, fast forward, stop, etc) and then exit out of the Netflix app and turn the system off, all by talking. It really does feel like the future.

One thing that feels a little clumsy is having to download apps for a lot of the new features. In the course of an evening I downloaded the Netflix app, the Hulu Plus app, the Epix app and the Today Show apps. Some of them just auto-downloaded, and some of them pushed me over to the Marketplace where I had to "purchase" them for zero points. This experience should be more consistent. I think I only really noticed downloading apps because I was doing it while the Xbox Live service was still having issues, and I kept getting logged out while downloading an app, and having to struggle to get logged back in. In any case downloading these things is a one time job.

Netflix on the Xbox 360 has finally been updated to support HD and 5.1 surround sound. I have to confess I almost never watch Netflix on the Xbox (since up to now, the PS3 and Roku both offered higher quality service), and I use Netflix on a lot of different devices, so I can't really compare the new Netflix app to the old, but it seems like regular Xbox/Netflix viewers are pretty unhappy because the Party feature has been removed. It used to be that you could form a party with friends and watch a Netflix program together, while chatting over Xbox Live. The app would make sure everyone was synced up and watching the show at the same time.

That feature is gone, and judging by the comments on the Netflix blog people are mad as hell about it. As a (relative) newcomer to Netflix on the 360, that didn't really bother me. The Netflix app on the 360 seems to have leapfrogged apps on other devices with new features like showing a frame from a show before you start playing. During the launch period for the new dashboard the quality of the stream didn't seem as solid as it does on my other devices, but that seems to have rectified itself in the days since.

There are a few other new features in the update. Beacons let you tell your friends what you want to play, and you can now store your save games and your profile in the cloud. If you have more than one Xbox 360, or often visit friends and play on their machines, the cloud features will be a great convenience for you.

As a pretty casual Xbox 360 user, the new UI felt mostly like a graphic overhaul to me. I don't mind it, but I'm not all that excited about it. When I use my Xbox I usually pop a game disk in and start to play. When I'm done playing, I turn the system off from within the game. I don't spend much time in the dashboard normally, and I don't think anything about the new dashboard is really going to change that.

I'd love to hear from other gamers who have stronger opinions on the changes. What do you like, or dislike, about the fall update? Please leave a comment!

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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