First Impressions – 360 Dashboard Update

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As one of the lucky hundred thousand or so people who got accepted to preview the new dashboard upgrade, I spent the first night trying out the changes included in it. Read on to find what the big changes are and what aren’t as celebration worthy.

Overall Performance
After the painless two minute download, my 360 rebooted itself and up came the dashboard. Let’s talk about one of the best enhancements, the speed of the dashboard. Everything came up fast, including the friends list. Going into the marketplace, you will now see the options appearing quickly. For example, I dove into the XBLA section and within seconds of clicking on a game, the option to buy or grab the trial game were available. The same can be said for exiting out of a game back to the dashboard. Your list of games under My Xbox will populate within seconds of coming back to the dash rather than the previous 15 seconds or so.
  
The speed increase isn’t just on the dash, but also within the Xbox Guide button. No longer will you find issues with the guide dash sticking during game play or waiting for the friends list to appear. In a game of NCAA 10, I was able to bring up the friend list and send a message with no screen freezing.
  
Dashboard Options
On the dash, a few changes have been made. You can now eject the empty disc tray by pressing X on the controller. In the past you could eject the tray if a game was in it, but not empty.
  
Clicking on your profile (go to My Xbox, push left once) will find a few changes. A numerical representation of your number of years as a Xbox Live member will be attached to your Gamercard, and more options have been added. Account Management, Active Downloads and Avatar Customization (I’ll discuss in a moment) can be launched from here.
  
Within the marketplace itself, users are now able to rate games and DLC as well. Immediately you’ll find that most DLC by Namco have been rated 1 star along with the Oblivion Horse Armor, while Crackdown and Splosion Man sit high with near 5 star ratings.
  
Avatar Marketplace
The avatar marketplace is now live, allowing users to buy clothing and props for their avatar. Currently, the game specific items are from Halo 3, Fable II, and Monkey Island. Items range from 80 point shoes and shirts to the expensive 320 point Warthog RC car. No you can’t drive it, but you will see your Avatar pull it out and drive around. Some avatar clothing will now allow you to pick the color you want as well.
  
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The other function of the marketplace will be for game specific avatar awards. The first game to support this is Splosion Man, which has two avatar items in it, but as of this writing cannot be redeemed and the method to unlock is unknown.
  
Party Chat
On the party side of things, one of my biggest issues with the party system was on nights where it didn’t decide to work and would constantly drop people out of the party. With the update, Microsoft has changed it so that when people are dropped, they will automatically be reconnected without having to manually do anything. I didn’t experience this last night so I may not be able to see it work until that problem happens.
  

Netflix and Party Watching

The most talked about feature has been the enhancements to the Netflix application. When you launch, you will need to download a new version which again was only 30 second download. Once in, new sections will be available showing the newest releases in TV, Movies, and genre categories. From there you can either watch them or add them to your own queue for later watching. The application will now make recommendations as well. Based on the last instant view I had done, it recommended a list of movies to me.
  

Added to this is the ability to party up with your friends for movie night. Be aware that everyone will need to have Gold membership and Netflix membership. Once into the party, everyone can make recommendations onscreen on what to watch before finally deciding. Voice chat will continue even during the movie. You’ll then get a movie viewing room onscreen, complete with a XBox 360 and Netflix envelopes on the entertainment center. Your avatars will then take their seats, MST3K style in front of the TV. By pressing Y you can emote from crying to laughing. Of course, this view shrinks down the size of the movie or show to a windowed look. In the end I watched Groundhog Day with two friends and it worked great.
  

By pressing A, you will have options including taking the movie back to letterbox or fullscreen view which was something I feared couldn’t be done. I’m very happy to report the windowed view with avatars is not forced. Finally, the party leader is the only one with the remote control, so no one else can fast forward or pause the movie.
  
Final Thoughts
I’m impressed with the changes so far. Even if you do not have Netflix, the changes to the marketplace and dashboard speed make this update a winner in my book. Judging from posts and even my own friends list, MS has made money already on the avatar marketplace as I’ve seen people running around in Halo 3 shirts. So if you’re a consumer whore like me, get your wallets ready. Dressing up in fancy duds will cost you some spacebucks.

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