Xbox.com revamp brings freedom from auto-renewals

Microsoft has updated its Xbox.com site with some whizz-bang new social features, but the biggest change is hidden from view: the ability to prevent account auto-renewals.

The headline features Microsoft wants everyone to know about come in preparation for the regular 'Fall Update' for its Xbox 360 console, and centre around improving the system's social interaction features.

Aside from a lick of paint - in which Xbox.com gets a tile-based interface clearly designed to continue the 'Metro UI' theme Microsoft introduced with Windows Phone 7 and will be continuing in Windows 8 - the changes revolve around making connecting with friends as simple as possible.

The old 'My Xbox' section is gone for a start, replaced with a 'Social' section which allows users to keep track of what their friends are doing and to set up beacons - flags that indicate you're looking to play a particular game - which the Xbox 360 will recognise come the update.

Microsoft is also pushing its Zune video streaming service, making it possible to search for films and TV programmes directly in the browser for instant purchase. Previously, users were forced to use the somewhat clunky Xbox 360 Zune interface to find things to watch - a real pain if you have to register a new credit card using just a controller.

The biggest change is significantly less obvious, however - but is likely to come as a welcome change for many: the ability to prevent an Xbox Live account from automatically renewing.

Microsoft's Xbox Live service is split into two tiers: a Silver account gives a user a 'GamerTag' identity and allows them to download demos and updates for their games, while a Gold account allows them to participate in multiplayer gaming sessions.

A Gold account comes with a fee attached, however: around £40 a year if you pay Microsoft's standard fee, rather than opting to buy discounted annual membership cards from a third-party retailer.

In an effort to ensure an ongoing revenue stream, Microsoft automatically renews all Xbox Live Gold memberships as they expire. While it's always possible to downgrade to a Silver account, doing so involves a call to the company's customer services department - an arduous task that frequently involves long hold times and arguments about the reason for cancellation.

Users who didn't bother to cancel their account but instead allowed their registered payment details to expire would find a nasty surprise: the outright closure of their Xbox Live account, complete with loss of GamerTag, associated high-score GamerPoints and any purchase history.

That's not a nice thing to have happen - but it could now be a thing of the past. Heading over to the 'My Account' section of the revamped website and choosing 'Auto Renewal: Change' allows users to opt out of the renewal system quickly and easily, with Gold accounts that expire reverting to Silver gracefully until more cash is sent Microsoft's way.

The new Xbox.com is live now, if you're eager to make the change yourself.