We at Windows IT Pro hear stories about it all the time: IT guys love their gaming time. They have long, elaborate stories about deathmatches in the server room, online collaborative gaming sessions to relieve the stress of the workday. These sessions occur over lunch breaks, after hours ... heck, even on the clock. Your faces just light up as you tell your stories!

(In fact, we'd like to hear more about your gaming experiences on and off the job. Check out our gaming poll and tell us your stories!)

I've been playing a lot with my Xbox 360 lately—at home!—mostly because a few friends of mine have taken the giddy plunge into Xbox Live—we're deep into the bloody fray of Left 4 Dead right now, and loving every minute of it. But another reason I'm paying a lot more attention to the Xbox 360 lately is that Microsoft has dramatically improved the console's dashboard UI. With this "relaunch," the New Xbox Experience fixes a couple of Xbox annoyances, makes the potential of the Xbox as a network entertainment hub much more clear, and satisfies the whole family—all while still appealing to my inner nerd.

I've been an Xbox Live member for about a year, but the service has never truly wowed me until a few weeks ago, when I downloaded the new UI. One of the first tasks I accomplished in the new Xbox dashboard was to create an avatar that would represent my online persona. Now, I've heard arguments for and against these Nintendo Wii-type cartoon characters, but I won't soon forget the evening I sat down with my kids to create avatars for all of us. It was a fun family evening that foreshadowed that new Xbox's deeper reach into my home.

Whereas I once used the Xbox almost strictly for occasional gaming and the odd viewing of a picture slideshow off my digital camera, I now find myself tinkering far more with the console's possibilities as a networked entertainment hub that my whole family can enjoy. I attribute this attitude change to a much improved dashboard—although the more singular-purpose-driven gamers out there will probably disagree. I, for one, welcome the evolution of the Xbox dashboard into a more visually dynamic, broad-focused media center. Yes, the new dashboard is arguably more "family friendly," but that also means it's more widely appealing, and I predict that a lot more people are going to start paying attention to the Xbox 360 because of it.

The dashboard features a colorful, scrolling interface that lets you access functionality up-and-down and left-and-right. You can access top-level menu items such as My Xbox, Video Marketplace, Game Marketplace, and Events, and you can drill sideways into each one to explore. On my first evening of dashboard exploration with my kids—and after testing our wired Ethernet connection and fixing a minor NAT problem with our router—we checked out our Friends list and had a brief chat with one of our online buddies, we networked in our iTunes music from our primary PC downstairs, and we played a photo slideshow from the same source, overlaying some iTunes music for the presentation. The kids loved seeing the instant HD access to their favorite recent photos. In the near future, we plan to start uploading our HD home movies for viewing through the Xbox portal. The new dashboard makes media access extremely easy through a fun interface.

One great bit of functionality (that I just stumbled upon) is the ability to simply plug in your Apple iPod and access all your digital music from the Xbox dashboard! This feature required a quick upgrade download through the console, and in no time at all, I could pump all my playlists to my home entertainment system through the Xbox. And one of the terrific benefits of the new "experience" is that it lets you download games to the console's hard drive, thus drastically reducing the console's inherent loudness. You have to keep the game disc in the system to play (to prove that you actually own the game), but the capability to play games from the hard drive is a godsend, making all the other Xbox functionality that much more inviting. I think that jet-engine fan noise turned a lot of people off the Xbox 360 when it debuted. (It was my single largest complaint.) Now there's a way around it. Of course, to take advantage of this fantastic feature, you're going to need a hard drive-based Xbox 360. Mine is an older 20GB model that can hold only a couple games at a time. I'm seriously considering investing in a 120GB drive so that I can store multiple games and other downloads.

I've since explored the new dashboard further. Admittedly, a lot of it is advertisement-driven—which can get a little irritating for those of us who have paid good money on the Gold membership. In my opinion, I've earned the right to avoid such an ad-heavy environment. Anyway, the dashboard's Xbox Live Marketplace lets you learn about all kinds of media: In the Video Marketplace, you can buy and download TV shows, and there's even a Netflix service, which lets you take advantage of Netflix's "Watch Instantly" feature. That's right, you can access your Netflix Instant Queue from the Xbox 360.

I'm very impressed with the new Xbox experience. In its previous incarnation, I'm not sure I would have recommended the system to anyone outside my immediate circle of survival-horror gamers. But now that the new dashboard fixes some problems and sports a dramatic "new look" for the 21st century connected home, the Xbox 360 is well positioned to become the entertainment powerhouse it was meant to be from the start.

What does all this have to do with your job? Very little. And that's the point. We know that for many of you, the lines between home and office are blurring. And we also know that many of you have been enjoying networked gaming for years—long before Xbox Live came along. It's the holidays. Enjoy some downtime by destroying zombies and annihilating enraged, deformed aliens! Everyone's doing it!

For more information about the Xbox's new attitude, check out Paul Thurrott's recent coverage at this site