08:57 AM

Review: Xbox 360

Microsoft’s new Xbox 360 features stunning video performance and awesome game play, especially on a wide-screen, high-definition TV. The many new media-playing features are pretty good, too. But don’t rush out and buy one. They’re all sold out -- for now.

If you're still wondering if you should rush out and get your hands on the Xbox 360, Microsoft's next-generation game player and media center combo, it's probably too late. When they went on sale across the country, huge numbers of rabid game freaks lined up around the corner of every electronics shop selling the device.

Little wonder, considering the device's cinematic game play and total media center capability-- and its low, $399 price. In fact, when microchip research company iSuppli did a cost breakdown on the device's components, they came to the conclusion that Microsoft was losing about $150 on each unit they sold. Or maybe the Redmond giant just got really good discounts. Either way, the game plan here is clear. By fielding a low-cost powerhouse appliance, Microsoft seeks to take the field from Sony, whose Playstation 2 currently leads, and to steal the thunder from both Sony and Nintendo, whose Playstation 3 and Revolution are due out in 2006. In fact, Microsoft hopes to sell more than five million units by the end of Q2 '06.

But there may be problems lurking below the surface of these chum-infested waters. Some gamers are reporting, and Microsoft has confirmed, that some Xbox 360 game units are causing problems. Though gadget and gamer forums have begun to report the occurrence of Xbox "black screens of death" and occasional error messages during "normal" game play. Microsoft offers 1-800-4MY-Xbox for troubleshooting. If that doesn't solve the problem, Microsoft will repair or replace the unit.

In order to get some firsthand intelligence on the unit, we went to the 36-hour Zero Hour launch party held at a "secret" location in the Mojave Desert. A location we recognized as a hanger at Palmdale Airport, site of Bert Rutan’s Spaceship One launches.

After recovering from 36 hours of mind boggling event chaos, we settled down to some serious game play and device analysis.

Microsoft took a brave new design onboard when it came to the heart of the Xbox -- its processor. In a typical gamer’s PC you would install the fastest single processor you could afford, overclock it until it was in danger of melting down, and use active cooling to prevent that. Not here. Instead, they used three “symmetrical IBM cores” clocked at 3.2 GHz and able to do a teraflop (one trillion floating-point operations per second). Graphics is provided by a 500 MHz ATI processor, which shares the installed 512MB of GDDR3 RAM, expandable via two 64MB RAM slots.

Unpacking the Xbox 360 quickly reveals a few key pieces of information about the device. The first thing you notice is plentiful ventilation throughout the sides and back. You also notice that the unit weighs less than a PC. Microsoft was able to make the Xbox 360 smaller because the power supply has been moved out of the unit. The power supply “brick” is the first one I’ve seen with ventilation holes in it. Considering the amount of power this unit consumes, the heavy solid construction of the unit is more then welcome. Based on those reports of crashing, it is likely that many of the problems are heat related. (It’s important to make sure that the 360 and its external power supply have good airflow.)

Initial setup of our Xbox 360 was simple and straightforward, though we were momentarily confused by the HDTV component cable setup, which differs from previous Xboxes.

On the older Xbox, using the HDTV component video output cable also put out a component video signal for non-HDTV resolution sets, a capability which is missing from the component video cable that comes with the premium system, and thus relegating non HDTV owners to using the regular composite video output.

Another interesting aspect of the component video cable is that switching the slider switch on the connector from HDTV to TV mode forces the 360 to do an instant reboot into the new display mode.

Once we had the 360 setup, it was time to check out the media capabilities of the unit. Plugging the 360 into our wired Ethernet network, the device immediately picked up an IP address from our routers DHCP. Plugging in a 5th generation iPod to one of the front USB ports registered the iPod’s name in the music section of the 360’s media page and exposed the player's music and playlists to the 360’s media player. To share music and photos from a Windows XP system over the network to the 360, you are prompted to install the Windows Media Connect client from the Web site. However, you can’t copy music from your networked computer or iPod to the 360’s hard drive. The only way to do that is to rip an audio CD with the 360.

Video playback on the 360 requires you to either have a Windows Media Center PC on your network to stream from, unless you’re happy with downloaded video from the Xbox Live Marketplace. The 360’s video support is limited to the video codecs supported by other Windows Media Extender devices, so there’s no support for MPEG-4, Quicktime, H.264, Xvid or Divx video codecs -- until Microsoft adds them. One thing we liked at the Xbox Live Marketplace was the ability to view various movie trailers for upcoming films in HD resolutions.

New to the 360 is the introduction of “gamertags “to Xbox Live, almost like a virtual drivers license, except gamertags tell other players on Xbox Live what games you play and what achievements you’ve earned. You can also review players you’ve played against on Live, adding (or subtracting) to their personal legends. Live-enabled games also give you a list of the people you last played against, making it easier to find new friends (or seek out old enemies) to play against online.

Of course, all of this is secondary to what the 360 was designed for: playing great games. In playing our copy of Project Gotham Racing 3 (PGR3) we found that the visuals of the game were stunning, even on a normal TV. However, on a widescreen HDTV in 1080i mode, it became gorgeous and fluid. If you have the means, playing on an HDTV with a full 5.1 surround-sound setup creates a rich environment that takes advantage of the 360s media and gaming capabilities.

The 360 also offers the Live Arcade where more casual gamers can try out arcade classics, puzzle games and more before buying online through the Marketplace. Probably the most addictive game of the Live Arcade is the Geometry Wars arcade game, reminiscent of a modified and updated Asteroids but with greatly music and frantic pacing.

When using the 360’s wireless controllers, the response time didn’t feel sluggish at all. In fact, it was comparable to using a wired controller. Playing PGR3 online with a cable modem using Live we found that the quick match system worked well with the various opponents’ trash talking each other using the 360’s headset. Lag was never an issue during Live play. At no point during any of our time playing PGR3 or any of the Xbox Live Arcade games did our unit crash or display any of the problems reported elsewhere. That doesn’t mean some percentage of units aren’t bad, it just means that the unit we tested worked great.

After many hours of game play both at home and at the Zero Hour event with all the various launch titles, it’s safe to say that Microsoft has succeeded in creating the best gaming system ever put on the market -- for now.

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