Microsoft released a pretty big update for the Xbox this week. It’s basically the Xbox’s equivalent of Windows Vista: no new functionality, but everything looks shinier.

The most obvious change is the addition of avatars. They let you create little digital characters for your profile. Basically the same thing as the Nintendo Mii, except that the Xbox versions don’t look as much like Lego toys. I’d be a little worried that the introduction of these characters would cheese-up my otherwise adult gaming console, but it doesn’t really change anything. There are no changes to existing games and only a few games can use the avatars, and only one of those can do anything with the avatar besides display it. So, really, while the avatar is fun to create, the only functional change that it offers is to give more personality to the old gamer profile icons.

The other noticeable change is the menu system. It’s all shiny and bright, and after seeing the avatars you might think that the lighter feel of the menus is another Wii rip-off, but I think it’s more similar to the Cover Flow interface that Apple has been putting on their new i-products (tunes and pods and phones). Basically the menu looks like a bunch of individual pages that you flip through. Besides the look of the menu, the menu system has gotten a lot bigger. It scrolls horizontally and vertically, so basically there’s just tons of menu options. There are a couple places where the new navigation makes it easier to find things (like that there’s finally a separation of full games from trials and demos in the Arcade menu). For the most part, though, the menu options are the same the new layout just gives Microsoft more real estate to throw in advertisements.

Something that actually does upset me about the new interface is that the skins for the dashboard are basically useless now. The old skins still exist, but the new interface just uses them for a background image instead of skinning all of the menus. I probably wouldn’t care about that if it weren’t for the fact that I had a special edition theme that came with my special edition Halo Xbox. So now I just have a special edition desktop image that anyone could probably get just by downloading a screenshot off the Internet and using that for their background image. It kind of takes the “special” out of the edition.

So, while the update is mostly just visual, there actually are two features that I’m excited about. One is that Netflix now has their own Xbox app, so you can watch the streamable portion of the Netflix library right on your Xbox. If that ends up as nice as I’m hoping then it might make me switch teams away from Blockbuster.

The second new feature that I’m excited about is the Community Games section. It’s pretty empty right now, but basically this is a new area that will let individuals share their homebrew games with the rest of the Xbox world. Even if no good games surface out of the community, I think it’s awesome and encouraging that it’s even an option now.

If you’re not an Xbox player you probably don’t care about most of this (and if you are then you’ve probably already drawn your own conclusions), but I just thought I’d share my review while the system is still new enough for a fresh perspective. Even though the avatars are the most prominent change, don’t be fooled and think that the Xbox has turned into the Nintendo Wii. Most of the changes are just cosmetic, and probably more ripped off from Apple than Nintendo anyway. If you don’t like the cosmetic changes then you can find comfort in the fact that once you pop your game disk in the console is just the same as it always was.