Earlier this year, I enthused about Microsoft's strategy to use the same basic Metro-style UI across all its major platforms--Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox--and this week, the company delivered the first peek at what such a UI could be like on the latter device. It's not the seismic shift some have predicted, and is in fact not all that different from the previous Xbox 360 Dashboard user interface. But that's just on the surface. Peek below the covers and what you'll discover is that this latest Xbox 360 update is about much more than the look and feel.

Of course, as the UI everyone will see each time they fire up the Xbox 360, the Dashboard is of course important. And Microsoft is clearly moving its console from the gaming-first/media-second strategy of 2005 to a place where the console is a general purpose digital entertainment hub. That is, yes, it still plays all these wonderful video games. But the Xbox 360 also looks and now plays the part of an HD living room set-top box, complete with access to many popular forms of digital entertainment.

And on that note, the new look and feel of the Dashboard is designed very specifically to appeal to a diverse audience of consumers who have basically one thing in common: That whatever it is they're doing on the Xbox 360--playing video games, watching a streaming movie on Netflix, interacting with friends on Facebook--they'll be doing so on a high-definition computer display or HDTV. So the system is designed for a widescreen presentation with plenty of pixels.

It wasn't always this way. The Xbox 360 first shipped with a "blades"-based Dashboard UI that, believe it or not, was actually better tailored for the 4:3 square displays that were common half a decade ago. But as was the case across the company, Microsoft eventually started moving towards explicit support for widescreen displays as they became more common, first with Windows Media Center, which received its own 4:3-to-widescreen transformation, and then with the 360.

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The original Xbox 360 Dashboard

Much has--and should--be made of the Xbox 360's various hardware permutations--the device was embarrassingly unreliable and unbearably loud until a 2010 makeover--but the software changes have been no less interesting. And while most of these changes have been small--Microsoft regularly updates its console software--a few have been quite profound. The biggest, of course, was the Fall 2008 Dashboard Update, which Microsoft called the New Xbox Experience, or NXE, but last year's Kinect updates were certainly just as seismic. (And NXE was itself updated to make it flatter than the original design.)

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NXE

This year's update, oddly enough, is pretty evolutionary from a UI perspective and features the same boxy interface elements we've had for three years. (Clues to the evolutionary nature of this update can be found in that Microsoft didn't provide this UI with a new name, as it did with NXE, and that there are still old NXE interfaces buried in there.)

So yes, we're getting a Metro-style UI on the Xbox for the first time, something that looks a lot like the UIs in Windows 8 and Windows Phone. But the UI itself isn't the big story, and for the most part, it's already pretty familiar since a lot of the usage changes came previously with NXE and Kinect. Again, the big stuff this time around is under the hood, where Microsoft has enabled deep-rooted Bing search and Kinect motion and voice functionality across the apps that are already available on the console and, more important, the media apps that are coming in the weeks and months ahead.

I'll get to that stuff in a future article. For now, however, let's see what's changed in the Xbox Dashboard from a UI perspective.

In the old NXE, Microsoft utilized a modified version of the Media Center interface, where you scroll both up and down (through major items) and then left and right (through elements within those major items). This UI type was used in various Microsoft products over the years, including the Portable Media Centers, Zune devices, and even today in Windows Phone, where you can see elements of it in the Zune software and other interfaces. So the major items were My Xbox, Game Marketplace, Video Marketplace, Friends, Inside Xbox, Events, and Welcome.

The problem with this UI was that you weren't aware that most of those items existed. The UI provided the name of the elements before and after the currently viewed items, but that was it. So one of the nice changes in the new Dashboard is that it's all self-contained: You can see the top level items list on screen all at once. These items include Bing, Home, Social, Video, Games, Music, Apps, and Settings, and not only are they different than before, they're simpler and more logical. For example, to get to the system settings before, you'd need to travel through the My Xbox section, all the way to the right. But now it's obvious where you can find this interface.

The new Dashboard also does a better job of surfacing things that might be of interest. On the default screen, which is thankfully Home and not Bing, the game that's in the device's optical drive is now there and selected by default; in the previous UI, you'd have to navigate one location to select the game. But this screen also features tiles for Quickplay (the most recent games and apps you've used on the console) and then some promotional and ad material.

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The new Home screen, or hub

Like the Windows 8 Start screen, the new Dashboard is segmented into groups, called Hubs, though these correspond to the top-mounted items list and are thus all named and displayed within one screen's worth of real estate. So if you scroll to the right, you'll hit the Social hub. Scroll left from Home and you'll hit Bing.

These Dashboard hub include:

Social. Here, you can access your Xbox LIVE profile, which includes tiles for Friends, Social Apps, and Sign In/Out, plus an animated avatar that can be selected to display and configure your Messages, avatar, theme, achievements, and Gamertag. Previously, this information was found in largely your user tile in My Xbox in the old NXE.

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Social hub

Video. This hub provides access to your video apps, including Media Center (Extender), Video Player, and Zune Video, plus any video apps you've downloaded from the new Apps Marketplace. These include Netflix, ESPN, Hulu Plus, NBC Today, and EPIX, none of which are new to this update. But in the near future, a wide array of new TV and entertainment services are coming to Xbox LIVE, so I'll be examining them in a future article. For now, what you're left with is a slightly new presentation, and some new interfaces. Annoyingly, the built-in Video Player is almost exactly the same as it was in 2005. But some apps have changed: Netflix, for example, has gotten a major update, both visual and functional, and now supports subtitles on the 360. Halleluiah.

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The new Metro-style Netflix app

Games. This hub provides access to your games (via a My Games interface), the new Games Marketplace, and a few promotional tiles. As with other Marketplace apps in the new UI, the Games Marketplace adopts the same flat, grouped, Metro-style interface as the Dashboard.

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Games hub

Music. Here, you can access your Music apps, which includes the same 2005-era Music Player as before and Zune Music, plus the new Zune Music Marketplace, the QuickPlay interface, and some promotional tiles. The Zune stuff would be a lot more interesting if Microsoft provided some seamless way to access a PC-based Zune music collection from your console over the home network or, better yet, a cloud-based Zune collection. But it doesn't. Instead, you must subscribe to Zune Pass, which is expensive, and doesn't even offer cloud-based playlists that can persist across devices. The Zune stuff is currently a mess, and until this stuff is all connected, it's not something I can recommend anymore, given how sophisticated the competition has become. There's exactly one other music app in the App Store, for Last.FM.

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Music hub

Apps. The new Apps Marketplace provides a central location for finding apps that run on the Xbox 360, and while this seems like a new capability, the truth is that the Xbox 360 has supported apps from day one, and that none of the currently available apps are, in fact, new. That said, Microsoft has reworked the underpinnings of the console's software to support new apps capabilities, so there will be tons of new apps soon, and the apps that are there now do actually support some new capabilities around Kinect motion and voice control and Bing searching. I'll examine these capabilities in a future article, but the thing to keep in mind for now is that the appearance of this Apps Marketplace augers an interesting future for the console. Check out the "Coming Soon" areas in the marketplace for a feel for some of the pending additions.

Settings. Here, Microsoft consolidates a number of settings interfaces into a single location, including System, Preferences, Profile, Kinect, Account, Privacy, and Family. This stuff was previously a bit spread out, so the new UI makes plenty of sense in this case.

And then there's that one totally new UI, for Bing. Swing left from the Home screen and you'll be confronted with the console's version of the Bing web site, or the Windows Phone Bing app, all of which provide a beautiful Bing picture of the day and a handy search box. On the 360, the Bing interface is there to search the console for entertainment content, not for general web searches. So searching for stuff like Paul Thurrott or Windows 8 isn't going to be very fruitful.

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Bing search results

What you can search for is music, movies, TV, and games. And while this is a potentially interesting area, I'll hold off on that for now, since this functionality deserves an article of its own. So I'll be covering other Xbox 360 Fall 2011 Dashboard features soon, including the new Bing and Kinect functionality, the new cloud storage features, and other changes, including Beacons and Windows Phone integration.

One troubling aspect of this update that I should mention up front, however, is that much of it requires a paid Xbox LIVE Gold account. I don't yet have a handle on how much of the new functionality does have this requirement, but I've installed the update on a console without a Gold account and will begin examining that this week. But this brings me neatly to a final topic, which is that this Fall 2011 Dashboard Update is not optional, not if you want to get online and access your Xbox LIVE account. As with all previous Xbox 360 updates, you're forced to move forward if you want to keep using the console in anything other than a very limited offline mode. I'm of mixed opinion on this requirement, but considering the device-like nature of the 360, I guess it does make sense. I'm curious whether any readers feel otherwise, so if so, please do let me know.

More soon.