Microsoft Xbox 360
“Bill Gates' pride and joy comes highly recommended to those who have an HDTV and cash to burn.”
- HD Content; User interface; Mass market appeal; Seamless online connectivity
- High price point; Needs a killer app; Demands an HDTV; Dodgy backwards compatibility
The Xbox 360 video game and entertainment system places you at the center of the experience. Available this holiday season in Europe, Japan, and North America, Xbox 360 ignites a new era of digital entertainment that is always connected, always personalized, and always in high definition.
Xbox 360 gives you access to the games you want to play, the people you want to play with, and the experiences you crave—when and where you want them.
For those who’ve ignored the pre-launch marketing blitz – including an MTV special hosted by Elijah Wood, journalistic rendezvous in Amsterdam, and on-site appearances by Bill Gates – here’s a quick recap on the tech specs.
The console features a unique IBM PowerPC-based CPU unit complete with three 3.2 Ghz cores, each sporting two hardware threads. Also included in every device: A custom 500Mhz ATI graphics processor capable of supporting 48 pixel shader pipelines and pushing four times as many polygons as the original Xbox. All systems further feature an impressive 512MB of RAM. In English, rough calculations reveal the Xbox 360 to be anywhere between eight and ten times as powerful as its predecessor.
Craving high-definition, cinema-quality content? Look no further: All games are 720p minimum and optimized for 16:9 widescreen viewing. (Note: Options for switching into 1080i are also offered). Even on the low end, you’ll still enjoy 480p visuals. Can’t stand most current titles’ piddling audio output? No sweat – virtually every piece of compatible software’s designed to support Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.
Still, the facts, figures and feature lists don’t tell the whole story. In the end, any console – even the most functionally versatile – is ultimately defined by the hands-on experience. And, for that matter, the caliber of content users can expect from it.
Which, ironically, is where Xbox 360 differs from all digital diversions that have come before: A scant few hundred dollars essentially buys you not a children’s toy or passing amusement, but honest-to-goodness high-end PC.
Fitting the all-white or “chill,” as designers call its frosty iPod-esque color, system into any entertainment center is easy enough. Capable of resting on its side or standing vertically on end – although, seriously, why bother – the unit’s smaller, albeit just barely than its boxy, black forerunner. Measuring 3.3 (H) by 12.2 (W) by 10.2 (D) inches and weighing in at 7.7 lbs as opposed to Xbox’s 8.8 pound girth, it’s a slightly more attractive acquisition in terms of pure aesthetics. Then again, face it – cream isn’t exactly a hue that fits instinctively with most home theater setups.
Detachable faceplates, available in blue, silver, and woodgrain (each priced at $19.99) are also available for sake of system individualization. A dazzling array of further patterns and designs from Microsoft and its partners will be on offer soon too. We’ll take a disaffected stance on the topic; whether the option of popping off your console’s front and tricking it out with painted-on flames or looping swirls adds any value is entirely subjective.
Two memory card slots are present on the front of the machine. Ditto for a pair of USB ports hidden behind a hinged flap, through which you can connect to and communicate with MP3 players, PDAs, digital cameras, laptops and other portable gadgets. (Another, primarily intended for use with the wireless networking adapter, which clips right on, can be found around back.)
Oh, and lest we forget, given that this is a next-gen console and all: The front-mounted ports are also used for attaching controllers. Connection buttons and an infrared port also make it easy to synchronize with wireless gamepads and remote controls in seconds flat.
Good news for couch potatoes too. You needn’t use the gigantic O-shaped button (a ring of light around which coincidentally designates which of one to four controllers are connected) on the Xbox 360’s front to turn the unit on/off either. Powering it up or down can also be accomplished directly from the controller: Simply hold down the big X button in the center of the gamepad for a few seconds.
The only other major item worth mentioning in terms of physical/spatial details is the power supply itself. Holy crap – the thing’s so big and heavy you could use it to brain a cat. Systems seem to generate a lot of heat while in use as well, so be careful what you’ve got stacked on top of them. Although, in fairness, we’ve yet to see scorch marks on our desk (or assault the neighbors’ kitty) so take such impressions with a grain of salt.
Image Courtesy of Microsoft
Moving right along, setup’s a breeze – the system auto-detects wireless home networks and wired broadband connections, although you can also configure IP addresses and encryption settings manually. You don’t necessarily need high-speed online access to use the device either, but to deprive yourself of such options is to miss out on many of the Xbox 360’s most impressive features.
Plug in a digital jukebox, PDA or PMP, and you can easily transfer music onto the console. (Provided, that is, you’ve sprung for a hard drive and aren’t trying to use tracks downloaded from iTunes, which are incompatible.) But more fun still is using Windows Media Connect software for your Windows XP desktop to beam over hit singles or albums into any room, then creating custom playlists or user-defined soundtracks for various games.
Photo viewing options are also possible, as are provisions for producing personalized slideshows complete with funky effects. The prospect of beaming snapshots into the den may not excite you outright, but it beats going over family picture albums individually with each of your relatives the next time they come to visit.
Windows Media Center PC owners have it best, however: They can buy music online, record/pause/playback live HDTV feeds, and stream videos throughout the house.
All Xbox 360 units offer CD-ripping and decent progressive-scan DVD playback capabilities as well. Neither option is all that impressive this side of 2004, though you will enjoy support for inserting tunes of your own choosing into different titles. After all, nothing goes better with Quake 4 than a little Hanson.
In short, a free Silver subscription to online networking service Xbox Live is included with every Xbox 360. This lets you see which buddies are signed on ay any time and instantly communicate via voice or text chat with pals. And, for that matter, sample the wares at Xbox Live Marketplace, an online shopping center featuring free demos, movie trailers, and extra content (new weapons, costumes, maps, etc.) for purchase.
While the need to handle Marketplace transactions via Microsoft Points – virtual tokens you purchase in quantities of 500 ($6.25) or more – is a bit pesky, the overall concept’s great. You can purchase fresh pictures for your user profile, grab cool add-ons for your favorite game, or sample upcoming titles at no expense. No to mention do so at any time of day or night.
Xbox Live Arcade, a special mainstream user-friendly subcategory of Marketplace featuring coin-op conversions that sport minor functional/audiovisual upgrades and HD-ready ports of popular PC titles, is especially interesting. These games, which you can sample or buy on-demand (offerings are downloaded directly to your system in minutes), are often designed by small independent studios and created with casual audiences in mind. Even if Hardwood Hearts or Zuma isn’t your speed, most gamers can appreciate the potential of getting to enjoy four-player rounds of Gauntlet wirelessly, and in actual HD.
An Xbox Live Gold membership ($49.99 a year) is required for multiplayer access. But what an experience it should theoretically provide. (Ed. Note: The service has just gone live, making in-depth tests impossible previously. We’ll follow up shortly after the service’s debut with honest impressions.) Gamertags – personalized profiles which track the games you own, in-game accomplishments, your skill level, and what other individuals think of you – help improve social networking. Automatic matchmaking features quickly pit you against players of similar skill level. And invites to play can be received at any time, even if you’re in the middle of a late-night screening of Saving Private Ryan.
Then again, there’s plenty to enjoy here by your damn self, including one of the finest user front-ends seen in recent memory. The menu system is completely intuitive, divided into various color-coded subcategories, or tabs, known as blades. Under each blade (Games, Media, Xbox Live, or System) are commands for instantly signing into Xbox Live, perusing trailers, loading photos or music, configuring one’s display or performing any other desired action. It’s amazing how efficiently everything’s presented – online options are seamlessly integrated too – ensuring even complete neophytes won’t encounter any trouble getting up and running.
Media Blade Screen Shot
In the end, the whole experience feels a lot like using any Pentium-compatible computer. Only now, all members of your family can be downloading demos, scrounging for hints/tips or jamming along with MP3s from the comfort of the den.
Image Courtesy of Microsoft
Games-wise, don’t get your hopes up just yet.
While titles like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Call of Duty 2 and Condemned all look fabulous and play brilliantly, most feel like hi-res PC ports. Mind you, the majority of America doesn’t have a pimped out, dedicated gaming box just yet, so it’s no big deal: Laymen will see a major jump in software quality (especially in terms of audiovisuals, and hence, atmospheric potential) across the board right off the bat. But if you’re a hardcore gamer who’s been banging away on a $4,000 Alienware system for years already, well… don’t expect to be blown away this holiday season.
For the most part, the launch lineup’s hit or miss. Much as we dig outings like Madden NFL 06, Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Kameo: Elements of Power, the Xbox 360 lacks a killer app. In case you’re wondering, gadget-heavy first-person shooter Perfect Dark Zero is fantastic. But it doesn’t push the bar in terms of innovation. Nor, for that matter, do titles like Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland or GUN (great as the latter’s gameplay is), which are basic graphically-enhanced upgrades of current-gen titles.
It’ll be a ways yet before mind-blowers such as Halo 3 and Gears of War arrive, as developers learn to harness the power of the system over the coming months. With offerings like Dead or Alive 4, Full Auto and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion set to arrive in the next major wave of deliveries though, you won’t be at a loss anytime soon for must-have diversions. Just know this: At present, you’ll definitely be impressed by the titles the Xbox 360 currently has to offer (most, while based on proven concepts, up the bar for sheer intensity). Sent shivering onto the floor twitching in spasms of delight, not so much…
Perfect Dark Zero
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Prject Gotham Racing
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Some more bad news: Getting the most from the machine requires a major cash investment.
Yes, it’s possible to buy just the system itself and a wired controller for $299. But why bother? The bundle package ($399) – which includes a wireless controller, remote, headset, A/V cables and 20GB hard drive – is a much better value, saving you nearly $200. After all, you’ll want to save games after progressing a ways into them, and even if you skip out on the hard drive ($99.99 by itself), a 64MB Memory Unit runs $39.99 alone.
Never mind that every additional peripheral which makes playtime with the Xbox 360 so memorable also costs an arm and a leg. For instance, a wireless networking adapter ($99.99), the component A/V cable necessary for HD setups ($39.99), wireless controller ($49.99), or rechargeable plug-n-play kit ($19.99). Even an extra wired gamepad ($39.99) is pricey, and you know you’ll also want to spring for that Gold subscription to Xbox Live.
Last, but certainly not least, while the Xbox 360 does work with normal sets, let’s get real… Don’t forget the pressing need for a $1000+ HDTV as well, a major purchase for most Americans.
Oh, and those titles you spent countless weeks’ pay collecting for the original Xbox? Only a couple hundred or so (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Jade Empire, etc.) are backwards-compatible. More will be added via later software updates, but still… the initial showing is a little disappointing.
Try and wrap your head around this one too: The Xbox 360 plays BMX XXX and Catwoman, but not holiday blockbusters like Star Wars: Battlefront II or Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones? Nevertheless, current-gen titles which work with the Xbox 360 like Halo 2 do sport noticeable graphic enhancements… and yes, you can still play with people who only own them solely for the original Xbox.
In the end, the Xbox 360 is more than worthy of your attention. But whether or not you need to have it right here and now is entirely debatable. Blockbuster titles are a ways off, price barriers significant, and it’s still going to take some time before certain promised features (e.g. videoconferencing, handled via an optional camera) arrive.
Regardless, Bill Gates’ pride and joy comes highly recommended to those who have an HDTV and cash to burn. Should you find that you fall into this category, don’t hesitate: Make a run for your local retailer – and brace yourself for potentially disappointing news, given current holiday hardware shortages – today.