This week, Microsoft finally shipped the long-awaited Xbox 360 Spring 2007 Update, which overhauls the Xbox 360 user interface, or Dashboard, and provides other useful functionality, such as integration with Windows-based Windows Live Messenger (see my review) instant messaging. Microsoft's been talking up the update for quite a while now. Does the reality match the hype?

Installing the update

To find out, you're going to need to install the update first. Fortunately, this is fast and painless. If you're running an Internet-connected Xbox 360 on which you've created an Xbox Live account (Silver or Gold), you will be prompted to download the Spring 2007 Update (Figure) as soon as that account logs onto the service. Note that this is a required update. If you choose not to install it, you will be logged off Xbox Live until you do so. Amazingly, given the amount of functionality here, the update takes about 8 seconds to install (Figure). Then, the console reboots and you're presented with the new Dashboard, which at first glance looks an awful lot like the old version (Figure). Let's take a look at the new features, starting with the big changes.

Windows Live Messenger compatibility

From what I can see, there are two major improvements in this update, Windows Live Messenger compatibility and the new Xbox Marketplace blade, the latter of which is described below. Microsoft has been discussing integration between its two premier online services, Windows Live and Xbox Live, since last year. Ultimately, what this will provide is for Windows-based gamers on to communicate with, and in some cases, actually play games with, Xbox 360-based gamers. And with the Xbox Live service coming to Windows Vista and PC-based games like Shadowrun and Halo 2 in the form of Games for Windows Live (Figure), things will soon get more interesting.

For now, however, we have this Dashboard update, and its first bits of Windows/Xbox 360 connectivity bits, to ponder. Everyone who signed up for an Xbox Live Gold account also has a corresponding Windows Live ID account (formerly called .NET Passport). And now that account can be used from within the Xbox 360 Dashboard, or any Xbox 360 game, allowing you to see which of your contacts are online--whether they're on a PC, a Windows Mobile smart phone (using Windows Live Mobile or MSN Mobile), or an Xbox 360. Microsoft calls this functionality "presence" and it automatically tells your Messenger contacts when you're, say, blowing away Nazis in Call of Duty 3, or just browsing around the Xbox 360 Dashboaard. You'll need to enable the feature first, however.

To enable Windows Live Messenger, select the new Chat and IM option on the Xbox Live (Home) blade. This will display the Chat and IM page in the Xbox Guide, which now has two tabs: Private Chat (which we might think of as traditional Xbox 360 chat, with options for both audio and video) and Messenger (Figure). Select the Messenger tab and you'll be prompted to Sign Up for Messenger (Figure). This starts a wizard in which you enter the password of the Windows Live ID account you already associated with your Xbox Gamertag (Figure). And yes, you need to use that exact account: You can't arbitrarily switch to a different Windows Live ID account. After laboriously typing in your password with the onscreen keyboard, you can optionally choose to save the password, which will prevent you from having to retype it later, which is obviously recommended. Then the wizard wraps up and Windows Live Messenger is configured for use on the console.

So what do you get by doing this? Well, for starters, your Xbox 360 Friends list is now populated with a combination of your Friends and your Messenger-based contacts. Depending on how active you are in both places, this could be disastrous. For me, it certainly was: On my main Xbox 360, I have 100 Friends, and I have over 170 people listed in my Messenger contacts list, though only 20 or so are active. Put them together and hilarity ensues. Or inanity. Because your Messenger contacts can "see" that you're on the Xbox 360, a number of them began IMing me right away. Not exactly what I was looking for, given how hard it is to type on the Xbox 360 unless you connect a USB keyboard.

With the growing realization that'd I'd be disabling this feature soon, I started examining what this feature provided. You can start a new conversation easily enough, and the console will display whatever contacts are online so you can choose (Figure). When your Messenger contacts IM you, a standard Xbox 360 notification pop-up appears. Messenger chats occur on a screen with an on-screen keyboard, of course (Figure), and yes, they're text-only. On the Windows side, they appear as normal chats, though of course you can see what game the Xbox-based contact is playing (Figure).

The most critical feature of Windows Live Messenger integration, of course, is how to turn it off: After I enabled this on my primary Xbox 360, I realized that I'd sign on via Messenger every time the Xbox came, which isn't exactly what I was looking for. (In fact, given my attitude about instant messaging in the first place, it's unclear why I enabled this at all.) The good news is, you can turn it off easily. The bad news is, you have to figure out how first. Here's how you do it: From the Xbox Dashboard, tap the Xbox 360 button to display the Xbox Guide. Then, click your Gamertag (which is selected by default) and choose Auto Sign-In. Here, in addition to the old Xbox Live choice, you'll see a Windows Live Messenger choice as well. Select it and choose Disabled (Figure). Voila.

Xbox Marketplace blade

After you're prompted to download and install the Spring 2007 Update, you'll boot into a very similar Xbox 360 Dashboard. Immediately, however, there's one big difference: A new Dashboard blade called Marketplace appears, though oddly enough, to the left of the home blade (called Xbox Live for some reason), unlike the other blades, which all appear to the right. This major new chunk of on-screen real estate replaces the previous way we got into Microsoft's Xbox-oriented online service, via a single link on the home blade.

The New Marketplace blade provides a front-end to all of the downloadable content Microsoft offers to Xbox users online, including games, game demos, game videos, Dashboard themes and gamer pictures, movies, TV shows, and music videos (Figure). It's become a pretty rich environment over time, so it's no wonder that Microsoft wanted to pull it out from its previously obscure link on the home blade and make it a full-fledged member of the Xbox 360 Dashboard. There's not much to say here: It's all logically arranged and works as expected.

There's just one problem, though it's hard to describe. In the world of Xbox 360 Dashboard navigation, click left or right on the Xbox 360 controller's d-pad always has always slid the next or previous blade to the forefront. That is, starting from the home (Xbox Live) blade, you could click right-right-right and navigate to the right through the Games, Media, and System blades. This is no longer the case with the Marketplace blade. Yes, clicking left from the home blade will land you in the Marketplace as you'd expect, since it is to the left of the home blade. But the Marketplace blade has two selectable columns, unlike all other blades. So to get to the list of content types in this blade, you have to click left a second time to jump over the huge featured download advertisement, which is auto-selected when you enter the blade. And then to leave the blade, you need to click right twice, again, unlike every other blade.

I don't like needless inconsistencies, but in this case, the inconsistency is quite deliberate. Many users will inadvertently click on this advertisement by mistake when they enter the Marketplace blade. And that was precisely why it was designed this way: To fool you. Shame on Microsoft for making the Xbox version of a banner ad the default choice on the Marketplace blade. If you aren't careful, you'll click on this ad numerous times, too. That's just not right.

Presentation improvements

With the big two improvements out of the way, let's turn to my favorite overall improvement in this release: The Dashboard (finally) identifies which game is in the console's DVD drive: It's name appears in the graphical tray that appears at the bottom of most blades (Figure). And if you highlight the tray, you'll see the most recent Achievements and Gamerscore from that title, displayed on the right side of the screen (Figure). I've always wondered why the Xbox 360 couldn't identify the title in the drive, and on more than one occasion I've been forced to eject the disc just to verify that it's the game I want. Thank you for finally implementing this obvious feature, Microsoft.

If you have an original Xbox game in the drive (you heathen), then it will show the game's name in the graphical tray, but you won't see any information about the game on the right (Figure). This is nice, and unexpected, considering what second class citizens original Xbox games are in the 360 world. When you insert a DVD, the Dashboard identifies that the insert disc is a DVD as well.

Achievements improvements

As an Achievements junky, I'm happy to see that the Achievements notifications system has been updated. As before, these notifications appear as overlayed pop-ups in-game, and they're seen when you obtain an Achievement. (Similar pop-ups appear when Friends sign-on or send you various messages.) In the past, the pop-up would just say "Achievement unlocked." In order to see what it was, you could press the Xbox 360 button on the controller while the pop-up was displayed. If you missed it, you'd have to go back through the Guide or Dashboard UI at a later time to look it up. Now, with the Spring 2007 Update, in-game notifications actually tell you what Achievement it is that you've obtained and how many Achievements points you received (Figure). Seriously, it's about time. This is exactly the way it should be.

Downloading improvements

When the Xbox 360 first debuted back in November 2005, it offered game, demo, movie, and other downloads. There was just one problem: Downloading took over the console and you couldn't do anything else until it was completed. (The PS3 had a similar problem at its launch.) Over time, Microsoft corrected this issue and provided background downloads, so that you could trigger a download and then continue browsing around the Xbox Live Marketplace or your local Xbox Dashboard.

With the Spring 2007 Update, downloading has improved yet again. Now, you when you attempt to download an item--be it game, game demo, movie, TV show, video, or whatever--the system will check whether there's enough space and, if not, help you pick content on the hard drive to delete so you can make room. What's nice about this is that the list of content on your drive is sorted by size, so you can see what's taking up the most space before making a decision. (You can see this same view from the System blade as well, thankfully.)

Fans of casual games can configure their system to automatically download the free trial versions of all Xbox Live Arcade games as they become available, so you can test them out and opt to purchase the ones you like the most. This can happen in the background, and you can even configure your system to automatically shut down after all downloads are complete: In this mode, the console stays on when you attempt to shut it down, finishing downloading any background downloads, and then turns off (Figure).

For video downloads, you can now begin playing back video content while the download is partially complete (Figure). A playback progress bar displays the percentage of download that is complete.

Video playback improvements

Speaking of video playback, Microsoft has added a number of new features here as well. You can now switch the visual aspect ratio of playing video via the information bar (Figure): The default is letterboxed, but you can also choose between settings called zoom, stretch, and native.

If you stop playing a video and come back later to finish it, the Xbox 360 now stores a bookmark so that you can start off where you left off. And videos are now automatically sub-divided into 10 virtual chapters so you can more quickly jump through them. Just click the Next and Back buttons on the remote or on-screen information bar to navigate to these chapter points.

Microsoft tells me that the Xbox 360 now supports Windows Media protected content (WM-DRM) streamed from a networked PC to the console, though I haven't tested this feature yet. WM-DRM content also supports the new bookmarking feature.

As expected, and predicted by the recent Zune firmware update, Microsoft has also added support for H.264 video (up to 10 Mbps peak, Baseline, Main, and High profiles with 2 channel AAC LC) and MPEG-4 Part 2 (up to 5 Mbps peak, Simple Profile with 2 channel AAC LC). These are incredibly high-quality video formats, though it's unclear where Xbox 360 owners will get such content unless they create it themselves.

What hasn't been improved--and this is a big one, in my opinion, since my family uses an Xbox 360 and its Media Center Connector software as our sole TV interface now--is how notifications appear while various content types are playing. Now that an Xbox 360 can be used to watch downloaded TV shows and movies, and watch live and recorded TV with Media Center, there should be some way to leave notifications on while you're playing a game, but turn them off when you're watching Media Center. Alas, Personal Settings has not changed in this update: You can still toggle notifications globally, or toggle them just for downloaded videos, but not for Media Center (Figure). That needs to be fixed, and obviously. It's pretty bar bones right now, and hasn't been updated in ages. Come on, Microsoft. Why would I want to see that some guy with a lame Gamertag has signed on to Xbox Live while I'm watching TV?

Final thoughts

If you're used to the previous Xbox 360 interface, the Spring 2007 Update won't be a difficult switch. Most of the changes are small, but most are very welcome, with very few exceptions. That's good news, and it suggests that Microsoft's original Xbox 360 Dashboard design was the correct direction and has legs for the future. There are still some things I'd like to see fixed, but even before this update, the Xbox 360 user interface was dramatically more sophisticated and usable than anything seen on the Nintendo Wii or Sony PlayStation 3. Today, with the Spring 2007 Update install, things are even better. This is a nice addition to an already well-designed front-end. Highly recommended. (Not that you have much choice: You can't access Xbox Live again until you install it.)