So the hardware’s good – what about the software and also the claim that this is really a digital hub which can play ‘everything’. The 360 has the concept of ‘blades’ – basically a screen for Live, Games, Media and Settings. This works well and there really is a lot you can do from each screen.
Live screen lets you see and customise your Gamercard, see who’s online and manage any messages or invites you might have. It’s also easy to launch whatever is in the DVD drive from here. You can also jump into the Marketplace which is Microsoft’s media version of iTunes Music Store. From here you can download (not free) gamer tiles, extra levels, themes for the 360 and arcade games. For free you can get promotional videos and movie trailers and also game demo’s. The trailers are mostly in high def and also there are different marketplaces for each region as the USA has a high def trailer of X-Men 3 available unlike the UK. The downloads are slow though and with the demo’s peaking at 500Meg it can take a while – pity you couldn’t download in the background while listening to music or playing a game.
The arcade games also feature in the Game blade. You can demo the games but most need to be bought using marketplace points. The games are a mixture of old arcade classics like Gauntlet and Smash TV and new games like Geometry Wars 2 from Bizarre (makers of PGR). Geometry Wars features in PGR2 if you walked around the garage – this is a follow up and for a simple arcade game it’s amazingly good. The nice thing about these ‘simple’ games is that they are live aware. Geometry Wars has an online scoreboard. You can play 4 player Gauntlet over Live or 2 player Smash TV. Very smart.
The Media blade is at the heart of the ‘digital hub’ Microsoft have hyped about.
Access music, pictures or video stored on the 360’s hard disk from here. Also you can access music and pictures from your PC from this screen if you’ve installed Windows Media Connect. Dissapointingly you can’t stream video using this software. The 360 can only stream video if you’ve a Media Center version of XP which isn’t very common. Even then you can’t stream videos in divx or other common video formats – just avi’s. This puts a real dent in the 360’s capabilities and claim to be a digital hub and is the main reason I still have an Xbox with XBMC installed. You can’t even fast forward or rewind through music tracks. Bah!
Another disappointment is DVD playback. I’ve tried a few different disks and most of them exhibit the same problems – it looks like a frame is dropped every few frames which gives a less than fluent feel to the DVD. There is also noticeable pixelation in a few dark scenes (Batman Begins for example) and also it is region locked which will prohibit a lot of people who have bought Region 1 & 4 DVDs. I’m maybe being harsh as I’m comparing the playback to my Denon 2910 but I found it unacceptably bad.
The final blade contains all the settings that you could possibly need like network, parental settings, audio and video. However there is one very useful screen that can be called up at any time – the Guide screen accessed by pressing the guide button on the pad.
This can be accessed when viewing other blades, during a game, while watching a DVD or listening to music and even when playing an old Xbox game although you don’t get all the functionality. From here you can manage invites and requests. You can also send messages – only voice and text at the moment but soon you’ll be able to video message too when the video camera becomes available. The chats are very impressive. You can have up to 5 private chat sessions that work independent of the game you are playing or DVD you are watching. So I can invite a friend and chat while we are playing separate games, swapping to other games or watching DVDs. Very cool and excellently implemented.
You are also constantly updated of what friends are online and when you have got an invite. Think of the pop-ups you get when using MSN Messenger and you get the idea. These also work in the dashboard, watching DVD etc. This time they have made sure the Live service sits on top of everything else meaning you are always in touch with the community. If your worried about friends knowing what you are doing you can easily switch the notifications and Live updates off.
You can also select music through the guide button. Like the media blade you can select a source, PC for example, and then select a playlist, artist or album to listen too – this can be done in game which makes for a far more flexible gaming experience. Playing PGR with in car view and your own tunes playing makes for a very immersive experience.
The other part of the digital hub is connectivity – plug in any USB device and the 360 will read it. For starters there are only 3 USB ports which ‘should’ be enough although if you plug in a web-cam, wireless access point and then need to charge your pad your all out of ports. Four or more would have been sensible especially given that I can plug my iPod or PSP into the 360.
The iPod integration is superb. Plug it in and the 360 allows you to select and play music from the iPod’s playlists. Again this can be done via the dashboard or in game. While your playing from the iPod it is also charging – two birds with one stone.
PSP works much the same (as does any other USB mass disk device) in that the contents of the memory stick are browsable and music and pictures can be easily played. Indeed you can browse pictures while the music is being streamed from the iPod. Technically not a complex achievement but nice to do all the same.
There are a couple of missed opportunities though. There is no HDMI or DVI connector on the 360 instead making do with component. Would have been nice to have one of the more up to date connector on it. Also the Gamercard works really well but it could have been so much more. Game saves are still held on the hard disk or memory card. With disk being so cheap and broadband speeds increasing games saves should be automatically uploaded to the Live servers in the background. This would mean that your Gamertag would be truly portable and not tied to the 360 you are using. For me that would have been a killer feature and also meant that your game saves were being backed up in the process.
Despite those grumbles the infrastructure that has been put in place via Live and also the 360 software is very impressive – definitely the most advanced I’ve seen on a console (PSP is a close second). It gives the 360 a massive advantage over the PS3 if indeed the rumours are true and that Sony are leaving internet play down to each individual publisher.