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Fall 2011 Update Brings New Services and Metro Style to Xbox

The long-awaited Xbox 360 update has arrived, and with it comes a slew of new features and a refreshed user experience that reinforces Microsoft’s new Metro-style design DNA. Here are some of the highlights of the update, accompanied by an extensive gallery of screens showcasing the new experience.

Highlights

Kinect. This update more fully incorporates Kinect into the dashboard navigation experience—not using the awkward motion and gestures introduced earlier, but with your own voice. Say “Xbox, Netflix” to launch the Netflix app or “Xbox, Play” to start playing a video. Many general navigation commands like “back” and “home” are also supported.

Bing. New to Xbox is Bing search. Slide to the left of the Home hub to search for anything: music, tv shows, movies, games. Results are aggregated from across LIVE services, including Netflix, Hulu, and the Zune Marketplace. Looking for a TV show? Bing will find all available episodes, by season, then let you choose which service to use if it appears in multiple places. And if you have the Kinect, searching is as easy as saying “Xbox, Bing Firefly.”

Zune Marketplace. The Marketplace gets a Metro-style refresh, including the music and video players. A Last Night on TV promo tile in the Video hub jumps you to a menu of the previous night’s shows that you can conveniently purchase in the Video Marketplace. And if you’re not yet a Zune Music Pass subscriber, you can take advantage of a 14-day trial with unlimited access to the music and music video libraries.

TV. Many people already enjoy the ESPN app on their Xbox, but a more significant TV offering comes to the Xbox now via Verizon FIOS. Comcast’s Xfinity and HBO Go services will follow. You must be one of their TV and Internet customers to use these services—this is not a cord-cutting solution.

Netflix. The Netflix app has been refreshed with new features, including 5.1 sound and subtitles. Curiously, though, it looks and functions more like the previous version of the dashboard than the new one. And the Xbox forums are full of complaints that the Watch with Party feature, which let you watch Netflix titles simultaneously with other Xbox live users, is gone.

Hulu Plus. Hulu Plus gets a Metro-style makeover, and the overall experience is quite impressive. The app integrates nicely with the dashboard, and even without a Hulu Plus account, you can browse the extensive library of content through a series of tiled hubs.

YouTube. If you’re a YouTube addict, you’ll appreciate the new YouTube app on Xbox. It showcases popular videos alongside your own subscriptions and playlists in Metro-style hubs and tiles. Curiously, Bing search doesn’t yet include YouTube results, so you’ll have to search separately in the YouTube app, and you won’t have the advantage of voice search with Kinect for some reason.

Video. The lineup of video services is growing significantly—almost weekly—and most of the services sport the fresh, new look of the Dashboard. Syfy, Today, and TMZ have already joined the earlier offerings, with MLB, VEVO, and VUDU coming soon.

Media Center. In case you’re worried that the latest update eliminates Xbox’s ability to function as a Media Center Extender, you can stop worrying. Media Center is still there, it’s just buried in the My Video Apps and My Apps sections.

Ads. Yep, ads as in advertisements. Specific tiles in the new dashboard hubs are used for static and video advertising—and not just for Microsoft stuff either. One static tile jumps to an interactive ad for Netflix, but it’s a dead end for people who already have a Netflix account and the app installed. Another tile is a full-motion video promoting World of Warcraft. Move over it, and the audio from the ad abruptly cuts in. Yet another video tile is peddling some new Lincoln vehicle.

Design. The new design should put one big question to rest: Will Metro translate to the big screen? The answer is an emphatic “yes,” but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Metro design has its roots in Windows Media Center, and this reworked experience takes from the best of that while learning from Microsoft’s experience designing for devices like Zune and Windows Phone.

Overall, we think this is a great update for the Xbox. It introduces not only a fresh redesign for much of the UI, but it also adds new features and services, with plenty more on the horizon. Sure, it seems a bit laggy as apps load and unload, we wish they would have updated the DLNA experience, and the LIVE Gold subscription upsell to use video services you’re already paying for is annoying, but the [amazon_link id=”B005VBVQBU” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Xbox 360[/amazon_link] is clearly a multi-dimensional entertainment device now. Over a decade ago, Microsoft put its sights on owning the living room. This update leaves little question about how Microsoft intends to accomplish that.

Gallery

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About the author

Richard Gunther

Richard is a product experience consultant with a life-long interest in consumer electronics. He has been immersed in smart home tech for decades now and hosts The DMZ's home automation podcast, Home: On and co-hosts Entertainment 2.0 with Josh Pollard. Richard looks at products through an experience lens, always seeking the right mix of utility and delight.