Microsoft launches New Xbox Experience, Netflix streaming off to a rocky launch

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Microsoft launches New Xbox Experience, Netflix streaming off to a rocky launch

Redmond (WA) – Microsoft updated its Xbox firmware and upgraded Xbox Live service today. The new software+service combination, called the New Xbox Experience, is released in 26 countries and is available in 11 languages. The software maker considers the product a milestone release with the hope to make the firm’s game console the center piece of home entertainment, replacing rival consoles and set-top boxes. A cornerstone of this strategy is the unlimited Netflix HD streaming feature. However, early user reports indicate that Netflix streaming did  not work for at least a certain portion of users who updated their Xbox 360.

Xbox Live Update: New Xbox Experience (19 pictures)

Microsoft posted the Xbox firmware update at 2 am Pacific time today, tightly integrated with Xbox Live, which was upgraded as well. Microsoft calls the refreshed combination a “transformation in home entertainment” and initial impressions leave little doubt that Microsoft in fact has made a big step forward.

Most new features stem from new community and social networking features, in addition to a broader focus on entertainment, not just games. The first thing Xbox 360 owners will notice is a thorough Dashboard interface redesign. Microsoft dropped the navigation blades, which were rather complicated user interface sections stacked on top of each other. Microsoft is now borrowing a page from Apple’s book: Instead of blades, the new Dashboard features a first-generation Apple TV-like interface where sections spread out and stretch into the distance, zooming into position as you navigate through them. The effect: The new menu system looks less complex and much cleaner and crisper.

A host of new community features are focused around improved avatars, now animated and with detailed customization options to let gamers create their online representation throughout various parts of the Live service, such as chat and party. Users can change many details like hair, clothing and accessories, while an improved Xbox achievements system rewards gamers with new avatar content, such as clothes, tattoos, etc.

Perhaps the biggest change that impacts community gameplay is the new Virtual Parties feature. It enables up to eight people to play games together, with voice chat or instant message during gameplay, even if they are not playing the same game. Users, who subscribe to an Xbox Live Gold membership, can also share photos in real time. Community Games is another addition, basically a repository of games created by fans using Microsoft’s XNA Studio development software.

The new software aligns the console much closer to Hollywood than ever before. Microsoft said it is determined to “put more games and entertainment at gamers’ fingertips than any other device connected to the TV,” which shouldn’t come as a surprise we consider the fact that the value in gadgets is not only in hardware, in free and premium content that comes with the hardware – the Apple’s iPod+iTunes combo is perhaps the best example. The Xbox 360 aims to overtake the PS3, Nintendo Wii and Apple TV in the battle for your family room.

Unfortunately, it appears that Microsoft dropped the ball in the entertainment arena, at least temporarily. The new firmware was meant to let users who are both Netflix subscribers and Xbox Live Gold members to stream Netflix movies to the console in high-definition free of charge. However, early reports indicate that users who applied the update are greeted with error messages as soon as they tried to use the new Netflix streaming option.

Users complained that they were unable to activate the Netflix “Watch Instantly” feature, at least during the first few hours after the firmware update had gone live. More recent reports, however, show that the feature works for at least some users, meaning it could have been a temporary glitch.

What are your impressions of the New Xbox Experience? Have you installed the new firmware yet? Is Netflix “Watch Instantly” feature working for you? Share your experience with the new software with a comment below.