"New" Xbox Experience

Microsoft pushed out a major software update to the Xbox 360 recently. The "New Xbox Experience" (NXE). Basically a new UI, but some added functionality too.

The main new piece of added functionality from my point of view is access to streamed Netflix movies. This would be sweet, except Microsoft expect you to not only have a Netflix subscription but also to have a paid Xbox Live subscription. Thanks, Ballmer, but no thanks. I bought a 360, and I'm already a Netflix subscriber, and I honestly don't see why I owe you anything. Especially since you won't even let me watch crap off youtube on the 360. As far as I can tell, you want me to find some other way to watch video. Fine by me.

The most noticeable change is the new UI. Neither I nor the missus like it. We both admit that it's mainly because we were familiar with the old UI, see no advantages to the new UI, and both wish we didn't have to relearn shit just because Microsoft arbitrarily moved stuff around. We'd already learned to cope with the old UI, and the transition cost seems pretty high for no discernible gain. Personally, I've given up and reverted to the subset of the old UI that's still available via the guide button.

If you've been streaming mp3s to your 360, you'll be disappointed to find that the NXE is every bit as shit as the old experience. There's no caching of the album/artist/song lists, and it's every bit as slow at building the menus, so if you've got a music collection large enough to be worth streaming, you'll still find yourself spending too much time staring at the "please wait" screen. (Which they did waste time updating, of course.)

Tracks within an album are still "helpfully" sorted into alphabetical order, and there still doesn't seem to be any way to get the proper order, so if you were planning on listening to classical music, or anything where one track leads into another, you're still screwed.

And there's still no on-screen keyboard for iTunes-like filtering. Yeah, I know an on-screen keyboard would suck, but it would suck a lot less hard than One Big List. Seriously, dudes, you can't navigate a multi-thousand item list. Not even if it is sorted alphabetically. Given that the best^wbiggest speakers in the house are connected to the 360, I would probably splash out on the little keypad if I thought I could use it to get a sensible interface. Hell, the damn remote, which I did buy, went from dildo proportions with the original Xbox to full-on police baton proportions with the 360. I use about 13 buttons (play, pause, eject, left/right/up/down, OK, info, a/b/x/y) of the 46 buttons on that thing. By my reckoning, those Redmond bastards could have fitted every letter of my alphabet on the remote and still had room to throw in a few accents to keep the French Canadians sweet.

(The 360's "visualizations", by the way, are an interesting contrast with Apple's iTunes ones. Microsoft has some nice variations on the usual themes, their "water-splashed inky line" one being my personal favorite until it starts spinning, but overall their intent seems much harsher. There's a distinct "bad trip" vibe to some of them. I especially hate the Melting Charred Lizard Corpse and the Spinning Klingon Blade Thing and the Big Staring Eye and I'm not even going to mention the Journey Up The Brown Canyon because it scares the poop out of me. What were they thinking? And where was the adult supervision they so desperately needed?)

But the most obnoxious new feature is their crappy avatars. They're more serious than the Wii's, and less creepy-zombie-pseudo-realistic than the PS3's, but they make no sense. Why do I need to create a bloody avatar when I'm about to play a game? A game where my appearance is chosen for me anyway? (And, no, I don't think Halo 3 would be improved if Master Chief were replaced by a little cartoon white guy in glasses and the nerdiest clothes available. I think this is a rip-off of functionality that made some sense on the Wii but makes no sense in its new home.)

While I found creating an avatar a pointless chore, the missus was quite keen. She likes that kind of thing in RPGs. The NXE was a disappointment to her, though, because the choices were so limited. None of the faces look anything like her. None of the clothing looks like anything she'd wear. It's bad enough if you're male and don't dress like some generic TV "cool teenager", but if you're female you might be surprised to find that there's neither a single skirt nor a single dress to choose from, and you don't have control over the clothing's coloring. If you like a design but don't like the colors, well, screw you. Oh, and if you're female, you might assume you get some control over your avatar's body type, but you don't. You get the body of an androgynous teenage boy, which you can make skinny or fat, tall or short, but that's it. If you were planning on any curves that wouldn't look out of place on an androgynous teenage boy, we regret to inform you that won't be possible.

Doubtless you'll be able to purchase all this crap at some point, which only reinforces my personal feeling of "you bastards!".

My original intention was to be a small white ball of healing light (and, thanks to Guilty Spark, I didn't consider this an unrealistic intention). Unfortunately, Microsoft seems to think that Xbox gamers (a) are humanoid – a not unreasonable assumption – and (b) wouldn't look out of place strolling the catwalk at Milan fashion week — which sounds like more of a stretch.

Why am I bothering to mention the NXE at all? Because I think it's interesting in relation to Chen's "The Old New Thing". This, I think, is a glimpse of what Microsoft would be like if their customers weren't corporations. This is what Microsoft is like when their customers will accept any necessary shit just to play their DVDs/games.

Those who wish Microsoft weren't so tied up with backwards compatibility might want to be more careful about what they wish for, in case it should ever come to pass.