Xbox 360 Dashboard

Last week we were invited out to take a look at final debug hardware for the Xbox 360. Microsoft reps demoed a near final build of Kameo: Elements of Power, while they showed off just what the next generation console is capable of. By now many of you have probably seen the Xbox 360 controller with a new button in the center of it. This button allows direct access to the dashboard.

If you're in the middle of a single player game, pressing the new button will automatically pause your game, and pull up a dashboard window covering about half of the screen. This mini-dashboard so to speak gives you direct access to the custom soundtrack feature included in every Xbox 360 title. You can pull music from your Windows XP or Media Center PC and save it on the hard drive, or from just about any portable MP3 player. The music can be sorted in any number of ways, from artist to album to track title.

Pressing the Y button from this mini-dashboard will allow you to exit your current game and access the full dashboard. You'll be prompted to confirm your choice, so don't worry about accidentally exiting a game before you have a chance to save your progress. Once you're at the dashboard, you'll find that Microsoft has divided it into four sleeves. Each sleeve provides access to a different part of the dashboard. You'll start on the Xbox Live sleeve, and can press left or right on the d-pad or left analog stick to move to the Games, Media or System tab.

Starting with the Xbox Live tab, the first thing most gamers will notice is the Gamer Card in the upper left corner. The Gamer Card holds your reputation, Gamerscore, and what zone you fit into (what type of player you are). While feedback on the currently version of Xbox Live may not seem to have much impact on unruly players, we strongly urge you to use the feedback feature on the Xbox 360. Every time someone leaves you positive or negative feedback it will effect your reputation. Your rep is based on a five start system and can be seen by anyone on Xbox Live. If gamers take five seconds to leave feedback for those annoying players, then everyone can be warned about how they act with a quick glance at their Gamer Card.

Your Gamerscore is based on the number of games you play, and the achievements you make in those games. Microsoft would like this score to represent your gaming ability, but in all honestly it seems to work more like Xbox Live rankings; the more games you play, the higher your score will be. If a hardcore gamer is only able to afford a few big games, but gains every achievement possible within those few games, they'll have a lower Gamerscore than a novice gamer who has a few achievements in 50 different games. We'll reserve final judgment on this until we get our own debug units and games to play, but that's how it currently looks to be shaping up.

The achievements system seems to be geared toward Xbox Live Arcade, but it will be featured in every Xbox 360 title. Developers will create achievement badges awarded to players who meet certain prerequisites. In Kameo, beating the first boss and obtaining the ability to transform into Pummel Weed, gave us our first achievement. Likewise, in Geometry Wars (the video game version of crack) for Xbox Live Arcade, hitting 100,000 points without dying awarded us with a similar achievement badge. You'll be able to view achievements for anyone you encounter on Xbox Live.

Rounding out the Gamer Card is your gaming zone. This basically places you in a certain category of gamer based on your competitive nature. If you're hardcore gamer who always wants to win, you may be placed in the Pro section. These classifications will be used during Xbox Live matchmaking. We see this as coming in handy for the casual gamers more so than the hardcore gaming crowd. Either way, it's a nice feature that adds yet another feature to Xbox Live.

The games tab will give players immediate access to the Xbox Live Marketplace. You can download trailers and demos free of charge, or pay for full versions of Xbox Live Arcade games and downloadable content. Some things will be free, while others will be a nominal fee. Gamers can purchase marketplace points at their local retailer or via an optional credit card on their Xbox Live account.

Xbox Live Arcade games can be saved to your memory unit or hard drive, and once you've paid for them, they will remain attached to your gamertag. Xbox 360 owners who do not have a hard drive will be able to fit 2-3 arcade games on their memory units, but if they delete them, they can download them again free of charge using their gamertag. Since your achievements and high scores are saved on the XBL servers, you won't lose anything by deleting an XBL Arcade game.

Moving on to the media tab, this is where gamers will have access to music, pictures and streaming media. As we mentioned previously, you can use a portable MP3 player to directly stream music to your Xbox 360, or save it to your Xbox 360 hard drive. You can also copy music and pictures from your Windows XP PC to your Xbox 360 hard drive. These pictures can be used for a dashboard background, or your Xbox Live avatar (or you can choose from several available via the marketplace). If you have a Media Center PC, you can even stream HD content directly to your 360 and watch it in high-definition.

The final tab on the dashboard is the system tab. This is very similar to the system settings section on the original Xbox dashboard. From here you can change your console audio and video settings, set parental controls, transfer files between your memory unit and hard drive, adjust your network settings and devices, and perform basic system setup procedures. This is basically where you'll make any changes to your Xbox 360 settings.

There's not much more to say about Microsoft's Xbox 360 dashboard. From our extensive time with it, we truly believe it's one of the best things to happen to gaming since Xbox Live. With so much console customization, and so many useful features all easily accessible, this really is an amazing little machine. You lazy gamers out there can even power off the console by simply holding down on the dashboard button in the center of the controller. That's right, no need to get up to turn the console on or off, and with wireless controllers, you won't even have to worry about getting up to get the controller. Microsoft certainly seems to have done just about everything right. We'll have more on the Xbox 360 in the coming weeks as we prepare for the November 22 launch of the console.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.