XBOX 360 Reviews

The good: Excellent selection of games, including many 360-only exclusives; all games are in native high-definition; user-friendly Dashboard interface; supports wireless controllers and accessories; Xbox Live service offers online multiplayer (with matchmaking and voice chat) and content downloads for most games; backward compatible with many–but not all–original Xbox titles; doubles as a superior digital media hub and Windows Media extender; online Marketplace allows easy purchases of minigames, add-on gaming content, high-def movies, and TV shows.

The bad: The Elite fails to correct most of the annoyances of the original 360 version: the noisy DVD drive and cooling fan; a gigantic, oversize power supply; no built-in wireless networking; only three USB ports; a substandard DVD player; support for next-gen HD DVD movies requires a bulky external accessory; online gaming requires a paid subscription to Xbox Live; proprietary wireless format limits third-party accessories.

The bottom line: While it’s neither a must-have upgrade for existing 360 owners nor as feature-packed as the PS3, the Xbox 360 Elite’s combination of top-notch gaming and digital media features make it the current game console of choice.

The Xbox 360 was the first of the “next-gen” videogame consoles to hit the market in the fall of 2005. By the time the PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii hit stores–a full year later–the 360 had not only established itself as a top-tier game console, it was well on its way to becoming a full-service digital entertainment media hub for the living room, with built-in support for high-def TV and movie downloads as well as Vista-friendly media streaming. While Sony and Nintendo struggled with their respective launch issues–just as Microsoft had toiled 12 months earlier–the Xbox 360 has cruised to the No. 1 spot on the home console charts, with more than 10 million units sold worldwide.

So what does Microsoft do for an encore? Release a slightly upgraded Xbox 360, of course. The $480 Xbox 360 Elite is black instead of white, includes a 120GB hard drive (six times as capacious as the previous 360’s, twice as big as the PS3’s), and sports an HDMI output for easier hookups to HDTVs.

The question for current and prospective gamers: Is the Elite worth the extra $80? For anyone who owns the existing Xbox 360, the answer is probably no–the HDMI connector is more a convenience than a necessity, and the larger snap-on hard drive will be available to existing 360 users as a standalone $180 accessory. Moreover, there’s certainly a tinge of disappointment that the Elite’s higher price tag doesn’t deliver a few more bundled features in the box–the Wi-Fi adapter and the HD DVD drive still need to be purchased separately, for instance. In other words, the Xbox 360 Elite is just a warmed-over version of the previous model that doesn’t deliver any groundbreaking, PS3-killing features.

That said, the Xbox 360 currently has a larger and more impressive library of games, and until the PS3 can offer some compelling alternatives–and I have no doubt that eventually, it will–the Xbox 360 remains the better option. And if you’re going with the 360 for the first time, you might as well spend that extra $80 and get the Elite.

The hardware

Except for its black finish and HDMI port, the Xbox 360 Elite is cosmetically identical to the Xbox 360 Premium. When laid horizontally, the 8.8-pound console is 12.15 inches wide, 3.27 inches high, and 10.15 inches deep. Like the PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii, the Xbox 360 can also be propped up in a vertical position and can be customized with interchangeable faceplates that cost as much as $20. The 360 is neither as slick as the glossy PS3 nor as cute as the diminutive Wii, but the Elite’s matte-black finish is certainly a big step up from the “iPod white” color scheme of the earlier Xbox 360s. While the Elite blends in with the other black components in your A/V rack, however, it may not match all your accessories–you may need to mix and match some white 360 accessories, as not all accoutrements will immediately be available in black.

The back panel of the 360 Elite includes an HDMI port (one of the big selling points), an A/V connector, a single USB port, and an Ethernet jack. Normally, we’d complain about a proprietary connection such as the Xbox A/V jack, but Microsoft includes an adapter breakout cable with both component (high-def) and composite (standard-def) connectors, plus analog stereo audio and an optical audio jack for surround sound output. An alternate audio-only adapter (RCA stereo or optical audio) is included just in case your TV or home theater system can’t accept audio via HDMI. The bottom line is that the Xbox 360 Elite can be connected to virtually any TV or home theater system in a variety of configurations, without the need for purchasing any additional accessories.

The HDMI output is a welcome addition, as it provides a single cable solution–digital audio and high-def video–for connecting to HDTVs and A/V receivers. Whereas the previous Xbox 360 could output HD video up to 1080p resolution via component (or optional VGA adapter), far more HDTVs actually accept that highest of resolutions via the HDMI input. The downside is that Microsoft seems to have opted for something less than the HDMI version 1.3 found on the PlayStation 3. That means that any movies played on the optional HD DVD add-on will be limited to standard Dolby Digital soundtracks, not the higher resolution Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD, or DTS-HD Master Audio. On the bright side, Microsoft does include the HDMI cable in the box, unlike the PS3 and the Apple TV.

Whereas the Nintendo and Sony game consoles have built-in Wi-Fi support, the older Xbox 360 was limited to a wired network connection. Sadly, that hasn’t changed on the Xbox 360 Elite–Ethernet remains the only built-in option. Yes, you can get the optional wireless networking adapter, which conveniently clips on to the back of 360–but it monopolizes the solitary USB port on the console’s backside.

On the front of the unit, you’ll find two more USB ports hidden behind hinged doors in the faceplate, as well as two memory-card slots. Unlike the standard flash memory formats accepted by the Wii and the PS3, however, Microsoft opted for proprietary memory cards–but you’ll never need them unless you need to swap saved games or other small files between two 360s. The USB ports provide connectivity to any wired controllers and other USB accessories (such as the Xbox Live Vision Camera); alternately, they allow for quick hookups to a variety of media devices, including digital cameras, MP3 players, or even your iPod or Sony PSP. Many USB keyboards are compatible, but for the most part, they are strictly relegated to communication and data entry functions, not gameplay. Another small design gripe: You won’t be able to connect some thumbdrive-style MP3 players, such as the original Apple iPod Shuffle, to some or all of the 360’s recessed USB ports. You’ll need a USB extension cable to connect them because the entryway to the port is too narrow.

The 360 Elite also includes on its front panel an infrared (IR) port, which lets you use a wide variety of compatible remote controls–both 360 specialty models and generic universal remotes–without the need for an external dongle. By contrast, the PS3 has no IR port, forcing you to use a Bluetooth remote.

The Xbox 360 Elite’s hard drive is located in the proprietary detachable module that snaps onto the side of the console. Since the 20GB hard disk on the original Xbox 360 filled up very quickly–download a 1GB game demo here, a 4GB HD movie there, and toss in a handful of TV episodes, and things get tight fast–so the 120GB of space on the Elite is essentially a necessity for anyone wishing to take full advantage of the Xbox 360’s media functionality. The same 120GB drive module will be available as a separate $180 accessory for existing 360 owners who wish to upgrade; likewise, a transfer kit accessory (a special USB cable/dongle and software) will allow existing settings and files to be moved from old hard drives to new ones.

As part of the $480 Elite bundle, you’ll also get a single wireless controller and an Xbox Live Headset, which connects to the controller. They’re identical to previous models except for the black color scheme–the Elite controllers don’t add any new functionality, such as the tilt sensitivity in the PS3 or the motion control of the Wiimote. They accept two AA batteries, or you can opt for a snap-on rechargeable model (available separately). Each 360 console can support as many as four wireless controllers. A green LED on both the 360 itself and the controller indicates exactly which controllers (numbers 1 through 4) are connected. This is also true if you are playing with a mixture of wireless and wired controllers; you know who has which controller. All in all, we really like the design of the Xbox 360 controllers, with the possible exception of the four-way D-pad, which occasionally slips axes when tapped (mistaking horizontal input for vertical, or vice versa).

Two other less-than-stellar aspects of the Xbox 360 that have been carried over to the Elite are the absolutely massive external power supply and the console’s noise. While the giant power brick can be hidden away behind the entertainment center, the exhaust fan and especially the DVD drive remain noisy to the point of distraction.

Xbox Live

offers the ability to create a list of friends, view their gamer cards, and communicate with them outside of a game via voice chat and voice messaging using the headset, or even video chat with the Vision Camera. In order to play multiplayer games, however, you’ll need to upgrade to Xbox Live Gold, which costs $50 a year. While Sony offers similar online multiplayer chat and head-to-head gameplay for free on the PS3, it remains a less polished experience than Xbox Live, which has had several more years to perfect its online capabilities to its current best-in-class state.

Xbox Live is much more integrated throughout the 360 than it was in the old Xbox. At any time, you can punch the Home button on your controller to bring up the Live message center. In theory, you can be playing an offline, single-player game of, say, Enchanted Arms, get an invite from a friend (think instant messaging), then pop out to the Dashboard while you swap discs and dive into F.E.A.R..

The in-game Xbox Live experience hasn’t changed drastically, but then again, the service was already near-impeccable on the Xbox 1. By virtue of the system’s processing power, games should be able to support more players online. Perfect Dark Zero, for example can handle 32 players, more than all but a few Xbox1 games. Test Drive Unlimited transforms the open roads of Hawaii into a gaming lobby, where you can pass by potential opponents on the road. Then there are games that support video chatting, such as the Xbox Live Arcade’s Texas Hold ‘Em. As developers have learned the ins and outs of the 360’s hardware, we’re starting to see more players and less lag in the many online-compatible 360 titles.

Games

The Xbox 360 Elite has the same basic guts as earlier 360 models: a customized IBM PowerPC CPU boasts three processing cores running at 3.2GHz each, each offering two hardware threads, while the ATI graphics processor is said to be able to pump out 500 million triangles per second. The console has half a gigabyte of memory that’s shared between the system and video card, plus an extra 10MB of dedicated video RAM just for good measure. We could go on, recounting the 360’s supposed 16 gigasamples-per-second fill rate using 4X antialiasing and 48 billion shader operations per second–not to mention, of course, the 48-way parallel floating-point dynamically scheduled shader pipelines and the 9 billion dot product operations per second. But, frankly, even if we understood what half those impressive-sounding specs meant, we’d have no way to verify or benchmark them.

What we can say is that Xbox 360 graphics, by and large, range from very good to spectacular. Yes, PCs can still deliver higher resolution and better frame rates than even HDTV offers, but you’ll need to invest in a video card that costs as much as the 360 itself. And while the PlayStation 3’s vaunted Cell processor is ostensibly “more powerful” than that of the 360, software developers have yet to tap the full capability of the PS3’s graphical prowess. In other words, 360 games tend to look as good or better than their PS3 counterparts (the less expensive and less powerful Wii isn’t even in the same ballpark). Consider the expansive environments of a game such as Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or the amount of characters on screen at one time in Dead Rising. Similarly, Call of Duty 3 had us ducking for cover as we slogged through some of the toughest firefights of World War II. Meanwhile, in the more intimate confines of the ring, the boxers in Fight Night Round 3 looked astonishing–when a knockout blow was landed, a close-up replay would reveal the copious amount of spit, sweat, and blood emanating from the victim of pugilistic brutality. Furthermore, the 360 has its share of key exclusive titles; you won’t find the likes of Gears of War, Lost Planet, or the upcoming Halo 3 on the PS3 or the Wii.

Backward compatibility

While the 360’s library is constantly growing, it can also play more than 340 games designed for the original Xbox. The backward compatibility is enabled through downloadable emulation profiles; they’re free, but you’ll need the hard drive to install them. In fact, the software for Halo and Halo 2 compatibility is preinstalled on the hard drive. Unfortunately, while 340-plus sounds like a high number, that leaves hundreds of old Xbox titles unplayable on the 360 for the time being. Microsoft is working to broaden the list–it’s added dozens of new titles since launch–but there’s no announced timetable as to when the remaining games will be ported over, and it certainly seems as though not every game will be included.

The backward compatibility on the Xbox 360 has its benefits and drawbacks. Microsoft claims that it’s pumping up the resolutions and adding antialiasing effects to the older games, and both tweaks seemed in evidence while playing Halo 2. Also, playing an online-enabled Xbox1 game (such as Halo 2) lets you seamlessly interact with other Xbox Live players still using the old console. On the other hand, some games such as Fable: The Lost Chapters have brought along new graphical glitches and none of the Xbox1 custom soundtrack-enabled games (for example, the Grand Theft Auto Trilogy) will recognize the songs imported onto your 360. Finally, there is no way to transfer your Xbox1 saves to the 360, so you’ll have to reconfigure your workout regimen in Yourself Fitness.

By comparison, the PS3 can play most (but not all) of the games published for the PS2 and even the original PlayStation–though the fact that Sony is constantly tweaking its underlying architecture (moving from hardware to software legacy support) may make future PS3s less backward compatible than earlier versions. The Nintendo Wii plays nearly all of the games published for the GameCube, though you need additional accessories (controllers and memory cards) to play them.


2 Responses to “XBOX 360 Reviews”

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