• Microsoft Xbox360 Hardware Review

    The build up to the Xbox 360ís release has undeniably been a tumultuous one. From the games running on Apple Mac G5 systems as late as this year's E3, to the uncertainty of a full release list and titles being delayed right up to the final month of the console being unleashed, everything seems to have been a bit up in the air. But for most none of this matters anymore. If youíre still a firm believer that itís too early for the next generation of consoles, then youíre going to want to stick your head firmly in the sand Ė Microsoftís Xbox 360 is finally here.

    Determined to be first off the starting block this time around, Microsoft seems to have pulled out all the stops to ensure they are one step ahead of their rivals, going so far as launching the system almost worldwide at the same time. Whether this will pay off in the long term is impossible to predict (as well as being the subject of much conjecture for the past few months) but right now, those of us without crystal balls are more than happy to be playing with the new hardware.

    In a development that surprised and divided many, Microsoft have decided to give the consumer a choice as to what they get when they purchase the 360. The system comes in two flavours that consist of the console plus varying accessories. In the cheaper Core pack, buyers will find just a standard wired controller and AV cable. The more expensive Premium pack features a lot more goodies which include the 20GB hard drive (necessary for playing original Xbox games), a wireless pad, media remote control, a headset for use with Xbox Live, component HD AV cable, Ethernet cable and chrome finish to the front CD tray.

    For the purposes of this feature, the pack tested was the Premium Pack.

    The System:

    The first thing that hits you on unpacking the system is how much better it actually looks in the flesh than the countless pictures seen online. Even the photos here are unable to do it full justice. Microsoft have taken the dark, chiselled appearance of the original system and tossed it aside for something that looks a lot slinkier and brighter; almost like itís fallen off the sketch board of someone working at Apple.

    The front of the system features the `Ring of Light` that also doubles as the power button. There are two USB ports hidden behind the hinged flap at the front of the unit which can used to connect the myriad of promised peripherals, as well as being used to recharge the wireless controllers with the Play and Charge lead.

    For those who do not have the hard drive attachment, there are two memory slots that can be used to save games etc. These 64MB cards can be purchased separately and allow a more robust method for transporting games saves and even Xbox Live profiles between systems Ė handy if you donít want to risk carting your hard drive over to a friend's house and accidentally dropping it onto the pavement.

    The faceplate for the system is also detachable allowing for people to customise their consoles. Removing the faceplate is tricky until you get the hang of it, essentially requiring you to put your thumb from one hand into the door of the USB slot whilst using the other hand to gently squeeze the faceplate loose.

    The left hand side of the console (or top if youíre using it vertically) is used to attach the optional hard drive. The detachable drive is used for game saves as well as emulating the original Xbox system so the selected list of Xbox games can be played. Connecting the hard drive is a cinch and simply requires you to line up the connections and click it into place. Removing it is even easier thanks to the push button that detaches it. Content-wise the hard drive contains film clips, sample music and Hexic HD. Although the drive has a 20GB capacity, in reality a portion of this is used up with the preloaded content and system files meaning only 12 - 13 GB is actually free to use. However some content can be deleted to free up a little more space. With demos of retail titles (which can be obtained via Xbox Live's new service features) taking up 500MB plus, download hungry and PC-savvy individuals will find the capacity of the hard drive a bit tight. However this is something that will hopefully be addressed soon with the release of drives with larger storage potential.

    At the rear of the unit can be found the final additional USB port, an Ethernet port for connecting to the Internet, and the video output and power input connections. There are two fans built into the rear of the unit, which are in almost constant use from the time the unit is switched on. Noise levels are subjective but it certainly seemed no louder than the original. One thing which is louder is the DVD drive that makes a noticeable noise when in use. However this is a non-issue as it is quickly tuned out or even drowned out by any audio from games or music.

    Another thing to be wary of is that, as the system is using a lot of processing power in such a small case, the unit can get quite hot. It's best to think of the system as more of a computer than a console and treat it accordingly. Therefore ventilation is certainly a factor, more so than any console system before it, and something users will need to take into consideration when setting up their new toy.

    The Controller and Remote:

    The controller itself is a variation on the much-improved S-type controller and is surprisingly comfortable and lightweight. The left and right triggers on the underside of the pad have been moved slightly to make way for two additional shoulder buttons on the top, giving it a much more natural feel. The Start and Back buttons have also been moved from the base of the pad to the top middle section and between these is the new multifunction button in the form of a raised Xbox 360 symbol. This can be used in-game to access the mini-dashboard and turn the console on and off remotely Ė handy if you donít want to get out of the groove in your gaming seat. Those who felt the S-type was close to perfection need not worry; these changes are all for the better with the pad feeling second nature to hold as soon as you pick it up.

    It is disappointing that the unit doesnít come with the Plug and Charge lead as standard, instead running on two AA batteries which slot in to the underside of the unit. Optimal battery life for the unit is an estimated 30 Ė 40 hours before requiring replacing or recharging depending on your setup. The wireless controller is responsive with no lag found Ė Microsoft claim the unit is still responsive up to 30ft away and while unable to verify this fully, the system was still responding to the pad when they were separated by several rooms and on a separate storey of the house..

    Up to four controllers can be connected wirelessly, with the Ring of Light being divided into four segments which light up to show the number of pads within range. Each controller houses a connect button at the top and pressing this near the 360 unit you want to connect to allows them to sync together. The only foreseeable problem with the controller is that the bright colour scheme will no doubt, over time, show up any scuffs, smudges and the inevitable build up of controller jam.

    The Xbox Live headset plugs into a small connection at the base of the pad, meaning that users now have roaming capabilities (and you can now look forward to listening to uncouth people on Live playing whilst they are sat on the toilet and so on). Mute and headset volume are built in to the connector that attaches to the unit.

    Like the original headset, it's impossible to look cool or trendy wearing it, but it will fit easily on most sizes of cranium so at least youíll be comfortable whilst looking silly.

    As the system this time plays DVDs out of the box, the media remote control comes as standard with Premium packs for a limited time. With a matching colour scheme and simple layout the remote performs its functions well, even including the same button as on the controller to bring up the dashboard etc.

    The Dashboard:

    When switching on the system for the first time players are given the chance to manage their Xbox Live account or defer it until later. All Xbox 360 systems are able to make use of the free Xbox Live Silver level of service, which will allow players to download updates to the backward compatibility emulator, or dashboard and to make use of the basic elements of the Live service (though playing games online is only possible with a full Gold subscription). Once the Live account has been managed users can then navigate the various screens (or blades as Microsoft are calling them) of the dashboard to alter the settings. The blades consist of Xbox Live, Games, Media and System. If the user is online-enabled then the Live blade is the default Ė if they arenít the Games blade replaces it as the standard.

    Present throughout the first three blades is the customisable Gamercard which displays the gamer score achievements, avatar etc. The Xbox is constantly watching and cataloguing what you play (as well as allowing others to view this info) and is where all the information is displayed.

    The Xbox Live blade stores the information regarding your friends list, messages and access to Liveís Marketplace - here additional content can be purchased including Arcade titles. Moreover most Arcade titles also have free demos that can be downloaded as a 'try before you buy' system Ė handy so you can see what youíre getting before you purchase.

    A list of downloads is also catalogued, and as the system stores details of what games youíve been playing itíll automatically check if an update is available Ė banishing that boring trial of having to insert the game CD every month or so to see if something new has been released.

    The friends list has been expanded meaning that itís much easier to track your friends, add them (or even just refind the people you played against last time without having to add them to the list) as well as viewing their profiles and what theyíve been playing / achieved. Other functions include (for the Big Brother wary amongst us) being able to alter the Privacy option and turn off the option for others to see what youíre doing or playing.

    The Games blade gives access to the user's profile as well as the Xbox Arcade, which allows Arcade games to be played. A list of achievements is also stored here.

    However, Media blade is used for organising pictures, movies, music and streaming media, while the System blade allows the user to configure things such as video resolution output, audio, memory and network settings.

    The dashboard can also be accessed at any point during game play by pressing the Xbox 360 button on the centre of the joypad. This brings up the 'My 360 Guide', which handily allows users to view their Gamercard, messages, friends list, preferences etc without having to really interrupt their current game. For those with wireless pads the mobile-phone-style battery display is also visible in the top left-hand corner telling you how much charge remains.

    Itís clear that the Dashboard has been revamped after seeing what programs like Avalanche, UnleashX and other custom dashboards could do on chipped versions of the original Xbox. The interface feels a world away from its predecessor; responsive, crisp and intuitive to use Ė no more jarring dark green (unless you want it) or clunky, robotic sound effects. Everything feels a lot more organised and presentable and the inclusion of the My 360 Guide makes the system even more user friendly than ever. All this allows users to quickly adapt to it, even if theyíve never used anything else outside of the original Xboxís clunky interface. The dashboard can also be customised with different themes and images that can be added by game developers as additional content or downloaded via Live. The user can also specify their own colour scheme and background. Put simply those who went nuts over the custom wallpaper function on the PSP will love this aspect.

    Sound and Vision:

    Microsoft has been pushing the 360ís Hi-Definition capability and it certainly is something worth making a meal of. High definition output from the system is jaw dropping and impressive with everything looking crisp and clear. All games are expected to support at least 720p output, with the system also able to do 1080i.

    The system also had a number of connectivity options. Included in the Premium pack is the dual composite and component cable that allows Standard Definition and High Definition usage (done by simply flicking a small switch on the base of the connector depending on your TV set up). Other optional connection methods, which can be used by purchasing additional cables, include RGB SCART and VGA.

    In order to get the fullest from the visuals the unit has to offer, High Definition capable equipment is a must. Pictures on a normal Standard Definition set still look good, but a lot of crispness and clarity to the image is lost. The best test is for people to actually view the Hi-Definition output directly for themselves, but suffice to say it wonít disappoint and the difference is immediately noticeable.

    5.1 Surround Sound quality for the system is superior over the original, with a noticeable improvement in clarity and range. Itís also worth noting that the connector for the AV cable has an optical output built into it for those with the appropriate kit.

    The inclusion of the hard drive means that users have access to the back catalogue of original Xbox games. As the 360 uses emulation to run these titles, initially the selection of games that will work is quite small given the first system's lifespan. However this is something which Microsoft intends to address as time goes by, releasing patches that will allow more and more Xbox games to be played. The emulation software also has the added bonus of being able to upscale original games to higher resolutions like 720p, if they didnít already utilise it.

    Using Halo 2 as a test it was instantly noticeable that the pop-up problems in the gameís cut scenes were no longer present. Even some of the textures looked much sharper when being scaled up. However, not all is peachy on the emulation front just yet. Ninja Gaiden, suffers a noticeable drop in its usually rock solid frame rate whilst playing on the system. Similar problems were found with testing Grand Theft Auto, Dead or Alive 3 and Fable - which although not enough to render the games unplayable was certainly noticeable. Oddly other games like Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction run without any problems at all. Clearly the emulation side has some way to progress before being perfected, but itís a healthy start and something that Microsoft has promised to continue developing.

    Xbox Live and Xbox Arcade:

    One of the standout features about Xbox Live is the connectivity it offers. While the actual experience of online play hasnít changed (since thatís dictated by each individual game), the changes to the Live service and way itís presented have certainly made a big difference. The design's layout in the dashboard makes it easier to get online, whilst keep everything organised and accessible.

    Perhaps the first most notable and impressive addition to the Live service is that of Xbox Arcade and Market Place.

    The Market Place works on a system of points, which is essentially the currency that can be accumulated to make transactions. Those with the Gold Service can use their credit card details to buy additional points, while Silver members can buy purchase cards from retail outlets. At present the points system works out at roughly £4.00 for 500 points. Although it can be done, there is no money saving to be made from buying points in bulk.

    Effectively what Microsoft has achieved is a digital version of the Nintendo Stars system (but without the almost continuously empty catalogue). Items like additional pictures for the Gamercards or Dashboard themes are plentiful and relatively cheap Ė costing 20 points or between 150 to 200 points respectively. The Arcade titles vary in price but can cost up to around 800 points (which is where the demo download option comes in extremely handy). The points system also leaves it open for Microsoft to run special online events for participants to win extra points, or for giveaways in their own first party titles.

    The beauty of the Arcade mode is that most of the games are online-enabled meaning titles like Smash TV, Robotron 2084 and Gauntlet can be played over the Live service and even in co-op mode. Itís an excellent addition that makes a notable debut and promises big things for the future. For those concerned about the lack of space on the hard drive, Live also enables you to re-download content you have already paid for. While not ideal, at this point in time it will appease those irked by the capacity of the hard drive.

    Connectivity and Media:

    Microsoft has been making a big thing of the 360ís power to connect and stream via its USB ports, Ethernet connection and wireless functions. As has been demonstrated during the various events in the run up to launch, MP3 players, PCs, digital cameras and even PSPs can be connected to the system to transfer images and music via the Media blade.

    Connecting via the Ethernet connection and router is quick and easy, but may require downloading an update to XP containing Media Connect 2.0. Once done, the two will soon be chatting away to one another quite happily. Music transfer is quick and simple, with the ability to set the music to the visualiser or just have it playing away in the background. Meanwhile pictures can be viewed one by one or as a slideshow.

    Connecting via USB is straightforward: plug in the device and youíre pretty much set. Aside from being able to transfer and stream via the dashboard, the My 360 Guide lets you stream whilst in-game.

    Streaming video is not as straightforward though, requiring a Media Centre Edition of Windows XP.

    It should be noted that streaming is simply that Ė relaying information to a system in real time. The Xbox 360 doesnít have the ability to collect the streamed info and save it for later use. There are also copyright limitations that prevent the ripping of music other than from CD, or the streaming of video from a PSP.

    Media-wise the Xbox 360 will play most things you can throw at it including DVD-R/RW, CD-R, CD-RW (although there are some notable format absences such as DivX material). The built-in DVD player is also a welcome feature and even more accessible now thanks to the universal remote control. Sadly DVDs are not upscaled to 720p and it would be nice to see this addressed by an update at a later point in the future.

    The Future?:

    Thereís no denying that the Xbox 360 is visually an impressive piece of kit, onscreen and off. Thankfully this extends below its cosmetics with the system showing real potential for the future. Even if the starting line-up of games doesnít grab the attention of the hardnosed gamer, the inclusion of the Market Place and Arcade is certainly a pleasant surprise and an undeniable plus point to the system. This combination of graphical prowess and connectivity is something the 360 carries out with gusto, feeling all the more robust and desirable for it. Microsoft have done the clever thing by introducing the Xbox Live Silver service and improving the online capabilities, making them much more integral parts of the system which are difficult to ignore. Thereís a clear commitment to enhancing and pulling together the online community this time around and it will no doubt work in their favour.