Xbox 360 Impressions

Due to being in the “right place at the right time” last week at a local Circuit City, I was able to score an Xbox 360 Premium bundle. To start the games collection, I also got Project Gotham Racing 3.

Wow. This is an impressive device… not just from the gaming perspective (though the graphics for PGR3 are stunning), but also from the UI and “media” angle. It was easy to get up and running and converting my old Xbox Live account to run under the 360 took just a few minutes. The Xbox 360 can also talk to Windows XP machines on our home network to stream music and photos, so we’re considering it in place of the Tivo Home Media Option (which we like, but it has its limitations). If you’ve got a Media Center PC on your network, you can even stream video and use the 360 as an “extender” device.

Once I had it up, I spent nearly an hour and a half tinkering in the “Dashboard” before I ever put the game disc in. The Dashboard has a ton of things to explore:

  • Lots of settings for customization and themes. I didn’t see a way to create custom themes, but there were lots available in the Xbox Live “Marketplace”.

  • Set up your “gamer card” to include an avatar, which type of gamer you are (recreational, family, “underground”, etc), and other identity info. Again, I didn’t see a way to add your own avatar/icon, but there seemed to be plenty available through Marketplace.

  • The hard drive came preloaded with one Xbox Arcade game (Hexic), a bunch of music files (most of which were from artists I’d never heard of… no surprise), and a handful of video files as well. Plenty to browse while you figure things out and it’s easy enought to delete them if/when you want to reclaim the space.

  • You can rip your own music to the hard drive for listening (including listening during games, like the original Xbox), but even cooler was plugging in my Ipod and having the media page on the Dashboard instantly recognize it and provide a UI for playback — including playlists, genres, artists, etc. With that capability, I probably won’t see much need to rip discs directly to the drive. The console has 2 USB ports on the front and I get the impression pretty much any sort of USB device is fair game for media photos and music.

  • Also in the Xbox Live Marketplace, you can download demos, trailers, and other things. Some for free and some require “Microsoft Points” (which you can buy through the console or apparently get preloaded cards at some retailers)… more below.

  • Tinker with the music and photos using the Windows Media Connect application on an XP machine. Once it’s set up, the 360 recognizes song files, playlists, and photos and, like the Ipod, has a metadata-driven approach to navigation (artists, genres, albums, etc). This is in contrast to the Tivo’s “file system” approach to navigating music and photos on a network.

So then I put in the PGR3 disc and was blown away by the graphics and gameplay. I played PGR2 a lot on the first Xbox, but was never particularly great at it. The UI is fairly different with the new version, but there’s no question it’s a huge step forward in terms of visuals. You can pause the game and go into “Photo Mode”, which lets you fly around the track and take pictures with control over color, exposure, shutter speed, aperture, focal distance, and so on. The only downside I saw with PGR3 over the previous version was when trying to find a game on Xbox Live. With the previous version, I could tell it to search based on similar skill, range of cars, cities, tracks, type of race, and several other parameters. With this version, it seemed that I only had two criteria to choose from — type of race and the city. I’d have preferred to specify the car class (so I could use the car I’d practiced with offline) and skill range. My impression is that that the new Xbox Live system is more “skill” aware than in the past, so maybe that’s being factored in behind the scenes (didn’t help me from getting skunked, though).

Anyway, there have been just two things that I’ve come across that I don’t really care for.

Xbox Live Marketplace “Microsoft Points” for themes/icons: The idea here is that you prepay for points and can use them for things like themes, avatar, “arcade” games, and even to change your gamertag (the conversion factor for points to USD makes this change cost about $10… good enough to discourage constant changes to gamertags, but cheap enough to consider once if you hate the one you picked a couple years ago). Anyway, I was surprised to have to use points for things like themes and avatar icons. For the arcade games or things like music videos, having a micro-payments system makes perfect sense (a la Itunes). But do I really want to pay money to use an EA Sports-branded FIFA 2006 theme on my 360? A DOA4 theme? On the themes front, I also didn’t see a way to preview themes in advance of purchasing, but since I was going to shell out points to get a theme, it didn’t matter. Maybe down the road for an Arcade game or two, but not for themes and icons.

Xbox as Media Hub on multiple computers: After installing Windows Media Connect on a couple of machines in the house, I just had to choose which folder(s) on each machine were available on the network and which devices (the 360 in this case) could have access to those folders. Then in the “media” portion of the Dashboard, you connect to a machine to view the photos or listen to the music. This all looked great and definitely has the potential to replace Tivo’s Home Media Option for us (and we use the heck out of that Tivo feature)… except that the Xbox 360 UI won’t let you connect to more than one machine at a time. In our case, we have one computer that has all of our music on it (roughly 35GB)… it’s the one we run Itunes on and sync the Ipods with. However, we store all of our digital photos on a separate machine (maybe 8–10GB here). But in the 360’s Dashboard UI, you choose either “Music” or “Photos” and then you see a computer. That’s right, one. Singular. Uno. If you want to connect to another one, you have to first go to the Dashboard “System” UI and disconnect the first one, and then you go back to Photos or Music to connect to the new one. I did some Googling around to see if I was missing something somewhere, but couldn’t find any resolution. For now, that makes it enough of a pain to impact the Wife Acceptance Factor. I tried mapping a drive from the “music” computer to the “photos” computer and then making that drive available to Windows Media Connect on the “music” machine. This works, in that the 360 could then fetch photos and music from the same connection, but fetching photos in this way wasn’t very speedy (at ~4MB each). I really hope the Xbox team is working on a way to let the 360 “see” more than one machine running Media Connector on the network.

On a related note, I also found the UI for browsing photos to be inefficient. In that UI, it actually shows all directories that contain photos, even if those directories are subdirectories elsewhere. In this case, the “file system” approach to UI seems the best way to go… we organize our photos by year, then month, and then a descriptive folder name (e.g. “\2005\06\Elizabeth’s Birth”… on the 360, you’d see a browsable folder for “2005”, another folder for “06”, and a third for “Elizabeth’s Birth”. This makes it unwieldy when you have several folders named “Soccer Games” under different year\month combinations — you just see multiple folders named “Soccer Games” in the UI and can’t tell which year/month each belongs to.

Thankfully, both of these issues are software/service related… if Microsoft opts to, it can roll out updates to address these (and more). Even as it is, though, the 360 has really impressed me.