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Xbox 360 Dashboard update (2011) review: A glimpse at a sophisticated console future...

Is tomorrow's update really 'like getting a new console'?

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The motion-tracking is fairly accurate, although no match for a mouse or the stickiness of a pad. We suspect this feature will be the least used, but hey it'll look cool when you're showing off to your relatives at Christmas.
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The best Kinect feature is voice control. Saying "Xbox" will activate voice control. After that you can select something off the screen just by saying it. For example you'd say "Xbox. Video" and you'd be taken to the Video screen.

Where it gets really fun is when you start searching or making more specialised selections using voice. So, you're on the Video panel and you see X-Men First Class is the suggested movie. Saying "Xbox. X-Men First Class" will take you through to that film. Want more X-Men films? Search for them by saying "Xbox. Bing. X-Men", which takes you to every available piece of X-Men content on Xbox.

This search includes any external apps you've got set-up, so you'll get results from services like LoveFilm and Sky in addition to Zune Marketplace.

Voice recognition isn't perfect. You need to repeat yourself occasionally, usually dependent on the complexity of what you're saying. Background noise has an effect on the quality of control too. However, it's the best voice-sensing tech on console, and even regional accents register with ease.

Stronger accents, though, will have to repeat commands more often and it's here where the advantage of voice-control becomes more hassle than it's worth compared to pad or motion inputs. Microsoft claims that voice-commands make the Xbox easier to use than pads or remotes, but it's really the large panels and clear labelling of the new Dashboard that make more of a difference.

Perhaps the best feature of all, though, is something Microsoft hasn't trumpeted as much: cloud storage. Every Gold member gets 500Mb of online storage for free. You can select Cloud Storage as a save option (in the same way as you'd select a Hard Drive or Memory card) and either directly save to the Cloud, or transfer your existing files there as back-up.

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So, if your Hard Drive is damaged you won't lose your saves, however, if Xbox Live goes down for some reason you won't be able to access your Cloud saves. Again, it's a free feature, and it's something that makes Gold Membership better value for money. You might never use it, but it's there...

Now, at the risk of starting a flame-war in the comments we'll quickly compare the new Dashboard to the PS3's XMB. The PS3 interface remains slicker to use, but the new Xbox dash feels deeper and better sign-posted.

The Xbox now does a better job of advertising the content available, and its combined search features make everything easier to find. Online gaming options on Xbox remain light-years ahead of those on PS3 - something strengthened by Beacons and a slightly more responsive Avatar display.

It almost seems a shame that pushing in the Xbox button still brings up that clunky 'blades-style' menu. PS3 remains free, but with Cloud storage you feel as if you're getting slightly better value for your £40 with XBL Gold.

However, one huge advantage PS3 still has over Xbox is that it's third-party friendly, which means it already has the likes of iPlayer and ITV Player - two huge TV services Microsoft has up until now failed to sign for Xbox.

More than anything, the new Xbox Dashboard is a glimpse at what the company is thinking for the future. On the surface, the motion and voice commands tell us that the next - and future Xbox consoles - will be completely Kinect-integrated.

For Microsoft, Motion control isn't just a fad: it's the future. Look deeper though, and the Metro interface reveals that Xbox is destined to be a media-hub - a one-stop-shop for everything you can do with a television. We've already seen reports that Microsoft is looking to integrate Kinect in other manufacturer's TVs, further adding weight to the theory that the company is keen to dominate your living room as completely as it does your study (via Windows-based PCs).

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The new Dashboard then - on a day to day basis - won't change the user experience drastically. Avid Kinect users will get the most out of it via voice and motion control, while standard pad-jockeys will enjoy the extra features and ease of use.

It is, however, an incredibly sophisticated user interface, a well put-together glimpse into the future of console gaming, with features that largely shame the opposition. Oh, and in case you forgot - it's completely free of charge...

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