The Xbox Live TV fall update misses the mark: Pt. 1


Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece, the thoughts of one person that may differ from yours.

The much anticipated Xbox Live fall update is upon us and most of the early reviews conclude that the experience will be a game changer. I tried to read and watch as many videos reviews as possible and last night, I installed the update to experience first hand if the hype matched the reality. I really wanted to like it but in the end, I felt let down. I am puzzled by the rave reviews from even some of Microsoft’s most ardent critics. Its ironic how the one instance that I think they should have been bashed a little for, they got accolades instead.

I’ll start with a little background. For all the technical abilities and knowledge I have acquired over the years, I never was blessed with fast thumbs or the abstract thinking required to play hardcore games. In other words, I have never been or ever will be a gamer per se. I instead prefer to watch and cheer on my friends while they blow up people on COD or score a touchdown on Madden. I once had a 7 year old promise to take it easy on me on Tekken so that we could keep on playing when he saw the frustration painted on my face after losing to him a few too many times!

The point I’m trying make is that I evaluated the new features from the perspective of a non gamer and the one multimedia device to conquer the living room which the fall update was supposed to usher in.

The Dashboard and Live TV

For those of you who own and have used an Xbox in the past, you might welcome this change and hail it as Microsoft’s advance towards unification of the user interface via the Metro design principles which in itself is a great endeavor. The problem is that the Metro stuff only forms a thin veneer that masks the ugly interface and usability problems present when you get deeper into the system. Move beyond the top menu and you realize that almost everything is siloed into distinct apps that feel disconnected from each other. For a company that has been trying and doing a good job to move away from apps to integrated experiences with Windows Phone 7, this is not only disappointing but also 100 steps backwards. A quick example of which I’ll delve into deeper later. Scroll over to the Music tab and the nested mess come to the forefront. Try to play a song locally available on your network. You are presented with a screen with My Music Apps, Zune Music Marketplace and the rest of the screen, (majority of it) consists of ads from the Zune service. What should door should you pick? Open door one (My Music Apps) and now you get the options for Music player, Zune Music and an option to purchase or find more apps from the App market place!  Who designed this stuff? It even gets worse so keep on reading.

Now back to the first screen.Take a moment to think about the audience that the new dashboard is supposed to attract. People looking replace their cable boxes with the Xbox. Compare what shows up on your screen the moment you turn on your cable/satellite box to the dashboard.The latter fails right off the bat! Most casual users I contend would want to see the last channel they watched playing on their screen. The beauty of the current TV technology warts and all, is the immediate availability and seamless switching between channels without having to dig into “apps” But can’t you just search for the program you want? Well unfortunately, typical Microsoft fashion, they launched without most of the content they promised so the pickings are quite slim.

A question now arises. How is it that small companies like Roku, Boxee and even Western Digital, a hard drive  company, can have so much content on their boxes but not the tech behemoth from Redmond? At the very least, video podcasts from my favorite tech shows like Paul Thurrott’s Windows Weekly, Tekzilla or Twit Live. It may come as a surprise to you but Microsoft has a lot of that content already accessible via their rarely used but excellent application, Windows Media center’s Internet TV. Not only that, you can add a TV turner in the form of a USB adapter, PC card or a network turner like SiliconDust’s HD Homerun connected to an external antenna for free over the air content. Why Microsoft did not  include any of this technology on the Xbox still puzzles me!  Below are some images.

Windows Media Center TV  tab

Windows Media Center TV tab

Windows Media Center Live TV guide

Windows Media Center Live Over the Air TV guide

Windows Media Center Internet TV guide

Windows Media Center Internet TV guide

Windows Media Center Internet TV main

Windows Media Center Internet TV main

WMC top rated movies from Netflix

WMC top rated movies from Netflix

WMC Zune Video podcasts

WMC Zune Video podcasts

WMC Windows Weekly Video podcast

WMC Windows Weekly Video podcast

We can then establish that there is content currently available that somehow Microsoft chose not include. Lets now move on to the apps that are included with the system.Take the Today Show for example.

today show home

First you will be prompted to download the app. Then you have to go find it in the “apps” tab. I don’t believe you can watch a live show yet, but I stand to be corrected. Click on a video and it starts playing. Now press on the back button. The clip stops and goes back to the previous screen. Unfortunately, your place on the clip is not saved so when you go back to it, you have to start all over again. Press the back button again and you will be met by the following screen.

today show exit

You will soon come to despise this screen because it appears in various forms on all apps during the process of attempting to go back to the main dashboard. Using voice control doesn’t save you from the prompts either. It is a poor navigational element that just doesn’t work for multimedia and gets annoying pretty quickly. Oddly enough, Windows phone 7.5 just implemented a fast app switching and resume mechanism that would have worked perfectly in this scenario. One gets the feeling that all these apps are poorly bolted onto the main dashboard in that even the native Zune app and Video Kinect give you similar prompts!

Additionally, I prefer Windows Media Center’s method of utilizing the full screen to present multimedia content in an X and Y axis on the TV tab than does the Xbox 360. I think it’s a mistake to force the Metro interface using only the middle part of the screen for navigating video content like on the new dashboard. It results in an excruciatingly long horizontal scrolling list when hundreds of items are present.

Testing out voice control using Kinect, the device did an excellent job picking up my voice. However, after playing around with it for a little while, I contend that a remote would be faster or at least more comfortable for some uses. I got tired of barking every command to navigate the screen. I can see using it for playback control more than anything else. Where I also found voice control effective was for general content search. What would make it even better would be additional categories for results based on my favorites and one curated from my friends’ likes on Facebook, Zune, Spotify and so forth.

The voice option does help in narrowing down content, but having a channel guide, especially a user customizable one, would be complementary and go a long way in aiding the users to find stuff to watch, play or listen to more easily.

Read part two here

  • Anonymous

    As a somewhat gamer at times and advid Tv and movie watcher I absolutely love the new dashboard. I don’t see anymore ads than the previous version. Just because they are in larger tile form they’re being called ads? lol. Um what were they before?

  • Beezer

    I think the new dashboard is half-baked, seems like they’re doing what they were trying to do with Windows Mobile 6.5 and skin parts of it and then leave the inner stuff the same. They shouldn’ve applied this theme to everything. I hate that I still have to load a Zune App. It should just be integrated to work as a player directly from the hub. And I don’t know if it’s me or what, but I can’t get music to play in the background cause I have to exit Zune. It needs more polishing.

    I’m patient on the content, I know that will come soon and then I’ll rate it, but Zune is a let down.

  • JimmyFal

    The real strength is the ability to search content. Speak a directors name, an actors name, a movie title, a genre, saturday night live or even an old movie from the 20’s and it will pop up instantly on the screen. And the recognition for me was like 98%. I sat there last night and fired movie names etc at it for about a half an hour, and it came up with almost everything I searched for within reason. Pretty damn impressive. Imagine that with Youtube and Live TV etc. etc. Not sure that integration is coming with Youtube but we’ll see soon enough I guess. This is outstanding technology. The rest of it needs a LOT of tightening up, for sure. But the searching is a REALLY nice start. The Kinect gaming is really nice, but the gestures controls need a lot of work as does the integration. I will stick to it’s strengths and continue to criticize the weaknesses, and eventually MS will listen and hear. We hopes.

    • Rush 24

      The voice feature does work pretty well since one doesn’t have to enter the search by painfully entering each letter with the controller. I think it is actually the best part of the experience. The bad thing though is that it doesnt work with local content that the user already has. Only stuff purchased from the Zune marketplace.

      • Slayr007

        You know that they make a keyboard accessoy for the controller, right? You can also plug in any usb or wireless(not bluetooth) keyboard.

      • JimmyFal

        That keyboard entry for the gestures, you know the row going across the top in Zune. Whoever implemented that should get fired. THAT is embarrasing. I should also be able to do stuff like XBOX, BING, Eric Clapton Smart DJ MIX. etc etc.

        I was kind of hoping that the hands free could be easy throught the interface, but it’s definately not there yet.

        It’s interesting to see them slowly roll all this stuff out under the guise of it actually being ready to go. I mean to give them credit they have informed us all along that it is going to be slow rollout. Maybe they should emphasize that a little more. I kind of like seeing a new update on a regular basis.

  • Avatar Roku

    The mainstream consumer does not want low rent podcast stuff like Windows Weekly on their Xbox. They want UFC and HBO and MLB. Also if the Xbox booted up playing a TV channel gamers would go nuts. This is a game console first and the reason it is in 60 million homes is the games. You make it a TV box first and you’ll end up with sales like the Roku (1 million sold) or worse the Google TV.

    So do you get this market? No clearly you do not. This is about mainstream entertainment not dopey low quality podcasts for geeks that only get a couple thousand viewers at best.

    • Rush 24

      Why is then that if the Xbox is doing so well with its 60 million gamers are they trying to break into the multimedia market which you so eleqountly describe as a failure with the Roku boxes?
      If they are going to appeal to the mainstream audience, I contend that they will have make a switchable profile interface which can either be game focused or multimedia focused. That audience which is much larger than the gaming population wants to consume content first with games as an added bonus. One can actually change the preference for startup to either be disc, Xbox dasboard or Windows Media Center.

      As for the Video podcasts, they don’t neccesary have to be top level but they should at least be easily discoverable like they are in WMC.
      My opinion is that media center did not do well because of the way Microsoft positioned it by bundling it as a part of a full OS that most people do not know it exists. If it had been on its own stand alone box with good promotion and development, I think it could have done better. Furthermore if you consider it such failure why does Microsoft still include its functionality on the Xbox? I’m not saying it was perfect. I just think that it has elements that would have been great if they had been transferred to work natively on the Xbox.

      When comes to content, Microsoft over promised and under delivered. The premium content was the most anticipated feature of the update, much than more than the new dasboard and yet we have to wait even longer before they become available. To me thats a let down.

    • Robert Wade

      Anyone who considers UFC worthwhile entertainment already loses me as even considering them a worthwhile demographic.  And my family bans all sports (what a completely useless bit of programming).  And HBO has dubious value, only slightly better than Skinemax or Showtime.  But you’re absolutely correct about the primary reason people have the XBox.  For a device that truly expands beyond the gaming meme it will take the next generation of hardware for that.  The one point Rush24 made that I do agree with is that the update should have brought it more in line with the Hub concept.  This is a great start, as far as it goes.  What Rush24 is missing is that this wasn’t supposed to be the end-all update.  This is the incremental move toward “Windows nirvana”.

      Oh, and I’d place a lot more value on something like aTWiT podcast that MLB, HBO or UFC.

  • yves707

    i totally agree with everything you wrote above. this was also exactly my first impression on the update.

    and what i dont get: why dont they just build upon windows media center for tv/media-center capabilities?!

    and voice/bing search might be nice in the us but not in germany where bing results are total useless and where are almost no relevant content providers for tv functionality….. :////

  • Exclusiveonenyc

    The truth is that microsofts metro ui doesn’t work on all platforms now don’t get me wrong im a wp7 user and a gamer as well and i love my xbox i would be increasingly bored out of my mind without it but i can do without the repetitions within the different hubs the massive center tile and the miniscule squares surrounding each one, and as the article mentions the lack of integration in some cases, wp7 mango’s party piece is its use of social integration so why was this same concept implemented into the new xbox dashboard why is zune an app when its supposed to be an entertainment hub in itself there’s also the social tab where you see your friends whats up with the clutter maybe its just me but while the new interface is nice it needs restructuring and polishing and then maybe then it will be the dashboard they intended

  • Exclusiveonenyc

    Sorry typo “why wasn’t the mango concept implemented”

  • Mark Gibbs

    I really love the new UI and being able to Pin stuff like to listen to music on your network by Pinning that to the menu is awesome ..

    • Rush 24

      Is this music stored on your computer or server? I found a way to pin music from the Zune service but not anything on my Windows home server. 

  • P. Douglas

    Apps are not all going to be the same. Many apps will have video archives, others will include access to multiple live streams, others will be interactive experiences. Therefore trying to incorporate all these differing approaches to apps into an integrated app experience will not be feasible.

    I believe MS expects to have at the very least, many thousands of apps over time. I believe that is why it is relying on search rather than a guide. (Imagine trying to find web sites with a guide rather than a search engine. Also I find the guide on my cable box tedious) As for having 1 row of items displayed rather than several from a search: maybe MS did usability studies which found this simplier for users?

    Overall the dashboard seems great to me. More content will be added, and things like remembering your position in a video when you move away, wil be addressed over time. The major update isn’t perfect and fully refined, but it is dramatically good aesthetically and functionally, and I believe we should be patient with it as it develops.

    • Rush 24

      I was thinking more of a user customized guide that aggregates all the shows I like in one place. Something akin to bookmarks on a browser. I really don’t want to search for a show everytime I want to watch it. With the app model, like I wrote, it got pretty annoying being prompted if I was sure I wanted to exit everytime I tried to leave the app.

  • Lewis McCrary

    The new dashboard took a little while to get used to. Now that I’ve used it (since beta) I know where everything is and what it all does.  I know what I need and get right to it either with the remote or using voice commands.  I also do not like that Zune is a separate app.  I think overall it’s step forward with a few refinements needed.  Everyone is entitled to opinion though. :)

  • Anonymous

    My take?

    All of this is a (quite usable) beta for what will drive the UI for the NeXbox, just like the later years of the Xbox were for XBL.  The 360 REALLY showed what XBL could be when it launched and I’d imagine that the NeXbox will really show this integrated ecosystem working a lot more seemlessly together.

    But these betas are important.  And while I may not agree with everything here, feedback like this is important as they build for the future.  They’ve done some amazing things with these dashboard updates; probably far beyond what the system specs for the UI intended.  And they’ve all been free.  It’s important that we keep all of that (and other limitations) in mind as we make our criticisms and indictments.

  • Avatar Roku

    I just attempted to use Windows Media Center on my Windows 7 PC for the first time. (I haven’t tried it since Vista since I despised it back then.) My god that has to be one of the worst user experiences I’ve ever seen in my life. The configuration goes on for ages, navigating that UI is a confusing nightmare. Finding content and apps to download is impossible. I can see why nobody ever uses it and why Microsoft’s telemetry data shows that most of the people who launch Media Center never do so more than once.

    If not for feeling absolute pity for the few people who actually use WMC as their DVR I would say Windows Media Center should be cancelled and not included in Windows 8.

    If this is what you think Xbox TV should be like that’s just scary. Wow. Media Center has been on Xbox since 2005, if it was any good people would be using it. Smarten up.

    • JimmyFal

      I think the original “group” of us that were using it from the start, were “finding a way” to download movies on the net, and play them on the big screen. If you know what I mean. It is really good for that. If they made movies $1 a piece to rent, I truly believe they could just about end piracy over night.

  • the pugnacious fight

    So are we going to forget that 360’s can already stream from Windows Media Center PC’s and Machines running Windows 7 Ultimate *and those PC’s can already host live TV*? 

    Or that there are people with the chat pad at the bottom of their controllers that can type without having to use their controller what so ever (and those folks that have USB keyboards *yes wireless keyboards work with the dongle too*). 

    Or that people the people with AT&T Uverse and Some Customers in Canada ALREADY watch live tv thru their 360’s before this update? 

    There’s already been at least one two-day concert on xbox live and a live UFC PPV.  That’s still impressive from a system with no browser. 

    Come on…opinion piece or not, gamer or not, do your due diligence.