New Xbox Experience Feature Preview

Microsoft gives us a progress update on the New Xbox Experience coming November 19.

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Albert Penello wants his wife to turn on the Xbox 360 when he's not home.

It's a challenge that many video game enthusiasts are familiar with, trying to get a significant other to take interest in the game console, but the task is more important for Albert because in addition to being a video-game-loving husband, he's also director of marketing for the Xbox.

Albert explains that the TiVo and the Xbox 360 are the main entertainment hubs at home. The trouble is that when he isn't home, "she'll use the TiVo but she won't use the 360." He doesn't expect her to fire up Halo 3, but she could use the console to watch video downloads or networked content through the media center extender.

The try-things-out-on-the-wife design angle isn't new to gaming. Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto famously gauged his wife's reaction to see how well new games might appeal to an expanded audience and gave a GDC 2007 presentation on how various Nintendo products scored on the "Wife-o-Meter." Penello doesn't wield quite as much design clout as Miyamoto, but the Xbox design team has already been working on solving the wife dilemma for the 360. Albert hopes that his wife will use the Xbox more when Microsoft releases its New Xbox Experience (NXE) dashboard update this November.

Games and movie titles transform from basic text listings into large product box shots for quick identification.
Games and movie titles transform from basic text listings into large product box shots for quick identification.

The first thing you'll notice about the NXE is the upgraded menu system. Sharp graphics replace or augment the plain text in the menus. Adding more visual information makes navigation easier by exposing instantly recognizable options to the viewer. The new menus will also expand out to make full use of the screen in widescreen aspect ratios.

Submenus previously hidden behind menu text listings now appear in full preview mode to the right of the parent menu, showing you what's available without requiring you to select the submenu from a list and wait to load the new page. For example, if you're viewing Halo 3, you'll be able to see the featured downloads, screenshots, developer information, and other menus off to the right of the current display menu.

Designers also replaced the fixed-blade system with a Rolodex-style channel rotator menu. The current dashboard menu system would have eventually run out of room as the service added more blades, but the new channel rotator allows the service to expand the number of available channels. The menu shows only five channels at a time, but you can rotate the list up and down to see more channels.

Stream movies from your Netflix account on your Xbox 360.
Stream movies from your Netflix account on your Xbox 360.

The Netflix channel Microsoft announced at the E3 Media & Business Summit this year wasn't operational in our demo, but Penello confirmed that it will be ready for the NXE launch. Console users who also have a Netflix account will be able to watch any streamable movie from their Netflix queue on their 360. You won't find many new releases available for streaming, but the library does have several popular older movies, and newer content is coming.

We also didn't get to see the new Primetime channel, which will give Xbox Live subscribers the opportunity to participate in game-show-style games, such as 1 vs. 100. The Netflix and Primetime channels may not have been ready, but Penello and XNA senior strategist Robert Gruhl were ready to show off the NXE features created for the core Xbox audience: avatars, the redesigned Xbox Guide, parties, and themes 2.0.

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You will be able to create your own personal avatar for your profile, similar to Miis on the Nintendo Wii. You can customize your avatar across all of the usual adjustable attributes, such as height, weight, eyes, hairstyle, hair color, gender, skin color, clothing, and accessories. The system offers you a selection of premade avatars to choose from, but you can customize the character after you make a selection.

The original avatar generator made characters completely at random, but the results weren't pretty, according to Penello. Designers tweaked the system to prevent the more unfortunate attribute combinations from appearing in the premade avatar selection screen, but there's nothing stopping you from going in and randomizing the features yourself.

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Avatar selection Avatar editor Closet Gamercard

After you have an avatar, you can take a screenshot of the new virtual you for your gamerpic. You can even get your avatar to move around and pose to add some style to the shot. Yes, your gamercard and associated scores, tags, and pics will have a place in the new dashboard.

Furthermore, Gruhl adds that Xbox users who miss the blade system can still find it in the updated Xbox Guide. The new Xbox Guide replaces the side panel with a bladed central window that gives you quick access to all the important Xbox actions--you can navigate your Xbox through the Guide alone if you want.

You'll be able to see what your friends are doing and who's grouped in a party in the friends channel.
You'll be able to see what your friends are doing and who's grouped in a party in the friends channel.

NXE will also debut the Community Games channel where Xbox Live subscribers can finally purchase and download community-approved games from the XNA Creator's Club. Games will cost anywhere from 200 to 800 points each, and creators will take home up to 70% of the profits.

One of the most promising NXE updates will be the addition of Xbox Live parties. Xbox Live users will be able to form parties with other friends. Players in the same party share communication channels that let you stay in contact with one another even if you're all off doing your own Xbox activity. We asked if players will be able to form persistent parties or groups that will automatically join a player into a party on log-in. Gruhl said that the team has discussed the possibility, but it won't be an option at launch.

All of your old Xbox themes will work in NXE, but you might not want to use them because the new 2.0 themes expose the older themes as glorified background wallpaper. The upgraded themes include background images as well as themed 3D models. If you load up the friends channel while using the underground theme, you'll see all of your buddies huddled together on street corners, chilling in front of a dive bar, or standing next to a patrol car.

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Underground Theme 2.0 Theme selection Signature Theme 2.0 Gears of War Theme 1.0

The NXE will also add some new hardware functionality in addition to the user interface improvements and new Xbox Live features. You will now be able to install games on the console hard disk. Penello estimates that it will take about eight to nine minutes to rip a disc to the hard disk. A hard disk installation should speed up load times, but Penello says that another major benefit will be reduced noise because the system won't need to spin up the noisy optical drive.

The New Xbox Experience is shaping up to be the Xbox 360's most significant dashboard update since the system's release. The new navigation looks fantastic, and we can't wait to start forming Live parties, play community games, and watch movies from Netflix. Look for the update to arrive on November 19.

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