Microsoft Xbox 360 Pro review: Microsoft Xbox 360 Pro

The Good All games in high-definition; easy-to-use Dashboard interface; excellent online gaming and communications via Xbox Live; plays hundreds of (but not all) original Xbox titles; doubles as a superior digital media hub and Windows Media Center extender; online Marketplace allows for easy purchases of downloadable full-scale games, minigames, movies, and TV shows; latest version offers HDMI output with 1080p support; reduced power supply footprint; new processor runs cooler and quieter.

The Bad No support for next-generation HD discs, like Blu-ray; early versions of the console prone to "red ring of death" system crash; online gaming require a paid subscription to Xbox Live.

The Bottom Line Now that Blu-ray has become the pre-eminent high-definition standard for discs, the Xbox 360 has yet to support it, but it still remains an excellent game console with a superior game library and online experience.

8.5 Overall

Editors' note: As of September 2009, Microsoft is phasing out the 60GB Xbox 360 Pro model. It will be sold at a reduced price of $250 until stock has been exhausted. The Xbox 360 Elite (which comes with a 120GB hard drive) will be taking its place with a lower price tag of $300.

Check out our Xbox 360 resource page for all your Xbox 360 needs.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 was the first "next-generation" game console to hit the market in November 2005, and consequently has had a year over its competitors to improve upon its faults. With the fall 2008 "New Xbox Experience" update, the 360 further positioned itself not just a game console but also a top-tier media hub for the living room, integrating Netflix's online streaming service into its already myriad available Internet content. The service won't replace the high-definition content offered by the now defunct HD-DVD add-on drive because Netflix's streaming quality depends largely on the speed of your Internet connection and most likely can only display at most near-DVD quality.

That said, the PS3 is currently the only console to offer playable high-definition content in disc form. The 360's physical design has also matured over the years: The noise issues that have long been an annoyance have also been lessened by including a smaller and cooler processor, which reduces fan speeds.

The fall '08 update also added the option for users to install games directly onto the hard drive, further reducing the high-pitched sound of the disc drive and also limiting wear on the drive itself. With the current lineup of games, the offering of more online video content, and Microsoft's continued persistence of improving upon its system, the Xbox 360 has become one of the best consoles available. With the recent price drops, the company has made it even more tantalizing for those still on the fence.

In the past, the console's real Achilles' heel has been its unacceptably poor reliability: A vast number of Xbox 360 consoles have suffered the dreaded "red ring of death" error, a fatal glitch that renders the console unusable. It's been a huge frustration for even the most forgiving 360 owner. That said, Microsoft has made amends by offering a three-year limited warranty, guaranteeing replacement of those faulty consoles. Anecdotal evidence continues to suggest that the problem afflicts mostly older consoles. In other words, those manufactured in 2007 or later--the ones equipped with HDMI ports--should be much more stable than their predecessors. However, even these consoles have seen their fair share of red rings.

Prizefight: Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3 Play CNET Video

Xbox 360 models compared
The 60GB version (which replaced the 20GB model) will suffice for most users, while those who wish to maximize the console's video and gaming prowess will want to invest an extra $100 in the 120GB Xbox 360 Elite. (The Xbox 360 Arcade should be avoided--you'll just end up having to buy the add-on hard drive later anyway, thus eliminating the apparent savings.)

Model Xbox 360 Arcade* Xbox 360 60GB ^ Xbox 360 Elite 120GB
MSRP $199 $299 $399
Hard disk size n/a (includes 256MB memory card) 60GB 120GB
Included accessories One wireless controller, composite AV cable One wireless controller, headset, Ethernet cable, component/composite AV cable One wireless controller, headset, Ethernet cable, component/composite AV cable, HDMI cable
Color White White Black
Unique bundled items Currently ships with five Xbox Live Arcade titles. Currently comes preloaded with a full version of Hexic as well as several demos, including Pac-Man, Geometry Wars, etc. Currently comes preloaded with a full version of Hexic as well as several demos, including Pac-Man, Geometry Wars, etc.
Notes Can't download online content or play original Xbox games without the addition of an add-on hard drive accessory (sold separately). Best price/feature mix for most users. Larger hard drive is ideal for heavy downloaders of games and video.

*Replaces the Xbox 360 Core System, which has since been discontinued

Hardware reliability
As mentioned above, the Xbox 360 has been plagued by a series of hardware problems in the past, most commonly represented by the now infamous "red ring of death"--the three flashing red lights that the console displays when a major hardware malfunction has occurred. Microsoft has yet to confirm the reason for the problem, but it's widely attributed to overheating and poor airflow within the console's innards. Since admitting to the problem in July 2007, Microsoft has extended the original 90-day warranty on all newly purchased 360s to a full year. Additionally, any Xbox 360 that suffers from a hardware failure marked by three red flashing lights is now covered for three years from the original purchase date.

Since the middle of 2007, it appears that most Xbox 360s have been manufactured with the so-called "Falcon" CPU, a 65nm processor that's said to be smaller, cooler, and more energy efficient than the 90nm version found on earlier 360s. Improved heat sinks in the consoles have also helped cool newer units as well allowing for better heat dissipation to take place.

The upshot is that the newest Xbox 360s should be much more reliable than their predecessors. Of course, if you already have a non-HDMI model, or a possibly faulty pre-Falcon model, you can at least be confident that Microsoft's expanded warranty won't leave you stuck with a lemon. That said, all 60GB models have the updated hardware and ship with an HDMI-out port.

When laid horizontally, the 8.8-pound Xbox 360 is 12.15 inches wide by 3.27 inches high by 10.15 inches deep, making it slightly smaller than the original Xbox (which also weighed in at 8.8 pounds). Unlike the original, the Xbox 360 can be propped up in a vertical position and, as you're probably aware, can be customized with interchangeable faceplates that cost as much as $20. Custom faceplates aside, it's worth pointing out that the beige color of the system tends to clash with the silver and black of typical modern AV components.

One of the reasons Microsoft was able to keep down the 360's weight is that instead of building a standard, desktop-style hard drive into the unit itself, it's gone with a smaller--and more expensive--laptop-style hard drive that's detachable from the main unit. However, unlike the PS3, which accepts any standard 2.5-inch laptop drive, the 360's drive is encased in a proprietary snap-on module. You can upgrade to a larger 120GB model for about $180--but if you're already interested in that much storage, save some money and just pick up the 120GB Xbox 360 Elite instead.

As part of the $299 bundle, you'll also get a wireless controller. While the 360 has built-in wireless capabilities, it's only for controllers, not Wi-Fi. Each Xbox 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 (1 through 4) are connected. This is also the case if you are playing with a mixture of wireless and wired controllers easily notifying who has which controller. All in all, we really like the design of the controllers. They're a slight upgrade from those that came with the original Xbox and they're now available in several colors, including pink, blue, and black.

On the front of the unit, you'll find two USB ports hidden behind a hinged door in the faceplate, as well as two memory-card slots that let you take saved games and other content on the go. Those USB ports are where you'll plug in any wired controllers and other USB accessories that will become available. You also have the option to use the USB ports to connect a digital camera, 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. For easier data entry, consider instead the Xbox 360 Messenger Kit, a small keyboard accessory that snaps onto the controller.

The 360 sports an infrared port on the front panel, which lets you use compatible remote controls--including nearly any universal remote--without the need for an external dongle. Furthermore, you can power the console on and off and open the disc tray with a remote or a controller--another convenient improvement over the old Xbox. By contrast, the PS3 lacks standard IR, which limits it to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi control only.

In the past the Xbox 360 had two noticeable design quirks: a large, oversized power supply and high amount of noise coming from the system, which is often attributed to the loud exhaust fan and the DVD drive. While the power supply is still one of the largest we've seen (the PS3 doesn't even include one), most home theater set-ups allow for it to be tucked away neatly out of site. Newer models show that the system also seems to run quieter--although not whisper quiet--now that all new Xbox models run on the a smaller 65nm processor, which supposedly doesn't produce as much heat and doesn't require the fan to run as fast. Furthermore, Microsoft plans to address the loud noise issue from the DVD drives in its upcoming autumn 2008 update by offering the ability to install games to the hard drive, which hopefully will reduce load times and drive noise.

Video and audio specs
The guts of the Xbox 360 comprise what is, for all intents and purposes, a very powerful computer. The customized IBM PowerPC CPU boasts three processing cores running at 3.2GHz each. We could go on and on about the detailed specifications of the system, but for the sake of comprehension, we'll hold that back. What you really need to know about the Xbox 360 in terms of performance, though, is its capability to output HD graphics. Every single Xbox 360 game has been designed to output at a minimum of 720p, and--if your TV supports it--they can be upscaled to 1080i or 1080p (just choose your preferred resolution on the console's settings page). HD output is available via the included component video cable, or you can supply your own HDMI cable instead. Alternately, you can pick up VGA video adapters from Microsoft ($40) or Joytech ($20), which let you connect to HDTVs and PC monitors that offer a standard 15-pin VGA/RGB connector.

Don't worry if you don't have an HDTV--the Xbox 360's component adapter includes a fallback composite output, and the system can output standard 480i resolution with formatting for squarish 4:3 (non-wide-screen) sets. Be aware, though, that this will result in the letterboxing of most games (black bars on the top and bottom of the screen).

Just like the old Xbox, the new system offers top-notch Dolby Digital audio. In-game soundtracks are rendered in full real-time surround, creating an immersive sound field that envelops you in the game world. All of the AV cables include an optical audio output, but you'll need to supply the optical cable, as well as the compatible AV receiver or home-theater system. Each AV cable also comes with standard analog stereo connections for connecting to a TV or stereo, but you'll lose the surround effect, of course. Once again, you can opt to go with HDMI and have digital video and audio handled by a single cable.