Speaking of Xbox Live, we weren't able to fully test the system on the new console yet -- we'll evaluate it and report back after the Xbox launches in the UK on 2 December. That said, Live is much more integrated throughout the 360 than it was in the old Xbox. At any time, you can punch the Home button on your controller, and your game or movie will automatically pause, bringing up the Live message centre. In theory, you can be playing an offline, single-player game of, say, Kameo, get an invite from a friend (think instant messaging), and exit back out to the Dashboard while you swap over to Project Gotham Racing or Halo 2.
On the media front, the 360 worked as advertised. We were able to pull photos from several digital cameras, as well as a camera phone Memory Stick Duo plugged into a stock Lexar USB card reader. We were also able to stream music from our Samsung YP-U1X flash MP3 player. And true to its word, Microsoft is playing nicely with its competitors -- we were able to stream MP3s from the 20GB Apple iPod and the Sony PSP. Unfortunately, you don't get access to the iPod's playlists, and you can't play back copy-protected songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store -- the result of Apple's intransigence, not Microsoft's. Digital media streamed just as easily from XP PCs on our local network, but those with Media Center PCs will find the best experience: the 360 is a fully-fledged extender, giving you access to the Media Center's look and feel, as well as access to its recorded videos, music and photos.
Of course, the 360 is a capable CD/DVD player as well. You can't copy music files from connected or networked devices, but you can rip CDs straight to the 360's hard drive, then use those songs as soundtracks for pretty much any native Xbox 360 game. On the DVD front, the 360 plays movie discs in 480p progressive-scan. But 480p is so 2002, especially for a box that wears its HD street cred on its sleeve. This is where the lack of HDMI or DVI output hurts, because those connections would offer the possibility of upscaling DVDs to 720p or 1080i resolutions. Moreover, DVDs represent the pinnacle of the 360's optical disc capabilities, meaning these next-gen games will need to be squeezed into just 9GB of space unless they're supplemented by downloadable content.
By contrast, Sony is pledging to build the PlayStation 3 around the next-generation Blu-ray format, which holds at least 25GB per disc. The Xbox 360 won't work with Blu-ray or HD DVD discs. That's not a big deal in 2005, while the specs for each format aren't yet finalised, no movies are yet available, and it's unclear which one -- if either -- will become the single standard for high-definition media. But in 2006 and beyond, it could prove to be something of an Achilles' heel for the 360.
Since it was announced, the buzz on the Xbox 360 has been that it's really more of a 1.5 iteration, rather than a 2.0 version of the Xbox and that Microsoft was pushing it out the door so quickly to get the jump on Sony's PlayStation 3. The truth is probably less dramatic. The fact is, the original Xbox is still a great gaming machine, with a massive library of fantastic titles and formidable processing power. The old Xbox is a like a comfortable old shoe for software developers -- even cutting-edge PC games such as Half-Life 2 can be ported over to the four-year-old console with admirable results.
The exact opposite is true for the Xbox 360 -- the first wave of games have yet to tap into its full power. Rumour has it the early games are only using one of the system's three processing cores, for instance. As the months and years progress, it's a safe bet that developers will become more accustomed to the challenge of programming for the 360, and we'll see some much more impressive titles as a result. Once those games begin to arrive, the Xbox 360 will be ready to strut its stuff and hit its stride just in time to go up against the rookie lineup for Sony's PlayStation 3.
Editors' note: We will be updating this review as we spend more time with the Xbox 360.
Edited by David Katzmeier
Additional editing by Nick Hide