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Imagine my surprise when I checked the inbox of my humble e-mail to find a message from Microsoft. Well, I get messages about hotmail all the time (damn unblockable spam), but this was different, this was about the Xbox 360. So, what could Microsoft be telling me that I didn't already know? Then I saw the subject line. "Xbox 360 NXE- You have been selected." Me? Selected for the NXE preview? I know Major Nelson said that several thousand would be able to get in early, but since that logic didn't work for me with the LBP beta, I didn't expect it to work this time either. Well, on to the preview.

Downloading the update and installing it only takes 5 or 6 minutes. This is one advantage that Microsoft has over Sony, faster downloads and updates. It took 3 or 4 times as long to update LBP (which I also got yesterday, but that is for another post) to version 1.03 than it took to completely change my Xbox dashboard. Sony, you really need to fix that. Anyway, after the download and install is complete I was then required to select a virtual me. Yes, avatars are mandatory now. Is that a bad thing? No, I actually had a bit of fun selecting my avatar from the 8 standard choices, then customizing it to my liking. The change features tab has 9 choices in customizing your virtual dude (or dudette). You have the option to adjust your hair, eyes, eyebrows, ears, nose, face (facial features such as moles and freckles and facial hair are selected here), chin, mouth, and skin color and body (height and weight are adjusted here). Plenty of options for everyone.

Is that all you can do to your avatar? Nope, you can also select what clothes you want him or her to wear. There are 8 options for adjusting your avatars appearance here. You can choose what top, headwear, makeup (eye shadow and lip color), bottoms, head accessories (glasses and earrings), dress up (a white morning suit and a tan formal suit are here), shoes, and body accessories (wristwear, rings, gloves). The last option is the ability to save and name that special outfit that you just made. From here you get to take your gamer picture. You can zoom in or out, turn your avatar to the left or right, move his or her head around, and take whatever picture that you like. You want to take a picture of the top of your head? Feel free. How about the back? That's OK, too. You can preview the picture and then save if you like it. If you are done messing around with the digital you, you can either start over (if you are break mirrors ugly, you may want to take this option) or save and exit. After saving your avatar he does a little fist pump and a little jig. Now, onto the meat of the update, the dashboard itself.

My first impression of the NXE? I like it. The old dashboard just didn't do it for me. It felt like a step backward on a machine trying to be a step ahead. I never had an original Xbox, but the blades felt like they would have been more appropriate on that machine, not a next gen console. This update changes that for me, it looks cleaner, is easier to navigate, and seems to be organized a lot better then it was. I know some people will disagree with me for saying this, but the NXE has a similar setup to the XMB. Turn the XMB 90 degrees clockwise, use phrases instead of icons on the up/down portion of the bar and use tiles with descriptions and picures on them instead of the option choices for the left/right bar and you have the NXE. Look, I will be honest here, I think the XMB succeeded where the blades failed because of simplicity. The XMB was uncluttered with too much unneeded information and advertisements that the blades were littered with. Having an NXE that takes a few cues from the XMB is not a bad thing, and I applaud Microsoft for realizing it.

Starting out on the new dashboard you have several choices that are called channels. It starts with the Spotlight channel and goes to the My Xbox channel, Game Marketplace channel, Video Marketplace channel, Friends channel, Inside Xbox channel, the Events channel, and finally, the Welcome channel (this channel can be set to hide if you don't want it). I can't stress enough how clean and uncluttered the new system is. Finding the channel I want is as easy as pushing the left stick up or down. When you hit the channel that you want, say the My Xbox channel, you will see additional tiles appear to the right of the main one. Again, using the left stick, you can move left or right to select which subchannel that you want. If you want to see your achievements for example (and who wouldn't?) select the My Xbox channel. From there you will see (if your profile is signed in) your avatar standing there in front of the second tile. Select that subchannel, then move to the right. From there you will see that each game you have played will have it's very own tile, and on these tiles, you will see all the acheivements for that game.

When I say every game I mean every game is shown. If you've played Spongebob just to pad your gamerscore, a tile will show up. Played a last gen Barbie game recently, yep, it'll be there too. On each tile you will see the title of the game, a couple of bars on the right side (signifying the gamerscore and the number of achievements unlocked from that title), date last played and all the achievements available for that game shown below. I love gaming, but I'm obviously not a gamerscore whore as my tiles show. I don't have any of the titles know for score padding and even have a pretty good amount of locked achievements from the games that I have played. Maybe I'll get to those in the future. The bottom line is that with this new system all your information for a specific title is available with just one glance. Instead of having to drill down into a couple of menu options, it's all in plain sight for everyone to see.

Now, the big question. How is the marketplace handled on the NXE? Is it still a pain to try and find that title that you want? Starting off, there are two ways to get to the Marketplace channel. The first is using the main channel options by scrolling up or down to get to the Game or Video Marketplace channels. The second way is to push the Y button while on the Spotlight channel to go directly to the Game Marketplace channel. From here you have the option of selecting All Games, Arcade, Game Add-ons, Community Games, Xbox Originals, Themes and Gamer Pictures, Game Demos, and Game Videos. All of the previous options have 3 main selection tiles asocciated with them. You can select from a New Arrivals, Most Popular, or Browse tiles. These options are pretty self explanatory and basic, no need to go into detail. Now, let me walk you through something that I found interesting. Say, you see that Xbox Originals has just added GTA: San Adreas. Hit the A button on that tile and it takes you to another section with 5 tiles in it. The first shows the price and purchase options, pretty much the same as the old dashboard did. The next title over is the featured downloads tile, not much interesting here. The next tile over is where the new stuff starts. Images and screenshots, about damn time. Now, you can finally see what you are getting before you buy it, granted, not such a big deal with the original titles, but very welcome with gamer pics and themes. The next tile shows some basic information and features that the game has. Finally, the last tile has a full description of the game. What I like about this tile that was fixed from the old dash is that you can scroll the description up and down instead of waiting for it to do it automatically. New features, I love it.

Here's something else new, Community Games. As the description on the NXE says "user-created indie games that are not reviewed by ratings boards." So, some fruit off of the XNA tree has arrived. These are independently developed games that are being sold for 200-400 Microsoft points. These games follow the same basic description format as all the other titles do on the Marketplace, to include a full description and screenshots. There is one difference though. Since these titles are not reviewed by the ESRB they do not have a rating attached to them, enter you and me. These titles are reviewed instead by the community. They are rated from a 0 to 3 scale (0 being none) on violence, sex and mature content. This way little Timmy's mom knows what he should and should not play, just as she would with traditional games. There are only 16 Community Games right now, but expect that number to grow in the next few months.

I think that covers all the basics, oh wait. I forgot about the new harddrive install option. How could I let that slip my mind. This is one feature that I have been really interested in. My main question is not about load times (I really couldn't care less about that) but whether or not the 360's loud disc drive will be silenced by this addition. Let's try it out, shall we? My choice of game to install first is Fallout 3. A decently sized game to start things out. After you insert the disc, go to the My Xbox channel and hit the Y button. This will bring you to a tile with a couple of options on it. One of these options is install to hard drive. After selecting that option the installation begins. Installing the game itself took about 10 minutes to do, not so bad, after all, it'll be worth it if I could actually hear the game while playing it. Now the verdict. The 360 is indeed quiet while playing the game after the install. I started up Fallout 3 to hear...nothing at all.

OK, now I'm completely sold on this NXE thing. There are some great additions to the old formula that make the 360 easier to use and better looking too. I haven't spent any real time with this yet, so I can't say that everything is perfect. I just haven't ran into any problems yet.
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