October 28, 2009

The Fall 2009 Dashboard Update

Shawn Lebert Says “And here we go.” As Heath Ledger would dramatically say when something amazing would happen – God rest his soul – just moments later. A new update for the Xbox 360 is coming to everyone very soon but only the few, only the wonderfully chosen, were selected into the delightful world of the beta version.

The Fall update, announced at this year’s E3, will include social networking at its finest on the 360 console. Don’t have a computer nearby and are just dying to tweet about the back-story of the creation of your ham sandwich? You will have all the necessities at your fingertips through your beloved gaming system.

I, Sleebs (LIVE gamertag), have been honored with the pleasure of the update of social splendor. Is the update worth waiting for? Better yet, is it worth tweeting over? I’ll break down what’s important to the update and theorize what could have been implemented better.

So you’re a tweeting whore. Who’s not these days? Everywhere I look, my gamer buds are updating their gamer experiences with their personal twitter apps. And what’s more perfect than combining Twitter networking with the Xbox 360?

All you need is a Twitter account and a log-in. Before you know it, you’ll be viewing your tweets. The auto-update feature refreshes your tweet feed quickly, so you’re never missing out on anyone’s comments.

The twitter page is basic, having your Twitter name at the top of the list to the left – in case you just so happen to forget who you are. What’s cool is that your avatar is sitting atop of everything. Much like the regular Xbox dashboard, your avatar will naturally blink, move, and animate here and there throughout.

Underneath your name is the, “What are you doing option,” which allows you to type in a status update right away. I noticed upon first impression that, hey, you’re going to need a chat-pad immediately. If not, Twitter will get annoying. Punching letters and numbers individually will be painstaking and annoying otherwise.

Below the status update feature, you have the Search option, which allows you to search for keywords within the twitter realm.

Lastly, the Trending Topics area is a listing of all the – you guessed it! – trendy topics on twitter. By clicking on a trendy topic of your choosing, you are sent to a current list of the people who recently mentioned the keyword within their status update.

On the right hand side, you’ll see your personal list of all the latest tweets. Quick and simple. The design layout is very elementary and complimentary to what you’d see on twitter, including various clouds that animate and move in the background.

What Can Be Improved to Twitter
Much of this feature can be improved dramatically. Even though there’s nothing wrong with it, there’s nothing that provides a reason why you’d use it on the Xbox. Everyone in this day and age has the ability to use a computer. Twitter has sweeped the nation with its remarkable simplicity. By now, Twitter has managed to migrate to not just sites, but mobile hardware like phones and whatnot. Twitter is a standard program for many: a direct stream of twitter feeds being downloaded to your desktop with ease.

Why stare at twitter when the Xbox 360 is supposed to be a game console? Granted, it’s becoming a multimedia system, but are we going to study a screen without doing something else in the process? Twitter has become the background application.

Another issue is that since the Xbox 360 doesn’t have a built-in browser, the links that friends update with are utterly useless since you can’t click on them.

Given its early stages, it would be interesting to get pop-ups on your Xbox Live regarding a game status or just a tweet that you made when you are doing something else on the 360. The computer has this beat easily.

Yet another really convenient way to communicate with friends, family, alumni, or anyone else! Once you sign into Facebook through the 360, you’re given a similar tile structure to that of the basic Xbox dashboard. The categories are broken up into Home, Photos, Friends, and Profile. Within the Home area, you’ll see the latest status updates, how many have liked the comment or written in to comment back to the original poster.

Depending on how many categories for people you have will determine how many feed tiles there will be on the home page.

Underneath the Home category, you have Photos. Here, you can view your photos or even your friends’ photos that are public to view.

After that is the Friends area, where you can peruse each friend on your list and view their updates, photos and info.

Interested in commenting back to a friend’s status? Just click the appropriate tile and you’ll be given the option to comment back. Easy schmeasy.

What Can be Improved to Facebook
The decision to make the Facebook appearance as tiled, like the Xbox dashboard, feels odd. It’s like they had to use the dashboard tiles because there was no other way to use Facebook any other way.

There seems to be so many tiles that it looks like they could have condensed them. It’s good that they kept the key categories for each major area, but all the tiles are confusing. You’re better off just selecting the first tile in each category and find the appropriate thing to select within the sub-menu.

Usually, if you’re near your Xbox, you’d be near your laptop or computer – which happens to be much more convenient to peruse from an Internet browser than this mess. Yes, mess.

Last.fm is perhaps the coolest way to listen to music. Have a favorite band but don’t know a lot of similar artists? Last.fm is there to do that for you, as you can stream bands or singers that work within the same genre, and it’s that easy.

I think that Last.fm is the most special feature that this update has to offer since it’s all about the music and it’s free. Well, that is, for Gold members on Xbox Live.

Last.fm is set up with the tile system like the Xbox dashboard, but it works here between popular stations and starting your own station. You can scroll through the popular stations that people are dancing to right at this moment and begin enjoying it with them.

If you aren’t really interested in what’s popular, you can set up your own station given that you provide an artist that you’d like to listen to.

The dashboard tile appearance also works to separate all the artists you have scrobbled onto your last.fm account. By clicking on the specific artist tile, you go right into buffering their station and its similar artists.

What’s really fascinating is the way the music plays. Since it’s just audio, last.fm has provided images on your screen so that you can enjoy the tracks while getting a screensaver effect, over a random set of pictures already looping on your console.

A little browser underneath it – similar to the Xbox video – gives you options like Info, Skip and Stop. You can also heart it, meaning that if you love the track that’s currently playing, it will set up in your loved-tracks list on your account.

A popular way to play music is here.

What Can Be Improved to Last.fm
This is a big critical annoyance to me, but why oh why can’t I back out of the Last.fm area and just play Last.fm anywhere on my Xbox? Whether I’m just on the dash itself or playing a video game, there should be many ways to play Last.fm, and it would be a more significant way to play music if anyone were to do this. Since you can only play Last.fm within Last.fm, that means you cannot venture within the Xbox while listening. Most people have music playing in the background while they do other things. This feature needs to be implemented; otherwise, Last.fm will hardly be used.

One of the great features of the music player on the Xbox 360 is the ability to play music while playing a video game. What’s even much cooler is that music blends into your gameplay; taking out the video game’s musical score itself and slaps the music you’re playing on top, creating a seamless blend of perfection. One could only wish Last.fm could do the very same.

Unfortunately, as great as Last.fm is capable of, it’s usually pointless to stare at a screen, unless you are using it to play within the background. But by this time, anyone has set up their computers to do this already. So why use the Xbox 360 for it?

The Zune Marketplace is the last feature to the update, but still utilizes the Zune marketplace that the Zune is already capable of, just now with the affiliation of your 360. With current films like Drag Me to Hell and Fast and Furious already up, it’s tempting to see what else is there on the list.

The key feature to the Zune Marketplace is the ability to watch streaming full-HD 1080p. Always been wanting Blu-ray on the 360? Well, here’s a partial answer that might help satisfy the appetite. Crystal-clear image never looked better and the experience is truly worth waiting for.

Not only can you experience movies, but there’s also television, music videos, and independent video. Start a party with some friends and watch it together. Not sure what to watch? Why not try some movie trailers for current and upcoming films?

What Can Be Improved to Zune
Well, aside from the fact that Netflix can already do 75% of what the Zune marketplace can, there isn’t really a lot of incentive. The only difference is you can decide on buying or renting a film. Another positive factor with the Zune marketplace is the 1080p playback, which is worthy of experiencing . With Netflix being a full-on service with many Instant Play films already, there’s some competition.

With both Netflix and the Zune Marketplace, it’s difficult to decide which feature to utilize most, but at least you have a choice. If you have a need to buy a film, Zune Marketplace is there. Either way, it’s seems like there’s conflict with where you should be spending your money, time, and hard drive space.

While it seems like a crazy-cool update with some interesting tidbits, it’s nothing that the computer or laptop can’t already do. If you’re this invested in sitting in front of an Xbox 360, you’re bound to be sitting with your PC or Mac nearby anyway. Although, while it is fancy that the 360 can work with these sites, you’ll find that the simple and quicker function rests with your trusty computer.

Until we see a complete integration of these features, they don’t add much to the Xbox Live Experience, but it is still good to have compatibility nonetheless.

Executive Editor's Note: I only add my commentary to articles that I really hate and the articles that I really love. With that said, this is an article that I really love (deep down inside I love all the articles that I publish... uh, huh). Anyway, being that I am not privy to the beta of the Fall Update, I found this article to be very informative, and also very disappointing (in the updates, not in the writing of the article itself).

It appears that good ole Microsoft went nine yards and failed to make the first down. They popped out to left field and Manny Ramirez caught the lazy fly ball. Ok, that's enough sports metaphors (I swear, I've only had two glasses of wine, OK, they were double glasses, but still, that's only four glasses of wine and now I'm rambling...).

What I'm trying to say is, wouldn't it be cool to be playing a game, have Last.fm playing in the background, have your tweets and FB notifications pop on the screen like Achievements, and have Zune, well, I guess have Zune be Zune... What I'm trying to say is: Microsoft, if you want to score the goal, then you need full integration. If you want the slam dunk, then you gotta take it to the hoop. You know what I'm sayin? If you're gonna do something, then do it right. Half-ass effort gets you half-ass results. And while I'm on this rant, just drop Last.fm and incorporate iTunes or Pandora (can't we all just get along?).

My apologies to Sleebs for this rant...