This past week, Microsoft launched the New Xbox Experience (NXE).  The NXE is a major update to the Xbox 360's dashboard that adds several new features and generally improves the user interface.  The new UI is faster, prettier (the boring text-based menus have been replaced with appropriate images), more informative (selecting games now brings up a wealth of screenshots and other details), and generally easier to navigate.

My favorite new feature is definitely the Community Games section, where you can download games made by various hobbyists and indie groups for 200-800 Microsoft points each (that's $2.50-$10 in US dollars).  The system started with a few dozen games; today, there are already about 50.  They range in quality from atrocious (most of the 3D shooters) to must-buys.  Of the games currently available, Weapon of Choice is easily the best — a Metal Slug/Contra-style run-and-gun game with great graphics, multiple paths and playable characters, an intriguing death system (one-hit kills, but when you're about to die, time slows down, giving you a chance to change your fate), and insane weaponry.  A whip with a machine gun on it?  Check.  Flame thrower that doubles as a rocket pack?  Check.  A gun that shoots out more guns?  Check.  At a mere 400 points, I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys action games.

A few of the other community games that are definitely worth checking out include Artoon, a bouncy ball platformer with very stylish graphics; In the Pit, an audio-only game where you're a monster in a dark pit eating people; Biology Battle, a high quality Geometry Wars-style shooter; Blow; a puzzler that has using fans to navigate bubbles through levels; Endless Swarm, akin to Tower Defense crossed with Missile Command; Word Soup, word creation puzzle game; and StarPilot, avariant on the light cycle game from the movie TRON.

My second favorite feature is the addition of Netflix Watch Instantly support, allowing you to watch any of the movies and TVs shows on Netflix's streaming service on your Xbox.   This feature has more requirements than I feel it should: being a Netflix member is a natural prerequisite, but you must also be an Xbox Live Gold member. It could be more convenient by allowing you to adjust your Netflix queue directly from the Xbox. Even with these limitations, my wife and I have been greatly enjoying watching episodes of The Office on the monitor that my 360 is hooked up to, instead of our usual method of streaming to her laptop's small screen.  The picture quality isn't amazing, at least with our DSL connection's speed, but it's adequate and is a great feature that I dare say will sway a few people who were on the fence about a 360 purchase into buying one.

Avatars were probably the addition that Microsoft was advertising the most, and they work.  They're basically the same as the Miis that Nintendo's Wii has, except a bit more realistic though still cartoonish.  Judging from my own avatar as well as my friends', it seems to be much easier to make your avatar look like yourself than it is with Miis.  Avatars are a decent addition that will probably draw more casual gamers; my eight-year-old daughter loves them and spent an hour or two this morning customizing her own.

One last feature that needs to be mentioned is the ability to copy 360 games to the hard drive for quicker load times.  How much it reduces load times varies from game to game (the worse the programming, the bigger the improvement). I installed Earth Defense Force 2017, which took about 5-10 minutes. After installing it, the loads all seemed to go a bit faster, although by exactly how much, I can't say.  More precisely, I did a before-and-after test installing Burnout Revenge and found the load times to be drastically better after installing: level loads went down from around 18 seconds playing from the disk down to around 8 seconds playing from the hard drive. Unfortunately, installation takes up quite a bit of hard drive space since it basically copies the entire game to the hard drive and I only have the 20 GB hard drive.  Oh well, maybe I'll pick up a large hard drive when the prices go down.

All in all, I'm really enjoying the new Xbox 360 dashboard, so much that it almost feels like I just bought a brand new system.  The addition of Community Games alone would have been enough to make me thrilled, but the additions of Netflix support, avatars, hard drive installations, and a vastly better looking interface that offers more information make the new dashboard a fantastic new addition to the Xbox 360 system.