Pretty soon, Microsoft will officially release a new software update to all Xbox 360 users that will include a big blue icon with an 'e' stamped on it. Yep, the Xbox 360 is finally getting Internet Explorer, a real browser for your TV.
We've been playing with the new 2012 Xbox 360 dashboard update for a few months now and to be completely honest, most people won't even notice a difference. There are more apps and there's the pretty awesome Xbox Music and a few other features thrown in but in terms of look and feel?
It's nearly the same as last year's (don't call it) Metro design. Visually, the similarities between this year's Xbox 360 update and last year's dashboard is like how Windows Phone 8 looks nearly the same as Windows Phone 7 save for a few re-sized tiles. It's tweaking and massaging and honing a design concept that Microsoft so obviously believes in.
Which is to say, the new Xbox 360 dashboard update looks like Windows Phone 8 which looks like Windows 8 which looks like Outlook which looks like Surface which looks like Xbox which looks like, well, Microsoft.
So What's New?
Let's get specific. On the dashboard, the Games tab has jumped up two spots to the third slot, right behind the Home tab and the Social tab. The tabs that used to be ahead of the Games tab, the rather redundant TV and Video, have merged into a more sensible tab: TV & Movies.
The tile layout under each tab have been re-sized as well. Previously, the dashboard restricted a tab's layout to only be two tiles high by four tiles wide. Now the Xbox 360 fits in a layout that's three tiles high by five tiles wide. That's a lot more content shown on one screen and a significantly better use of space -- the ads that used to dominate the screen in last year's dashboard are a lot less annoying in this year's update.
The most useful new feature is the ability to 'pin' your favourite apps or TV shows or music or websites right to the Xbox 360's home screen. All the stuff you 'pin', will be collected into a section called 'My Pins' on the home screen for quick and easy access. No more jumping through side-swiping tabs and tiled hoops to get your Game of Thrones on. You can also use Bing Voice Search (with a Kinect) to find content by genre, search the web and browse YouTube.
But the biggest feature in the new dashboard update is Internet Explorer. Based on IE9, the Xbox 360 finally gets the browser that people have been asking for for years, the feature that the PS3 and even the Wii had forever and a half ago. But now that a browser on the Xbox 360 is finally here? Well, it kinda feels like seeing the ghost of technology's past.
That's not to say Internet Explorer on the Xbox sucks. It doesn't. But it isn't nearly as good as browsers on your laptop or your tablet or your phone. The screen is bigger, sure, but the entire process is so much slower. Microsoft was able to cook up a little bit of compromise in its controls with voice (using Kinect) but the Xbox still leaves the grunt of the work (entering a URL) to the controller. The awkward dance of treating the left stick as a movable cursor and the A button as the mouse's left button is painfully inelegant and excruciatingly slow. It took me at least half a minute to type in Gizmodo.com.au. That's at least 29 seconds too slow if I'm actually supposed to use the browser.
Of course, if you could avoid typing in URLs and rely on your favourite websites, that would be great. But there doesn't see to be an option to import bookmarks into IE on the Xbox. If you could control scrolling of websites Minority Report-style with the Kinect, that would be great too. But there doesn't seem to be an option to use Kinect for controls (other than through voice on the initial 'web hub' screen). Also, websites just load slower on the Xbox -- buffering time for video made me grow white hairs, pages stuttered til my teeth fell out and scrolling was bone-shakingly jagged. It's a browser, sure, but it's probably going to be a browser you never use.
But it isn't all bad. You can choose whether to visit Mobile sites on IE on the Xbox -- which actually helps the speed a bit but then you realise how ridiculous using a 55-inch screen for the same text-heavy site you see on your phone is -- and the browser does a fine job playing HTML5 videos (when it's all loaded and buttered up) but it feels more like fulfilling the misguided early 2000's desire of having a browser on your TV than actually having a real need for such a browser. It's probably the best browser on a game system. It's just unfortunate that it's the worst browser in your home.
Oh. One good thing about IE on the Xbox: you can stream porn to the big screen. Pro tip: use the mobile mode.
Here's how Internet Explorer can improve though: SmartGlass. The preview that we've been using of the new Xbox dashboard update didn't include SmartGlass so we didn't get to test it but if SmartGlass works like we hope it to, it can definitely help bridge the gap of tablets and TV. I would never use IE on my Xbox if I had to use the Xbox 360 controller to go to a website. I would think about using it with SmartGlass.
And to be honest, this year's dashboard update isn't an overhaul of design as much as it's meant to get us connected with SmartGlass. The real exciting prospect of Xbox is how well SmartGlass can actually work as a companion screen, not in how many more tiles it can fit on one screen versus last year.