Perhaps spooked by the success of Sony's PlayStation 3, despite its delays and hefty price tag, Microsoft has come up with an upgrade to its Xbox 360, less than 18 months after its initial launch. The Xbox 360 Elite is black instead of white, includes a 120GB hard drive (six times as capacious as the previous 360's, and twice as big as the PS3's), and sports an HDMI output for easier and better quality connection to HD Ready TVs.
You can buy the Elite in the US for $480, and it will be released in the UK on 24 August with an 'estimated' retail price £300. You can find our review of the original Xbox 360 here.
Except for its black finish and HDMI port, the Xbox 360 Elite is cosmetically identical to the Xbox 360 Premium. The 360 is neither as slick as the glossy PS3 nor as cute as the diminutive Nintendo Wii, but the Elite's matte-black finish is certainly a big step up from the 'iPod white' colour scheme of the earlier Xbox 360s. While the Elite blends in with the other black components in your AV 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, an AV connector, a single USB port and an Ethernet jack.
Whereas the previous Xbox 360 could output high-definition video up to 1080p resolution via VGA, far more TVs actually accept that highest quality picture via the HDMI input -- if they can show it at all. Most HD Ready TVs will only show 1080i or 720p, but you can select those as output options on the 360, or your TV will downscale 1080p to fit. The downside is 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.
Whereas the Nintendo Wii and Sony PS3 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 adaptor, which conveniently clips on to the back of the 360 -- but it monopolises the solitary USB port on the console's back and costs an extra £60.
The Xbox 360 Elite's hard drive is located in the detachable module that snaps on to the side of the console. Since the 20GB hard disk on the original Xbox 360 filled up very quickly -- download a game demo here, a movie trailer there, and a few extra game levels or multiplayer maps, and soon you've got no space left at all. The real benefit of all this extra memory will be felt when the UK and European version of Xbox Live Marketplace gets downloadable TV shows and movies like its US equivalent, though. For now, it's just breathing space.
The wireless controllers are identical to previous models except for the black colour scheme. There's no 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).
Two other less-than-brilliant aspects of the Xbox 360 that have been carried over to the Elite are the absolutely massive external power supply (top left in the pic above) and the console's noise. While the giant power brick can be hidden away behind your TV cabinet, the exhaust fan and especially the DVD drive remain noisy to the point of distraction.
Unfortunately, there's no built-in HD DVD drive to rival the Blu-ray player in the PS3. Instead, you need to buy an add on. The DVD player is fine for casual viewing, but the HDMI connector seemed to offer no discernible improvement, although a forthcoming Dashboard update might offer some software upscaling improvements.
The Xbox 360 Elite has the same basic guts as earlier 360 models: a customised 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.
Here's the question for current and prospective gamers: is the Elite worth the extra cash? 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 an 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 adaptor 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, 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 and get the Elite.
CNET.com's executive editor David Carnoy, senior editor David Katzmaier, and assistant editors Matthew Moskovciak and David Rudden contributed to this review.
Additional editing by Jason Jenkins