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Hands-on with Xbox 360 Elite

The newest incarnation of the Xbox 360 hits stores this weekend. But is it a must-have upgrade, or just a PS3 wannabe?

Xbox 360 Elite
Xbox 360 Elite: is it a must-have upgrade? Microsoft

Our Xbox 360 Elite review sample showed up late yesterday afternoon, and we're working up a full review. But that's gonna be a 3,500-word monster intended more for casual gamers and tech newbies who don't know a thumbstick from a joystick or a shoulder button from a trigger. For those in the know, here's the crib sheet on the Elite.

Cosmetics: The Xbox 360 Elite has a matte-black finish. I strongly prefer it to the "iPod white" color scheme of past Xbox 360 models. The included wireless controller and Xbox Live headset are also black. The only real downside is that other black accessories for the 360 won't be immediately available--Microsoft has announced only a black Play & Charge Kit and a rechargeable battery for now. Others will no doubt follow, but you might have to "go zebra" for some add-ons in the meantime. For instance, the HD DVD drive is rumored to be available only in white for the foreseeable future.

HDMI output: This has been at the top of the Xbox 360 wish list since the console was first introduced. But it's really more of a convenience than a necessity. On the plus side, it does allow for an easy, single-cable connection to compatible HDTVs and A/V receivers--and Microsoft includes a heavy-duty HDMI cable in the box (hear that, Sony and Apple?) But the connector apparently isn't the latest and greatest HDMI 1.3 version featured on newer HDTVs, A/V receivers, and the PlayStation 3. That means anyone who adds the HD DVD drive won't be able to pass the full bandwidth Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks available on those movies--only the DVD-level Dolby Digital audio track will be available. Also, despite all the HDMI hype, you're unlikely to see a major difference between HDMI and component-video on most displays. Yes, HDMI sometimes provides a slight increase in quality, but how much of a difference is dependent on the display more than anything else. And while the Elite supposedly delivers DVD upscaling via HDMI, our initial tests found the DVD image to be just as disappointing as the earlier 360--regardless of the resolution of the image.

Bigger hard drive: The Elite's snap-on hard drive is 120GB--six times the size of the older Xbox 360, twice as large as the PS3, and three times the size of the Apple TV. You can never have enough space, so the extra capacity is a definite plus--as anyone who's downloaded even a few of the multigigabyte game demos, HD movies, and TV episodes available on Xbox Live knows. Microsoft is also pledging to deliver an IPTV service to the 360 by year's end--and if it offers any sort of DVR component, that extra space will be even more crucial. (Existing Xbox 360 owners should note that the drive will be available separately for $180, as will a transfer kit that moves the files and settings from your existing HDD to your new one.)

And that's pretty much what the Elite is delivering for its $480 price tag. The black color scheme, HDMI output, and larger hard drive are all decent step-ups from the 20GB Xbox 360 (which remains on the market for $400), but the Elite is something of a disappointment when compared to the $600 PlayStation 3. A next-gen disc player, a Wi-Fi adapter, and a flash media reader--all standard on the PS3--remain optional add-ons for the Elite. Meanwhile, other design shortcomings of the original Xbox 360 seem to have remained more or less unchanged: there are still only three USB ports, the external power brick is still the size of a Volkswagen, and the DVD drive is still annoyingly loud. Moreover, the Elite supposedly doesn't even incorporate the rumored cooler-running 65nm CPU that's been talked about for months, so the internal cooling fan still needs to work overtime (more noise). And while Microsoft has pledged that the Elite will be more reliable than the notoriously buggy first-gen Xbox 360s, there's no easy way to track that. (For the record, both our months-old original 360 and the hours-old 360 Elite have performed flawlessly.)

A new Dashboard update is scheduled to roll out next week that could certainly affect any of the software issues (such as DVD-upscaling performance). But the Elite's hardware is pretty much a done deal, and I can't help to be disappointed that Microsoft didn't step up to the plate and address more of those annoyances listed above.

The bottom line is that the Xbox 360 Elite isn't a must-have upgrade for existing 360 owners, and it doesn't bring the 360 feature set in line with that of the PlayStation 3. But here's the thing: for me, the Xbox 360--either the $400 Premium model or the new $480 Elite--still has more of the games that I like to play: Lost Planet, Gears of War, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, and--the big one--this fall's only-on-Xbox Halo 3. Until the PS3 can offer some compelling alternatives (and I have no doubt that eventually, it will), the Xbox 360 remains the better option. If you agree--and if you're going 360 for the first time--you might as well spend that extra $80 and get the Elite.