In November, Microsoft will unleash its biggest-ever Xbox One system update, which it is calling the New Xbox One Experience. Currently available to Xbox One Preview members, the NXOE, as I’ll call it, begins the console’s transition to Windows 10, and introduces a nicely improved user interface.
I’ve been using the NXOE for the past couple of weeks—I was a late entry to the Preview program and needed some Microsoft intervention to make it happen—but so far I like what I see quite a bit. Here’s a quick overview of what you can expect when the update goes live next month.
Windows 10 in phases
While I’m a huge fan—and daily user—of Xbox One, one aspect of this most recent Microsoft console was a bit bothersome to me immediately: General system performance, in my mind, is no better than it was with the Xbox 360. You can see this issue most clearly with the Xbox Guide: If you’re playing a game or using an app and double-press the Xbox button on the controller, the system freezes up for a few seconds between the Guide appears, much as it did with the 360.
So after two years of monthly updates, Microsoft will finally fix this performance issue by swapping out the Xbox One’s Windows 8-based innards for a more performant Windows 10-based system. The result should be faster transitions—not just to and from the Guide, but also between the dashboard and apps/games—and then a set of coming updates that will add Windows 10 features like Cortana and improve the interaction between the console and other Windows 10 devices.
In the real world, performance has improved somewhat, though it still takes a somewhat painful 1-2 seconds for the new side-mounted Guide to appear (more on that in a moment). But it is absolutely better than before, and will hopefully continue to improve.
While the performance improvements are both necessary and welcome, the biggest and most obvious change coming in NXOE is the new dashboard, which augments the panoramic UI from before with a new verticality that makes better use of the onscreen real estate.
What does that mean? If you think about the original/current Xbox One dashboard and understand the context in which it was made, you know that it is a horizontally-scrolling panorama that works very much like the built-in apps from Windows 8. With the NXOE, Microsoft is rethinking that layout and is adding a wonderful vertical element to it. (In some ways, this “cross-way” UI with its left/right and up/down navigation is much like that Microsoft previously made for Media Center and Zune, though I’ll understand if few of you remember or even knew that.)
In practice, the new dashboard is familiar enough that most Xbox One users won’t get too lost, and it retains the left/right navigation with the controller’s bumpers. The top menu now consists of Home, Community, OneGuide and Store items, but if you keep scrolling right, you’ll see more, with Store being split into Games, Apps, Movies & TV and Music, much like Windows Store on Windows 10 for PCs.
Where left/right navigation works as before, the ability to traverse up/down in each dashboard view is new, and you can now use the controller’s triggers to do so more quickly. So where the My Stuff pins used to be at the very left of the Home view, they’re now at the bottom, below the “fold”/screen edge. But you can press the right trigger button to jump there directly while in Home, a nice shortcut to know if you rely on these pins.
As before, the most-recently-used game, app, or other experience is provided the big “hero” view in the center of Home. But now the previous four other apps/games/experiences are stacked vertically between that big hero box and the My Stuff area at the bottom. As you navigate down through this list, each item can have a few in-line links to activities, too. So a game might have “Game hub” and “Share” links you can access by selecting the game in the list and then heading to the right.
The new Community section pulls in information that was previously scattered around the dashboard and provides a feed-type view that is very similar to what we see on Windows 10’s Xbox app. Here, you can see what your friends are up, share something on Xbox Live, and see a “What’s on”-type feed from Xbox over on the right.
The new OneGuide section likewise brings together non-gaming activities into a single place and provides a way to quickly find something—a TV show, movie, or other app-based content—much more quickly than before. This can include live TV—via the Xbox One OTA tuner, perhaps, or your HDMI-passthrough from cable TV. But it can also includes apps, things like Movies & TV, Netflix, and the like. In the previous dashboard, you could find some apps in OneGuide, but OneGuide itself was a bit more hidden. Now it’s front and center, and apps can promote featured content that they think you might enjoy. The result is a more cohesive set of entertainment experiences, all accessed from a single place.
Finally, the Store experience—which, again, breaks into Games, Apps, Movies & TV and Music sub-sections as you navigate in—completes the top-level dashboard do-over, offering much better content discovery and that same top/down vertical layout we see elsewhere.
Tying everything together is the new Xbox Guide, which is no longer a pop-up but instead uses a left-mounted overlay that works everywhere on Xbox One: Over the dashboard, over games and apps, whatever.
The Guide has several sections—Friends, Party, Messages, Notifications, Settings, and Snap—and is designed to let you access the most commonly-used actions as quickly as possible. Some of this stuff is still a work in progress—it’s not clear that the handful of options we see in Settings right now is particularly useful, for example—but the intent is clear, as is the focus on gaming, with Friends, Party and Messages right up top. These are things you can do from within a game—which won’t pause while you do so—and then pop right back into the action without (hopefully) missing a beat. I also like that accessing the Guide doesn’t shrink down whatever you’re doing, leading to rendering glitches. It just overlays on the side, and then disappears when you’re done.
Xbox 360 compatibility
I haven’t tested this feature yet, but the NXOE is also bringing Xbox 360 compatibility to Xbox One. But this doesn’t work like original Xbox compatibility on Xbox 360 worked. Instead, Xbox One now includes a fully-functional native Xbox 360 in emulation, and this emulator is invoked whenever you launch an Xbox 360 game.
This means two things, in practice. One, when you’re using an Xbox 360 game, you are literally using an Xbox 360: The notifications, Xbox Guide, and other extra-game features are all delivered from the Xbox 360, and not the Xbox One. And two, the performance is incredible because it’s a real Xbox 360 in software, not wrappers that are custom-made for each game, as was the case with the previous backwards compatibility feature on the 360.
Microsoft promises it will have at least 100 games available to play through the emulator on the day that the NXOE goes live, and more will be brought online each month going forward. If you have any compatible games in your digital library, they will just work automatically. If you have any compatible disc-based games, you will need the disc in the drive for them to work, as before (and yes you can install them to the HDD as well if you want).
Some Xbox One game makers will be providing access to older titles in game series as part of the new games. For example, when you buy Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, Rainbow Six 6, or Fallout 4, you gain access to one or more of the previous Xbox 360 titles. So that’s some serious value for the price of a single game.