Editors' note: As of September 2009, the Xbox 360 Elite has replaced the Xbox 360 Pro 60GB console. It will also be sold at the lowered price of $300. Please check out our Xbox 360 resource page for all your Xbox 360 questions and needs.
The $300 Xbox 360 Elite is now sold in a white box (opposed to the old gray one) and also removes the once-included HDMI cable.
The Xbox 360 was the first of the "next-gen" videogame consoles to hit the market in the fall of 2005. By the time the PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii hit stores--a full year later--the 360 had not only established itself as a top-tier game console, it was well on its way to becoming a full-service digital entertainment media hub for the living room, with built-in support for high-def TV and movie downloads as well as Vista-friendly media streaming. While Sony and Nintendo struggled with their respective launch issues--just as Microsoft had toiled 12 months earlier--the Xbox 360 has cruised to the No. 1 spot on the home console charts, with more than 10 million units sold worldwide.
So what does Microsoft do for an encore? Release a slightly upgraded Xbox 360, of course. The $300 Xbox 360 Elite is black instead of white, includes a 120GB hard drive (six times as capacious as the previous 360's, twice as big as the PS3's), and sports an HDMI output for easier hookups to HDTVs.
The question for current and prospective gamers: Is the Elite worth the extra $80? For anyone who owns the existing Xbox 360, the answer is probably no--the HDMI connector is more a convenience than a necessity, and the larger snap-on hard drive will be available to existing 360 users as a standalone $180 accessory. Moreover, there's certainly a tinge of disappointment that the Elite's higher price tag doesn't deliver a few more bundled features in the box--the Wi-Fi adapter and the HD DVD drive still need to be purchased separately, for instance. In other words, the Xbox 360 Elite is just a warmed-over version of the previous model that doesn't deliver any groundbreaking, PS3-killing features.
That said, the Xbox 360 currently has a larger and more impressive library of games, and until the PS3 can offer some compelling alternatives--and I have no doubt that eventually, it will--the Xbox 360 remains the better option. And if you're going with the 360 for the first time, you might as well spend that extra $80 and get the Elite.
Except for its black finish and HDMI port, the Xbox 360 Elite is cosmetically identical to the Xbox 360 Premium. When laid horizontally, the 8.8-pound console is 12.15 inches wide, 3.27 inches high, and 10.15 inches deep. Like the PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii, the Xbox 360 can also be propped up in a vertical position and can be customized with interchangeable faceplates that cost as much as $20. The 360 is neither as slick as the glossy PS3 nor as cute as the diminutive Wii, but the Elite's matte-black finish is certainly a big step up from the "iPod white" color scheme of the earlier Xbox 360s. While the Elite blends in with the other black components in your A/V rack, however, it may not match all your accessories--you may need to mix and match some white 360 accessories, as not all accoutrements will immediately be available in black.
The back panel of the 360 Elite includes an HDMI port (one of the big selling points), an A/V connector, a single USB port, and an Ethernet jack. Normally, we'd complain about a proprietary connection such as the Xbox A/V jack, but Microsoft includes an adapter breakout cable with both component (high-def) and composite (standard-def) connectors, plus analog stereo audio and an optical audio jack for surround sound output. An alternate audio-only adapter (RCA stereo or optical audio) is included just in case your TV or home theater system can't accept audio via HDMI. The bottom line is that the Xbox 360 Elite can be connected to virtually any TV or home theater system in a variety of configurations, without the need for purchasing any additional accessories.
The HDMI output is a welcome addition, as it provides a single cable solution--digital audio and high-def video--for connecting to HDTVs and A/V receivers. Whereas the previous Xbox 360 could output HD video up to 1080p resolution via component (or optional VGA adapter), far more HDTVs actually accept that highest of resolutions via the HDMI input. The downside is that Microsoft seems to have opted for something less than the HDMI version 1.3 found on the PlayStation 3. That means that any movies played on the optional HD DVD add-on will be limited to standard Dolby Digital soundtracks, not the higher resolution Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD, or DTS-HD Master Audio.
Whereas the Nintendo and Sony game consoles have built-in Wi-Fi support, the older Xbox 360 was limited to a wired network connection. Sadly, that hasn't changed on the Xbox 360 Elite--Ethernet remains the only built-in option. Yes, you can get the optional wireless networking adapter, which conveniently clips on to the back of 360--but it monopolizes the solitary USB port on the console's backside.
On the front of the unit, you'll find two more USB ports hidden behind hinged doors in the faceplate, as well as two memory-card slots. Unlike the standard flash memory formats accepted by the Wii and the PS3, however, Microsoft opted for proprietary memory cards--but you'll never need them unless you need to swap saved games or other small files between two 360s. The USB ports provide connectivity to any wired controllers and other USB accessories (such as the Xbox Live Vision Camera); alternately, they allow for quick hookups to a variety of media devices, including digital cameras, MP3 players, or even your iPod or Sony PSP. Many USB keyboards are compatible, but for the most part, they are strictly relegated to communication and data entry functions, not gameplay. Another small design gripe: You won't be able to connect some thumbdrive-style MP3 players, such as the original Apple iPod Shuffle, to some or all of the 360's recessed USB ports. You'll need a USB extension cable to connect them because the entryway to the port is too narrow.
The 360 Elite also includes on its front panel an infrared (IR) port, which lets you use a wide variety of compatible remote controls--both 360 specialty models and generic universal remotes--without the need for an external dongle. By contrast, the PS3 has no IR port, forcing you to use a Bluetooth remote.
The Xbox 360 Elite's hard drive is located in the proprietary detachable module that snaps onto the side of the console. Since the 20GB hard disk on the original Xbox 360 filled up very quickly--download a 1GB game demo here, a 4GB HD movie there, and toss in a handful of TV episodes, and things get tight fast--so the 120GB of space on the Elite is essentially a necessity for anyone wishing to take full advantage of the Xbox 360's media functionality. The same 120GB drive module will be available as a separate $180 accessory for existing 360 owners who wish to upgrade; likewise, a transfer kit accessory (a special USB cable/dongle and software) will allow existing settings and files to be moved from old hard drives to new ones.
As part of the $300 Elite bundle, you'll also get a single wireless controller and an Xbox Live Headset, which connects to the controller. They're identical to previous models except for the black color scheme--the Elite controllers don't add any new functionality, such as the tilt sensitivity in the PS3 or the motion control of the Wiimote. They accept two AA batteries, or you can opt for a snap-on rechargeable model (available separately). Each 360 console can support as many as four wireless controllers. A green LED on both the 360 itself and the controller indicates exactly which controllers (numbers 1 through 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. All in all, we really like the design of the Xbox 360 controllers, with the possible exception of the four-way D-pad, which occasionally slips axes when tapped (mistaking horizontal input for vertical, or vice versa).
Two other less-than-stellar aspects of the Xbox 360 that have been carried over to the Elite are the absolutely massive external power supply and the console's noise. While the giant power brick can be hidden away behind the entertainment center, the exhaust fan and especially the DVD drive remain noisy to the point of distraction.