Microsoft is set to release its most ambitious Xbox 360 Dashboard update in the six-year-old console's life to date, and Pocket-lint was invited to a swanky location in the heart of London to test the new features.
Available for download globally from 6 December (tomorrow), the new update is a complete refresh for the user interface and brings the experience in line with the styling of the company's Windows Phone 7 operating system, and the front end of the forthcoming Windows 8.
It adopts the new Metro-style interface, offering a tiled aesthetic, and splits content categories into tabs that run across the top of the screen. There's some that are familiar, some not so, and all have been simplified.
Video and Games are still present, obviously, but new to this update are entire categories for Social, Apps, TV and, possibly the standout new feature, Bing. The latter brings about a new way to search for content, whether it be a movie, game, music video or such-like, and it can be accessed or controlled via the joypad or, as we experienced, Kinect - using the microphone and our voice.
In essence, the new Bing search functionality comes across a bit like Apple's Siri software found on the iPhone 4S, and has already been advertised on UK TV. However, the feature is much more impressive in the flesh. It's not a fully functioning version of the Bing in-browser search engine, and technically can only find content that's available to play, download or stream on or to your Xbox 360, but it is revolutionary in the way that you can access it all through speech.
If you have a Kinect plugged into your console, all you have to do is say "Xbox. Bing. Search..." and choose a term. In our demonstration, we performed several searches, including "Xbox. Bing. Search Batman" and "Search Christian Bale", and both of which came up with plenty of entertainment suggestions. "Batman", in fact, came up with the game Lego Batman, some of the full length cartoon series and Batman Begins, both available to rent. Additionally, some of the new content partners that come with the update also have content that will be displayed after a Bing search, as well as those that are Microsoft-hosted. And, as more join up, the results will become farther reaching still.
You can search for common titles, actors names and directors, and, like with Siri, half the fun is finding out what works and what doesn't. The Kinect certainly recognises a hell of a lot of vocal commands, and can now be used throughout the new Dashboard experience too (not just in-game or in a Kinect-specific menu). The same is true for motion control.
The other major non-cosmetic additions to this update come in the form of the aforementioned new content partners. Along with new zones and an easier to understand menu structure, come video apps for Lovefilm, 4OD, blinkbox, Demand 5 (Channel Five's VOD service), YouTube, Dailymotion and MSN. And, unlike on rival platforms, Microsoft has made a clever move in getting them to ditch their own front ends and user interfaces in favour of the Metro approach. On the PS3, for example, the Lovefilm app looks nothing like Sony's XrossMediaBar - it uses the same UI as found on Samsung Smart TVs, et al. Not so here.
Instead, while it is the same streamed movie content found on all other Lovefilm streaming platforms, it is a seamless experience, looking like the Xbox's own new Dashboard with minor colour changes. You'll still need a streaming-enabled subscription, but you won't feel like you are leaving the Xbox arena at any time.
The same is true with all of the other content partners, including music service Muzu.tv. Even 4OD shows are offered through a Metro-style interface, although the font has been changed to Channel 4's.
Remarkably, Pocket-lint was also told that, when it arrives, the BBC iPlayer application will sport the same Metro aesthetic. Seeing as how much the Beeb is protective over its branding and styling, this comes as a massive shock, and much kudos to Microsoft if it manages to pull of such a coup. We were also told that, because of this, and contrary to former rumours, iPlayer will not be available on the Xbox 360 until 2012. The same is true of ITV Player.
The big M won't end there either. It told us, in our one-to-one briefing, that it plans to release around 15 applications before the end of 2011, and has a healthy roadmap for the introduction of many more throughout the coming year, month-by-month.
Some of those will be social too, although there's no word at present on Skype integration (considering Microsoft now owns it), but Twitter and Facebook are already present (as before). There will also be new features for social gaming, such as leaving a beacon for friends who are not online. As soon as they log in, that beacon will ask them to join you in a game. Plus, as Gamertag information will be stored in the cloud from now on, rather than locally, you can even log into your account from a different Xbox 360, and play as yourself rather than a guest, with all your achievements and information being accessible.
At this juncture, it's worth pointing out that some of these new services are only available to Xbox Live Gold members. Silver members still get the new look, the search functionality, and voice and gesture control through a Kinect (if they have one), but will not be able to access a vast amount of the content.
We haven't been told of an exact time for the Dashboard's release in the UK, but it is totally on track for this Tuesday. And, given our initial viewing, we reckon it'll blow your socks off.
What do you think of the new Dashboard? Let us know in the comments below...