While it's primarily a games machine, the Xbox 360 is a formidable digital media hub as well. Plug a digital camera, a flash card reader, a USB drive or a music player into the Xbox 360's USB port, and if it's compatible with a Windows PC, you'll probably have plug-and-play access to browse your photos and listen to your MP3s. Digital media on your home network are similarly accessible: just install Microsoft's Windows Media Connect software (a free download) on any PC running Windows XP, and the 360 will be able to stream music and photos from the remote PC. If your PC is running Windows Media Center Edition, the integration is even tighter. The 360 doubles as a Media Center Extender, letting you access your TV recordings -- including those in high-def, when Sky gets its act together next year -- from the networked MCE PC.
One of the major successes of the original Xbox was Xbox Live. The online gaming and communications network is an even more intrinsic part of the Xbox 360. 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 you access to voice chat and voice messaging using the headset, which plugs into the controller, as well as the Xbox Live Marketplace, an online bazaar offering free and for-pay demos, trailers and more. In order to play multiplayer games, you'll need to upgrade to Xbox Live Gold, which is basically the same £40-per-year service from the old Xbox. Existing Live subscribers can easily transfer their subscription to their new 'box. There's also an Xbox Live Arcade, which offers entertaining minigames, such as the Tetris-like Hexic that's included on the hard drive.
The Xbox 360 launches with 15 titles, but it can also play more than 200 games designed for the original Xbox. The backward compatibility is enabled through downloadable emulation profiles -- they're free, but once again, you'll need the hard drive and a broadband connection to use them. In fact, the software for Halo and Halo 2 compatibility is preinstalled on the hard drive. Unfortunately, while 200-plus sounds like a high number, that leaves more than 400 old Xbox titles unplayable on the 360 for the time being. Microsoft is working to broaden the list, but there's no announced timetable as to when -- or if -- the remaining games will be ported over.
The guts of the Xbox 360 comprise what is, for all intents and purposes, a very powerful computer. The 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. We could go on, recounting the 360's supposed 16 gigasamples-per-second fill rate using 4x antialiasing and 48 billion shader operations per second -- not to mention, of course, the 48-way parallel floating-point dynamically scheduled shader pipelines and the 9 billion dot product operations per second. But, frankly, even if we understood what half those impressive-sounding specs meant, we'd have no way to verify or benchmark them.
What we can say is the Xbox 360 graphics varied widely from game to game. With its amazingly lifelike cityscapes and photorealistic Ferraris, Project Gotham Racing 3 offers what's probably the best example of the 360's HD-enabled graphical prowess -- you could almost smell the exhaust of the cars as they darted over a dead-on re-creation of the Brooklyn Bridge. Similarly, Call of Duty 2 had us ducking for cover as we slogged through some of the toughest firefights of World War II. Meanwhile, the basketball players in NBA 2K6 perspire as the game wears on, and you can see uniforms flapping independent of their bodies as they scramble up and down the court. On the flip side, though, was Tony Hawk's American Wasteland -- what was a mediocre game on the Xbox1 and PlayStation 2 suffers in the translation to the 360, with every low-res texture and graphical glitch painfully apparent on the unforgiving high-def screen.
Maybe it was lowered expectations, but compatible Xbox1 games look great on the 360. Microsoft claims that it's pumping up the resolutions and adding antialiasing effects to the older games, and both tweaks seemed in evidence while playing Halo 2. Also, playing an online-enabled Xbox1 game (such as Halo 2) lets you seamlessly interact with other Xbox Live players still using the old console.