Xbox update's fun, but it's not hands-free yet
Despite these gaffes, the new software is overall a very nice update to the Xbox that gives the dashboard a fresh, modern feel and is easier to navigate with a standard controller or the Kinect sensor.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Microsoft likes to talk about how it's creating the future of entertainment with the Xbox.
It certainly entertained my family last week, when I tested the new software interface and video services coming to the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live service Tuesday.
More than a routine upgrade, the new software represents Microsoft's latest push to insert itself between your television and the growing array of online entertainment services. The overhaul will eventually brings dozens of video providers to the Xbox, although many won't arrive in time for the holidays as Microsoft promised earlier this year.
In the upgrade, Microsoft is expanding the Kinect voice and gesture controls throughout the new on-screen Xbox "dashboard," reflecting how Microsoft and other companies are rushing to expand the use of new interface technologies.
Of the nearly 58 million Xbox 360 consoles sold so far, about 11 million have Kinect sensors. The new dashboard will make the Xbox easier to understand for new users, and encourage more Xbox owners to add the $149 Kinect sensor and $60 per year Xbox Live subscriptions needed to use the new services.
A highlight of the new software is the ability to search for content with voice controls if you have a Kinect sensor. In addition to the basic voice controls Kinect brought to the console last year — letting you say "play" or "rewind" instead of use a remote control, for instance — you can now say the name of movies, actors and directors to search for content available on your Xbox.
When it works, it's a big improvement over "typing" with a game controller or TV remote. But it's still a work in progress.
After seeing a smooth demonstration of the feature in the Xbox offices in Redmond, I couldn't wait to try it at home. I downloaded the new software — which took about four minutes — then asked the Xbox to find a Gerard Depardieu movie.
Repeatedly, with no success.
Although my search for the famous French actor failed, my family was hugely entertained by my shouting at the TV, over and over: "Xbox, Bing, Gerard Depardieu."
Now they giggle in anticipation whenever I turn on the console, hoping I'll try one more time to search for Depardieu.
The system worked better searching for "Harry Potter." At first it thought I was looking for "Bert Palmer," but the second try called up a long list of movies, games and soundtracks available through the console.
Despite these gaffes, the new software is overall a very nice update to the Xbox that gives the dashboard a fresh, modern feel and is easier to navigate with a standard controller or the Kinect sensor. The old dashboard was getting messy, with separate sections for Kinect and a jumble of menus that scrolled vertically and horizontally.
Microsoft also is releasing a nice companion app for Windows phones that lets you search for shows and control the Xbox from the phone.
Now the company needs to continue refining the Kinect controls. They're still too slow and tedious to put down the remote control.
For instance, you expect to be able to turn on the Xbox and say "ESPN" to launch the ESPN3 video app. But in the version I tested, I had to first say "Xbox, video." Then I had to say, "Xbox, My Video Apps," after which I could say "ESPN" to choose it from the list of video apps. This was a novelty, but it took far longer than using the remote.
The new interface also previews the look and feel of the next generation of Windows computers. Windows 8, the new operating system coming next year, uses the same style template with big, square tiles and bright typography first used on the Zune music player and the Windows Phone platform. The effect is to make your big display — either your TV or PC screen — feel more like a smartphone or a Web tablet, dominated by colorful, dynamic tile icons.
New video services
Along with the new interface, Microsoft on Tuesday will begin adding new video services to the Xbox, including TV shows from providers such as Verizon FiOS and Comcast. About 40 providers are developing Xbox apps that you can install on the console, in addition to the Netflix, Hulu and Zune video-marketplace apps already available. I'll bet these apps will also come to Windows 8 PCs next year.
When Microsoft announced the video services last June, it said live TV is coming to the Xbox. But that feels like an overstatement, based on the limited content that's going to be available to start.
The company also is barely making its deadline. Chief Executive Steve Ballmer told financial analysts in September that the live TV services would be on the Xbox this holiday season but perhaps he was referring to Martin Luther King Day.
The biggest, actual cable service coming to the Xbox in the U.S. is Verizon FiOS. Subscribers will initially be able to view 26 cable channels through their Xbox, but not local broadcast channels. The guide and content will not be searchable with the Kinect voice controls, and Frontier Communications — which provides FiOS TV in the Greater Seattle area — is not participating.
FiOS also won't be available until the second batch of Xbox video services is released later this month, probably Dec. 13. Also coming "later in December" are apps from Vudu, TMZ, Syfy, UFC, Vevo, Crackle, MSNBC and Canada's Rogers On Demand.
The Comcast app — available to Comcast subscribers — will stream archived content from Comcast's on-demand library. It won't be available until early in 2012, perhaps the first week of January. Apps from HBO, CinemaNow and MLB also aren't coming until early next year.
Two marquee apps will be available with the first batch on Tuesday — ESPN3 and Netflix — but they were already available on the Xbox. Both have redesigned apps for the new interface, though. ESPN3 replaced its cartoonish interface — with Xbox avatars looking up at on-screen display windows — with a display that looks like a cable-TV channel.
Mike Suraci, director of Xbox Live product management, acknowledged there's more work to be done. "This is definitely the beginning of the journey," he said.
That's fine, but Microsoft needs to be careful about overpromising what it's going to deliver. The new software and video services are nice and fun additions to what's already a great entertainment system. But it's too soon to sell the Xbox as a hands-free gateway to live TV.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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