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The new dashboard carries nine different ‘header’ pages, kicking off with the ‘Home’ one. This uses five boxes to try and give shortcuts to the key features your Xbox now carries. A small box in the upper left lets you get straight into the game you’ve got in your disk tray, a box to the bottom left highlights ‘Quickplay’ options ranging from your game collection to movies and TV options. A main box in the centre scrolls through five ‘highlighted’ features. On the right is a simple Welcome box that leads you to a (very light) video guide to the new dashboard, and in the bottom right corner is a dreaded advert.
Finding precious space on this Home page wasted by an advert really doesn’t seem sensible at all. Though doubtless it’s lucrative for Microsoft.
Scrolling left and right through the other menu headers gets you to Social, TV, Video, Games, Music, Apps, and Settings sub-menus, as well as a new Bing option that lets you search your Xbox and Live’s servers for pretty much anything. You can even verbally tell Bing what to look for if you’ve got a Kinect. For us, this Bing search app is probably the best thing about the new dashboard - especially as it seems less inclined to push highlighted content ahead of more niche fare.
It’s telling to note that the Games entry on this list of sub-headers now appears after the TV and Video ‘pages’, really underlining the sudden shift of the Xbox - in Microsoft’s mind, at least! - from being predominantly a gaming device to predominantly a multimedia server.
Heading for the TV and video sections of the new dashboard, the new trend toward ‘highlighted’ services is very much to the fore. On one level this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it means that if new services are added, you’re more likely to be aware of their existence. But as noted earlier, the system does also create a sense that Microsoft is telling you what to watch.
Heading for the TV section first, there are three key options: Sky, 4OD and Demand 5, with 4OD and Demand 5 only being added on December 20th - which is why we've waited so long from the latest dashboard update going live before penning this article!
Looking at these in turn, the Sky platform offers a mixture of live and on-demand content to Sky subscribers using the new Sky Go platform, which allows you to watch a selection of movie and entertainment programmes/channels on demand once you’ve registered your console with your Sky Go ID.
We watched a variety of the live and ‘on-demand’ content options available - and weren’t very impressed, to be honest. The picture quality in all cases was very underwhelming, looking soft, a touch blurry and worst of all, beset with MPEG compression artefacts.
To be fair, we were watching on a 55in TV, which is obviously a stretch for a downloaded stream. But when you think that, as we’ll see, the console is capable of downstreaming HD feeds even using our bog-standard 6MB broadband ‘pipe’, it seems unfortunate that Sky’s delivery system couldn’t employ a higher, cleaner data rate - at least to connections capable of supporting them.
It kind of feels as if Sky’s Go service is still assuming that everyone will be watching its content on a tablet or PC, where small screen sizes can ‘hide’ a multitude of video sins.
The 4OD platform is an improvement in quality terms over Sky - quite a big one, actually. There's a much sharper look to most of the content on offer, and far fewer MPEG artefacts. The interface is quite nicely done too, with lots of graphics and solid organisation, and there's a surprisingly extensive amount of FREE content on there, especially when it comes to vintage series like the Ali G Show, Father Ted, Shameless and, um, Deal or No Deal. It's really pleasing to see Channel 4 delivering such a fully realised service onto the Xbox platform right from the off.
Demand 5 also gives a better account of itself than expect. Clearly it doesn't have as much 'vintage' content to draw on as 4OD. In fact, it doesn't have much particularly desirable modern content either, come to that. But its interface is pretty much as well designed and attractive as the one used by 4OD, and the video quality of the on-demand content is passable. It's not as detailed or sharp as that usually seen via 4OD, but it's stable and the slight softness means that you don't feel aware of much in the way of MPEG compression artefacts.
While 4OD and Demand 5 are both significant and important additions to the Xbox 360 platform, not least because the video content they offer is free, it's impossible not to rue the fact that Microsoft still hasn't got the BBC iPlayer onboard. But according to the latest press information we have, this omission is going to be rectified at some point in early 2012.