While the hardware Microsoft selected for Xbox 360 is truly wonderful, this device's software, in many ways, is what really sets it apart from both the competition and its predecessor. Here's what you get.

Xbox Dashboard

One of the things that always bothered me about the original Xbox was the awful green interface you'd get if you turned the unit on without a game disk inserted. It had the feel of a Macromedia Flash Web site that was designed for a science fiction movie, and it's no wonder that one of the biggest goals of Xbox modifications (or "mods") was to replace this nasty bit of afterthought with more attractive user interfaces. This has all been fixed with Xbox 360.

To say that the Xbox 360 user interface, called the Xbox Dashboard, is "different" or "better" would be a vast understatement. Gone is the green and black silliness, replaced by a high resolution, task-based user interface that looks and acts like a piece of high tech equipment (Figure). The Xbox Dashboard is divided into four areas, or blades. When you first enter the Dashboard, you're handed off to the Xbox Live blade, which provides a wide variety of information. At the top of the screen is a link to your Gamertag, which is essentially your online persona. Each Gamertag is connected to a separate Xbox Live account, so if you want, you can have multiple Gamertags (and Xbox Live accounts) per Xbox 360.

The Gamertag area of the Xbox Live blade provides you with basic information such as your name, rep (or reputation, as rated from one to five stars), Gamerscore (a rough indication of your accomplishments), and the player zone into which you consider yourself (I've chosen Recreation, and not the more hardcore Pro). If you select this area, you are brought to the Gamer Profile screen (Figure), which provides more detailed information and various configuration options. For example, you can change your Gamer Picture, Motto, Gamer Zone, Gamertag, and privacy settings here.

Below the Gamertag area are links to Messages, Friends, and Xbox Live Marketplace. I'll examine these features in the "Getting online with Xbox 360" part of this review, as they relate to online play. A Play Game link on the Xbox Live blade lets you jump back into the currently loaded game disk.

The Games blade provides you with access to games-related functionality, as the name indicates (Figure). Under the ever-present Gamertag, you'll see a list of choices. Achievements provides a front-end to the accomplishments you've racked up in various games. For example, "Call of Duty 2" has achievements such as "Completed Training," "Won the War," "War Hardened," and so on. Each of these achievements is worth a certain number of points, and these points are added to your overall Achievements score.]

The Played Games choice displays the games you've played so far as well as the saves, downloads, achievements, and Gamerscore points you've accrued (Figure). You can dig into each game title here if you'd like, and even manage the content stored on your hard drive (or Memory Unit).

Xbox Live Arcade provides you with a list of the Xbox Live Arcade games you've downloaded as well as a selection of games you may want to download later. The Demos and Trailers links let you access game demos and trailers (previews) from Xbox Live Marketplace. Because these are all online features, I'll examine this functionality a bit later.

In a similar vein, I'll discuss the Media blade in the "Digital media features" section later in this review as well.

The System blade lets you configure a wide variety of settings, including Console Settings, Family Settings, Memory, Network Settings, and Computers (Figure). You can also access this blade if you'd like to rerun initial setup again, giving you a chance to get your Xbox 360 back to its native state.

Xbox Guide

In any game, or even from the Xbox Dashboard, you can also access a subset of the Xbox 360 user interface, called the Xbox Guide. To get to the Xbox Guide, which presents an overlay over the current screen view, simply press the Xbox Guide button on the Xbox controller or one of the remote controls. When you do so, the Xbox Guide visually slides over from the left, covering about half the screen (Figure). If you're currently playing a single player game, the game will pause automatically when you do this.

The Xbox Guide is a handy place to make a few configuration changes, respond to notifications, and even return to the Xbox Dashboard if you wish (though that latter option will end any game session you may be participating in). From the Guide, you can see your Gamertag, links to your messages, friends, and players lists, launch a private chat with a friend, configure personal settings, select music to replace the soundtrack of the current game, switch profiles, or jump to the Dashboard. There's also a handy time display, so you can make sure you're not staying up too late playing Quake 4.

What's cool about the Xbox Guide, of course, is that it's ubiquitous. It's available from any game or Xbox experience (including during live TV over the Media Center Extender), at any time.

Personalization

While users of the original Xbox had to turn to third party (and illegal) "mod" chip makers to modify or customize their Xbox experience, Microsoft has finally embraced this notion directly in Xbox 360. Everything from the user interface to the look and feel of the hardware console itself is customizable, giving Xbox gamers a totally personalized experience.

To customize the look and feel of the console, you can purchase new faceplates for $19.99 each. The default faceplate, a simple creamy white fascia, is probably attractive enough. But if you think a wood panel look might go better with your living room, or perhaps favor that skull and crossbones style, there's a faceplate with your name written all over it.

If you're not a big fan of the elegant look and feel of the default Xbox Dashboard, fear not, you can change that too. Out of the box, Xbox 360 ships with a variety of themes, such as Carbon, Glass, EA, GUN, Halo, and Kameo, and you can also download new themes from the Themes and Gamer Pictures section on Xbox Marketplace. Most of these themes are inexpensive (150 Microsoft Points, a form of micropayment), so I downloaded the Quake 4 Theme Pack to check it out (Figure). You can also download custom Gamer Pictures as well (Figure). These, too, are inexpensive, about 20 to 60 Microsoft Points each.

Naturally, you can perform other personalization tasks related to your Gamertag. In addition to your name, Gamer Picture, and Zone, you can add a custom motto and access a wide range of privacy settings. What this all adds up to is a highly customized experience, whether you're a hard core gamer or not. As I said years ago of the often ridiculed Plus! Pack for Windows 95, anything that makes your computing experience more enjoyable is good. And Microsoft did an exemplary job of making Xbox 360 customizable.

On to Part 5...