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Hands On Xbox 360, Facebook, Twitter, Last.Fm, Instant Streaming

by October 29, 2009
Staring at an Avatar that is waiting for you to tweet is sort of poetic

Staring at an Avatar that is waiting for you to tweet is sort of poetic

There is a lot to be excited about with this new Xbox Live update scheduled... um... sometime (they keep changing it - currently slated for Autumn 2009 which, by my calendar, is right now). If you are really hooked on social networks, Facebook and Twitter functionality is for you. If you've been looking for a way to stream Internet Radio into your home theater, you'll love Last.Fm. If you are an avid downloader of video content, you'll be excited not only by the 1080p resolution of the new Zune Marketplace, but also the ability to start the video while you are downloading (called Instant Streaming). While the official update has not been released, I've been invited into the beta which is probably pretty close to what you'll experience when it does go live. Realize, however, that some or all of my concerns might be addressed before the final version and, knowing Microsoft, some of my favorite features might be modified, mangled, or lost.


One thing to remember is that all of these services require an Xbox Live Gold account. A Gold account costs around $50 a year. Facebook, Twitter, and Last.Fm all are free to use with a free subscription from the Internet. It makes more sense for Microsoft to enable Silver members (Silver is free but is extremely limited) access to at least Twitter and Facebook. I could understand how Last.Fm might hog enough bandwidth to require a paid subscription but how much does it cost Microsoft to give access to Facebook and Twitter? Maybe a lot but I don't see how.

Facebook and Twitter

While these are two different services, they really are similar enough that grouping them makes sense. It seems that just about everyone is trying to get their content on to or their devices connected to one or both of these services. At the same time, Facebook and Twitter are trying to figure out how to make themselves profitable (edit - an employee of Facebook reminded me that they announced profitability in September). That aside, my question is why anyone would ever use one of these services from their Xbox on a regular basis. They both practically require the addition of a keyboard (though you can technically use in on-screen interface if you are some sort of masochist) which can take the form of a specialized controller or a USB keyboard. This seems like a thinly veiled attempt to sell more of those keyboard controllers. The interfaces are cutesy with your Avatar standing around looking sort of bored but I can't see why I need this on the Xbox. Frankly, hardcore gamers tend to be tech-heads. They surely have a desktop in a nearby room, a laptop on the seat next to them, or a smart phone they can use to access Facebook and Twitter. Even if they don't, why would they need that access? You've long been able to leave text and voice messages to your Xbox Live buddies and enter live chats with groups more recently. Unless you really can't wait to brag to the Facebook world that you headshotted xxIeAtBaCoNxx, these services on the Xbox go straight over "Me too" and into "Who cares?" The only real advancement here is that certain games will allow you to upload in game videos to Facebook. This is a great way to show your skills to your friend or perhaps to put together a training video but it remains to be seen if it will be adopted by any but the most hardcore.


Last.Fm is an Internet Radio provider that again requires a free subscription. While I won't go in to all the specifics, this is another service that takes your ratings of what you hear and creates a custom channel with your favorite music and music the site thinks you'll like. With devices like the Squeezebox Duet (which, ironically, now also has access to Facebook), networked receivers, and others that all can bring Internet Radio into your home theater for free, this addon for the Xbox seems to be a little more useful. If you have an older receiver (or many newer ones for that matter) or you don't want to buy a streaming device, you may get a lot of use out of Last.Fm. It does have ads (many Internet Radio stations do) but the access to many different channels and the ability to tailor a channel to your personal preferences is very cool. That is if you haven't already do so with one of the myriad of other devices on the market.

Instant Streaming 1080p

1080p is one of the features that many people have been complaining about for a long time. Xbox has long has 720p but people want the highest resolution possible. What has also been a bit irksome is that you had to wait for the entire video to download before you could start watching it. Microsoft has addressed both of these complaints with the new Zune Marketplace. Now, provided you have a high speed internet connection (Microsoft recommends 8-10MBps), you can stream and download at the same time. With the proper Internet connection, you are able to get not only 1080p but also 5.1 surround sound. The streaming is adaptive and allows you to fast forward without rebuffering. Instead, it drops the video quality of the stream down to compensate while it catches up, slowly raising you back to 1080p. The cost of rentals (you have 14 days after purchase or 24 hours after you first hit play) averages about 480 points for HD and 320 points for SD ($25 gets you 2000 points so that's $6 for HD, $4 for SD) or 1200 for an HD buy and 800 for an SD buy. This depends a lot on the movie/show and not all shows can be had in HD and some can only be rented. One thing that should be mentioned is that you don't have to download your movie just to your Xbox. If your computer is networked or you have a Zune, you can download the content to any of those as well. I find this to be probably one of the coolest additions as it doesn't limit you.


I really placed these upgrades in the order of Meh to Cool. The Facebook/Twitter update really doesn't seem like much but perhaps it is a starting point for something cool. I'm sure it is only a matter of time before we see a game with a "Faced" acheivement where you have to upload a video to Facebook to get it. Last.Fm could be cool for some users but for many, they've either got Internet Radio in their Home Theaters, they don't want to use the overly load Xbox as a music streamer, or they just don't care. I think it is cool but I suspect I might be in the minority here. While Microsoft claims you can stream 1080p at as low a connection speed as 4MBps, this is nowhere near Blu-ray quality for video much less audio. For the majority of people, the quality is probably fine but for the high end user, it just isn't going to be enough. At $6 an HD rental, it's a pretty steep price especially in comparison to Netflix. I, personally, will still use Netflix for my Blu-ray rentals and their streaming service for my Chick Flicks and non-action driven movies rather than pay the steep rental cost.


About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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