Microsoft is updating your Xbox Live dashboard. Officially it rolls out to the public on August 11. But I've been checking out this week.
A word of caution: don't expect too much.
Sony and, to a lesser extent, Nintendo release firmware updates all the time, usually to add a minor feature or tweak an existing one. Microsoft, however, have previously saved up a whole bunch of stuff and then unleashed it in one go. We used to get two big updates a year, then last year we got the New Xbox Experience, a complete overhaul of the entire interface.
This update is nothing like the NXE. At first glance it looks the same - indeed, many of the new features are so trivial you'll never notice them. But there are a few subtle but worthwhile changes here and there, plus one controversial new addition. Let's focus on those.
In the "Hey, that's neat" category:
* Your Achievements are presented in greater detail with each game displaying a progress bar that hammers home just how little you have accomplished. * Parties are marginally quicker and simpler to organise thanks to the elimination of a couple of button presses. * Your friends list can now be sorted via online status, Gamertag or even current activity.
In the "About time, too" category:
* All games can now be user-rated via a straightforward five-star system. You can then search the Marketplace by filtering the "top rated" XBLA games, demos, DLC, etc. (Although I was able to rate games, none of the global averages were displayed on any content. It's as if everything has been zero-rated right now. Put that down to a quirk of the beta test, surely.)
In the "Erm... OK!" category:
* Your profile now sports a badge showing how many years you've been an Xbox Live Gold member. This means one of my friends has a "6" next to his name, while I am emasculated with a "2".
In the "I guess the fun's now over" category:
* You can now buy clothes for your avatar in the Avatar Marketplace. These vary from replicas of in-game items such as the Explorer's Outfit from Fable II to normal t-shirts with Halo logos on them to otherwise standard hats and glasses that don't appear any more special than what's already available for free. The limited selection in the beta test cost between AU$1.32 and AU$3.96 each. Sure, you can safely ignore it all - no one's forcing you to pay for avatar clothes - but I suspect it means future additions to the free wardrobe will be curtailed.
And, really, that's pretty much it for things worth mentioning. The genuinely interesting features announced at E3, such as Games On Demand, the Zune Video Marketplace, Last.FM and the social network expansions, are not part of this update.
I'm interested to hear what you think is missing from the Live experience right now. What would you change about the interface? What new features would you like to see included in future? And, hey, maybe you disagree that there's nothing exciting in this update. If I'm wrong about that, tell me why.