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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.
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.