There were two main reasons Microsoft decided to totally redo the Xbox 360 interface: 1) to make everything easier to find and 2) making it easier for the Xbox team to make changes to the system on the fly (instead of having to wait for semi-annual updates).
After spending a little hands on time with NXE, I'm pretty convinced they've succeeded with that first goal (time will tell with the second). A whole slew of navigation options make it easier to locate anything from a recently downloaded demo to a group of friends playing Call of Duty 4 that you can party with. The Spotlight channel highlights whatever's new in any channel (movie trailers, content packs, demos, etc.) and the actual game library (gasp!) has a details page that will display all the stuff you've downloaded for it. You can even see stuff you haven't downloaded, like if there's a new map pack, and jump from the detail page directly to Marketplace to buy the content.
So no more frantically scrolling this way and that, trying to find the Alpha Protocol demo I just downloaded or figure out where they put the Fable 2 trailer. Even better, the game detail page displays box art, screen shots, streaming videos - the kind of stuff you normally have to go to a website to find. So maybe we won't need a web browser with NXE (and if we do, they can apparently add one with a quick updated that we don't have to wait half a year for).
The big ticket item for me is the avatar system. It's the only part of NXE that I'm skeptical about. I don't mind that they were replacing the left-to-right scrolling "blades" with up-and-down scrolling "channels" (that are populated with "slots" - gotta love that 360 vocabulary). I also don't care one way or the other that the visual style of the interface is more "casual-friendly" with a simple (if dull) layout and punched up movie/Netflix features.
I do mind that they're spending money to make a total rip off of the Nintendo Miis. I mean, really, does capturing the casual audience really mean you've gotta have chunky people with big, bright eyes that wander around, doing nothing but sneezing, winking and waving?
As soon as I started making my NXE avatar, I had to stop comparing it to Nintendo. The system Rare came up with has more in common with the Sims than it does with anything else. There were more options for facial and body structure, colour and decoration. I could have freckles, vampire fangs, or a mullet. There were ear piercings, soul patches and whacky skin colours (e.g. green). There are idle animations (my favourite is the guy one where he picks lint off his arm, grimaces and flicks it away), and hidden "treats" that the avatars react to (like when you zoom in too fast - you might bump your avatar in the head and knock him senseless).
It's all very cute and accessible - the kind of thing I'd give to my grandma to get her to even go near the 360. But there's also a larger goal that the avatars accomplish for seasoned 360 users: they give you a sense of personality.
"We wanted gamers to be able to express themselves," says demo expert Albert Penello, Director of Global Marketing for Microsoft's Xbox 360. "Like when you're going into Friends to party with [strangers] ... we wanted you to be able to look at a group of avatars and [automatically]know whether or not you'd like to party with them."
I made a freckly vampire Princess Leia (they have her hairstyle). Who'd want to party with me?
I was disappointed that the fashion options weren't too wide - but Albert assures me that more clothes could always be added either with updates, or with downloadable themes. The NXE themes are going to be "more intense" and far more obvious in all levels of the interface. Your old themes will still work with NXE, but you won't be getting the same amount of saturation (like, you won't see the items in the Friends channel update, because old themes haven't been programmed to use them). So they're more like PC wallpaper, I guess.
I concluded that
360 Miis were a good idea and that having a game library page with all the content for a game right there to be seen was a good thing. But I'm still on the fence about installing games directing to your hard drive and about the use of XNA games.
The first feature would be great if it worked. You'd still have to have the disc in the tray, but supposedly, it'd cut down on the noise the disc makes when it spins and on loading times. In graphic heavy games that murderize your 360 (Eternal Sonata, Dead or Alive 4, what have you), this would be a godsend - but I keep thinking of how long it took for Devil May Cry 4 and Metal Gear Solid 4 to install on my PS3. It was only a one-time inconvenience; but it was pretty lousy being forced to yet even longer for a game I'd just bought and desperately wanted to play.
But enough about me - let's talk about you, fledging game developer. The XNA game studio is supposed to be your ticket to the big time; you can build games on PC and upload them to Xbox Live for users to try, download, and (wait for it) pay you to play it. Microsoft takes 30% off the top (a little more, if it's a featured game), but you can charge up to 800 points for people to play your creations. Moreover, most game development programs in colleges and universities will be using the software to conduct class projects; so you could potentially make money and earn class credit.
XNA games will be made available on the web, so you can go online to buy them and then have them on your 360 when you get home.
"Wait - what?" I asked Penello. "Say that again."
"Well, if you you buy something [for download]online, like at work, it'll start the download when you turn on your system." He thought about it for a moment. "So, if you left your system on all day..."
The possibilities for impulse-buying were staggering.
Overall, I'm pretty satisfied with my NXE experience. The new might be scary (and you'll probably go through "blade" withdrawal - be sure to check the Guide once in a while to stave off the shakes), but the Xbox devs didn't change this interface on a whim. They're all gamers too, don't forget - so they have a reasonably good idea of what works and what's not working with the old system, and an even better idea of what they could do with the new.
Want more? Check out our NXE fact rundown, get a load of Gamerscore's Friends and Themes briefing, and be sure to check out Major Nelson's avatar how-to vid.