Since releasing its Metro-style Xbox 360 Dashboard Update last fall, Microsoft has bolstered its console's entertainment services many times, most recently adding XFINITY TV, HBO GO, and MLB TV to the lineup. Despite some egregious hoops to jump through, the Xbox 360 is suddenly the top choice for the living room hub.
Last December, I wrote a series of articles covering Microsoft's Metro-styled Fall 2011 Dashboard Update for the Xbox 360, including one devoted solely to the new TV and entertainment services. At the time, Microsoft was offering a decent collection of services, including FIOS, which I can access here in the Boston area, Daily Motion, EPIX, Hulu Plus, and more. It also announced that new services would come on board over time.
Now, just a few months later, more services are indeed available, including a few heavy hitters like XFINITY TV, HBO GO, and MLB.TV (Major League Baseball).
I don't have access to XFINITY TV--you need to be a subscriber--but according to the company, the offering includes On Demand content (but not live TV, as with FIOS), providing subscribers with a cheaper way to get some content on other TVs in the house. Looking through the service's listings, the selection appears to be decent, however.
We recently signed up with HBO again because the second season of "Game of Thrones" is underway, so I was able to check out the HBO Go service. Unlike with the FIOS app for Xbox 360, however, it's not particularly seamless. You need an HBO subscription, of course, but also a TV provider that actually supports HBO GO on the Xbox 360. FIOS happens to allow this, but this qualifier suggests that some will not. That's unacceptable. You also need an Xbox LIVE Gold subscription, of course.
Those hurdles cleared, you install the HBO GO app and then have to activate the Xbox 360. This involves choosing your TV provider from a list and then logging in with your provider's logon information via the HBO GO web site on your PC. I had to look this up as I never access my FIOS account online, so I lost a few days on that. Then you have configure an HBO GO ID, an associated email address, and your ZIP code. And then you have to input a six digital activation code.
Approximately four days later I was up and running. At the point, you're informed about parental controls--which are account- and not device-specific, and must be set at hbogo.com, making this service's use for my children more ponderous--and you're free to actually use the service.
The UI is not horrible. It's pure Metro, as you'd expect, and mimics the layout of the Xbox 360 Dashboard and related apps like Zune Video Marketplace. HBO GO offers major groups like Home, Movies, Series, Comedy, Sports, Documentaries, and Late Night, and it works with Kinect (though I didn't test this out of self-respect).
To see how deep into HBO's catalog I could go, I browsed through Series and came away impressed. The entire selection of key HBO series such as Band of Brothers, Deadwood, Entourage, Rome, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and The Wire are all available, making this service truly valuable.
Also valuable: The shows I did dive into include Extras content, too, or at least "Did You Know" and Cast and Crew information. Between this and the actual shows, You could subscribe to HBO for six months, watch nothing but the service's entire catalog , and come away well ahead financially. Remember, it's not TV, it's HBO.
Of course, video quality is important too. On modern shows like Game of Thrones, the quality is reasonable, and in 1080p, and while captioning is supported I never found a show that provided that, which is shameful. I noticed a bit of blotchiness on some of the darker scenes early on, but having experienced the Xbox 360's amazing streaming video capabilities, I do know that quality improves as you watch and more and more of the content is buffered. And sure enough, the blotchiness disappeared over time.
Playback controls are much improved over the old Zune days. In addition to multiple forward and rewind speeds, you get a video preview while doing so, making it easier to know when to resume playback. Overall, the presentation is excellent.
Of course, HBO isn't just about original series. The HBO GO service also includes access to a decent (over 270 titles) collection of recent (and not so recent) movies like Action Jackson (!), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Green Lantern, Inception, Rio, and, yes, all three Robocop movies. OK, mostly not so recent movies. But you also get access to HBO's excellent vault of comedy specials, sports shows, and documentaries as well. This is a serious and deep collection of entertainment.
My wife and I are huge baseball fans, and watch more Major League Baseball (OK, Red Sox) games than most, I'd imagine. But we've never succumbed to the wonders of MLB TV because we live in Boston and can see the league's greatest TV announcers--Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo--live on TV. The point of MLB TV is two-fold: It provides baseball fans an amazing opportunity to watch out of town games, streamed live in HD (which we don't need) or, for an additional fee, on demand. If we moved out of state, I could see subscribing just to catch Remy and Orsillo and, of course, the Sox.
Anyway, MBL TV is a valuable service for those that love baseball, but it's costly. In addition to the Xbox LIVE Gold subscription you'd need to access this on the Xbox 360, you'll pay $110 a year for MLB TV or $125 a year for the Premium subscription, or you can pay monthly at $20 and $25 per month, respectively. Premium is required to use the service on the Xbox 360, another unnecessary added cost.
If you don't pay, you can check out game recaps, which are presented in YouTube-like standard definition blurriness (despite claims of HD) and quite short.
According to Microsoft, we've already crossed the line where Xbox 360 users spend more time on TV entertainment content than they do on video gaming. And that's not surprising: When you combine these new offerings with the content providers that Microsoft has brought online since last November, you see a living room solution that stands head and shoulders above all other options, even including the Apple TV. If Microsoft would just bring Amazon's amazing array of rental, buyable, and streamable video content on board, and drop the paid Xbox LIVE Gold requirement (I know, I'm dreaming), it would be no contest. But even in its current state, the Xbox 360 is the one to beat in the living room, hoops and all.