If you'd told us ten years ago that Microsoft would one day be arguably the biggest player in the videogame universe, we'd have kicked you in the shins, and called you a darned liar. But that's the situation we're faced with today.
Following on from the gobsmackingly popular Xbox 360 and Xbox 360 Elite consoles, we have the Xbox 360 Slim model, also known as the Xbox 360 250GB and the Xbox 360 S. It's rocking a slimmed-down chassis and a host of new features, but, priced at around £200, does it solve the problems of previous versions?
Microsoft has given its console's design a pretty radical overhaul, significantly slimming down the tower, which now measures 70 by 270 by 260mm. That's not radically slimmer that the original 360, which was 83mm wide, but shaving off a few centimetres all over really makes a difference. This console will slot into the Tetris-like array of home-entertainment gadgets under your telly with considerably more ease than previous versions.
The matte plastic we've come to associate with the Xbox 360 is gone, replaced by some of the glossiest black plastic we've ever seen. It looks absolutely fantastic, and will certainly catch your eye, but we found that it picks up fingerprints like an obsessive forensic scientist. Handling this console for a minute or two will leave its mirror-like surface looking decidedly less pristine.
This console is also much lighter than before, weighing in at around 2.9kg, compared to the 3.5kg of the original Xbox 360. Its light weight, combined with its new plastic casing, means the 360 Slim feels slightly cheap when you hold it in your hands. But this device belongs under your telly, and is designed to be ogled, not manhandled, so it's more important that it looks the business -- which it does.
One of the Slim's most arresting visual features is the angular 'dent' that runs diagonally across its body. The console's styling reminds us of KITT from Knight Rider, and we like how the fan vents have been incorporated into the design -- uniform gaps in the casing spread out across the machine's body. Chrome trim on the bottom and top of the machine completes the '80s look. While we can see the console's styling dividing opinion among gamers, we admire Microsoft for giving the new Xbox 360 a distinctive and unique appearance.
The included black wireless controller has us drooling too. We were never huge fans of the white controller and its nasty habit of picking up endless quantities of grime and dirt. While we're sure this black version will pick up just as much filth, we won't be able to see it -- and that's a crucial difference.
There's one more cosmetic touch that we really appreciate -- the power button and eject key are now touch-sensitive, rather than mechanical, and each one issues a satisfying chime to let you know you've pressed it. This console is also incapable of falling victim to the 'red ring of death' that plagued so many Xboxes in the past, because Microsoft has removed the red LEDs from the front of the machine. As to whether failure rates will remain as high as they have with previous versions, only time will tell.
We're pleased with the high storage capacity of the new 360. Previously, 250GB was a storage capacity reserved for a certain configuration of the 360 Elite, retailing at £250, and for the Sony PlayStation 3 Slim, which sells for closer to £300. In this respect, the new Xbox offers reasonably good value for money. You'd have to be a really hardcore download addict to burn through all that storage space.
The Xbox 360 Slim boasts that it's 'Kinect ready' on the box. Microsoft's upcoming Kinect motion-sensor peripheral will work with any Xbox 360, but, due to a power discrepancy, if you want to use Kinect with older models, you'll need to plug it into both the 360 itself and a wall socket. If you're using the new 250GB model, you need only plug Kinect into the console, and it'll happily sip its power directly from the Xbox itself.
It's no secret that previous versions of the Xbox 360 have suffered from aggravating fan noise, sounding more like a jet engine prepping for take-off than a games console. Any 360 owners who've had their gaming enjoyment ruined by an over-loud fan will be glad to hear that this console is, as Microsoft claims, quiet.
Running the new 360 still generates a certain level of noise, however, because Microsoft has whacked a fan-cooling system inside the console's power brick. That's right -- the transformer has its own fan. We're keen to stress, however, that we didn't find this fan becoming overly noisy during testing, and, even with both the console's large, near-silent fan and the transformer fan spinning, the whole set-up is still significantly less noisy than previous 360 consoles.
The power brick itself is smaller than those of previous models and we suspect that the inclusion of the extra fan was made necessary by whittling down the console's dimensions. Still, it's annoying to see a console that runs almost totally silently made noisier by a cheap fan in the power brick. If it really bothers you, we have no doubt you'll be able to pick up a third-party transformer, potentially without a fan, or at least with a slightly less noisy one.
Although the new console isn't as quiet as it could have been, reducing the fan noise eliminates one of the major gripes we had with earlier versions, as does reducing the dimensions of the power supply.
We previously bemoaned the need to purchase an extra wireless adaptor to hook the 360 up to your wireless network, and, happily, this issue has also been fixed. The new 360 is equipped with an 802.11n wireless adaptor that handles everything internally. It's a tidy system, and certainly contributes to the console's value, as it reduces the need to purchase those pricey extra bits and bobs.
One bob you will still have to pick up, however, is an HDMI cable. Bizarrely, the 360 Slim comes with only a composite video cable, and none of the leads required to hook your system up in high definition. Considering that playing bleeding-edge games in glorious 1080p is one of this system's key selling points, it seems churlish of Microsoft not to include any high-definition cables in the box.
The port selection on this model has been given an impressive boost. Whereas before you were limited to a measly three USB ports -- quickly filled up with a headset, wireless adaptor and keyboard -- you now have five USB ports. Two sit on a spring-loaded front panel and three reside on the console's rear. There's an S/PDIF output around the back too if you want to hook your speaker system up that way, and Ethernet and HDMI ports are all present and correct. A wired headset is also included, so you can be online and screaming abuse at hapless enemy players within minutes.
Microsoft's Xbox 360 Slim fixes the major complaints we had with previous versions, reducing the fan noise and the size of the power brick. We also like the new design and touch-sensitive buttons. But most impressive of all is the fact that the new console offers really good value for money, thanks to its 250GB hard drive, and arguably the greatest offering of games on the market today. Add it all together and you have a machine that, while not perfect, currently offers the best bang for a gamer's buck.
If you're new to the world of the Xbox, this console is the best way to get started. There are also plenty of reasons to upgrade if you're already a devoted fan.
Edited by Charles Kloet