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Xbox 360 Review

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« on: December 04, 2007, 09:22:43 pm »

                      Microsoft Xbox 360

The Good
Superior selection of games, including several console-exclusive titles; all games in high-definition; easy-to-use Dashboard interface; excellent online gaming and communications via Xbox Live; plays hundreds of (but not all) original Xbox titles; doubles as a superior digital media hub and Windows Media Center extender; online Marketplace allows for easy purchases of downloadable full-scale games, mini-games, movies, and TV shows; latest version offers HDMI output with 1080p support.

The Bad
Early versions of the console prone to "red ring of death" system crash; noisy exhaust fan and DVD drive; gigantic oversize power supply; no built-in wireless networking or flash media reader; DVD playback has substandard video quality; support for next-gen HD DVD movies requires a bulky external accessory; 20GB hard drive fills up very quickly; online gaming requires a paid subscription to Xbox Live. Note:The Red Ring Of Death has been fixed as Microsoft LTD has said.

The bottom line
With its extensive digital media features, a superior online service, and an excellent game library, the Xbox 360 remains the game console to beat.

Review
Reviewed on 11/19/07    Release date: 11/22/05   

Microsoft's Xbox 360 was the first "next-generation" game console to hit the market in November 2005, beating the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3 by a full year. Like its peers, the 360 initially suffered from a somewhat anemic game lineup and some annoying hardware and software limitations. Since its launch, however, the Xbox team has implemented an assortment of incremental improvements, even going so far as to release an updated version of the console. The result, as of fall 2007, is the best version of the Xbox 360 to date. The current model features the HDMI output with 1080p video support that was missing on the original version, as well as a host of other tweaks and improvements to the system's underlying software. Best of all, the 360 now boasts the largest--and many would argue, the best--game lineup. In addition to great games such as Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty 4, the 360 is the only console where you can play such must-have exclusive titles as Halo 3, BioShock, Gears of War, and Mass Effect. Add to that a host of impressive digital media features, including an add-on HD DVD movie player and a decent online selection of downloadable pay-per-view HD movies and TV shows.

The console's real Achilles' heel has been its unacceptably poor reliability: A vast number of Xbox 360 consoles have suffered the dreaded "red ring of death" error, a fatal glitch that renders them unusable. It's been a huge frustration for even the most forgiving 360 owner. That said, Microsoft has made amends by offering a three-year limited warranty, guaranteeing replacement of those faulty consoles. Anecdotal evidence continues to suggest that the problem afflicts mostly older consoles. In other words, those manufactured in 2007 or later--the ones equipped with HDMI ports--should be much more stable than their predecessors.

In addition to the (we hope) improved reliability, we wish the upgraded version of the console had included a few more substantive fixes as well--a smaller power supply, a quieter disc drive, and built-in Wi-Fi. Nevertheless, the addition of HDMI, a best-in-class game library, and the cheapest price to date ($50 lower than the original console) make the Xbox 360 an offer that few gamers will be able to refuse.

Xbox 360 models compared
The 20GB version (reviewed here--often called the "Xbox 360 Pro" or "Xbox 360 Premium") will suffice for most users, while those who wish to maximize the console's video and gaming prowess will want to invest an extra $100 in the 120GB Xbox 360 Elite. (The Xbox 360 Arcade should be avoided--you'll just end up having to buy the add-on hard drive later anyway, thus eliminating the apparent savings.)

Model    Xbox 360 Arcade*    Xbox 360 20GB^    Xbox 360 Elite 120GB
MSRP    $280    $350    $450
Hard disk size    n/a (includes 256MB memory card)    20GB    120GB
Included accessories    One wireless controller, composite AV cable    One wireless controller, headset, Ethernet cable, component/composite AV cable    One wireless controller, headset, Ethernet cable, component/composite AV cable, HDMI cable
Color    White    White    Black
Unique bundled items    Currently ships with five Xbox Live Arcade titles.    Currently ships with Forza Motorsport 2 and Marvel Ultimate Alliance.    Currently ships with Forza Motorsport 2 and Marvel Ultimate Alliance.
Notes    Can't download online content or play original Xbox games without the addition of an add-on hard drive accessory (sold separately).    Best price/feature mix for most users; avoid older version that lacks HDMI port.    Larger hard drive is ideal for heavy downloaders of games and video.

*Replaces the Xbox 360 Core System, which has since been discontinued

^The Halo 3 Limited Edition Xbox 360 features identical hardware, a Halo-themed camouflage paint job, and no bundled games.

Hardware reliability
As mentioned above, the Xbox 360 has been plagued by a series of hardware problems, most commonly represented by the now infamous "red ring of death"--the three flashing red lights that the console displays when a major hardware malfunction has occurred. Microsoft has yet to confirm the reason for the problem, but it's widely attributed to overheating and poor airflow within the console's innards. Since admitting to the problem in July 2007, Microsoft has extended the original 90-day warranty on all newly purchased 360s to a full year. Additionally, any Xbox 360 that suffers from a hardware failure marked by three red flashing lights is now covered for three years from the original purchase date.

Since the middle of 2007, it appears that most Xbox 360s have been manufactured with the so-called "Falcon" CPU, a 65nm processor that's said to be smaller, cooler, and more energy efficient than the 90nm version found on earlier 360s. Improved heat sinks in the consoles have also helped cool down newer units as well.

The upshot is that the newest Xbox 360s should be much more reliable than their predecessors. We'd seek out an Xbox 360 with HDMI output when purchasing, both because it's a great feature to have, and because it's a sign that you've got one of the latest models that have been manufactured. Of course, if you've already gotten a non-HDMI model, or a possibly faulty pre-Falcon model, you can at least be confident that Microsoft's expanded warranty won't leave you stuck with a lemon.

Design
When laid horizontally, the 8.8-pound Xbox 360 is 12.15 inches wide, 3.27 inches high, and 10.15 inches deep, and it's actually slightly smaller than the original Xbox, which also weighed in at 8.8 pounds. Unlike the original, the Xbox 360 can be propped up in a vertical position and, as you're probably aware, can be customized with interchangeable faceplates that cost as much as $20. Custom faceplates aside, it's worth pointing out that the beige color of the system tends to clash with the silver and black of typical AV 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. However, unlike the PS3, which accepts any standard 2.5-inch laptop drive, the 360's drive is encased in a proprietary snap-on module. You can upgrade to a larger 120GB model for around $180--but if you're already interested in that much storage, save some money and just pick up the 120GB Xbox 360 Elite instead.

As part of the $349 bundle, you'll also get a wireless controller--the 360 has built-in wireless capabilities but only for controllers, not Wi-Fi. Each 360 console can support as many as four wireless controllers--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 controllers. They're a slight upgrade from those that came with the original Xbox--and they're now available in several colors, including pink, blue, and black.

On the front of the unit, you'll find two USB ports hidden behind a hinged door 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. For easier data entry, consider instead the Xbox 360 Messenger Kit, a small keyboard accessory that snaps onto the controller.

The 360 sports an infrared (IR) port on the front panel, which lets you use compatible remote controls--including nearly any universal remote--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. By contrast, the PS3 lacks standard IR, which limits it to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi control only.

The Xbox 360 has two big design shortfalls: its oversize power supply and its incredibly noisy disk drive. The power brick is the largest you'll ever see on a consumer device--easily half the size of a cinder block. Meanwhile, the 360's DVD drive often sounds like a helicopter taking off while you're playing a game--and the system's exhaust fan is audible as well. All in all, the system is just a lot noisier than it should be--definitely more so than rival consoles from Nintendo and Sony.

Video and audio specs
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. We could go on and on about the detailed specifications of the system, but for the sake of comprehension, we'll hold that back. What you really need to know about the Xbox 360 in terms of performance though, is its ability to output HD graphics. Every single Xbox 360 game has been designed to output at a minimum of 720p, and--if your TV supports it--they can be upscaled to 1080i or 1080p (just choose your preferred resolution on the console's settings page). HD output is available via the included component video cable, or you can supply your own HDMI cable instead. 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.

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 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 AV cables include an optical audio output, but you'll need to supply the optical cable, as well as the compatible AV receiver or home-theater system. Each AV cable also comes with standard analog stereo connections for connecting to a TV or stereo, but you'll lose the surround effect, of course. Once again, you can opt to go with HDMI and have digital video and audio handled by a single cable.

Additionally, the Xbox 360 is a progressive scan DVD player that will output a 480p signal. As of now, even when using HDMI out, the Xbox 360 cannot upscale movies to higher resolutions. If you use your 360 as a CD player, you'll have the option of ripping tracks from the disc to be used as standalone music files or for listening while playing games. Hitting the "X" guide button on your controller midgame will allow you to access and control your music as well. Accordingly, the system will lower the in-game music to allow for your custom tracks.

Dashboard and Interface
The Xbox 360's onscreen Dashboard interface is truly stellar--it's incredibly easy to navigate and explore. Comprised of color-coded blades for the system's various features (Marketplace, Xbox Live, games, media, and system), you can slide from one section of the Dashboard to the next with ease. Since the initial dashboard release, the interface has gone through a number of upgrades. Every spring and fall, a new Dashboard update adds in a number of most-wanted features that improve the overall performance and usability of the dashboard. 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 (1,000 possible points per 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.

Xbox Live & Xbox Live Arcade
Xbox Live was a large success on the original Xbox, but this time around Xbox Live is completely integrated into the Dashboard. 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, voice messaging using the headset, video chat using the Xbox Live Vision Camera, and text messaging as well. The Xbox Live interface is completely accessible at any time during a gaming session. Simply press the silver "X" guide button and you instantly have access to any of the features of the service.

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. In addition to enabling online play, the Gold tier also gives players early access to some free downloadable content, such as new maps or levels for certain games.

Xbox Live Arcade refers to the downloadable casual and minigames offered on the console. More than 50 titles are available, including classic arcade games and original titles built from the ground up strictly for distribution over the Xbox Live service. While the majority of these games offer free downloadable trials, the full versions do cost money. Pricing on Xbox Live works with a points system as currency. Microsoft Points can be purchased through your Xbox 360 console or in stores via an MS Points card. Xbox Live Arcade games range from 400 to 1200 MS points--80 MS Points equal $1.

One nice improvement over the Nintendo Wii's similar Virtual Console is that the Xbox Live Arcade games are always properly formatted for your preferred screen size (standard or wide screen), and many of them allow cooperative or competitive online play via Xbox Live. Every Xbox Live Arcade game also has a set of 200 Achievement points associated with it as well--however, these points can be obtained only in the full, purchased version of the game. Furthermore, many older games offer a choice between updated HD graphics or "classic" retro looks.

Marketplace and media capabilities
MS Points can also be used toward the purchase of TV show episodes and full-length movie rentals via the first blade in the Dashboard, the Marketplace. These videos are available in standard and high-definition formats, but be warned--high-def media does start to fill space rather quickly, so the included 20GB hard drive may not be sufficient if you download a large amount of videos.

The Marketplace is also where you can find free game and movie trailers as well as behind-the-scenes videos from certain gaming events, such as gaming conventions in Europe, Japan, and North America. Additionally, the Marketplace offers premium customizable content for your Xbox 360. Gamers can download themes and picture packs that change the look of the Dashboard and your Gamer Card. These items are available for 80 to 200 MS Points, take up minimal hard drive space, and are yours to keep forever.

What is considered by some to be the most crucial feature of the online Marketplace is the ability to download fully featured game demos. Now, prospective buyers have the luxury of trying out a game days, weeks, and occasionally even months before its official release. This feature has become so popular that publishers are now making special arrangements for Marketplace demos such as the recent Call of Duty 4 beta demo. You get to make a first impression only once, so the actual quality of these demos has improved dramatically since their initial implementation.

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 or Vista, and the 360 will be able to stream music and access photos and WMV videos from the remote PC. If your version of Windows is enabled with Media Center functionality (some versions of XP and most versions of Vista), the integration is even tighter. The 360 doubles as a Media Center Extender, letting you access live and recorded TV--including those in high-def--from the networked MCE PC.

Accessories
There are dozens of available accessories for the Xbox 360. Most recently, Microsoft introduced the Messenger Kit which includes an attachable keyboard add-on for your controller, making texting your Xbox Live friends much easier. You can also use your Messenger Kit for chatting with friends over MSN Messenger. For more communication options, there is the Xbox Live Vision Camera, which allows you to video chat with friends as well as use it in games that support it. For example, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas allows you to take a picture of yourself and map it to your online multiplayer avatar. Sick of that wired headset? You may want to look into the Xbox 360 wireless headset, which includes a rechargeable battery built into the unit itself.

A drawback to not having Wi-Fi embedded in the console is that, should you want the ability to receive a wireless signal, you'll need to purchase the wireless network adapter. Another alternative is to go with a powerline networking solution instead.

The wireless controllers accept two AA batteries, but plenty of rechargeable options are available. The best is the quick-charge kit, which allows for dual battery charging and even comes with a rechargeable battery ($12 when sold separately). Again, the snap-on batteries are a nice alternative to the wireless PS3 controllers, which lack user-accessible batteries.

The lack of a next-gen optical disc was one reason that most versions of the Xbox 360 cost less than the PlayStation 3, which includes a built-in Blu-ray drive. If you don't want to rent HD movies via the online Marketplace, Microsoft offers an HD DVD player add-on for about $180. But now that standalone HD DVD players are available for less than $200, it's not as attractive an option as it was when it originally hit the market.

The game library
When it comes to a console's lifespan, one factor can decide whether or not such a device can stand the test of time. When it is all said and done, the console with the best lineup of exclusive games will reign supreme. So far, Microsoft has done an excellent job in securing big game developers' sole allegiance to creating games for the Xbox 360. Notable Xbox 360 exclusives include BioShock, Dead Rising, Gears of War, Halo 3, the Project Gotham Racing series, and Mass Effect.

Furthermore, games that were absent (or long delayed) on the previous Xbox will be featured titles on the 360. , Resident Evil 5, and Devil May Cry 4 should all be available on the 360 simultaneously with Sony or Nintendo consoles, if not first.

In addition to the Xbox 360's growing library of games, hundreds of games playable on the original Xbox will also work with new console (via downloadable software emulation profiles, which are automatically installed via Xbox Live). The entire list of backward-compatible games is available here; Microsoft expands the list periodically, but there's no guarantee as to if or when a favorite classic title will be added. Still, considering that the latest PlayStation 3 ditches backward PS2 compatibility altogether, what was once an Xbox 360 liability is now a comparative strength.

As of December 2007, a Dashboard update will also add an Xbox Originals service to Xbox Live. This essentially offers select titles from the original Xbox for download via Xbox Live for the equivalent of $15 in Microsoft points.


Credits: Reviews.com and Google.com
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