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Hands On With The 360's Latest Update

by Jeff Cork on Oct 19, 2009 at 04:08 AM

Microsoft is rolling out its latest update in a few weeks, and we had the chance to get our hands on it early. It’s best to think of it as the tardy companion of the one that released a few months ago; it adds several high-profile features, but it’s not anything particularly revolutionary. Mostly it fulfills the promises that Microsoft made on stage at E3, bringing social networking to the Xbox 360 through Facebook and Twitter, as well as support for Last.fm and the Zune marketplace. Is it worth installing? As with all the other updates, it’s interesting…and mandatory. Here are our thoughts.

Facebook
The Facebook application is an interesting idea in practice, but its shortcomings definitely hinder any long-term usefulness. On the upside, it provides many of the service’s offerings, such as shared photo albums and the ubiquitous status updates. Its weakness comes from the tight leash that Microsoft keeps on the system’s online functionality. When your friends embed YouTube videos, you won’t be able to watch them. You won’t be able to play any of the platform’s games, either. And when your buddies take the “What kind of a cutie pie are you?” quiz, you’re going to have to wait until you get to a PC to take it yourself. These might not sound like huge issues (especially since those quizzes are 100-percent awful), but they’re essential to what makes Facebook Facebook.

Xbox 360 users are basically getting a look at the service from behind a fence. They can post status updates and communicate with their friends on a basic level, but most of the more sophisticated interactions available to users are locked away on the other side of the gate. If that’s all you need, fine. People who were expecting to find a full-on Facebook that they could browse from their couches are going to have to keep looking, though.

Twitter
Unlike with Facebook, the microblogging service Twitter is so simple that it’s made the move onto consoles fairly easily. Users sign up, add friends and then blast their messages (in 140 characters or fewer) to everyone who’s following them. After logging on to the Xbox 360 version, you do essentially the same thing. You can check out the latest 50 tweets and see what the most popular trends are at the press of a button.

The only real beef we had is with the interface. The environments are pleasantly reskinned to fit Twitter’s birds and clouds theme, with plenty of cool blues and whites. It’s somewhat jarring, then, to get kicked into the 360’s ugly text-entry interface when you actually want to tweet. It’s obvious that UI is a big concern at Microsoft, since that was one of the major pushes behind revamping the Xbox dash in the first place. Why, then, do they drop the ball on this one?

Last.fm
If you’re looking for new music, Last.fm is a great addition to the Xbox 360. The service has a variety of band-themed “stations” with similar groups lumped together. Listeners can favorite songs that pop up that they like or skip ahead to the next one if they loathe a particular track. Last.fm can also create custom stations based on band recommendation that a user feeds it.
We created a Beulah station, and it made a mix filled with songs by Starlight Mints, Apples in Stereo and more. While listening to music, we could browse bios of the bands and see related bands; the experience was a lot like browsing Wikipedia.

It’s such an interesting feature that it’s a drag that it can’t be used in the background. It would be a perfect accompaniment to Xbox Live Arcade games, or as custom playlists in general. As such, it’s fascinating but inherently flawed. PC users can minimize the Last.fm window and keep it going in the background. Xbox 360 users have to treat it like a destination unto itself. Like it or not, that’s just not how people listen to music anymore. It’ll be a great audio supplement while we’re playing our PS3s though.



Zune Video Marketplace
The last major part of the update is the Zune Video Marketplace. It’s basically the same thing as old marketplace, only with the Zune brand attached. The service will stream up to 1080p video depending upon your connection speed, which will be adjusted if your connection fluctuates. Also, if you own a Zune, you can transfer video downloads from the 360 to the device.

Overall, it’s a nice update, if not a little disappointing. It’s clear that Microsoft is at a crossroads. Either it needs to add a full online browser or do a better job of adapting the services that it’s grabbing from the Web. It’s unlikely that Microsoft is willing to open the door to the myriad security issues that come with a platform that’s fully online, so we’re not holding our breath for IE on 360 anytime soon. The 360 is a great game console with the best online gaming service currently available. It’s becoming clear, however, that its online strategy just doesn’t match up well with online experiences beyond the world of games.

Maybe a future update will prove us wrong.