The Xbox 360's onscreen Dashboard interface is truly stellar, and it's clear that the folks 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 color-coated 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. Like the faceplates, the Dashboard is customizable, with a host of themes preloaded on the hard drive and many more available to download.
Continuing the Xbox 360's customization kick is the Gamer Card, which consists of a personal avatar--a picture chosen from a batch of Microsoft approved images or an image you've captured using the Xbox Live Vision Camera--as well as a motto 21 characters or less in length. The centerpiece of the Gamer Card is the Gamerscore: a point-total representative of predetermined goals, known as Achievements, met in each and every game. It's a nice way to foster offline competitiveness between gamers, as even completely single-player games such as include Achievements. But if Microsoft is planning on taking the personalization angle to the same sort of 3D level as Nintendo's Mii avatars or Sony's Home environment, it hasn't yet made any such plans public.
Digital media and DVDs
While it's primarily a game machine, the Xbox 360 Elite is a formidable digital media hub as well. Plug a digital camera, a flash card reader, a thumbdrive, or a music player into the Xbox 360's USB port, and if it's compatible with a Windows PC, you'll likely have plug-and-play access to browse your photos, listen to your MP3s, and play WMV videos. Digital media on your home network are similarly accessible: just install Microsoft's Windows Media Player 11, Zune software, or Windows Media Connect (all are free downloads) on any PC running Windows XP or Vista, and the 360 will be able to stream music, and access photos and WMV videos from the remote PC. If your PC is Media Center-enabled (certain versions of XP, Vista Premium, and Vista Ultimate), the integration is even tighter. The 360 doubles as a Media Center Extender, letting you access your TV recordings--including those in high-def--from the networked MCE PC.
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 Xbox 360 Elite offers essentially the same disappointing performance as the earlier 360. DVDs are generally soft and lacking in detail, and the Elite failed some of the basic HQV tests that even many bargain DVD players can ace. It's fine for casual viewing, of course, but the HDMI connector seemed to offer no discernible improvement. (A forthcoming Dashboard update might offer some software upscaling improvements.) In happier news, the quality of the external HD DVD drive and the downloadable Xbox Live Marketplace videos (see below) were generally stellar. But the rub here is that the HD DVD drive remains an add-on, whereas the PS3's Blu-ray drive is standard equipment.
Every Xbox 360 model has a base-level membership called Xbox Live Silver. That offers the ability to create a list of friends, view their gamer cards, and communicate with them outside of a game via voice chat and voice messaging using the headset, or even video chat with the Vision Camera. In order to play multiplayer games, however, you'll need to upgrade to Xbox Live Gold, which costs $50 a year. While Sony offers similar online multiplayer chat and head-to-head gameplay for free on the PS3, it remains a less polished experience than Xbox Live, which has had several more years to perfect its online capabilities to its current best-in-class state.
Xbox 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 to bring up the Live message center. In theory, you can be playing an offline, single-player game of, say, , get an invite from a friend (think instant messaging), then pop out to the Dashboard while you swap discs and dive into .
The in-game Xbox Live experience hasn't changed drastically, but then again, the service was already near-impeccable on the Xbox 1. By virtue of the system's processing power, games should be able to support more players online. , for example can handle 32 players, more than all but a few Xbox1 games. transforms the open roads of Hawaii into a gaming lobby, where you can pass by potential opponents on the road. Then there are games that support video chatting, such as the Xbox Live Arcade's . As developers have learned the ins and outs of the 360's hardware, we're starting to see more players and less lag in the many online-compatible 360 titles.
Both free (Silver) and paid (Gold) Xbox Live accounts have access to the Xbox Live Marketplace, which offers up free movie trailers and game demos, as well as premium (pay-per-download) content, such as Dashboard themes, gamer tag pictures, and extra content for full-featured games. Items are purchased by using Microsoft points, which is the proprietary 360 currency that's purchasable through the system or via prepaid cards (the going rate for 1,600 points is $30, for example).
One big draw for the Xbox Live Marketplace is the wide range of titles available for Xbox Live Arcade. There's a healthy mix of completely original titles and classic PC and arcade games freshened up with high-def visuals; some even include online multiplayer options. All of the games are playable as free demos, but to compete online and earn achievement points, you're going to have to pony up the Marketplace dough.
The other major Marketplace feature is downloadable TV show episodes and feature-length movie rentals. Available in both standard and high-definition, videos will run 400 to 800 Microsoft points ($5 to $10); TV shows are downloaded "for keeps" (until you delete them), while movies need to be watched within two weeks and then disappear within 24 hours of being viewed. Judged against other downloadable or streaming video providers (Apple TV and its various competitors), the video quality of Marketplace content is good to excellent. While false contouring can be seen in transitions to and from scenes drenched in black (fade-ins and fade-outs, for instance), videos are largely free of most other offending artifacts, and resolution is noticeably enhanced in HD versions. In short, the Video Marketplace is one of the more promising TV/DVD alternatives to date, and the Xbox 360 Elite's expansive 120GB hard drive is much better suited to power downloaders than the 20GB Xbox 360.
The Xbox 360 Elite has the same basic guts as earlier 360 models: a customized 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. The console has half a gigabyte of memory that's shared between the system and video card, plus an extra 10MB of dedicated video RAM just for good measure. 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 that Xbox 360 graphics, by and large, range from very good to spectacular. Yes, PCs can still deliver higher resolution and better frame rates than even HDTV offers, but you'll need to invest in a video card that costs as much as the 360 itself. And while the PlayStation 3's vaunted Cell processor is ostensibly "more powerful" than that of the 360, software developers have yet to tap the full capability of the PS3's graphical prowess. In other words, 360 games tend to look as good or better than their PS3 counterparts (the less expensive and less powerful Wii isn't even in the same ballpark). Consider the expansive environments of a game such as or the amount of characters on screen at one time in . Similarly, had us ducking for cover as we slogged through some of the toughest firefights of World War II. Meanwhile, in the more intimate confines of the ring, the boxers in looked astonishing--when a knockout blow was landed, a close-up replay would reveal the copious amount of spit, sweat, and blood emanating from the victim of pugilistic brutality. Furthermore, the 360 has its share of key exclusive titles; you won't find the likes of , , or the upcoming on the PS3 or the Wii.
While the 360's library is constantly growing, it can also play more than 340 games designed for the original Xbox. The backward compatibility is enabled through downloadable emulation profiles; they're free, but you'll need the hard drive to install them. In fact, the software for Halo and Halo 2 compatibility is preinstalled on the hard drive. Unfortunately, while 340-plus sounds like a high number, that leaves hundreds of old Xbox titles unplayable on the 360 for the time being. Microsoft is working to broaden the list--it's added dozens of new titles since launch--but there's no announced timetable as to when the remaining games will be ported over, and it certainly seems as though not every game will be included.
The backward compatibility on the Xbox 360 has its benefits and drawbacks. 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 . 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. On the other hand, some games such as have brought along new graphical glitches and none of the Xbox1 custom soundtrack-enabled games (for example, the ) will recognize the songs imported onto your 360. Finally, there is no way to transfer your Xbox1 saves to the 360, so you'll have to reconfigure your workout regimen in .
By comparison, the PS3 can play most (but not all) of the games published for the PS2 and even the original PlayStation--though the fact that Sony is constantly tweaking its underlying architecture (moving from hardware to software legacy support) may make future PS3s less backward compatible than earlier versions. The Nintendo Wii plays nearly all of the games published for the GameCube, though you need additional accessories (controllers and memory cards) to play them.
Executive Editor David Carnoy, Senior Editor David Katzmaier, and Assistant Editors Matthew Moskovciak and David Rudden contributed to this review.