Microsoft Xbox 360 Gaming Console
The Xbox 360 has been the first next-generation console to hit the market, and this fact alone has really offered it a very serious edge over its competitors, from both available game titles and price points of view. But how about quality? Graphics? The gaming experience it offers? Or all the extra features? Well, you'll have to decide that for yourselves after reading the following article.
For quite a long time, Microsoft has been known mainly for developing the most widespread and popular operating system for PCs, Windows. However, during the 90's, the company from Redmond had grown so big that PC software didn't seem quite enough, and that's one of the reasons why Microsoft set its sights on the rapidly-growing market of video game consoles. Thus, in November 2001, the Xbox console emerged, in a frantic attempt to challenge Sony's fantastic PlayStation 2 console. The PC-turned-console didn't quite enjoy the level of success its creators hoped it would, but, nevertheless, it sold enough units and games to justify the development of a new and improved model.
Enter the Xbox 360, the latest video gaming console from Microsoft, a product that has taken the best out of its predecessor and improved it, setting a whole new standard in the world of non-PC gaming. Nevertheless, the Xbox 360 is far from being a flawless product, having certain...."negative features" (and I'm saying just "negative" in order to be polite) that have drawn quite a lot of critics from both specialists and normal gamers. Some of these issues have been solved in time, others are simply unsolvable, but, in any case, the worldwide success of Microsoft's 7th generation gaming console is unquestionable: it sold out completely at release (November 22, 2005) and by the end of 2006 had sold 10.4 million across the entire planet.
But why? Why all this fuss around the Xbox 360? What's so cool about it? And why is it that, whenever they speak about Microsoft's gaming console, they also mention the online service the company from Redmond provides for its users, namely Xbox Live? We'll try to provide you with some answers, and the first things we'll tell talk about are...
It's quite a well-known fact that a console is as good as the games developed for it. And the same can be said, at least to some extent, about the Xbox 360. The launch line-up has been OK, not quite impressive, but OK. The best-seller (at least for 2005) has been "Call of Duty 2", accompanied by some other pretty cool titles, as for example Kameo: Elements of Power, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Dead or Alive 4, Perfect Dark Zero, Saints Row and Gears of War. The latter is a huge success, being, at this moment, the most played game in multiplayer mode over Xbox Live.
Since its launch, the Xbox 360 has established itself as a "must have" platform among developers, and that's why most games currently launched on the market also have a version for Microsoft's console, either ported or especially developed for it. There are very few new titles which aren't also available on the Xbox 360, so they're not even worth mentioning. What's worth mentioning, though, is the backwards compatibility with older Xbox games, achieved by downloading an emulation profile from Xbox live and then burning it onto a CD. The current U.S. list of compatible games includes 298 games (about 30% of the total Xbox game library), but the situation in other areas (Japan and Europe) is much worse.
And speaking of Japan, one of the biggest problems faced by Microsoft was that in this country, as well as in the rest of Asia, gaming preferences are a bit different than in the rest of the world. That's why the company has a bunch of games aimed especially at this region, as for example Chromehounds, Ninety-Nine Nights, Phantasy Star Universe and the famous and highly successful Blue Dragon.
The future looks extremely bright for Xbox 360 gamers. They'll be able to enjoy some pretty great titles, the most important being Halo 3, as well as others, like Fable 2, Alan Wake, Mass Effect and Too Human. There, some Xbox 360 versions for traditionally PC games, like F.E.A.R. and Quake 4, will also be developed, and there will also be some exclusives, like Splinter Cell: Conviction, Bioshock and Banjo-Kazooie 3.
The Design and Aesthetic Features
The first thing I must mention here is that just about everyone, from gamers to technology analysts, agreed on the fact that the Xbox 360 looks a lot better than its predecessor from an aesthetic point of view. The original Xbox was big, black and bulky, while the new one, although it's still on the chubby side, is a lot sleeker and much more attractive, as you'll be able to see for yourselves as follows.
The first thing that struck me when I took the console out of its box was its sheer size. Compared to the Wii and the PS2, the Xbox 360 is a dinosaur. It would crush both of them in one second. However, compared to both the original Xbox and the other 2 aforementioned consoles, the 360 is a lot more graceful, a lot curvier. The fact that Microsoft's engineers worked hard to grant this computing powerhouse a very pleasant and attractive exterior is actually quite visible in certain seemingly unimportant design details, as for example the chrome faceplate of the DVD unit, the clever positioning of the 2 ventilators or the placement of 2 USB ports on the front side of the console, hidden behind a small and white plastic panel (which, by the way, is pretty troublesome, since I barely managed to keep it open). Moreover, the controller is smaller and easier to use than that of its predecessor, and it also comes with some pretty cool features of which I'll talk about later on.
Another very important part of the Xbox system is the removable 20 GB HDD unit. It can be found on the side of the console (or on its top, depending on the position of choice), and features a very simple, yet effective release mechanism. By simply pushing a button, you can take out the unit, as you can see in one of our pictures, but putting it back is by no means easy. One has to be quite careful, as the plastic locking system isn’t that tough, and if you apply an excessive amount of force, you might end up breaking it.
What's really very, very disturbing about this console is the huge difference between the design of the console itself and that of some of its accessories. While the Xbox 360 and its controllers are all white and good looking, the 203W power supply is a monster. It's absolutely huge (measuring 21.6 cm x 7.62 cm x 5.08 cm), ugly, and looks like it could power even IBM's BlueGene supercomputer if given the opportunity. However, the fact that the power adapter is no longer built within the console did allow the development of the console's very attractive form factor, so Microsoft does have an excuse for this. Nevertheless, they don't have an excuse for the fact that the power cables and the TV cables look like taken out of a bad SF movie, since they're pretty thick and poorly finished.
Quality of the finishing
As mentioned before, the quality of the finishing is pretty neat, but only when speaking about the console itself and the controllers. When looking from a distance, the whole thing looks pretty neat, especially since the colors are quite well chosen, the contrast between the console's white body and the gray of the HDD unit being a pretty interesting one, with just the right touch of chrome from the HDD and the DVD unit's faceplate.
However, when one takes a closer look, the truth is a bit different. Yes, the plastic panels look nice, but they're made from a relatively cheap plastic. The whole faceplate is actually pretty cheap looking, and that's probably the reason why most gamers are changing them with other, more attractive ones. The power supply...well, I've told you before just how ugly it looks, and its finishing isn’t better either. Yes, it might do its job OK, but it's so damn ugly that you really should place it somewhere out of sight, just for the sake as aesthetics. Trust me, you don't want to have this huge brick anywhere near you.
Button and slot placement
There aren't too many buttons on the console itself. Quite obviously, the biggest and most important one is the power button, which can be found on the face of the console, where you simply can't miss it. The button is surrounded by several LEDs, which indicate whether the console is switched on or not, as well as the number of wireless controllers synched to it. And since we're talking about synchronizing the controllers, the button dedicated to this function can be found also on the face of the console, not very far from the power button and near the memory card slots.
These are just about all the buttons we can find on the Xbox 360, so let's move on to the various slots. On the front of the console we can find 2 memory card slots, as well as 2 USB ports hidden by the plastic panel I've mentioned before. That about wraps it up for the front side, so let's see what the Xbox 360 has to hide behind its back.
The console has only 4 slots on the backside, namely: 1 USB port, 1 Etherent port, the A/V output slot and the power slot. The fact that Microsoft fitted the Xbox 360 with just 3 USB ports has been a pretty bizarre decision, especially considering the large number of devices one can connect to the gaming console. Oh well, perhaps they thought it would be best to keep it simple, but, in my opinion, this is a bit of a design flaw for the 360.
Xbox 360's controller is absolutely great. Not only is it wireless and has a very good force feedback system, but it also fits perfectly into one's hands, has a very sleek finish and feels great when you touch it. Moreover, its buttons and joysticks are placed at exactly the right distance from each other, so the whole thing is very ergonomic and very easy to use. And speaking of buttons, I can tell you right from the start that it's got enough of them to satisfy any game developer.
Thus, the engineers have kept the blue, red, yellow and green face buttons, as well as the thumbsticks and the D-pad from the original Xbox controller. However, there are also some important additions, as for example the 2 brand new vertical shoulder buttons, and a very important redesign of the controller's overall design. The big button "wearing" the Xbox 360 logo can be used for powering the console from a distance, as well as for displaying the controller's status (charge, whether it's the first, second or third controller etc). However, when the controller is used for the first time, a synchronization operation is required, carried out by pressing a small button on the controller's back, as well as the corresponding button on the console itself. There's also a special jack to connect the Xbox Live Headphone with built-in microphone, cleverly placed on the back of the controller, so it won't get in the way at all.
Hardware Specifications and Features
Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The Xbox 360 features a custom IBM PowerPC-based CPU (code-named Xenon) with 3 symmetrical cores running at 3.2 GHz each, 2 hardware threads per core and 3 VMX-128 vector units. One of the most important things that I have to mention here is that most of the games currently available on the market use only 1 thread, which means that they're far from tapping into the true potential of this console. I do believe that, at some point, mind-blowing multi-threading applications will be developed for the Xbox 360, but that time is yet to come.
Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)
The GPU is custom-made by ATI, runs at 500 MHz and includes 10 MB of embedded DRAM, as well as 48-way parallel floating-point dynamically-scheduled shader pipelines. It offers crisp and high-detailed graphics, being capable of supplying 48 billion shader operations, as well as 500 million triangles per second.
The greatest innovation in terms of memory the Xbox 360 has to offer is its unified memory architecture, which allows both the CPU and the GPU to "feed" of the system's 512 MB of GDDR3 RAM running at 700 MHz DDR, at bandwidths ranging from 22.4 GB/s for the memory interface bus to 21.6 GB/s for the front-side bus.
The system features a detachable and upgradeable 20 GB hard drive, as well as a (rather crappy) 12X dual-layer DVD-ROM and supports memory cards starting from 64 MB.
The Xbox 360 supports standard definition as well as high definition video output, at either 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p (as of the end of November, via its latest kernel firmware update). The video feed can be displayed in either normal or widescreen formats, depending on the user's choice.
The console offers Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, with 48 KHz 16-bit audio, 320 independent decompression channels as well as 32-bit audio processing. Practically, if you've got a high-end home cinema system, you'll really feel like stepping inside the game you're playing.
Microsoft's gaming console features a built-in Ethernet port which allows the user to connect instantly to the Xbox Live service, as well as 3 USB 2.0 ports. Moreover, it is Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g) ready, and offers support for the Xbox Live Cam.
We tested the Xbox 360 and saw that is was Hot (in Celsius degrees)
We've managed to get a hold of Microsoft's console just a few days after our foray into the Nintendo Wii gaming system, so it was quite easy to make a comparison between the two. And I can tell you right from the start that it was like comparing a RC toy car with a Formula 1 beast. The Xbox 360 is a lot better from the point of view of raw computing power, it is capable of carrying out the functions of a Media Center (and actually acts as the extension of one), but there are some little things, little details that aren't just right, as you'll be able to see as follows. One of them is the famous overheating problem, and we've actually measured the temperature of the console to see just how much heat this thing can radiate.
We've tested our Xbox 360 (a normal, or Premium system) on both a Panasonic Viera plasma display and a Toshiba HD Ready LCD TV. Besides the fact that, obviously, the Toshiba TV was able to display the 1080i video feed and thus the quality of the images was a lot higher, I've noticed a very interesting thing during this stage. The component cable has a small control switch on it, which allows the user to select between high-definition and standard definition output, an element which I've found to be particularly useful.
So, after plugging in the aforementioned power adapter and all the other required cables, I've decided to move on to the next big step: pressing the power button and entering the magical world of the Xbox 360. However, before being able to fully test the system's capabilities, the console led me through a short setup process, that allowed me to establish some of the main settings (including the display-related ones) as well as to create a user account for future games and Xbox Live.
The Xbox 360 features a very interesting GUI (graphical user interface), also known as the Xbox 360 Dashboard. The GUI sports 4 tabs, better known as "blades", and launches automatically when booting up the console without a disc. However, you can (and I strongly recommend this) set it up so that it will open automatically, regardless of whether a game disc is inserted in the console or not. Moreover, the navigation system is extremely easy, using one of the controller's "thumbsticks" (or the D-pad), as well as several of its buttons.
Each tab, or "blade", can be used in order to control a portion of the console's capabilities. The first one is also considered the most important, as "Xbox Live" allows the users to connect to Microsoft's online service and carry out various actions (communicate with friends, read messages, buy games or download various types of content via the Xbox Marketplace etc.). Then we've got the "Games" tab, which lists the user's scores for various games and also allows him/her to join online games, play downloaded demos or watch various game-related videos.
The next blade, dubbed "Media", allows the user to control the "Media Center" functions of the Xbox 360. Here we can find media players for playing either music or video clips, a picture viewer and also the Media Center option, which allows the user to extend the console's functionality way beyond that of a simple gaming device.
The last tab is the one dedicated to all the system's settings, called simply "System". It allows the users to control almost every aspect of their console's functionality, from the type of video output to the establishment of a form of parental control over the content. Here, you can see just how much free memory you've got left and delete various files, control the video and sound settings, set up the network, and a lot more.
Gameplay – nothing that we haven't seen before
I've fooled around with 2 different games: a demo for "Project Gotham Racing" which was pre-loaded onto the HDD, and the already famous "Gears of War". And I'm sorry to say that, even if the Xbox 360 is a true next-gen when it comes to graphics power, the gaming experience is not that different from the one you'd get while playing on an original Xbox or a PS2. Sure, the controller behaves extremely well and fits perfectly in the user's hand, while sporting a very strong force feedback system, but the way the games are played is not that different from what we've already seen in past consoles. Yes, the quality of the images is absolutely breathtaking (for example, you can even see the dirt on the car's windshield in "Project Gotham Racing" or the rocks falling on the ground after shooting a column in "Gears of War), the physics engine creates very realistic effects, but it's nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that we haven't seen before.
And I guess that this is the main problem of the Xbox 360. While taking video quality and hardware power to the max, it has done little to improve the quality of the gaming experience, of the gameplay itself. This hasn't been a problem so far, since there were no terms of comparison, but this situation might change in the near future, due to the motion sensitive Wiimote and Sixaxis controllers which accompany the console's direct next-gen competitors, the Wii and PlayStation 3.
As I've mentioned over and over again up until now, Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming console doubles as a pretty powerful Media Center. It is capable of playing music either from a CD/DVD or from a flash drive stuck into one of its 3 ports, and the same goes for video clips. The optic unit is compatible with a wide range of formats, as for example DVD-Video, DVD-ROM, DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, CD-DA, CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, WMA CD, MP3 CD, JPEG Photo CD, and, as mentioned before, includes specialized music and movie player software. Moreover, it can be used for viewing all your favorite photos, including those on a digital camera connected to it via USB.
The simplest way of testing all these multimedia functions is to playback all the pre-loaded content. There are all sorts of game-related movies on the HDD, which occupy, together with the aforementioned "Projact Gotham Racing" demo, around 3 GB of the disk drive's 20 GB capacity.
Another very interesting fact about the Xbox 360 is that it can be used for streaming media to/from Windows XP PCs via a specialized software, called Media Center Extender. This function allows it to behave exactly like a media recorder, though this function is kind of pointless, due to the small size of the console's HDD unit.
Overheating issue and our temperature test
One of the most serious problems the Xbox 360 has experienced right from the start is that of overheating. The console generates quite a lot of heat, despite the fact that it sports 2 ventilator fans, and that has brought about all sorts of problems for the units from the initial shipments. Even if that problem has been more or less solved since then, the console still generates way too much heat for its own good, and that's why we've decided to see just how hot the Xbox 360 can get. Here is what we found out:
Initial temperature of the console (not powered on): 27 degrees Celsius;
Temperature of the console after 30 minutes: 48 degrees Celsius;
Temperature of the console after 1 hour: 52 degrees Celsius.
Although I've played "Gears of War" for around 2 hours, the temperature hasn't changed much, so I've decided to leave the console alone and measured the temperature of the "brick" power adapter. Much to my surprise, it was a whopping 43 degrees Celsius, a lot more than I had anticipated.
The noisy ventilators issue and our noise test
Another issue claimed to be very serious by many users was that of the noise generated by the console. So we've decided to take a more scientific approach to this problem, and we've used a noise-measuring tool to see just how loud the Xbox 360 really is. We've tried to keep the room as quiet as possible, measured the sound level in the close vicinity of the ventilators (the loudest part of the console) and the result was....65 decibels.
But what does that mean? We've made some research over the Internet, and found out that the 65 decibel value is that usually attained in a normal conversation. Which means that if you happen to whisper, the console might prove to be louder than you. Otherwise, with all the background noise, the Xbox 360 won't seem such a loudmouth as most people consider it to be. In any case, it will be a lot quieter than its predecessor, which was so loud that you couldn't even watch a movie without being seriously disturbed.
Microsoft's Xbox 360 Roundup
- quality (HD) of the video output;
- computing power;
- ergonomic controller, very easy to use;
- seamless integration of the Xbox Live online service;
- huge line-up of games;
- very sleek exterior look;
- detachable 2.5 inches 20 GB HDD.
What's not so Cool:
- no HDMI or DVI output;
- the oversized power supply;
- very high operating temperature;
- no built-in wireless networking;
- features just 3 USB ports;
- offers more of a "classical" gaming experience.
Conclusions (or should you buy it?)
The answer to this question is a pretty tricky one. If you want a sound gaming console, a computing powerhouse that will allow you to enjoy your favorite games in full HD, then yes, you should really consider getting an Xbox 360. You'll have quite a huge number of game titles to choose from, as well as your own personal Media Center (if you don't have one already). You'll be able to chat with your friends on Xbox Live and compete against them in online tournaments, play music or DVDs, and much more.
HOWEVER, if you're not in such a hurry to get one, I strongly advise you to wait a few months. There are quite a lot of rumors going around regarding the Xbox 360's first major revision, more or less secretly called Zephyr. According to several online sources, the new Xbox 360 will feature a cooler 65nm processor, a 120 GB hard drive and HDMI output, thus making it (probably) close to perfect.
On the other hand, as of last year, the Xbox 360 is no longer alone on the next-gen gaming consoles' market. Sony's Playstation 3 and Nintendo's Wii have also been launched and they really promise to give Microsoft's console a run for its money. You've seen why in the case of the Wii, and I hope I'll be able to do the same for the PS3 as soon as possible, so that you'll be able to compare for yourselves and make the choice that fits you best.
What's inside the box
- the Xbox 360 console with chrome finish;
- the external 20 GB HDD unit;
- 1 wireless controller;
- 1 Xbox Live headset;
- 1 Component HD AV Cable;
- 1 Ethernet cable;
- Optional (in case of special bundles): 1 Xbox 360 Game.