Microsoft is getting ready to launch their biannual Xbox 360 update on May 7th. While the Fall update typically concentrates on user requested features, the Spring update is usually less visible and more focused on behind the scenes optimization, security, and bug fixes. Even still, the feature list of the Spring update has a few nice additions to the dashboard. Some of these features how ever seem to be non-issues in comparison to some changes that might actually provide a significant benefit to Xbox 360 owners (and potential Xbox 360 owners).
In light of that I’ve created a list of 20 dashboard and guide features that I feel would add tremendous benefit to the Xbox 360 console (at least it will give them something to think about for 2007′s fall update). There’s a lot to cover here so rather then delivering it all at once I’ve decided to make it a four part series spanning four days this week (that’s five features a day for the mathematically inept). Part 1 starts off with Media and A/V features… enjoy.
1. More versatile streaming support
The Xbox 360 and PS3 have been poised as media center hubs in addition to just being game machines, though as someone who has built several media center machines out of PC or Xbox 1 bits I can tell you that the Xbox 360 is a joke in this regard. I understand MS’s undying need for self promotion though incessant product inbreeding but a little leeway in this regard could go a long way towards broadening their user base. Streaming from discs and USB devices is a good start but network streaming is limited to Windows XP and MCE machines, not only that but those machines are also required to run a special streaming program. I think basic SMB streaming support would be hugely beneficial. It would allow for users to stream from Mac and Linux PCs as well as Older Windows PCs, and there’s less for the user to setup. Similarly iTunes Streaming would be beneficial as well, the user-base of iPod owners is huge, hooking up your iPod via USB is one thing but allowing those people to stream the same iTunes music from the PC would be even better.
2. Support for additional media formats.
The Spring update will supposedly include some form of MPEG-4 support but even that leaves a lot to be desired in this department. I hear constant whining for Divx and Xvid support. I realize that these are heavily used for pirate material but I know quite a few who encode all of their home movies in these formats as well. They offer the best picture quality per byte of any other video format. Similarly Additional audio formats like the various Lossless formats would be very well received. You could probably also go further then that and allow the console to accept XM and Sirius radio streams over the net. Obviously many of these codecs come with a price. Even legal Divx users are required to pay for the use of the codec on the PC. So why not offer all of these things as a-la-carte downloads? You want Divx? Ok, fork over 800MS points and you can stream Divx. Gamers get the support they they want, and MS gets some extra cash, what’s the loss here? Not to mention I’m sure the satellite radio companies would love to have their content accessible on the console for subscribers in the same way they have it available on the PC. Make it a paid download and everyone gets to add a big new bullet to their feature list. Listing to satellite radio while I game is just an awesome prospect IMO, especially if I can get more use out of a service I already pay for.
3. Improved Surround Sound Audio Processing
This is more of a bug fix then a feature request. I hear lots of complaints about how the Xbox 360 handles stereo audio over surround sound. The problem is that when you stream music from an iPod or your PC it comes in as stereo and the Xbox 360 only outputs to the front left and front right speakers on surround sound systems, while true that they’re only outputting stereo sound from a stereo source most of the time the music winds up sounding horribly flat. Most HTIB systems rely heavily on the sub-woofer for low end sound. With the Xbox 360 processing Stereo audio the way it does the sub-woofer isn’t being used for the audio. What would be nice is if users could set a flag to have low end frequencies from their stereo audio mixed into the sub-woofer, similarly they could add a feature to mix the music across all speakers in the surround sound system. Using your own audio is nice but when it sounds like crap coming out of two tiny tin-can sounding satellite with no low end, it’s almost not even worth it.
Another audio problem that needs fixing is the digital audio clipping. The 360 fails to send a “pulse” signal with the digital audio so When a game or DVD goes silent the digital signal goes dead and causes most auto-switching digital receivers to hiccup with a few seconds of no audio. It’s quite annoying and needs to be fixed if the console is to be taken seriously as a media device.
Finally HD-DVDs when output over an optical connection (which is probably most people who have purchased the HD-DVD add-on), The audio track outputs at about half the volume it should be and also loses a good portion of it’s detail in the process. This is another glaring oversight on MS’s part. As if HD-DVD playback on the 360 wasn’t enough of a joke already due to the lack of an HDMI port for proper HDCP. It’s rumored that the Spring update will fix the audio issues (and the elite edition of the console will “fix” the HDMI “problem), it’s not in the press release though so we’ll see if it does.
4. Improved VGA support
The addition of VGA output as a feature is great, gone are the days of using a crappy Component video transcoder for getting console graphics on your PC monitor. Though I think it still needs quite a bit of work before it’s really as good as it needs to be. The resolutions available now are good but there needs to be more: 800×600, hugely common on low end projection systems; 1366×768, very common on larger LCD and Plasma displays, certainly more common then the 1360×768 already supported by the 360; 1440×900 and 1680×1050, easily the two most common widescreen resolutions found on PC monitors. How they couldn’t have neglected support for those last two simply blows my mind.
Beyond just adding resolution they need to also add more control over how the image is interpreted at that resolution. For instance if I have a widescreen plasma display with a 1024×768 native resolution, I’d like for the 360 to output a widescreen image scaled to that resolution, instead I’m stuck with a 4:3 image because the console assumes it’s a 4:3 display based on the chosen resolution. Letter-boxing would be great too. if I have a 1280×1024 monitor I might really like to view games in their native 720p resolution letter-boxed on my screen. Again the Xbox 360 assumes I want the content in 4:3. If the scaling hardware is really as slick as they make it sound these should be as simple as adding a few options in the dashboard, and it would add a huge amount of versatility to the platform’s output capabilities.
Also with VGA is the needed ability to select the colorspace used. Without this ability half of the displays on the market wind up looking washed out when used with VGA. It’s rumored that the Spring update will actually fix this, lets hope it does.
Never mind the above issues many Backward compatible Xbox 1 games simply wont output over VGA. As it is now VGA output is somewhat of a half hearted attempt. Honestly features like these shouldn’t “evolve” over the life of the console they need to be researched, designed, tested and implemented ONCE and ONLY ONCE. It’s crap like this that reminds us that the Xbox apple doesn’t always fall so far from the Microsoft tree. I think they need to realize that while they might be ahead in the console race right now they don’t own the console market, and consumers wont stand for that kind of half-hearted implementation when they’re not dealing with a monopoly.
5. Brightness Contrast and Color
The ability to tweak the output image right from the dashboard would be very beneficial. Usually this sort of thing is left up to to the display device itself but it does have some merit being in the dashboard. While TVs usually offer these options in the PC world these tweaks are done right in the OS, meaning that a great many PC monitors wont allow you to adjust those things. Not to mention many setups have multiple devices going into the same display so if the display is tweaked to look good on some other device, it might be a little off on the 360 and it’d be nice to compensate for that right in the dashboard.
One needn’t look any further then the vast number of games that offer basic brightness and contrast controls right within their own options menus. If this kind of control wasn’t needed in the console do you really think game developers would have bothered to add the option?
That concludes part 1. Checkout Part 2 Where I cover the next 5 features involving community access.