Kinect support for the 360 dashboard was woefully inept since the peripheral launched last fall. Navigating menus was a clunky and largely unnecessary affair if you weren't jumping right into a Kinect game. It didn't blur the line between man and machine the way Microsoft's ridiculous E3-announcement event implied.
But, they have an update for that. This year's fall (more like winter) dashboard overhaul tries to make good on all those revolutionary "you are the controller" claims Microsoft bandied about when we were all still mispronouncing the world "natal." For the most part, this is an elegant and useful change that makes the 360 interface much friendlier to consumers not entrenched in gaming and technical knowledge.
But this updated dashboard isn't without its faults. Here's a rundown of the features you're likely to love or hate when the update goes live on December 6.
1) Elegant presentation
Elegant isn't a word I use often when describing Microsoft's design philosophy. They've gotten better in recent years, and the Windows-7-operating-system family proves it. The Windows Phone 7 interface is clean, easily mastered, and incredibly responsive. Its design is tactile and vibrant.
The new 360 dashboard has a similar feel to Windows Phone 7, making it much more conducive to motion navigation. With a swipe of my hand, I can peruse all the menu options easily and quickly. Kinect isn't required, but it definitely connects you more to the menu browsing experience.
Facebook and Twitter were integrated in the previous dashboard overhaul, but they were clunky and frustrating to use. If I'm going to tweet while playing a game, my iPad is never too far away from me.
The beacon system connects with your Facebook and lets you broadcast what you are playing and what you'd like to play with other people. Rather than spamming your friends list with requests to play Gears of War, you can set up a beacon that tells people what you want to play and when your friends are online.
So far, I haven't had a chance to use this option because my entire friends list is knee-deep in Skyrim….
3) App marketplace
The app marketplace allows you to customize dashboard's various media tabs. If you want to use Daily Motion, Hulu Plus, and Netflix more than anything else, you can download the apps and change your video menu accordingly.
Many apps weren't available during the preview, but I can see a lot of potential here, especially when Microsoft finally rolls out the YouTube connectivity they talked about during E3.
4) Cloud saves
If you have to travel with your 360 information for work or just want to take your profile over to a friend's house, the process isn't easy. Lost flash drives, bulky hard drives and laborious account recovery sessions make taking your information with you a hassle.
The cloud-saves feature allows you to store your Xbox Live profile, account status, and files so you can access them anywhere. I don't really have many places to go with my 360 info, but I can see this easing the lives of people gaming on the go.
I'll be honest: I really dislike the voice-control future. The Kinect voice commands only work about 70 percent of the time for me, and that's only when I try to use them while watching Netflix. Sometimes "Xbox, pause" is interpreted in numerous annoying ways.
The Bing search feature is an interesting idea, but if you want to use it, don't talk. Rather than trying to explain just how abysmal this feature is, I made a little video:
2) Xbox Live Arcade
I was never a fan of searching for XBLA games. Just getting to the marketplace was a hassle, and if the game I wanted to buy didn't appear in ads, I didn't bother continuing my search.
The new dashboard gives you a handy button leading directly to the game marketplace, but what lies beyond is a mess. You can search alphabetically or by genre, but either way your results are a hideous jumble of Games on Demand, previews, videos, and the Live Arcade titles you might be looking for.
Now you are forced to scroll through every game in a category before finding the one you want. I'm sure you could Bing your request, but we just witnessed how helpful that is.
3) Gimped in-app Kinect functionality
This is an old gripe, but you need more than fancy menus to make Kinect a viable alternative to a controller. Many apps that support motion controls offer a very limited amount of content before imploring you to pick up a controller.
The Netflix app is the worst about this, as its Kinect support boils down to a tiny list of recommended titles. The app then reminds you to use a controller if you want to access anything else.
I hoped Microsoft would have fixed the dashboard's lazy Kinect support by now, but they haven't. The update functions beautifully, but it's like delicious-looking fondant over a muddy cake.