A dashboard update in the Autumn has become something of a tradition for the Xbox 360.
But not since 2008's introduction of the NXE (or New Xbox Experience to give it its more unwieldy full title) has there been quite so dramatic a change to the interface.
The new version, which went live after some delay on December 7th, marks a full commitment to the slick Metro design language on which Windows Phone and Windows 8 are built.
The aesthetics are always going to be the first thing to come under scrutiny and our initial impression is that it's far more cluttered than the NXE's clearly delineated sections.
It's a necessary evil though, reflective of the fact that there's already huge amounts of multimedia content on Xbox Live that people simply can't find and that's only going to increase over the coming months.
Gaming isn't the priority any more, relegated to a spot behind Social, TV and Video on the list.
Content is organised into separate, clearly marked tabs along the top and the quickest way to flick between them is by simply tapping the shoulder buttons on the controller. The most obvious additions are TV and Apps both of which are currently hugely underused – there are numerous spots across the dashboard that are filled with placeholder elements, waiting to be filled with worthwhile content.
TV only has the Sky TV app, but should be filled with the likes of 4oD and Five on demand by the end of December. BBC iPlayer arrives in 2012 and, thanks to Auntie holding firm, will be free even to non-paying Xbox Live members.
The App store is currently more tightly controlled than Apple's relative free for all, but collates the handful of video, music and social widgets in one place. At the moment it's an inconvenience on the way to the settings pane, but as a statement of intent it's an encouraging one.
While the most obvious changes are visual, there are a host of features underneath the hood that more tech-savvy users will benefit from. Cloud saving and a more flexible profile system ensure that gamers moving from one Xbox to a second or a friend's machine won't have to cart their profile and saves around with them.
This option appears as an extra storage option when saving games so if you regularly hop between Xbox's, you might as well save to the cloud - you'll need to be connected to Xbox Live for this to work, though.
Social network integration comes in the form of interoperability with Facebook, allowing you to brag about achievements and use a nifty new beacon system (which pings all your Xbox Live friends to tell them you want to play a particular game) to schedule play dates with friends.
Given that Twitter debuted at the same time as Facebook on Xbox Live it's surprising that there isn't a similar option for the micro-blogging service too, though.
Owners of Microsoft's wonder peripheral Kinect benefit from voice commands, but barring Bing searches it's very much say what you see.
Even if you've memorised the various stages, you'll have to wait for the voice recognition and navigation to catch up. Bing search on the other hand is genuinely impressive – simply saying "Xbox, Bing" and then a search term hustles through all the content on Live, dishing up relevant content of every conceivable type. Other than that, it's a novelty that will quickly lose its sheen.
You can also now navigate the entire interface using Kinect hand gestures, rather than being limited to the fenced-off Kinect menu system as in the previous version of the software.
What's telling though is that even with huge amounts of content, navigating the system quickly becomes second nature.
We'd have appreciated the ability to customise the home screen, but actually the most important items are sitting there already. There are a lot of tabs, but the Guide button menu is largely unchanged and remains an enormously efficient way of flitting around.
And media is very much the focus, but systems-savvy gamers won't struggle to find what they want and more casual users will appreciate better structure to an overwhelmingly large amount of content.
It might not be apparent yet, but this is very much built as a rigid support for the bulk of content that's soon to be arriving. That it manages to do that without buckling under the strain is why the new dashboard is not just an improvement, but absolutely necessary.
Now that the 360 has received such a significant update, we're busy updating our Xbox 360 review so check back soon to see how we rate the new-look console!
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