Xbox Live transforming this May

Correction: We reported earlier that the new headset being bundled with the text input attachment for the Xbox 360 controller would not include a manual (in-line) volumeand mute control. Microsoft has since confirmed with us that it will.

On May 7, the Xbox Live experience will transform. Asitdoesevery six months, Microsoft is releasing an update to the service that will address many minor issues and tackle a couple of major ones. Last Friday, the folks responsible for the overhaul dropped by our office and briefed us on what to expect.

Instant Messaging

The console and PC experiences continue to merge, growing more and more indistinguishable from each other. Social networking on the Xbox 360 is expanding to include instant message-style chat windows. Here are the details:

- Xbox Live will now include the Windows Live Messenger service.
- Users can chat with up to six other people at a time, but no group chat is planned at this time.
- Anyone using Messenger will be available for chat, meaning people on their 360s can talk with people on their PCs. Those using Messenger on their cell phones will also be included. The interface will display what system each person is on.
- Chat windows can appear and be typed in while movies, trailers, demos and games continue to run in the background.
- Since your Windows Live ID is connected to your Xbox Live account, you will be able to see at a glance whether any of your friends using Messenger also have a 360 Gamertag. Email addresses and cell phone numbers also seemed to be visible from the Xbox Live buddy list.
- If you're worried about your boss seeing you on Xbox the day you called in sick, don't worry. You can choose to reveal yourself to the 360 community, but not the entire Messenger community if you so desire.
- While the maximum number of Xbox Live friends is still 100, you can see and chat with up to 600 additional buddies through Messenger.

To facilitate quick and easy conversation, Microsoft will debut a QWERTY-style text-input keyboard attachment for the 360 controller. It plugs into the headphone jack on the bottom of the controller, snapping snugly between the two hand grips. (Since the headphone jack is occupied, a new branded headset will ship with the device and work with it.) We actually held this new Frankenstein for several minutes and found it relatively comfortable. Typing messages is akin to using a Blackberry or Sidekick style phone and, if done with the thumbs, can be accomplished holding the controller in the same position you would for gaming. That said, the mini keyboard does add quite a bit of heft... we imagine that gaming with the thing attached could do some real damage to your wrists over time.

No word yet on how much the device will cost or how much extra power it will consume. Head to the next page to read up on all the other tweaks coming to Xbox Live this Spring...