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xbox 360: a review


While I am indeed pretty busy that doesn't prevent me from, say, sleeping even less and every once in a while using that "extra" time to to play games, on an original xbox. Initially I wasn't going to get an x360, but it so happened that a nearby Best Buy decided to allow preorders and off we went last Friday.

booting up
By now I've got a fairly good handle on the dozen or so different ways to connect A/V systems (composite, component, Svideo, DVI, optical or not optical sound input and all the variants they create), and more assorted lengths of wire than Professor Farnsworth. So once I got home connecting the system was fairly painless. On first boot things looked pretty good, although the image quality was a little off, even with HD settings (my TV supports 480p and 1080i)--but more on that later.
Before that: oh, the power brick. It feels like a brick, both in size and weight. Probably a third of the volume of the xbox itself (on the left in the picture). It is completely anachronistic next to the sleek design of the rest of the system, but so be it. Power has to come from somewhere no?

The controllers themselves include a few crucial improvements over the original xbox controllers, most notably the option buttons that used to be to the left and right of the joysticks are now better distributed -- start in the center, and the white/black option buttons are now on the front, above the triggers. Much better. The remote control (included as a bonus right now in the pro configuration) is also pretty good, although for some strange unfathomable reason the remote is infrared whereas the control is wireless.

Simple things, like being able to turn on the xbox from the controllers or the remote, are actually big improvements. The dashboard can be accessed easily from within a game, navigation is easier, etc. The network setup was buried behind several screens, but I was glad to see that it supports both WEP and WPA, WPA-PSK in particular (although they call it "WPA password" for some reason).

Overall, the initial setup experience was fairly painless, but I think that non-techies may find it confusing, particularly for the wireless setup options, and especially if they've got secure wireless setup by someone else.

that media center thing

Configuring the 360 to do streaming off my PC's music collection took about 10 minutes, although a couple of false starts were involved (PC not finding the xbox, then the xbox not finding the PC), and I think that people without PC experience will probably find the process fairly confusing, but in my case it worked out well. The XP-based application is easy to install and configure (at least by MS standards, again - having to dive into the control panel to change settings is something that will confuse a lot of people methinks). So suddenly I have a single repository for my music and photos--not bad!

Video support seems to be limited to Windows Media Center (I have XP pro), but I don't have high hopes on that, I assume they support MPG2 and WMA, which is not usually the format in which I store video anyway. Strangely enough, there's a section for "movies" but it contains a few trailers that come built in, and that I can't seem to be able to get rid of. GIven that the x360 comes from the factory with only 10gig free of disk space, that's pretty bad. If they hadn't included PC integration, no one would use it for media playback -- there's just not enough space there to do anything useful.

But I digress. The integration, once set up, is pretty seamless, although I'm so used to the ipod's waterfall menu mechanism/navigation that the linear behavior on the xbox felt somewhat clunky. Regardless, it was really cool to get more juice out of the music on the PC as a bonus (you could do that with the original xbox, but you needed another CD and I never took the time to set it up--or you needed a modded box).

the games

Holy moly, the difference in game experience with HD and surround is amazing, particularly with a large screen. Project Gotham Racing 3 is fantastic ... once you actually get HD set up. I mentioned above that I configured the box for HD/widescreen within the dashboard, but there was another (annoying) step to get through: flip a tiny switch on the video component output cable from "TV" to "HDTV". In setting stuff up and naturally not reading the manual you miss this crucial step and things look good but not that good. Anyway, with the switch in its proper location, the image was just gorgeous. For once, the game trailers really reflect well the astonishing quality of the graphics. The menu navigation of the game is actually more confusing than PGR2, but they've made some small improvements that make gameplay better.

As for first-person shooters: Call of Duty 2 is excellent, but it suffers from lack of a cooperative multiplayer mode. After having tried Ghost Recon 2: Summit Strike on the original xbox, I'm much more interested now in those kinds of games than in standard deathmatch (although that's definitely fun :)). Quake 4 is good, but nothing shockingly new: think Doom to the nth power. Then there's Perfect Dark Zero, which has some interesting new takes on the FPS genre, and looks great as well.

The surprise for me was the "Arcade" game category in the xbox live section: you can access lists of games and download trials or buy full versions of classics with "microsoft points" (on this topic, btw, I agree with Russ: I don't like them for multiple reasons, but I don't think they'll get rid of it anytime soon).

backwards compatibility

The x360 runs a good amount of original xbox games, but not nearly enough. When they do run, however, it's pretty amazing. Halo 2 for instance looks better and runs perfectly well. This is definitely an achievement considering that the original xbox ran on a P3/Celeron and the x360 one runs a multicore PowerPC. There definitely seems to be some fairly complex emulation code there, assumming that what they're doing is indeed pure or mixed emulation.

final thoughts

Overall, the x360 is really, really well done and the games are excellent. Microsoft has definitely done a good job with it, wrinkles notwhitstanding. There's been some discussion for example on this slashdot story (and then echoed all over the place) on how the 360 is "very unstable." If shreds of anecdotal evidence is all we're going with, I know of 5 xbox 360s, 3 pro and 2 core systems, all of which run without a glitch. It very well maybe a heating problem. That would not be surprising considering that this little box packs as much processing power as a modern PC (and look at the fans and heat exchangers on those things).

One thing that does bother me a bit is that there seems to be a lot of information about what you're doing and what you've done broadcast by the system to others (just entering into an xbox live game once seems to grab that list of people forever, and then you can see their status) with no obvious way of turning that off. I assume privacy settings are in there somewhere, I'll have to look for them later.

Anyway, given the price and supply issues it's certainly not a device for the masses yet, but it's definitely something worth trying if you can. The next big game to be released will be IMO Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. But that's in February... in the meantime, there's a bunch of cool stuff to try out :).

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on November 23, 2005 at 10:37 PM

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