Microsoft was expected to release Twitter, Facebook, and Last.fm apps for the Xbox 360 as part of a system software update that went out back in August. It was decided that the apps should be delayed for a fall release, but CNET got a sneak peek of the apps on Wednesday from Ron Pessner, Microsoft's general manager of games for Windows Live.
The company is still mum on an exact release, despite marketing materials on the U.K. Xbox.com site briefly pointing to a November 17 debut. Pessner confirmed that the new apps were indeed set for November release, but he could not provide a hard date. In the meantime the company is releasing a public preview ahead of time for a select group of users who sign up to be a part of the beta test (you can sign up here).
What we saw of the three apps was impressive but in many ways extremely limited compared with their desktop counterparts. Microsoft has had to shoehorn the three Web apps into a system with a control scheme that does not implement a mouse, keyboard, or Web browser. Instead, all three make use of the Xbox 360 controller and the on-screen keyboard, or an attached USB keyboard (or Microsoft Chat Pad accessory which you can buy for $30).
This lack of the usual top-to-bottom controls found on each service's Web sites changes each experience considerably from what users are familiar with on their computers and mobile devices. This is made even more noticeable by the fact that the Xbox 360 still does not have a built-in Web browser. Never before has this been an issue, but stop and think for a second: are Twitter and Facebook as useful, or as interesting if you can't click on any of the links? We don't think so.
That said, there are some definite things to look forward to when the software update drops next month. Read our early impressions after the jump.
The Twitter app is the most beautiful of the three new apps. It's big, blue, and can be left running on your TV for hours while it updates with new tweets on the minute.
The app lets you cruise through the last 50 tweets from people you're following. It can also drill down into each of those messages and let you quickly reply, retweet, and favorite it in about two button presses. It also includes Twitter's search tool, and a list of trending topics right from the main page.
And as a nice touch, the app is in no way tied to your Xbox Live account, meaning you can switch between multiple Twitter accounts from the same Xbox Live user profile. It can also just save your credentials between sessions, but there's no way to have it remember past log-ins.
What's odd though is that the app doesn't give you a countdown to tell you how many characters out of Twitter's 140 limit you've got left. You're able to go over, but there are no other warning signs. We're not expecting this to be a big problem though, since users aren't likely to compose epic lines of prose using the on-screen keyboard. But those who use Microsoft's Chat Pad accessory or a USB keyboard could easily go over the limit without knowing it.
As mentioned before, it's also quite odd to read Twitter if you can't click on the URLs. Often times messages come with links either of photos, videos, or posts that add relevance to what that person was writing. With those things missing it's just not the same experience.
Facebook's Xbox app is considerably more full-featured than what's being offered for Twitter. That's to be expected though as Facebook's a much more complex service.
Beyond status updates, which users can peck in the same way they do for Twitter updates, the app can also be hooked up via Facebook Connect to send a status update when you get an in-game achievement, letting your friends, family, and employers know exactly when you were playing.
In our demo though, the big focus was on photos, which Microsoft thinks most users are going to spend their time using the app for. Users can sift through their friends' latest shots and begin viewing them in a full screen slide show almost instantly. If you've got a speedy Internet connection this happens just as fast as reading the shots off a memory card, which is really, really impressive.
As neat as the photo viewing is, what you cannot currently do with the app is take photos from your memory card and upload them to Facebook. Pessner said things like are always going to be better for a normal mouse and keyboard experience. This is despite the fact that the Xbox has very PC-like photo browsing and slide show tools built right in.
Along with photos, the Facebook app can help you find Facebook friends who are on Xbox Live and vice versa. When you're signed into the app you can view this information in one of two ways: Facebook friends on Xbox Live, and Xbox Live friends on Facebook. Both of these options give you a way to add each person as a contact on the other service with just one click, which makes it extremely fast and easy to fill out your friends list on either community.
The only area where users may get into trouble with that though is in very quickly reaching the limit of people with whom they can be friends. This is currently 100, however Microsoft has alluded to increasing that number. This app is one of those things that may help tip the scales.
Two big features that are not included in the Facebook app are videos or chat. Pessner told us that video may eventually be added, but that it's not coming in this iteration. "We're obviously interested in what folks have to say about the desirability of personal videos," he said. "We're going to be evaluating that going forward." Chat may never arrive though, since Microsoft has a vested interest to keep live chat exclusive to Windows Live Messenger users, though it could cave if it meant selling more Chat Pads.
At this point we've seen Last.fm (which is owned by CNET News parent CBS Interactive) on basically every device with an Internet connection. In the case of the Last.fm Xbox 360 app it does a great job at getting newbie users into discovering new tracks. Unlike the other two apps, the app has a "set it and forget it" allure, meaning that you can just pick a station you want to listen to and leave it running for hours at a time without having to stare at your TV set.
Oddly enough, the app in no way ties into music you've ripped to your Xbox 360; instead you have to begin feeding in your musical tastes one band at a time. You can also just link up your existing Last.fm account info and it syncs up with your saved stations, favorites, and listening history.
Microsoft has also teamed up with Last.fm to curate a collection of "music for gamers" that has things like game music soundtracks, and game-inspired music in ready-made stations based on tags the Last.fm community has bestowed on particular tracks.
One big thing that really hinders the app though, is that it cannot be played in the background of games you're playing; it only plays music when you're running it--and it only. This is not unusual behavior for a third-party Xbox app, but it differs from the Xbox's built-in media player, which works system wide. The player also has its own distinct personality, doing away with the Xbox's visualizer in place of album and band art that's streamed in from Last.fm's media archive.
Our hope is that future versions will let you continue to play the music in the background of whatever game you're playing. That is, as long as it's not a multiplayer game, so your rocking out doesn't cause any lag.
We also got a peek at the upcoming overhaul of Xbox Live's video marketplace, which is being rolled into its own app. Surprisingly Microsoft has chosen to go with the Zune brand for this new app, which short of a color scheme change and a few re-worked buttons is otherwise identical to the Xbox Live video marketplace that came before it.
Why Zune instead of the less-tarnished Xbox Live brand? Pessner said that it's part of Microsoft's move to put Zune across as the music and video brand. The app also uses Zune's adaptive streaming technology, which lets you start streaming videos almost instantly. It then improves the quality of the stream within about 10 seconds of when you start it or jump around to other sections.
In our demo, the speed improvement was noticeably better than the current streaming service on Xbox Live's videos. The video would start playing in about a second without any sort of buffer to load.
For folks with that old 20GB Xbox 360 hard drive, the newer streaming technology is a major boon. It means you can watch HD movies without having to first download them. It can also let you start streaming a piece of content you purchased somewhere else, like on your Zune instead of having to store it in your waning hard drive space. That's a nice concession to people who bought the 20GB flavor of the console in 2004 and have a dwindling amount of storage space left.
• The Twitter, Facebook, and Last.fm apps will all be available only to paid Xbox Live gold members and not silver. This is part of Microsoft's continuing efforts to differentiate the two levels of service and get free silver members to pony up to the gold level.
• Twitter and Facebook start up within a few seconds of being launched. Last.fm took a little longer than those two though, at around 13 seconds from launch to when you're first able to use it.
• User themes are not a part of the Twitter app. Instead, everyone is given the stock blue background of the app.
We'll have a more detailed look at the upgraded service when it launches next month. If you have any other questions, leave them in the comments and we'll try to get them answered for you.