In July, Microsoft announced that it was "relaunching" its Xbox 360 video game console with a completely new dashboard UI called the New Xbox Experience (NXE, see my preview). That UI was pushed to Internet-connected Xbox 360 consoles this week, and as promised, it's a huge change--and largely a huge improvement--over the original blade-based UI that debuted three years ago. Let's see what's new.

Installing New Xbox Experience

If you boot up an Xbox 360 with an active Xbox Live account on November 19, 2008 or later, you'll be prompted to download and install the NXE. (Non-Live members will get the update in the next few weeks.) Surprisingly, given the scope of the update, the installation process takes just a few minutes over a broadband connection, and the console will reboot at least once.

Once setup is complete, the Xbox 360 will launch into the NXE for the first time. This initial run-through includes a new boot screen as well as an optional introductory video that describes the new features.

Then, you're stepped through the process of creating your new on-screen Mii, excuse me, Avatar. This is a childish-looking and cartoonish onscreen character that represents your online persona. Because Avatars are such a big part of the NXE, I will look at these characters separately in a moment.


Punch me!

Tip: The NXE requires 128 MB of storage space, so users will need a hard drive-equipped Xbox 360 or, at the very least, a console with a 256 MB Memory Unit (MU).

NXE: The mile-high view

Like so many user interfaces coming out of Microsoft these days--the revamped Vista version of Windows Media Center and the Zune 3.x PC software come immediately to mind--the NXE is designed to take advantage of widescreen HD displays. Overall, the presentation is more ethereal and less utility-like than the blades-based UI of the past, but it does feature all of the basic elements from the old UI while exposing new functionality in highly visual ways.

I should state up front that the hard core video game fans who constitute much of the 360's user base might be somewhat put off by the entertainment orientation of much of the new UI. A good portion of what Microsoft added has little to do with gaming and more to do with socializing and enjoying traditional entertainment like movies and TV shows, picture slideshows, and music. I'll explore that in more detail later, but the cartoonish Avatar and the entertainment-heavy options that dominate this UI are somewhat off-putting. Maybe that won't be the case over time.

While the NXE is visually unique, it works much like many Microsoft media UIs, including the aforementioned Media Center and Zune solutions. That is, it features "crossbar" scrolling, where you can select new items by scrolling both left and right as well as up and down. The main menu items, or Channels, as Microsoft calls them, are Welcome (which can be disabled after you're familiar with the new UI), My Xbox, Game Marketplace, Video Marketplace, Friends, Inside Xbox, and Events. (Curiously, this list of items is oriented "upside down" in that the first item is on the bottom and you scroll up to move "down" the list of top level menu items.)

To choose items within each Channel, you scroll left to right, and the NXE uses a panel-based metaphor to represent each choice. In the Welcome menu, for example, there are four choices moving left-to-right, including What's Hot, Xbox Essentials, New Xbox Experience, and Hide Channel.

I'll explore each of these Channels separately soon, but let's look at the temporary What's Hot Channel to see how things work. What's Hot opens a new submenu with seven items (panels), each of which describes a feature of the NXE, for example. Xbox Essentials has nine panels, each of which provides information about basic Xbox functionality. New Xbox Experience allows you to replay the introductory video that appeared the first time you installed this dashboard update. And the final panel, as expected, lets you hide the What's New Channel.

If you've used the Xbox 360 for any amount of time, you already understand how to navigate around the UI. The red B button is always "Back," so if you navigate into a Channel's sub-menu, you can click B to get back out again. And the Xbox Guide button--that silver and green Xbox logo-like globe in the center of the controller--brings up the NXE Guide, which opens in the center of the screen, rather than sliding in from the right as it did in the old blades UI. This Guide, curiously, has five blades of its own, and doesn't work like the rest of the NXE, probably because it has to work in games as well, and it's easier to overlay a rectangle over a game display than a weird panels-based UI.

The NXE Guide opens on the center blade, which includes four choices, Xbox Dashboard (back to the NXE), Quick Launch (opens lists of recent games, latest downloads, and all games), Friends (friends list), Party (see below), Messages (like email), Chat & IM (live chatting), and Play [game currently in DVD drive]. If you're not connected to Xbox Live, you'll see a Connect to Xbox Live choice instead of the Friends, Party, Messages, and Chat & IM choices.

Other NXE Guide blades include Marketplace (for accessing Microsoft's online store), Games (for Achievements and Game Library), Media (Video Library, Music Library, Picture Library, and Windows Media Center), and Settings. The layout of the Guide is OK at best. Frankly the Achievements should be on the default blade, for example.

Overall, however, the NXE works pretty well, and if you're familiar with any of Microsoft's other crossbar-based UIs, you'll be able to jump into this one very quickly.

A look at the Channels

Before heading off into a discussion of new NXE features, I think it makes sense to quickly explore the default menu, or Channel list, that you'll see in this UI. As noted previously, there are 7 default channels not counting the temporary What's New Channel described above.

Spotlight

Once you hide the What's New Channel, you'll see the Spotlight Channel by default, which is absolutely ridiculous. This Channel includes a bunch of frivolous cross-sell information, and while I'm sure it will change over time, what's there now is almost insultingly silly. There's an ad for a music game called Lips, a link to a music video, information about Xbox Live Gold membership (even though I already have one), and so on. I'd love to be able to turn this off.

My Xbox

This Channel, which should be the default, features 8 top-level panels, Play [game in the DVD drive], Gamertag (with information about your online persona, including your annoying Avatar), Game Library (with recent games and other games-related lists), Video Library, Music Library, Picture Library, Windows Media Center, and System Settings. The media-related panels all work similarly in fashion to the related options on the old Media blade, with one big additional I'll note later.

Game Marketplace

As you might expect, this Channel is a front-end to the game-oriented parts of Xbox Live Marketplace. You can explore games, game add-ons, and free demo versions of games, check out the new Avatar games (see below), and learn about a selected of featured games.

Video Marketplace

As with the previous channel, the Video Marketplace is aimed at a very specific subset of Xbox Live Marketplace, in this case video content like purchasable TV shows and movies, a new Netflix service (which I'll describe in more detail in just a bit), game trailers, and video content in your own Video Library.

Friends

Here, you can browse through your friends list using the new NXE UI instead of the text list that graced the previous version. Each of your buddy's Mii, sorry, Avatars, all lamed up with their custom looks, are available as you scroll left to right, and as before your online friends are listed before those that are offline. When you select a friend, you'll see a nice new display, again marred by an unnecessary Avatar appearance, with that person's Gamertag info and a side Interact menu with Invite To Party, Send Message, Compare Games, Private Chat, and Video Chat options.

Inside Xbox

This Channel features panels that link to video content for game tips, videos, information about the Xbox Web site, the inexcusably popular Major Nelson, and a variety of other free videos. This stuff does not deserve its own Channel--indeed, it was added to the old UI ruining its perfectly good predecessor--and should instead be relegated to some submenu off of Video Marketplace. It's just taking up valuable real estate.

Events

In a bid to better promote virtual events that occur online over Xbox Live, this Channel provides a list of panels that describe these upcoming events. At this time, you can find out about gaming online with pseudo-celebrities and the like. Personally, I find this to be of little value.

NXE features

The New Xbox Experience isn't just about a new UI, though of course this visual change will be the most obvious thing happening after the upgrade. Additionally, Microsoft has implemented a number of new features in the NXE that range from utterly lame to decent. None of it, however, is earth shattering.

Play from hard drive

The most useful new NXE feature, from a game player's perspective, is Play from hard drive, which, as the name suggests, lets you copy the contents of a game DVD to the Xbox 360 hard drive and then play the game from there. Doing so will have three immediate results. First, the game will load and thus play somewhat faster--I noticed COD5 level load times that were rough two-thirds the time of DVD drive-based loads. Second, because the console isn't constantly accessing the DVD drive (note, however, that the game disc must still be in the drive for the game to play), the console runs much, much more quietly than normally, which is greatly appreciated. And third, each game you copy to the hard drive takes up multiple gigabytes of space, so you're only going to want to do this for whatever game or two you're currently playing frequently.

The amount of space each game occupies on disc could be problematic depending on which type of Xbox 360 you have. My 20 GB original model is near capacity so I couldn't even copy a single game to the hard drive. But my son's 60 GB model has plenty of space, so we copied COD5 over, and that occupies 6.5 GB of storage space. (Yikes.) Regardless, if you have the space and are a frequent gamer, this is a great feature. I might pick up a 120 GB drive just to utilize it myself.

Avatars

Every Xbox 360 user has the opportunity to create a Gamertag, which is associated with a free (Silver) or paid (Gold) Xbox Live account. This Gamertag is your online persona, and it includes information like your name, reputation (from one to five stars), Gamerscore, player zone, a graphic, and so on.

With the NXE, your Gamertag is now represented in dramatically more graphical form by a cartoonish avatar. This avatar is something you can must create yourself, and you can spend as little or as much time on it as you'd like, and doing so works almost exactly like the process of creating a Mii online character with Nintendo's Wii. Which is by design, because the new Xbox Avatars are quite obviously a complete rip-off of what Nintendo did first.

I don't want to belabor the point, but I think these Avatars--and the fact that you are required to make and use on--are a huge mistake. The Xbox 360 is the haven of hard core gamers in console land, and while I agree that Microsoft is wise to pursue the bigger if less sophisticated market that bought record numbers of Wiis over the past two years, I don't think it should punish its hard core fans by requiring them to use Avatars. Here's the thing: You see this lame little cartoon moron every time you boot into the dashboard, and all of your friends will see him when they try to find you or check out your information online. It's there whether you want it or not.

So what does this spritely little doppelganger do, exactly? Not much. If you navigate to the My Xbox Channel, you'll see your Avatar subtly animating as he stands there next to one of the panels in that channel. And he's there when you view your Gamercard from within the Xbox Channel (but not, thankfully, from within the Xbox Guide).

The most cringe-inducing use of Avatars comes when you navigate to the Friends Channel, because there you'll see a seemingly never-ending list of these stupid little cartoon figures, each one representing a friend and, no doubt, carefully created to look as much as possible like the people they represent. I swear, I involuntarily shudder every time I go by this channel now. It's terrible.

Microsoft has also created a handful of games in which, get this, you actually play using your own Avatar. The games, as you might expect, are all pretty basic and include such things as UNO, Scene It? Box Office Smash, Kingdom for Keflings, and Hardwood Hearts. And here I was thinking that we could only get more sophisticated than sending live video to other players during a game of checkers. My bad.

Look, most of what's happening in the NXE is excellent stuff. But the Avatars are so absolutely cringe-worthy that I'm docking Microsoft a full star in my rating for this update. They're terrible, and they should not be forced on players. I don't want to look at other people's Avatars, ever, let alone my own. Seriously, just spare me. And explain to me why Microsoft spent so much time on this silliness and yet I still can't upload a photo from the Web or my PC to used as a Gamer picture.

Exactly.

Parties

While the Xbox 360 has always had a way for gamers to invite friends and other gamers into individual games, the NXE formalizes this process into something called a Party. A Party is basically two to seven Xbox Live subscribers who gather virtually. They can voice chat, share photos, and perform other duties. And, most importantly, they can play games together.

Netflix integration

Netflix introduced its Watch Instantly feature in 2007, allowing subscribers to watch an ever-growing catalog of TV shows and movies via their PC's Web browser. That feature became significantly more useful in May 2008, when the company announced the $100 Roku Netflix Player, a small, silent, and simple Internet-connected set-top box that works in tandem with Watch Instantly and the Netflix Instant Queue. The Netflix Player is a nice little device, and an excellent benefit for subscribers of the service. (I've been using one since mid-summer.)

Netflix never intended for the Roku player to be the only living room solution for its online service. And with the NXE, a second solution has become available: You can now access your Netflix Instant Queue from the Xbox 360 as well.

Sadly, there are some important caveats. First of all, you must be a paying Xbox Live Gold subscriber to utilize this service, meaning you'll have to subscribe to two different services (Xbox Live Gold and Netflix) to access the tens of thousands of TV shows and movies on offer. Second, Xbox 360 users don't currently get the full Netflix experience because Sony--whose PlayStation 3 console "coincidentally" competes with the Xbox 360--won't allow their titles to be streamed to Microsoft's console. I'm sure it's just a little oversight. (Netflix claims this issue will be ironed out and only affects "a few hundred" titles.)

In use, the Netflix services works almost identically on the 360 as it does on the Roku player and with similar performance. Which is to say it's largely excellent. My issues, however, are two-fold. First, you must stock your Instant Queue with titles from a PC's Web browser; you can't browse the Netflix service from the console. Second, none of the Netflix content is available with subtitles or closed captioning, so Netflix subscribers who need such functionality will have to stick with traditional DVDs.

Community games

Microsoft has been talking up the ability of independent game developers to create games that run on the Xbox 360 for a few years, but now they're finally available via a new Community games feature. I'll be looking into these titles over the next few weeks, but most of what's there so far resembles the platform-type games that were common on PCs 15 years ago, but what the heck. This is good for everyone.

Community games are created with XNA Game Studio, which combines the power of Visual Studio with all the Xbox 360 goodness you'd expect, such as support for the controllers and other unique 360 features. XNA games can also run on the PC and Zune platforms, so we should be seeing some interesting cross-platform titles in the future as well.

Purchase Marketplace content from the Web

Microsoft has a long way to go before it consolidates its Xbox Live Marketplace with Zune Marketplace and, ideally, the PC. But with the advent of the NXE, the company is taking a baby step to this inevitable future by allowing you to browse the contents of Xbox Live Marketplace from a Web browser on your PC. You can't download content to the PC from this site--even free videos, which seems kind of obvious--but you can download items to your Xbox 360. In most cases, of course, your 360 will be off when you're browsing the Web from a PC, so what you're really doing is queuing items up for later download.

So. Is this feature useful in any way? Not really. It is certainly better browsing Xbox Live Marketplace from the Web than it is from the console, and I suppose its marginally useful to queue up some video downloads during the day so that you can later watch them in the living room. But ... who the heck is watching videos--or purchasing video content--on the Xbox 360? This type of thing would only be truly useful if you can access the appropriate content in other places, such as on your PC or Zune device. Until then it's just a first step, nothing more.

Final thoughts

With one glaring exception, the New Xbox Experience is a much-needed shot in the arm for the Xbox 360, one that makes the console seem as new and fresh as it did a long three years ago when it first debuted. The look and feel of the interface is nice, and the new Xbox Guide, especially, is a big improvement over the previous version. I absolutely hate that the lame new Avatars can't be disabled, and I would like to see much more customization in the UI, especially the ability to selectively turn off Channels or Channel features I don't want. I already pay Microsoft for Xbox Live Gold, and one benefit of that service should be the ability to turn off ads and other nuisances. But these issues aside, the New Xbox Experience is good stuff. I'd recommend it, but it's not like you have a choice. This is the future Xbox 360 UI whether you want it or not.