Monday, November 17, 2008

Experiencing a new Xbox

I got the opportunity to upgrade to the "New Xbox Experience" a few days early. I haven't been entirely certain about this new dashboard, but I figured if I wasn't going to have a choice, I'd rather get in on it sooner than later. At the very least, maybe I could avoid the mass clogging of teh intartubez when everyone else tries to download it at once on the official release day.

I suppose we could start at the beginning, or the first thing that you have to do when you boot up the NXE and sign in, and that is create an Avatar. Are they just copying the Wii's Miis? The resemblance is undeniable (which is why I've dubbed this Xbox verson of the Mii a "Xii"). You are creating a cartoon-like humanoid with an oversized head that represents "you" (or whatever image you wish to project as a gamer). They are much more refined-looking than the Playmobil-like eggheads, though. I did get a chance to create Miis when I visited my mother, and this time around, I felt more like I was creating an actual character and less like I was creating a plastic toy. The customization options are at once more and less flexible than the Miis. You do have a range of face parts to pick from, however you can not fine tune their rotation, position, or dimensions as you can on the Wii. However, you also get to pick clothes for your Xii, something that on a Mii is limited to just shirt color.

I was originally ambivalent about the Xii. my avatar I was amused with Miis, but I didn't really become too attached to them. They were fun to create, but they were just toys. And yet, after booting up the new dashboard for the first time and spending 20 minutes or so creating this little "mini-me", creating a little person to go with the identity behind the gamercard that defines "CyberKnight", I was rather surprised with how attached I was to the little guy. So much so, in fact, that I was disappointed to find out how little he means to the New Xbox Experience.

You see, he only appears in one place: "My Xbox". And he's only there to present your motto when you go past your stats panel. That's it. If you elect to take a picture of him to use as your gamerpic, then that static image of him will appear in various places, too; but the full, animated character, for all his hype and all the rants and raves about him, just doesn't take that big a role.

Now, this is just the beginning. Actually, it's less than that; this is before the beginning. When the NXE officially launches, there are supposed to be four Xbox Live Arcade games that will be retrofit to support Xiis, plus the new retail Scene It? Box Office Smash and arcade Kingdom for Keflings games will support them. But, I'm not sure I want to have to boot up a game of Uno or buy a specific game to spend time with my Xii. And I'm not so sure I want games to start defaulting to using Xiis as character models. They'd be out of place on the stage in Rock Band, I think. They definitely wouldn't be appropriate in Call of Duty, and I'm reasonably sure we don't want to start putting Xiis in COG battle gear to fight locusts in Gears of War. I think a little more proliferation around the dashboard is in order. I'm not saying he has to keep popping up like Clippy ("It looks like you're trying to browse the Marketplace. Can I help?"), but having him show up somewhere besides just the one place would be nice, especially since I spent so much time putting him together.

Avatar created, you now go to the dashboard. It is, of course, very different. I'm sure you've seen pictures, so I won't bother describing it in detail. One thing I did notice when the new system was first demonstrated back at E3 was that not everything was on the screen at once. For example, in the old dashboard, you could see all five blades. You knew Marketplace was to the far left, Xbox Live was next, Games was to its right, Media was beside that, and System was at the far right. However, looking at the main level menu, you can't see everything. You only see four or five entries. And they expanded it, so there are more entries. When you're on an entry, how do you know which way to go to get to the one you want? Without just "knowing" that the My Xbox channel is at the bottom of the menu, you could potentially be scrolling up and down, not knowing if you were getting closer or further from it. (I've seen the extremely non-computer-literate try to navigate a menu when they have no point of reference. They will go back and forth like a ship lost at sea, rather than taking the more logical approach of going all the way one direction, and only when all options are exhausted trying the other way.) It appears they mitigated that a bit by making the menu loop, so you could keep going in one direction and eventually circle through everything, but it's still a little disorienting when you don't have a good point of reference.

The panels within a channel are just as bad. In the demo, the presenter went to the My Xbox channel four or five times, and I never saw his gamercard. I was starting to wonder where it went… until he happened to move left. When you scroll to the right (as apparently he had done off-camera once), items disappear off the left, and there's no indication that something is out there. This was mitigated a bit, too, before I got my hands on it, because whenever you enter a channel, you always are placed at the leftmost panel.

The panels have the same problem of not showing everything, though. Because the panels are so large, only three or four appear on the screen at a time. My Xbox has seven entries (that I can think of off the top of my head). For a new user, if you told them to find the System settings, this could be very difficult. Why? First, they'd have to go to My Xbox. Then, they'd have to scroll all the way to the right to get to the System panel. It doesn't sound hard, but consider that you can't see the System panel when you get to My Xbox. How would a new user know that it's there? They may end up going through each channel and having to scroll all the way to the right (and back, for fear of missing something) until they find the panel they want. Compare this to finding something on the old Blades, like, say, network settings: you see all five blades, and figure "System" is probably the best candidate. (Or maybe you don't make that assumption, and you have to page through each blade.) Once you get to the purple System blade, you can see right there, on the list of menu items, the "Network Settings" entry.

In many ways, it reminds me a lot of my first experiences with Vista. It's a lot of flash and a lot of show, but trying to dig in and find something is very difficult until you finally "just know" where it is. Except that Vista has a search function to help you find things.

Speaking of finding things, let's move on to the Marketplace channels. Instead of viewing text lists of titles, you now see cover art or movie posters. Graphically, this is much more interesting, however it does present an interesting problem. See, covers are not uniform. They are drawn in a variety of styles, with varying artwork or pictures. The titles, too, are in different places, styles, fonts, and sizes. If you don't recognize a movie or game by its cover, it can sometimes be a challenge to find the title, especially on a picture of the cover on the screen. Selecting a panel does often show a one-line text description below, but it is in a small, white font against a pale background, which is not easy to read on my 34" 1080i screen.

Also, browsing through game videos isn't terribly efficient. Go to the game video section, and you may see a few panels, all showing the same game's cover art. Without paging through each one in turn to read the pop-up text, you can't tell which Call of Duty video you're looking at.

There is a new Friends channel, which is where you can see your friends' Xiis (the only place, as far as I can tell). It's very graphic, showing each friend standing beside some structure, shack, or pile of stuff (which, as far as I can tell, is pretty meaningless, except it's based on the dashboard theme you've selected) and a picture of the game they're playing. Presumably, if your friends are in a party, you'll see them grouped together — I haven't seen that as of yet. Unfortunately, it's not terribly useful. You can only see the friend's name when you select them. (Parties, if the preview videos I've seen are still accurate, are worse, as the names are displayed one at a time for a couple seconds each, meaning you can't tell who's in a party with a glance.) And you can only see three or four friends at a time. It's all pretty much eye candy.

Fortunately, the old friends list still exists. The Guide button has been completely revamped to bring up what approximates the old Blades interface. The initial screen in the Guide is more compact, with fewer features presented at once, but it now has blades of its own to the right and left to view more functions. For all my complaints about the dashboard being hard to navigate and see things, the Guide is very familiar and much easier and more streamlined. I'm still getting used to the layout, as not everything is where I expect it to be, but it's a lot easier to flip the blades back and forth to find things. It is also very responsive, displaying and reacting to button presses much faster than the old blades ever did.

About my only real complaint so far with the Guide is that it is in the center of the screen, and when it appears it fades the background process (dashboard or game) very dark, making it very hard to see what's going on back there. This makes it very difficult if you're comparing information from the Guide to the game (like, say, comparing your friends list to your current Halo 3 party to see who's missing), or if you're waiting on something in the game and need to be able to see the game to know when it's time to close the Guide and get back to it.

Well, that, and I'm not too crazy about the color scheme, but that's purely aesthetic.

My favorite feature, though, is being able to install games to the hard drive. I tested this with two games so far: Fable II and Chromehounds. Other sites have already compared loading times for many games, including Fable II, and have documented the decrease. It's often just a few seconds off of a half-minute of time, not much to write about. It is quieter and supposedly decreases wear on the DVD drive, which are bonuses. However, what isn't mentioned as much is the "short loads" — the DVD accesses that occur while the game is playing. You can hear it in things like Fable II when you enter a new area. After the "long load", you are in the new town, and you can start walking almost immediately. However, some things will not have loaded yet. Sometimes people will be invisible until their character models are loaded, or the glowing trail hasn't been drawn yet as it's pulling more information from the DVD (you can hear quite a lot of access of the drive during this time). Quite often, this DVD access will cause a drop in frame rate. Also, when you hit the start button to bring up the menu, the DVD drive spins for a moment, resulting in a slight pause before the menu appears. With the game loaded to the hard drive, the majority of these delays are just gone; and when there is a lot of loading, the frame rate drop isn't there. Chromehounds benefited greatly as well, as not only were long loads noticeably reduced, but short loads (which were often depicted in the game with a spinning "Loading" icon) were almost too short to be seen. I suppose for this, I can be more thankful for the "opportunity" I had to upgrade to an Elite earlier this year.

Like it or not, the New Xbox Experience is coming. I'm not entirely sure I like the new dashboard. They seem to have sacrificed function for style, and I'm not sure that's not going to end up being simply confusing in the end once they get past the "wow, neat" factor and actually try to use the thing. The new Guide, though, is quite useful, and installing things to the hard drive (if you have the space) is a huge bonus.

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