REVIEW: Xbox 360 Dashboard Update

Posted: November 24, 2008 in Writing
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I will admit that I have drowned my sorrows lately; not in alcohol, which is sort of a refreshing change, but in video game addiction. With the launch of the NXE (that’s New Xbox Experience) and the release of several highly anticipated Xbox games, I have guiltily gone on a rampage through several virtual worlds. This has kept me somewhat sane and distracted from becoming a basketcase. 2008 is a banner year for getting blindsided by crazy shit, but hey, what’s a Frogg to do besides bounce?


Highly anticipated, Microsoft basically revised the entire Xbox 360 “dashboard” — essentially the operating system for that specific PC. Boasting a much expanded feature set, Wii-style avatars, and a whole host of marketplace options (buy this, rent that, customize your “experience” for “credits” that are the Xbox’s clever way of making you pay money for bits). The upgrade process was relatively painless, taking about 15 minutes to download, restart, install, restart, and then present a shiny new intro video in 1080i on the 32″ flat panel I have it hooked up to. Here are the highlights of the upgrade:

Netflix Movies On Demand:
If you have an Xbox Gold account ($60 / year) and a Netflix account ($120 / year) you can queue up movies that are available for streaming to your PC and they appear as DVD covers in the Netflix section, which you can “cover flow” through, read about, and initiate to stream direct to the 360 and thus to your big screen. At the start of each movie, the OS analyzes your network bandwidth to determine what sort of quality it can successfully send to your Xbox, and then proceeds to buffer and play the movie. If you have enough bandwidth, apparently you can get true hi def, but I have yet to experience that. The Xbox controller allows you to change the resolution (stretch, native, letterbox, etc), play, pause, skip forward or back, and all the stuff you would expect from a DVD player, except that moving around in the movie will require another relatively quick buffering from Netflix as it sends your request back to you. Overall, it is a decent service, even before I tune up the network to provide the bandwidth that I pay through the nose for to Cox, mostly because I am watching crappy movies that only I would enjoy, like Transmorphers, Raptor Island, and Superstarlet AD. For this sort of background, fall-asleep-to-it, type of movie experience, it is perfect. The convenience of no physical media is supreme. The largest problem, which I am certain Netflix is going to fix over time, is the limited amount of material that is available for on demand viewing, and I am rapidly cruising through the available titles that interest me. There is a benefit to this, though, for I am starting to queue up stuff I wouldn’t normally be interested in just because it is available through the Xbox / Netflix connection. The upshot is this: if you have a 360 and a Xbox Gold account already because you game online or whatever, the cheapest Netflix account is well worth it just to add this functionality to your Box. Definitely the most-used feature of the upgrade for me, and probably a harbinger of the future — no late fees, no physical media to return, and if you already have the Xbox for games and whatnot, and can get your network to play nice with the hi def offerings, this could revolutionize how you look at your TV.

Rip Games to Hard Drive:
This is a bittersweet feature that has both pros and cons to it. The pros: not having to hear the DVD rattle around in the notoriously noisy optical drive on the 360, potentially faster loading times (Gears of War 2 reports slight improvements, Grand Theft Auto IV apparently has a significant loading time increase), and — you would think — the convenience of not having to put in the game disc to play. WRONG! The cons: you STILL have to have the disc for the game you want to play in the tray for verification that you own it, and us early adopters of the 360 with the 20GB hard drives (wait, the dashboard upgrade just ate 8GB of said hard drive) are screwed. Installation of GOW2 ate another 7GB of space, so that’s one game per 20GB hard drive…goddammit! And here I thought I could load my three new games on the 360 and haul it around in my Xbox-logoed backpack to friends’ houses to do some co-op. Nope! Furthermore, the hard drive space issue has now come front and center, and Microsoft’s insane prices on official 360 HDs are retardiculous given that they are standard SATAs with a custom firmware. Give me a 1TB add-on drive with the one-time transfer cable for a reasonable price, and I would be happy to buy, even if I have to put the game disc in to play (although they should solve that, too).

New Network Testing Issues:
This is not really a feature; rather, it is an issue that is somewhat reasonable, but really a problem in disguise. The updated Xbox 360 Dashboard now identifies how strict your network is in terms of connecting to the Live service for all these new bells and whistles. The Interwebs are going crazy with people complaining about not being able to connect to online games, poor Internet performance, and other issues because (in my opinion) Microsoft is trying to push Xbox 360 certified router / firewalls. I actually had to set my Xbox to a static IP address, static DNS servers, and get the most awesome Mr Wendle to drive two ports to that static IP to get full, unfettered Xbox Live performance out of my machine. For you techies out there, you need either UPNP wide open so that your router can react appropriately to requests for open ports (scary) or drive the following ports to your Xbox: 88/UDP, 3074 UDP/TCP. At least the new networking tools allow you to determine how your network is seeing your 360; if you run the test (find it under My Xbox–> Network Settings) it will report what your firewall looks like to the 360 service. This is a pain in the ass, but necessary if you want to unlock the full potential of the new NXE update.

I doubt that Microsoft is going to make the new Dashboard optional; if you take a look at what the OS offers, it is full of increased business potential. The timing, right before Xmas season, coupled with the price drops on Xbox 360s, makes for a compelling purchase — but insure you get at least the 60 GB version, not the $199-with-256MB-memory-card sucker punch if you are in the market to buy a system. Microsoft makes no effort to hide the fact that they want to dominate your living room as well as your computers, but overall, the 360 upgrade is a pretty phenomenal upgrade for free, and is a welcome retooling of an existing component in my multimedia rack.

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