Slimmed Down and Souped Up
Measuring 10.6 by 10.4 by 2.9 inches (HWD) and weighing 6 pounds, the new Xbox 360 is noticeably smaller than the 12-by-10-by-3-inch, 7.7-pound Xbox 360 Elite. Microsoft was able to reduce the system's size almost 17 percent by combining the CPU and GPU onto one chipset, and moving the swappable 250 GB hard drive to the interior of the unit. The matte casing that has been associated with previous Xbox 360 consoles is no more; in its place is a glossy, piano-black enclosure that's very easy on the eye. That is, until you touch it; the new Xbox is a fingerprint (and dust) magnet. The power brick is smaller too; it's about half as thick as those from older Xbox 360 consoles.
The primary fan and air vent that once wicked heat away through the back of the system now resides on the top of the console as a trapezoid-shaped grill. The fan is a bit quieter this time around, and the system is near-silent (except for when a disc is spinning inside). And vents along the left and right sides of the system manage to keep the console relatively cool. After playing UFC Undisputed 2010 for an hour on the new Xbox 360, the console maintained a cool 75 degrees, except in the vent areas where the escaping hot air pushed temperatures over 100 degrees. It remains to be seen if this new cooling setup helps prevent, or lowers the rate of overheating and system failure.
The Power button looks the same as on previous Xboxes, expect that it no longer flashes the infamous "red ring of death." This isn't because Microsoft has found solution to the problem; the red LED has simply been removed. The disc-eject button now resides to the upper left; previously it was to the immediate left, and designed to appear as part of the system tray itself. The new button is overly sensitive; I accidentally ejected the tray several times when repositioning the console on a desk, or lightly dusting it. The USB 2.0 port chamber that was previously aligned vertically, to the right of the power button, is now horizontal, which makes it a bit easier to attach USB devices as you no longer have to stack the connectors.
The rear panel reveals three more USB 2.0 ports, HDMI, S/PDIF, and composite A/V ports, an input for the power supply, and a single custom auxiliary jack that will let you hook up the camera for the forthcoming Kinect motion-based controller. Microsoft has also added an internal 802.11n Wi-Fi radio, so you no longer have to shell out for a wireless adapter to get your Xbox connected to your network wirelessly.
In the box you'll find a headset (for smack-talking on Xbox Live), composite cables, and one wireless controller loaded with rechargeable AA batteries. It doesn't feel quite as solid as the previous controller, but we were able to play without issue. You'll have to supply your own HDMI cable.
Game Library, Xbox Live, and Multimedia Features
The new Xbox 360 is fully compatible with the same prolific video game library that has made the platform a runaway hit. There are great cross platform titles such as BioShock 2, Forza Motorsport 3, Major League Baseball 2K10 , and Red Dead Redemption, but you also get console exclusives such as the eerie Alan Wake, Gears of War 2, and Halo 3: ODST. Microsoft's exclusive titles don't match the PS3's far- more-innovate offerings such as God of War III, ModNation Racers, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, or Yakuza 3, but they are still solid nonetheless.
Visually, the new Xbox 360 delivers. Games such as UFC Undisputed 2010 feature photo-realistic characters with accurate details down to facial expressions, muscle tone, and rolling beads of sweat. The third-person-shooter Bayonetta, with its huge monsters and epic battles demonstrate the graphic power of the Xbox 360. The system's graphical output is light years beyond the Nintendo Wii and, for the most part, is on a par with the Sony PlayStation 3.
Although it requires a subscription to access particular features, Xbox Live remains the definitive online gaming experience besting Sony's free PlayStation Network. An Xbox Live Gold membership ($49.99 per year) is the gateway by which subscribers can challenge—or play cooperatively—with other gamers. (There's also a free, but limited membership option, and a $99.99 per year four-person Xbox Live Gold Family Pack coming in November.) The memberships get you an Xbox Live avatar that you can customize using a variety of skin shades, body types, clothing and accessories.
Gold account holders can access and update Facebook and Twitter, as well as stream or download content from ESPN, Last.FM, and Netflix (the latter is also available on the PS3 and Wii). In testing, the movie Jaws streamed smoothly over our wireless network after some minor initial buffering issues. Sony's console, however, integrates a top-performing Blu-ray drive, making it the game system to get if you want to play back full high-definition movies on your console. If you don't mind the time-consuming set up, the new Xbox 360, like previous models, features a Media Center extender that gives it the ability to stream content (high-definition video, music, photos, and recorded television) from any Windows Media Center or Windows XP SP2 (or higher) PC. Later this year, Zune on Xbox 360 will debut, letting entertainment-seekers with Zune Pass subscriptions stream music and HD movies.
A Future Free From Controllers?
Kinect for Xbox 360 (the add-on formerly known as Project Natal that will debut in November) utilizes a 3D camera with an integrated microphone that allows users to interact with specially designed games without using a controller or headset. It's an obvious attempt by Microsoft to cull some of the Nintendo Wii audience, but the technology is light years ahead; while playing Harmonix Dance Central (a Dance Dance Revolution-like dance game that measures your body movements instead of foot stomps on a gamepad) at a recent Microsoft event, I was amazed at how accurately Kinect picked up my gestures. Although the new Xbox 360 has a dedicated Kinect port, the add-on is compatible with previous Xbox 360 models (it will require multiple cables, however).
So far, 16 Kinect game titles have been announced, but it remains to be seen if the platform will feature a rich crop of full, in-depth games or lots of Wii-like shovelware when it arrives in November. Sony is countering Kinect with its PlayStation Move, which utilizes wireless Wii-like controllers and the PlayStation Eye camera to bring motion controls to the PS3 in September. Also, Sony has announced 3D titles to bring a third dimension to PS3 gaming.
Which Console to Choose?
Microsoft has made many fine improvements to the new Xbox 360 to make it a worthy purchase—for new users. The slick, compact design, internal Wi-Fi, and increased storage are attractive touches, but if you already own an Xbox 360, it's just not enough to justify dropping $300 and ditching your current console. Also, transferring your data could be a potential hassle; you'll need to purchase a $19.99 transfer cable (or use a USB stick) as your old hard drive can't be clipped onto the new machine.
Still, despite a smaller (120GB) hard drive, the same-price Sony's PlayStation 3 remains our Editors' Choice console, thanks to a deep library of compelling exclusive titles and a top-notch built-in Blu-ray player (which is region free if you're into playing import games). Now that new Xbox 360 has integrated fast Wi-Fi, increased Web-entertainment features, and the overheating issues have been (hopefully) remedied, it rides a close second. If Kinect proves to be a better motion-control experience than the PlayStation Move, it may be the muscle Microsoft needs to push the Xbox 360 to the top of the heap.