Microsoft this month released a major software update to its Xbox 360 video game console via the innocuously named Fall 2011 Dashboard Update. As I noted in part one of this review, this Dashboard Update includes a Metro-style user interface refresh that's gotten a lot of attention, what with Microsoft's new unified user experience aims.
But the big changes in the Dashboard Update have nothing to do with the look and feel of the UI. Instead, Microsoft has thoroughly overhauled the Xbox 360's software underpinnings, providing new platform-level capabilities to the Dashboard and all of the apps that run on top of that platform. Key among these capabilities is new Bing search integration and improved Kinect motion and voice control functionality.
New: Bing integration
Microsoft has spent the past few years promoting the heck out of its Bing search engine. Curiously, the Bing functionality on Xbox 360 has absolutely nothing to do with that. Instead, Microsoft is repurposing the Bing brand for use on its console in an attempt to gain broader awareness. What this feature really is, as it turns out, is the Xbox 360 version of Windows Search. That is, it doesn't search the Internet per se. It searches for content that's available on your console, and on Xbox LIVE.
It's an important if semi-obvious distinction. You're never going to perform a general Internet search with Bing on the Xbox 360. But when you consider the multimedia aims of this Dashboard Update--which also includes integration with a wide swath of TV and entertainment services, most of which are still in the pipeline--it makes sense. So Bing is about finding stuff, as always, but in this case, it will only find stuff that is pertinent to the console. That is, games, TV shows, movies, and the like.
Bing is a big enough addition to the Xbox 360 that it's been given a prominent position in the new top-mounted menu. In fact, it's the first choice in this menu, though it's not selected by default. (Instead, the second choice, Home, is default.) I'm sure it's not coincidental that Bing is thus "left of home," just as Search is "left of home" on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.
If you manually navigate to the Bing hub by selecting that first menu choice, using the Xbox 360 controller or Xbox 360 media remote, you're presented with a nice, full screen Bing experience that visually mirrors the Bing experience on the web or Windows Phone. That is, there's a prominent search box and, behind it, a full screen and usually stunning picture of the day.
(As with these other Bing interfaces, you can discover what the picture is, in this case by pressing the (X) button on the controller or remote. But there are no in-picture "clues" to the photo's origins as there are on other platforms.)
Select the search box and you can search. Since I just did this on Windows Phone (using the Xbox Companion mobile app), I figured I'd try Harrison Ford again to see how similar the search results were. Typing is ponderous on the Xbox 360, however, since the onscreen keyboard is not laid out in a QWERTY fashion as it is virtually everywhere else. Instead, the letters are arrayed from left to right in a single row. Ugh. Double ugh. But at least search results are "live," appearing dynamically as you type.
(Yes, you can use a USB keyboard if you want. I'm pretty sure few Xbox 360 users have such a thing ready at hand however.)
After ponderously typing in Harrison Ford with the controller (and silently ruminating about how far apart each of the letters in his name are), I tapped the (A) button while the search box was selected and was presented with search results. These appear in a pleasant visual fashion, using a single row of rectangular boxes, instead of square, Metro-style elements as you might expect. And sure enough, the results were the same as from the mobile app, with Apocalypse Now Redux (movie), LEGO Indian Jones 2 (Xbox 360 game), and Presumed Innocent (movie) making up three of the top four choices.
(The fifth, annoyingly, is an advertisement. In fact, this is one major downside to the new UI, which seems to have been crafted to provide the maximum number of ads possible per screen. Users who pay for Xbox LIVE Gold should never see advertisements in the UI. I'm curious why this is allowed.)
Selecting items reveals a context-specific screen that provides more information about the item in question and can often silently launch an Xbox 360 app, too, depending on the item. For example, when you select Apocalypse Now Redux, the screen goes gray, Zune slowly loads, and a page for that movie appears, offering a chance to Purchase it on Zune Marketplace, stream it free over EPIX or Netflix (both require a subscription), or learn more about the movie. These options will vary from movie to movie, of course, since not all titles are available everywhere, and as the service matures, more viewing options will become available too. With Presumed Innocent, for example, only Netflix was available as an option as that movie isn't available on Zune Marketplace or EPIX.
Selecting a game will result in different options, too, since some games are available only on disc at retail and some are available for electronic download. LEGO Indian Jones 2 is of the former variety, so you can only download a trial version of the game, find out more about it, and download game extras (in this case various strategy games). But if you want the game itself, you'll have to head out to Best Buy, visit Amazon.com, or whatever. There are no purchase links in this interface at all.
A second search for Gears of War revealed an interesting mix of game-related content. (Gears of War is a three-game series that is exclusive to the Xbox 360.) There's the latest game, Gears of War 3, which cannot be downloaded (its retail only), so you get a video preview, game information, downloadable extras, and the like. Gears of War 2, however, is almost two years old, so the interface allows you to buy the game electronically (curiously listed at $19.99 and not some Microsoft Points value as with other content; ah, consistency). Ditto for the original Gears, which is also $19.99 for the digital download. And there is a bunch of other Gears content listed in the search results, but these three were right up front.
What's odd to me is that this very week, Gears' maker Epic released a new Gears of War 3 DLC (downloadable content) called RAAM's Shadow. It's nowhere to be seen in the search results, however, not even under GOW3's Extras listing. Curious.
Finally, I performed a music search as well: Collective Soul. Here, the top results were, from left to right, Youth (an album by the band), Collective Soul (a link to information about the band), and Collective Soul (an album by the band). OK, great. Selecting an album (very slowly) causes the Zune experience to load, providing a way to play the album, pin the album (more on this in a moment), learn more about the artist, view a song listing, and read reviews.
Because I'm a Zune Pass subscribe, I get full song plays (assuming the song/album is available in Microsoft's collection). I assume you'd otherwise get a preview of each song. The Now Playing screen should be immediately familiar to anyone that's used Zune on the PC or Xbox 360 previously.
If you do pin an item, it's not clear "where" this item is pinned. While viewing the Youth album, I decided to pin it and then see where it was. Not in the Music hub, as you might expect. So I navigated into Zune Music Marketplace. And sure enough, in there, buried, is a My Collection item. And in that view, you'll see a My Pins section, similar to what's available in the Zune PC client, I guess. But there, it's right up front. On the Xbox 360, you really need to dig.
Anyway, the Bing functionality works as expected. But as with many things on this newly revamped Xbox 360, it really comes together when you combine it with Kinect.
Improved: Kinect integration
Last year, Microsoft provided an Xbox 360 Dashboard update to coincide with the release of its Kinect motion sensor. This update provided an early version of the flat, boxy UI everyone thinks is so new this year, and Kinect-controllable Zune, ESPN, and Netflix experiences, in addition to general Kinect compatibility for games. And remember, this integration isn't just for motion control, it's also for voice control.
This year, Kinect integration goes much deeper, and as with the Bing integration mentioned above, it's a feature that's now available to any app on the platform. That is, it's not just a feature of a few experiences. It's a general feature that's available virtually everywhere now.
Given this, let's look at the most obvious integration bit first: Bing plus Kinect. That is, yes, you could use a controller, remote control, or keyboard to initiate a Bing search on the console. But if you have a Kinect, you could also use your voice.
To do so, you simply say "Xbox, Bing," and the Dashboard will navigate to the Bing hub. From there (and, actually, from any other Dashboard interface), you can then say something like "Xbox Bing Gears of War" and, sure enough, your search results appear, just as before. ("Xbox Bing Harrison Ford" worked nicely too.)
If there's an Xbox experience, you can generally speak to it. Viewing movie results for Chevy Chase, I was able to rent Christmas Vacation by uttering "Xbox Rent." (Don't worry, it will confirm the purchase.) I could launch Netflix by saying "Xbox Netflix" and use Facebook ("Xbox Facebook"). You can easily navigate in and out of various hubs and experiences, essentially duplicating Xbox 360 controller buttons (Back, Home) with your voice. It's pretty natural.
In a living room scenario--i.e. exactly where Microsoft wants you using the Xbox 360--this kind of thing works well, and contrary to an issue I had during the beta, you can speak normally, and not yell, from across the room. That said, you do find yourself over-enouncing and speaking somewhat robotically.
(Dive deep enough into some apps and you'll find missing pieces. In YouTube, for example, you can't control the UI with your voice or search. To search YouTube, you must use the controller, remote, or Kinect motion sensor to select onscreen letters. Ugh.)
What's interesting about all this, to me, is that none of it uses what is supposed to be the Kinect's primary purpose: Motion control. This, as with last year, works poorly, and is an arduous process. But the voice control functionality in Kinect is a big deal, especially for this kind of non-game interaction. It's so big, it should simply be part of the console. I'd much rather have this feature built-in than motion control. It's not even close.
In the next part of this review, I'll look at some other new features of the 2011 Fall Dashboard Update, including cloud storage, Beacons, and Windows Phone integration. And then I'll wrap things up with a look at the new TV and entertainment options, including the FIOS functionality that appeared in preview form this week.