Hands-on: Xbox’s new Fall dashboard update

October 16, 2012 • Gadgets and Gaming

IT News Africa does not usually review software updates and add-ons (I think we have done this only once in the past) but the new update to the Xbox dashboard is one of the biggest changes since the launch of the NXE dashboard way back in 2008.

The new Xbox Dashboard's Home screen (image: Microsoft)

It has been widely known that Microsoft will be incorporating the Windows 8 look and feel into almost everything that they will be producing from here on out, and the new dashboard is no exception.

I have been fortunate enough to have been included in the beta testing for the new dashboard since August, so I pretty much know my way around it by now.

By form of a legal contact between myself and Microsoft, I was unable to publicly announce that I have been using the new dashboard for more than two months. All users in the beta testing phase had to agree to the same terms and conditions.

During the beta testing phase, users were exposed to incremental updates as Microsoft tweaked the back-end a bit, and we did not receive all the functionality in one go. But since the new dashboard is being released today, it’s safe to say that we have everything already tucked into our Xbox – there might be a final patch for us though.

For starters, users will immediately see the difference – it is very Windows 8 Metro and looks good, is easy to navigate and a number of things have been increased in size or made more prominent.

By default users will land on the Home screen, where nine blocks are housed – each with its own function. What is nice about that is if there is disc in the tray, from the moment the Xbox is switched on, it will only take one click to launch a game.

My Pins is another addition to the Home Screen, and is akin to Favourites or Shortcuts on a browser. Users will be able to pin certain content into the My Pins menu, which will give them easy access to content like Arcade games (without having to navigate to My games and selecting it from there), favourite websites (which I’ll get to a bit later), and apps like YouTube. Quick Play has been rebranded Recent, which does exactly the same thing – so it is no biggie.

If connected to the Internet and Xbox Live, the other six blocks will be occupied with game content and advertisements that is readily available on Xbox Live. It will give users access to the newest additions to the Xbox Live Marketplace with one click. Users will also see those blocks filled with content that is recommended for the user based on previous titles they have played.

Browsing over to the Social tab, users will get a sense of who is online with slightly bigger player avatars, access the Avatar store and interact with other players. Users will notice that everything is slightly bigger on the new dashboard, which helps to keep things clean and easy to navigate.

Gamers will also notice that in the top right-hand corner it will cycle through their Gamerscore, any unread messages and the email address used to sign on. The displaying of the email address was a little bit strange to me, and I still cannot figure out why I need to be reminded of what my email address is.

Something that beta testers did not get, is Xbox Music. That is a completely new service to everyone and is the left-over remnants of Microsoft’s Zune service. Users will be able to listen and download music through a Windows 8 PC, while Xbox users will have to pay around $10 to access the service.

For those hoping to make use of Microsoft’s highly-anticipated SmartGlass feature, they will be sorely disappointed. Microsoft said that SmartGlass will only be available when Windows 8 launches next week, and not even beta testers got a chance to play around with it.

However, when users navigate to the Console Setting and select Connected Device, they will be allowed to enable SmartGlass on the Xbox – not that it does anything yet, but it certainly creates hope.

The biggest addition to the dashboard aside from the new look is the incorporation of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser. The browser is very basic and can be navigated using Kinect or the controller – either of which works better than expected. The only problem with the browser is that opening different tabs are not supported and loading flash content is a bit of an issue – such as videos within a website (even YouTube will yield no results).

The browser will by no means replace a quick service on a nearby smartphone, so it is actually a bit redundant.

The Xbox Fall dashboard update is sleek, works pretty well and everything is easy to find – but there might be a couple of slight annoyances and niggles lurking in the shadows for some users.

Users should definitely take some time out to explore their new surroundings and discover shortcuts and other awesome additions for themselves.  Some users have complained that it looks like an exaggerated billboard, but it is impossible to satisfy everyone.

Our score: 8.9/10

Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor

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