Xbox live is the name of the Microsofts online service for the Xbox 360. This service gives you access to a vast array of content, some of it free, and some of it at a price.
There are 2 types of membership available, namely Gold and Silver. Silver is a free membership which is available to all Xbox owners. Silver allows you access to most promotional video and feature content via the 360 dashboard but does not allow you to play games online.
So what is so special then about Xbox live? The Playstation Network is free, the Wii gives free access to its limited catalogue of online games and seeing as the Silver Xbox Live is also free, why bother paying what seems like a high amount for the Gold membership. These were my own personal sentiments when I first bought my Xbox. Coming from the Wii, I was horrified when I found out I had to pay to play online, something I had always taken for granted whilst playing Mario Kart, in fact, after my free month of live membership ran out, I didn't sign up for a paid membership straight away. The reason for this wasn't because I didn't like it, but I just wanted to buy a few more games to maximize the use I would get out of it.
The reason probably 99% of people buy the Xbox Live Gold membership is so that they can play online games. This adds another dimension to gaming as no longer do you just have to beat artificially controlled opponents, you can now take on the world and battle against other people who, like yourself, probably think they are pretty good at a particular game. With most of the popular games, you will never have a problem in being paired with an opponent. For example, when playing the new Fifa 10 game at peak times, it is not uncommon for roughly 70,000 people to be playing the same game online. This is where the Xbox dramatically scores points over the Playstation as the PSN (Playstation Network) is still very much in its infancy. Gold membership also gives you voice chat whilst playing online. Although I tend not to use this feature a great detail with strangers, there is nothing better than having a bit of verbal banter with friends during a game. This online chat is very clear and doesn't slow the game down one little bit which is amazing considering it is using the same internet bandwidth as the game. The chat is full duplex which means that more than one person can speak at any given time. There are different chat channels which mean you can either speak to one person who may or may not be playing the same game as you or , using Fifa again as an example, you could potentially be chatting with upto 19 other players if you are in the 10 v 10 match mode.
Obviously, whilst playing online you are going to have varying experiences of other players. Xbox Live allows you to leave feedback on other players so that future opponents can get an insight into whether they are friendly or not. In my opinion, this needs a bit of work as I only tend to leave feedback if I have had a bad experience of someone. As well as leaving this feedback you can class gamers as preferred players or as people to avoid. This information is used when the service is trying to pair you up for an online game. If you prefer a player then this person will get priority for you to play against if you are both online at the same time. If you have set someone as `avoid', you will never get paired with them.
With the vast amount of people online at any one time, you are going to want to play against someone who has similar ability as yourself as you are going to lose enjoyment pretty quick if you are new to a game and are playing against someone who can beat you very easily. Microsoft use a technology called TrueSkill that attempted to pair you with players of a similar ability when playing games. The scope of TrueSkill is configurable so if you really want to take on the best, you can tell your current game to pair you with someone of any skill level. If, like me, you want to play it safe, you can tell the game to only pair you with people of the same skill level. There are various points between these two extremes where you can say, for example, find me a player upto 3 levels above my current level. I think this is a brilliant feature, one that keeps me gripped to the online service for hours.
If you have a gold membership, you are able to download game addons such as extra outfits, cars, golf courses etc. Some of this content will be made available to Silver members but Gold members will get this option a good deal quicker. Also, some content may only be made available to Gold members (this content is usually just for features relating to online play).
As a Gold member, you can also download exclusive game demos, trailers and movies, most of them now coming in full 1080 HD.
It is worth noting that most of this extra content, with the exception of the demos and trailers is not free. You will need to purchase Microsoft Points if you wish to download any add ons.
==Xbox Live Parties==
A party is in effect a large voice chat room where you can invite your friends to regardless of what game they are playing. This means you could have 5 or 6 of your mates online, all playing different games but still able to chat with each other across the Xbox Live service. The party function also works if you are all playing the same game although, if you are in this channel, you will not be able to speak to your opponent directly if they are not in the party.
If you are already a member of Netflix, who personally I have not heard of, you are able to watch a vast array of movies and tv programmes via your Xbox, free of charge. These videos are streamed directly onto the Xbox. As I am not a Netflix member and am not prepared to use the pay per view option, I am unable to comment any further on this feature.
The latest addition to the Xbox 360 for Gold Members is the Sky player. If you have a current Sky Multiroom subscription then you are entitled to watch Sky content included in your normal subscription for free. If you are a standard Sky subscriber then this service will cost you £5 per month. If like me, you don't subscribe to Sky then you can take the service from £15 per month for the base service up to £50 per month for the full service including Sky Sports and ESPN. One advantage of this is that you don't need a satellite dish or any other hardware to receive the Sky channels. This service is only in its first month and has had a few teething problems but these are being ironed out quickly. I get all my TV via Virgin Media so will not be using this service but I can see the benefits for existing Sky customers who would want to watch their TV shows in another room to their main TV and set top box.
==Facebook, Twitter and Last.fm==
Such is the pull of Xbox Live these days, companies are queuing up to get a piece of the action. I have already mentioned that Sky are onboard and from November 17 2009, the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter will allow users to manage their accounts via their Xbox 360 Gold membership. On the same date, music site last.fm will also be going live to gold members. I believe this will allow users to listen to online music via their console. This announcement was greeted with excitement a few months back so hopefully it will live up to the hype.
Xbox Live, although appearing quite expensive is a work of art. Microsoft have invested a lot of time and money in perfecting the service. To be honest, games on the Xbox and Playstation 3 are almost identical in appearance and gameplay, but the Xbox is by far the most popular console because it is streets ahead in terms of the online experience. When signing up for an Xbox account, you get a free months trial of the gold membership.
In typical Microsoft fashion, they are looking to take people away from prime time TV and get them viewing and playing content via the console. This was apparent with the successful trial of 1 vs 100, which was free to gold members, where over 80,000 people played the first few shows back in the summer. It is Microsoft's vision to get people participating in the game rather than just watching it. With this philosophy, the next 12 months are going to be very exciting for the console and the Gold community. Why not join up now and be a part of it.