Console and PC gamers have long been divided into two camps. Certainly, there are those of us who play on multiple platforms, but hard-core PC gamers tend to 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 -- is that Microsoft's Xbox 360 makes the line between PC and console gaming a good deal fuzzier.
Yes, this is a console, with controllers and AV 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 AV rack or cabinet. That the Xbox 360 also has a user interface that rivals the 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, and since many of the launch titles are simply rehashes of their PC or console counterparts, we'll have to wait another year or so before we get to see what game developers can truly accomplish. By then Sony should be ready to counter with its next-gen powerhouse, the PlayStation 3. Whether it will be better is anybody's guess. But all we can say is that Sony had better hurry because the Xbox 360 will be a hard temptation for gamers to resist for too long, even priced at £280.
When laid horizontally, the 4kg Xbox 360 is 309mm wide, 83mm high and 258mm deep and is actually slightly smaller than the original Xbox, which also weighed in at 4kg. Unlike the original, the Xbox 360 can also be propped up in a vertical position and, as you're probably aware, can be customised with interchangeable faceplates that will initially cost around £10. Neither the original Xbox (henceforth referred to as Xbox1) 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 it up. Custom faceplates aside, it's worth pointing out that the beige colour of the system tends to clash with the silver and blacks 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. The hard drive (included with the £280 Xbox 360 premium bundle, sold separately for the £210 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 £280 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 to 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. We really like the design of the new controllers. They feel good in your 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. 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 adaptor, which conveniently clips on to the back of 360.