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.
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.
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.
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