I spent a bit of time with the new Xbox Dashboard due for public release on August 11th. Microsoft created a preview program which allows people to try the dashboard a couple of weeks earlier.

The update takes around three minutes to download and install, after which you are presented with the familiar NXE dashboard. Nothing has instantly visually changed and requires a bit of exploring to find it all, or you can continue reading for my impressions below to find out all the main changes.

The dashboard and Guide menus have had some work done on them to improve the responsiveness. The Guide blade appears to be faster to display and navigate, I will fully try this later while playing a game to see how much it has improved. In the Games Marketplace, it now takes a couple of seconds to display the Buy and Get Trial options, before it was taking anything over several seconds to a few minutes for some people.

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User ratings for games

A new feature is the ability to view and vote on XBLA and Indy Games . Each game now has an overall rating up to five stars which you can add to pressing the X button and choosing the number of stars to reflect the game. This should help with the Indy Games in particular for people to see good games at a glance as the ratings are sortable.

Other dashboard changes include a redesigned Achievement browser which displays achievement descriptions at the top of the screen without having to click on each individual achievement, it is a small but massive time saving change. Game saves now have a date and time stamp which is useful if you need to make space on your HDD and are not sure which is the latest save. Your Gamer Tag profile now displays the number of years you have been a Gold subscriber, I am not quite sure what the point is unless you have been a subscriber since day one and want to boast?

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New achievement browser

The Avatars are the biggest visual change in this update. A new marketplace has been created which allows you to purchase clothes and accessories for your avatar. Halo 3 and Monkey Island are two of the themed stores and sell branded T-Shirts with the Halo 3 logo and accessories such as the Monkey Island Cotton Swab. Prices range from 80 :MSPoints: for a T-Shirt to a massive 320 :MSPoints: for a Halo Remote Control Warthog accessory. A bit expensive for my taste but no doubt my friends list will be full of Warthogs wizzing around come August 11th. I also noticed that in the original clothing area, a T-Shirt can now be changed from a selection of colours which is new to this update. In the future, games can allow unlockable clothing and accessories which I would guess works like unlocking achievements.

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Suits you Sir (or Ma’am)

Games on Demand was not available in this preview but it may be available before the official release of the update. When it is live it will allow you to purchase full games which are downloaded to your 360 and played from the HDD.

Two of the updates I am not able to try as I live in UK, the new Party Chat features and Netflix. I am not sure why the Party Chat features are USA only as the changes are just to automatically reconnect to a party if you drop out and a new streamlined way to invite people to the party. It would be nice for everyone to get these new features and I can honestly not see why it is regional. [UPDATE] Party Chat features are now worldwide.

TV connectivity has been improved with new options for HDMI users. The new display discovery will select the best settings for your television and audio. New resolutions for monitors with HDMI connections have also been added. Unfortunately they missed out supporting 1680×1050 monitors with component inputs.

The update seems to have addressed the main issue of the ‘laggy guide’ which was my main gripe that I wanted to see fixed. I am not a massive Avatar fan but the improvements to it should please the casual gamers. My thoughts on Avatars may change when the unlockables in games are underway. The improvements to the UI are a welcome addition and while not anything major they are an indication that Microsoft are listening to feedback and constantly working on providing the best for it’s customers.