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 with a remote or a controller -- another convenient improvement over the old Xbox. For a limited time, the £280 Xbox 360 bundle will ship with a universal remote that will allow you to control other AV gear, as well as any Windows Media PCs you might have connected. The remote is fairly compact and pretty basic (it's a downsized version of the Universal Media Remote), but the buttons are clearly labelled and well placed. We found it easy to use.
The Xbox 360's onscreen Dashboard interface is truly stellar, and it's clear that the chaps 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 colour-coded 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.
Not to end the Design section on a down note, but we would be 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 joking. It's huge.
As mentioned previously, there are two versions of the Xbox 360 available. The £210 'core' System delivers the bare basics: the console, a single wired controller and a standard composite AV cable. The £280 '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 AV 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 £120 worth of accessories for only £70 more. The hard drive -- which alone retails for £65 -- 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 £18 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 games 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-pixel wide-screen), which the system can also upscale to 1080i (1,920x1,080-pixel wide-screen). In order 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 adaptor, which is included in the premium £280 Xbox bundle. Alternately, you can pick up VGA video adaptors from Microsoft (£18) or Joytech (£12), which let you connect to HDTVs and PC monitors that offer a standard 15-pin VGA/RGB connector. The VGA adaptor offers a handful of other PC monitor-friendly high-def resolution choices, including 1,024x768-pixel.
At this point, however, the 360 offers neither DVI nor HDMI digital video connections, nor a 1080p resolution option. By contrast, Sony has pledged to include 1080p support and dual HDMI outputs on the PlayStation 3, expected sometime in 2006. Don't worry if you don't have an HDTV -- the Xbox 360's component adaptor 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 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-cinema system. Each AV cable also comes with standard analogue stereo connections for connecting to a TV or stereo, but you'll lose the surround effect, of course.