Unlike every version of the PlayStation 3, the first batch of Xbox 360 consoles didn't include an HDMI-out port. Yes, firmware updates eventually added 1080p output via the console's component cables--despite the fact that the matching inputs on most TVs didn't support that resolution. HDMI eventually came to the Xbox 360 line--first with the Xbox 360 Elite, and then to the standard 20GB Xbox 360 as well. However, there is still a large audience of original (pre-autumn 2007) Xbox 360 owners with HDMI-less consoles. With the Xbox 360 HDMI Conversion Kit from Mad Catz, those gamers with original Xbox 360s can join the rest of the HDMI gaming world.
The HDMI Conversion Kit comes with an adapter, an HDMI cable, and an audio optical cable. While we hate to bash the inclusion of cables, the fact is that the 1-meter (3 feet) length was just too short--we needed to move around some of our gear to make things reach. We'd like to see Mad Catz upgrade to more forgiving 1.5- or 2-meter cable lengths.
The adapter itself is a small plastic wedge about the size of an Altoids tin. Setup is simple enough: just plug the adapter into your Xbox 360 AV port and connect the included HDMI cable to your TV or receiver. While we liked the fact that the adapter simultaneously output audio via both HDMI and the optical out, we were less-than-thrilled to find that the HDMI-out only offered stereo audio. While that's fine for TV-only hookups, anyone with an AV receiver will want to run the optical cable as well so they can experience the full 5.1-channel Dolby Digital surround sound Xbox 360 games have to offer. (The Mad Catz adapter lacks analog audio outputs, so make sure your system has audio-enabled HDMI ports or an assignable optical port.)
The adapter let us set any of the five standard TV resolutions via the Xbox 360 Dashboard--480i, 480p, and HD 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. In terms of picture quality, however, we didn't see a discernable difference between the HDMI adapter and using the original included component cables: games, DVDs, and Xbox Live Marketplace videos all looked pretty much the same (which is to say quite good). In other words, don't buy the adapter--or an HDMI-equipped Xbox 360--if your only ambition is to have a better-looking gaming experience. Instead, the Mad Catz adapter is all about reducing clutter; you're getting just one or two cables, instead of the octopus of wires that is the Xbox 360 component adapter.
Priced at $90, the HDMI Conversion Kit for Xbox 360 may seem a bit expensive, but this certainly beats shelling out $350 for a new Xbox 360 with an HDMI port. To repeat: skip this unit if you're looking for "digitally enhanced" picture quality--on most TVs, you won't see a noticeable difference versus component. But if you've got an HDMI-centric home theater system--say, something like the Sony HT-CT100, which has several HDMI and optical ports, but no component video inputs--this accessory may be just what the doctor ordered.