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New 360 dash borks video playback

Digital Foundry investigates washed-out video issue.

Microsoft's brand new "Metro"-inspired dashboard highlights how the platform holder now sees the Xbox 360 as a multimedia playback device, just as comfortable at hosting video content as it is at running games. There's just one problem: the video player in the new interface doesn't work properly any more.

We've received a number of emails from unhappy 360 owners complaining that the new dash forces video content to run at limited range RGB levels, the net result being that colours are washed out, with blacks becoming grey. Apparently the issue was reported during the beta phase of the dashboard roll-out, with the only acknowledgement from Microsoft being the deletion of all threads that refer to it, accompanied by this cheery message:

"Thanks for the feedback! Though we will not be able to incorporate your feedback into this release we will save it for consideration in future releases. Thanks for using the new Xbox Update and please keep up the feedback!"

Suffice to say, Xbox 360 owners who previously enjoyed perfectly serviceable video playback from their consoles aren't happy, so we decided to take a look at what's actually going on and if there is any potential fix. To do this, we compiled a bunch of screenshots into a movie file, encoded them into Microsoft's own WMV codec and then ran the final video on the older NXE dash and the newer Metro effort.

Here are the results:

We compiled a series of Need for Speed: The Run screenshots into a movie, encoded into a WMV file and played it back on Xbox 360s running dashboards old and new.

While the differences are hardly dramatic in a single screenshot, the effect is much more pronounced in motion - and it's clear that the 360's new dash is not functioning properly here. The washed-out nature of the colour does indeed suggest that limited range RGB is kicking in, and while in most cases the effects could be seen as minor, the fact is that video compression artifacts are considerably more noticeable due to the error in decoding: macroblocking that would be otherwise be less apparent within darker colours is now more readily visible.

In short, while this could be discounted as a relatively minor bug, the error in colour reproduction can highlight inadequacies in picture quality in addition to just looking "wrong". The same video running side-by-side on a PlayStation 3 just looks so much better, and very much the same as the NXE image (we should expect some small differences owing to the use of decoding algorithms amongst other variables). To further compound the issue, we could find no temporary fix for this issue: tweaking the reference levels on the 360 dashboard to settings other than "Expanded" simply compromised the image still further. Adjusting monitor settings can help, but obviously borks the look of gameplay video.

Looking at the make-up of our screenshots via Photoshop's "Levels" histograms, we do see something curious though. Our NFS: The Run shot looks to be forced down to limited range RGB based on the histograms we see on the top row, but previous tests conducted on our Skyrim timelapse, encoded in the different h.264 format, show the entire spectrum skewing downwards into the 0-16 RGB area that limited range shouldn't touch.

Photoshop colour level histograms offer up some clues as to what is going wrong. The two top histograms are from the NXE shot (left) and the new dash picture (right). This seems to show a standard limited vs. full range RGB comparison. However, the bottom shots taken from tests using our Skyrim timelapse in h.264 format seem to show a larger skew.

Despite numerous reports from users, there's been no official acknowledgement of the issue from Microsoft and no feedback about action being taken to correct the issue - which according to beta testers affects all consoles on both HDMI and component video outputs. We can only assume that by actively deleting bug reports on this issue, Microsoft is aware of the problem and we would hope that it is working on a fix.

However, the platform holder's behaviour isn't going down particularly well with the people who actually took the time and effort to beta test the new dashboard, putting the new features through their paces and providing valuable feedback. Now it may well be that the issue is minor enough not to bother the majority of Xbox 360 users but to ignore the testers' comments to the point of full-on deletion is discourteous to say the least, and can only backfire from a consumer relations perspective in this connected age... so why do it?