Console and PC gamers have long been divided into two camps. Sure, there are those of us who play on multiple platforms, but hard-core PC gamers tend to be, well, hard-core PC gamers and eschew "mainstream" console games, while committed console gamers can sometimes be heard bashing PC gamers as elitist nerds. While there's nothing wrong with drawing your own distinction, what's clear--at least for the moment, anyway--is that Microsoft's Xbox 360 makes the line between PC and console gaming a lot fuzzier. Yes, this is a console, with game controllers and A/V cables that are designed to interface with your TV--preferably of the HD variety--but Microsoft has essentially packed a high-end PC gaming rig into a relatively small box that fits into any A/V rack or cabinet. That the Xbox 360 also has a user interface that rivals TiVo's in terms of slick presentation and ease of use, plus a host of digital media and networking features, helps elevate the already-good Xbox experience to a whole new level. Naturally, the 360 is not without its flaws. Many titles simply rehashed their PC or console counterparts, and we're only now seeing developers shift focus away from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox1 and creating truly next-gen looking games, such as Gears of War. While Microsoft continues to amass a good library of games, it now has to contend with Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii. But the $400 Xbox 360 has a major price advantage over the PS3, at least through the end of 2006--it is $100 to $200 cheaper than Sony's device (the PS3 is available in $500 and $600 versions), and it will be widely available (PS3s will be in short supply until early 2007). Moreover, the $200 HD-DVD accessory and high-def media downloads (both available in November) makes the Xbox 360 a credible HD movie box. With a year's head start, an excellent mid-range price, and a great library of games, the Xbox 360 is the yardstick against which the new Sony and Nintendo consoles will be measured in 2007--and beyond.
Design of Microsoft Xbox 360 (20GB)
When laid horizontally, the 8.8-pound Xbox 360 is 12.15 inches wide, 3.27 inches high, and 10.15 inches deep and is actually slightly smaller than the original Xbox, which also weighed in at 8.8 pounds. Unlike the original, the Xbox 360 can also be propped up in a vertical position and, as you're probably aware, can be customized with interchangeable faceplates that cost up to $20. Neither the original Xbox nor the 360 are terribly sexy, especially compared to the slimmed-down PlayStation 2, but at least the 360 is less boxy than the original, and you can always slap on a funky faceplate to liven things up. Custom faceplates aside, it's worth pointing out that the beige color of the system tends to clash with the silver and blacks of typical A/V components.
One of the reasons Microsoft was able to keep down the 360's weight is that instead of building a standard, desktop-style hard drive into the unit itself, it's gone with a smaller--and more expensive--laptop-style hard drive that's detachable from the main unit. The hard drive (included with the $399 Xbox 360 premium bundle, sold separately for the $299 Core System) is 20GB, but we assume significantly larger capacities will become available from Microsoft--or more likely--third-party manufacturers.
As part of the $399 bundle, you'll also get a wireless controller--the 360 has built-in wireless capabilities but only for controllers, not Wi-Fi (more on that faux pas in the Features section). Each 360 console can support up to four wireless controllers, and unlike with third-party wireless controllers for earlier consoles, you won't have to have to plug any dongles into any ports. You'll also like that a green LED on both the 360 itself and the controller indicates exactly which controllers (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 new controllers. They feel good in hand, and the shift of the Start and Back buttons to the top middle of the controller is a good move, as is the addition of a set of shoulder buttons on top of the right/left trigger buttons. And no, Xbox1 controllers do not work with the 360.
On the front of the unit, you'll find two USB ports hidden behind hinged doors in the faceplate, as well as two memory-card slots that allow you to take saved games and other content on the go. Those ports are where you'll plug in any wired controllers and other USB accessories that will become available, as well as cables to connect a digital camera, 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. While Microsoft clearly hopes you'll go wireless and thereby free up USB ports for other accessories, we were disappointed there was only one USB port on the back of the unit--and that one is meant for Microsoft's optional wireless networking adapter, which conveniently clips on to the back of 360. Another small design gripe: You won't be able to connect some thumbdrive-style MP3 players, such as the Apple iPod Shuffle, to the USB port in back. You'll need a USB extension cable to connect them because the entryway to the port is too narrow.
The 360 sports an infrared (IR) port on the front panel, which lets you use compatible remote controls without the need for an external dongle. Furthermore, you can power the console on and off and open the disc tray with a remote or a controller--another convenient improvement over the old Xbox.
The Xbox 360's onscreen Dashboard interface is truly stellar, and it's clear that the folks at Microsoft looked less toward Windows and more toward the vaunted TiVo interface for their model. Yes, the 360 interface certainly has some ties to that of Windows Media Center PCs, but it's slicker and more user-friendly, with color-coated tabs for the system's various features, including gaming, media, system settings, and Xbox Live. To page through the various activities, you simply move the directional keypad on your controller (or the remote) left to right. With the increased processing power, windows open quicker than they do on the original; the system and interface as a whole just feels zippier. Like the faceplates, the Dashboard is customizable, with a host of themes preloaded on the hard drive and many more available to download.
Continuing the Xbox 360's customization kick is the Gamer Card, which consists of a personal avatar--a picture chosen from a batch of Microsoft approved images or an image you've captured using the Xbox Live Vision Camera--as well as a motto 21 characters or less in length. The centerpiece of the Gamer Card is the Gamerscore: a point-total representative of predetermined goals, known as Achievements, met in each and every game. It's a nice way to foster offline competitiveness between gamers, as even completely single-player games such as Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion include Achievements.
Not to end the Design section on a down note, but we would remiss not to mention the Xbox 360's power supply. There's a reason they call these things power bricks--this one truly is the size and weight of a real brick. We're not kidding. Furthermore, the 360's exhaust fan is audibly noisy in a quiet room--not a problem when gaming, but it could be a factor when you're using the 360 for media playback.
Features of Microsoft Xbox 360 (20GB)
As mentioned previously, there are two versions of the Xbox 360 available. The $299 Core System delivers the bare basics: the console, a single wired controller, and a standard composite A/V cable. The $399 "premium" bundle (known officially, and confusingly, as simply the Xbox 360) includes the console, along with several key accessories that you'd otherwise have to purchase separately: a wireless game controller, a communications headset for Xbox Live, a component A/V cable, an Ethernet networking cable, and--most important--a snap-on 20GB hard drive. Though it's more expensive, the premium bundle is easily the better deal in our book. With it, you're getting at least $210 worth of accessories for only $100 more. The hard drive--which alone retails for $100--is a must-have accessory. Not only is the 20GB hard drive a far more capacious solution than the memory cards that will set you back $40 apiece and hold only a paltry 64MB of data, it's absolutely necessary if you want to play games designed for the old Xbox console and enjoy the 360's more advanced media features.
Unlike previous game consoles, the Xbox 360 was designed from the ground up to be ready for the HDTV era. As such, all the games have been designed to at least 720p resolution (1,280x720 wide-screen), with many titles available in 1080i. A system update in October 2006 added 1080p (1,920x1,080 wide-screen) support, but games at that resolution won't start rolling out until 2007. Furthermore, not many HDTVs can handle 1080p via component. To see the graphics in HD, of course, you'll need to be connected to an HD-ready TV or monitor via the component-video adapter, which is included in the premium $399 Xbox bundle. Alternately, you can pick up VGA video adapters from Microsoft ($40) or Joytech ($20), which let you connect to HDTVs and PC monitors that offer a standard 15-pin VGA/RGB connector. The VGA adapter offers a handful of other PC monitor-friendly high-def resolution choices, such as 848x480 and 1,024x768 as well as the traditional high-def resolutions available via component. At this point, however, the 360 offers neither DVI nor HDMI digital video connections--unlike the Sony PlayStation 3, which includes 1080p-capable HDMI on all models. Don't worry if you don't have an HDTV--the Xbox 360's component adapter includes a fallback composite output, and the system can output good ol' standard 480i resolution with formatting for squarish 4:3 (non-wide-screen) sets.
Just like the old Xbox, the new system offers top-notch Dolby Digital audio. In-game soundtracks are rendered in full real-time surround, creating an immersive sound field that envelops you in the game world. All of the A/V cables include an optical audio output, but you'll need to supply the optical cable, as well as the compatible A/V receiver or home-theater system. Each A/V cable also comes with standard analog stereo connections for connecting to a TV or stereo, but you'll lose the surround effect, of course.
While it's primarily a game machine, the Xbox 360 is a formidable digital media hub as well. Plug a digital camera, a flash card reader, a thumbdrive, or a music player into the Xbox 360's USB port, and if it's compatible with a Windows PC, you'll likely have plug-and-play access to browse your photos, listen to your MP3s, and play WMV videos. Digital media on your home network are similarly accessible: just install Microsoft's Windows Media Player 11, Zune software, or Windows Media Connect (all are free downloads) on any PC running Windows XP, and the 360 will be able to stream music, and access photos and WMV videos from the remote PC. If your PC is running Windows Media Center Edition (and presumably, forthcoming versions of Microsoft Vista), the integration is even tighter. The 360 doubles as a Media Center Extender, letting you access your TV recordings--including those in high-def--from the networked MCE PC.
One of the major successes of the original Xbox was Xbox Live. The online gaming and communications network is an even more intrinsic part of the Xbox 360. Every model (assuming access to a broadband Internet connection and a storage option--either the hard drive or a memory card) has a base-level membership called Xbox Live Silver. That 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; text messaging is also possible. Later this year, an EyeToy-like video camera will be released for the 360, allowing face mapping and video chat in a few games. Silver members also have access to the Xbox Live Marketplace, Microsoft's online bazaar. In order to play multiplayer games, you'll need to upgrade to Xbox Live Gold, which is basically the same $50-per-year service from the old Xbox. Existing Live subscribers can easily transfer their subscription to their new 'box. While the Xbox 360's online experience is quite impressive, Sony promises to deliver a similar-scale service for free on the PS3, though it remains to be seen whether the company can deliver (a few of the PS3's original features have been scrapped). For its part, Microsoft periodically offers free full subscription weeks and weekends to Xbox Live Silver members.
The Xbox Live Marketplace offers up free movie trailers and game demos, as well as premium content, such as Dashboard themes, gamer tag pictures, and extra content for full-featured games. Items are purchased by using Microsoft points, which is the proprietary 360 currency that's purchasable through the system or via prepaid cards (the going rate for 1,600 points is $30, for example).
Arguably the biggest draw for the Xbox Live Marketplace is the wide range of titles available for Xbox Live Arcade. There's a healthy mix of completely original titles and classic PC and arcade games freshened up with high-def visuals; some even include online multiplayer options. All of the games are playable as free demos, but to compete online and earn achievement points, you're going to have to pony up the Marketplace dough.
Microsoft has added another feather to the 360's Marketplace cap with the addition of TV show downloads and feature-length movie rentals. Available in both standard and high definition, videos will run 400 to 800 Microsoft points ($5 to $10). While we welcome the addition of high-def shows and movies to the Xbox 360's downloadable wares, it highlights an increasing concern among Xbox 360 owners--the size of the system's hard drive. After necessary system files are installed, the 20GB hard drive has only 13GB of storage left to fit game files, demo downloads, and Xbox Live Arcade titles. While you can delete and re-download shows and games without incurring a second charge, the 20GB hard drive isn't nearly sufficient, especially when compared to the high-end PlayStation 3's 60GB drive.
While the 360's library is constantly growing, it can also play more than 250 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 250-plus sounds like a high number, that leaves more than 400 old Xbox titles unplayable on the 360 for the time being. Microsoft is working to broaden the list--it's added about 50 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.
Performance of Microsoft Xbox 360 (20GB)
The guts of the Xbox 360 comprise what is, for all intents and purposes, a very powerful computer. The 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. 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 the Xbox 360 graphics varied widely from game to game. With its amazingly lifelike cityscapes and photorealistic Ferraris, Project Gotham Racing 3 offers what's probably the best example of the 360's HD-enabled graphical prowess--you could almost smell the exhaust of the cars as they darted over a dead-on re-creation of the Brooklyn Bridge. 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 put the graphical output of previous consoles to shame. 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. On the flip side, though, are plenty of games that were developed to lesser consoles and given little else than a bump in resolution--titles such as Samurai Warriors 2, The Godfather, and Lego Star Wars II carry over the now-substandard visuals of a previous generation of consoles.
While the Xbox 360's jump to 1080p takes a bit of the wind out of the PlayStation 3's sails, we haven't really been impressed with its implementation. As mentioned above, the lack of HDMI severely limits the amount of people that can experience the Xbox 360 in 1080p. Not many 1080p-capable televisions can produce the resolution via component, forcing many to use the VGA adaptor. Furthermore, none of the downloadable videos are available at resolutions higher than 720p, and it may take some time until we see a game produced in a resolution above 1080i. We tested the 1080i game Dead Rising on an HDTV capable of 1080p (the Westinghouse LVM-47w1), and found the same issues apparent at 1080i. In the game's opening flyover scene, we still found a lot of flickering and aliasing in faraway fences, street posts, and crossing lines.
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.
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), and quit out back to the Dashboard while you swap over to 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 Xbox1. 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, like 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.
On the media front, the 360 worked as advertised. We were able to pull photos from several digital cameras, as well as a camera phone Memory Stick Duo plugged into a stock Lexar USB card reader. We were also able to stream music and view photos stored on our Creative Zen Vision:M. And true to its word, Microsoft is playing nice with its competitors; we were able to access audio and photo files from the 20GB Apple iPod and the Sony PSP. Unfortunately, you don't get access to the iPod's playlists, and you can't play back copy-protected songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store--the result of Apple's intransigence, not Microsoft's. Digital media streamed just as easily from XP PCs on our local network, but those with Media Center PCs will find the best experience: the 360 is a full-fledged extender, giving you access to the Media Center's look and feel, as well as access to its recorded videos, music, and photos.
Of course, the 360 is a capable CD/DVD player as well. You can't copy music files from connected or networked devices, but you can rip CDs straight to the 360's hard drive, then use those songs as soundtracks for pretty much any native Xbox 360 game. On the DVD front, the 360 finally plays movie discs in 480p progressive scan (via component--the 360 can play DVDs in higher resolutions via VGA) and without the need for an additional remote à la the Xbox1. But 480p is so 2002, especially for a box that touts its HD street cred. This is where the lack of HDMI or DVI output hurts because those connections would offer the possibility of upscaling DVDs to 720p or 1080i resolutions. Moreover, DVDs represent the pinnacle of the 360's optical disc capabilities, meaning these next-gen games will need to be squeezed into just 8.5GB of space unless they're supplemented by downloadable content or made into a multidisc game. By comparison, the PlayStation 3 will use the next-generation Blu-ray format, which holds at least 25GB per disc--the potential for significantly more high-def graphics, gameplay, and so forth. The Xbox 360 won't work with Blu-ray or HD-DVD discs in a game-playing capacity, although movie fans can pick up the external HD-DVD drive, which is available for $200 with a movie and media remote and plays the 1080p-capable HD-DVD movie format. The bigger mystery remains in regard to the HD-DVD player's output--no HDMI or DVI cable exists for the Xbox 360 thus far, leading many to believe that Microsoft may be hoping that studios don't use image constraint to clamp down on component-enabled next-gen video.
With the system's growing pains largely behind it, the Microsoft Xbox 360 has hit its stride just in time to compete with the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii. With titles such as Call of Duty 3 and Gears of War available now, though, it's obvious developers have become more accustomed to the challenge of programming for the 360, and we'll see much more impressive titles--such as Halo 3 and Mass Effect--as a result. Once those games begin to comprise the majority of the new releases, the Xbox 360 will be a hard opponent for the newer consoles to topple.