While it's easy to quibble about various aspects of the original Xbox, one thing that Microsoft got right was that system's online strategy, which centralized communications around a single online service called Xbox Live. Even today, Microsoft's competitors--I'm talking to you, Sony and Nintendo--still haven't figured out how to handle online games, and many third party game makers simply do their own thing, causing confusion and, ultimately, higher prices for gamers.

With Xbox 360, Microsoft has taken a great situation and made it even better. Xbox Live is still around, but it's been improved dramatically to take into account those who are not hard core gamers that don't mind dropping $50 to $75 a year for the privilege of deathmatching online. With the Xbox 360 version of Xbox Live, as I think of it, everyone gets free access to most Xbox Live features through what's called an Xbox Live Silver membership. This gives you access to the Xbox Live Marketplace (see below), where you can download free and paid content, such as demos, trailers, game upgrades and levels, and the like. You also get access to voice chat and voice messaging features (with other Xbox 360 owners). If you upgrade to Xbox Live Gold, which is the equivalent of the original version of Xbox Live, you gain access to video chat (eventually, I'm told: It's not available at the moment) and the ability to deathmatch other players online. Xbox Live Gold carries a $50 per year subscription fee.

There is one important caveat about the Xbox 360's online services that should be aware of. To take advantage of Xbox Live (either Silver or Gold), you must have a hard drive or Memory Unit. That means that customers who purchase the Core System (see below) must spend additional money on one of these accessories before they can access even the free version of Xbox Live. Why Microsoft didn't include a Memory Unit in the Core System is beyond me, but there you go.

Xbox Live Silver

OK, so you've just brought home your new Xbox console, and connected it to the Internet via your home network. What's next? Surprisingly, there's a lot you can do. When you bring up the Xbox Dashboard, the Xbox Live blade displays by default (Figure). From here, you can access a variety of Xbox Live-related services. These include:

Messages

These are text and audio messages and invitations to join clans, add new friends, and perform other similar actions (Figure). Messages are very similar to emails, except that they can be sent only to and from Xbox Live members.

Friends

Essentially the Xbox Live version of instant messaging contacts, your friends are the people you know and interact with while online (Figure). Friends are listed alphabetically with your online friends at the top. The friends list also indicates which games or other Xbox experiences your friends are currently enjoying if they're online.

Xbox Live Marketplace

This amazing new addition to Xbox Live lets you download free and per-pay items, including game downloads (typically trailers, themes, and Gamer Pictures), Xbox Live membership upgrades, movie and game demos and trailers, music videos, Xbox Dashboard themes and Gamer Pictures, and other items (Figure). I'll be covering Xbox Live Marketplace more thoroughly in a future showcase, but this feature will eventually be a thriving center of e-commerce, all based around a micropayment system in which you purchase blocks of Microsoft Points which are then used to purchase items. For example, a typical Dashboard theme is typically 150 Microsoft Points (MP), while Gamer Pictures are 20 MP apiece. 500 Microsoft Points costs $6.25, while 5000 Microsoft Points will set you back $62.50. Many downloads, of course, are free. For example, all of the trailers and demos are free.

Xbox Live Arcade

Located in the Games blade, Xbox Live Arcade gives you access to free and paid arcade type games (Figure). There are action, coin-op classics, puzzle and word, social sports, and strategy and sims titles available. As a huge 80's arcade game fan, I jumped all over Joust, which is faithful to the original (Figure) and cost 400 MP. But you may be more interested in such titles as Geometry Wars Evolved, Bejeweled 2, Bankshot Billiards 2, or whatever. The games are all pretty decent, and easy to pick up.

One weirdism about all these downloads: You can't navigate away from the download screen and do something else while a download is in progress. Well, you can, but it will interrupt the download. I can't imagine why a system this powerful can't download a file and play music at the same time.

Xbox Live Gold

In addition to all of the free features you can access via Xbox Live Silver, an upgrade to Xbox Live Gold ($50 a year) gives you a number of additional features, such as:

Multiplayer deathmatch

While this feature doesn't appear in the Xbox Dashboard per se, all Xbox 360 games include multiplayer capabilities via both System Link (local area network) and Xbox Live. If you want to compete against other players via Xbox Live, you will need a Gold membership.

Players

If you do participate in online deathmatches, you will have a list of all of the people you've ever competed against (Figure). This can be good information, because you may have a person you ran into that was particularly good or bad to you. Either way, you can send feedback about those players, or send them invites if you'd like to communicate with them directly. You can also configure the system to let you avoid certain players, ensuring you'll never be put in an awkward position again.

Video chat ... Coming soon. While Microsoft won't specify a release date, Xbox Live Gold members will soon be able to send video messages to their friends (Xbox Live Silver members will be able to receive them). This feature will require the Xbox 360 video camera, which won't be seen until some time next year.

On to Part 8...