Microsoft Xbox 360 
Home Theater Accessories Game Systems
Written by Jeremy R. Kipnis   
Thursday, 01 December 2005

Introduction
As a hard-core gamer for over 30 years and a programmer to boot, both in the arcade and on PC and consoles over multiple platforms, I can say with authority that the true test of any new game system or technology is how much better it is then anything else that’s come before it. And, what does it cost for that performance improvement? Back in the 1970s, when there was almost nothing in video games to play, we were happy to upgrade from black and white to color or from Pong to Space Invaders. Even to go as programmers from Basic or Fortran to DOS offered significant improvements to gaming that a few years before were simply unimaginable. This is because computer power was at a premium, as it was throughout the U.S. Apollo missions to the moon, and arcade games circa 1980 like Donkey Kong, Tempest, Frogger, or Pole Position required the equivalent of $5,000 worth of hardware, but only the equivalent of the current processing power of a current $30 logarithmic calculator from Wal-Mart. These games relied heavily on visual suspension of disbelief, and similar allowances with regard to the audio, as they were all terribly, terribly two-dimensional in presentation. Even sports and racing games from the 1980s were substantially flat and cartoonish in comparison with anything we have experienced since the original Xbox appeared in 2001.

At that time, alongside a whole slew of new and superior PC gaming platforms, like Alienware and Apple Computers’ first foray into the Gigaflop processing arena, the original Xbox set the standard for both stand-alone game play and high-definition graphics with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. I found it to offer significantly better game play than anything else with respect to three-dimensional visual presentation, complex light and shading, sound accuracy and spatial envelopment, along with a truly lifelike sense of immersion, previously felt to this degree only in military and research simulators. While the early Xbox games varied in quality, as with all new platforms, many subsequent games like Halo and Halo II first set the benchmark as tangibly real for first-person shooters on any platform. Others like Call of Duty followed. Certainly, sporting games created by EA Sports have utilized every bit of processing power available from the original Xbox, and in the last year or so, EA’s games have looked better on a fully screaming gamer PC platform.

With all the pre-press blah blah about how incredible or terrible the Xbox 360 might be, no less than eight domestic retailers have sold out of all products by the initial November 22 rollout. Most websites that list the product for sale give a time frame for new orders that stretches to at least March 2006. And I am truly shocked by how eager people are, standing in line outside in the fall cold for days, and what they are willing to pay for a system before Christmas, in some cases four and five times the retail price. Fortunately, this did not deter me. And I can say here and now if you are a gamer, you will want to own this platform. But will it be as exciting and new when the Sony PlayStation comes out in May 2006 featuring Blue-ray and 1080p playback capability?

Features
The Xbox 360 looks like it came from the designers of the Apple iBook, offering up a sleek and largely white exterior case slightly smaller than the original Xbox but considerably larger than the Sony Playstation 2; it offers the ability to add skin faceplates and change the GUI to re-characterize each individual unit as its owner desires. The platform is capable of processing one teraflop of information, thanks to its three symmetrical IBM computer cores operating at 3.2 GHz each. The custom ATI processor and its ultra-fast memory run at 500 MHz and feature 512 MB of GDDR3 RAM in a unified GPU/CPU architecture. This allows game designers to make the most of the 1280 x 720p or 1920 x 1080i arena they are charged with filling creatively. In fact, for the 360, all new games must be in high definition and Dolby Digital 5.1, mandated by Microsoft. I think this is a great step towards totally embracing the 16:9 HD aspect ratio and making the most of the improved resolution this game format offers.

A removable 20 GB hard drive (along with a wireless controller, Xbox Live headset, three-month silver Xbox live subscription and a component/HDTV interface cable) are available as standard in the $399.00 MSRP Deluxe Package. I do not recommend purchase of the “Core System” at $299.00 MSRP, as the wired controller is a step backward and the hard drive is absolutely necessary to save game profiles, updates and additions, but it is also useful to store music and high-definition video when exchanged with a PC or Windows Media Center using an optional Microsoft Extended Media cradle; this concept was designed as an afterthought, in my opinion, and not worthy of review unless you must share all your entertainment sources and audio and video selections with each and every different platform and component you own throughout your home, including your car and cellular.

  The wireless controllers (which require two-AA batteries or the recharging pack included with the deluxe system) are very similar to the “J” version (the smaller one) of the wired Xbox controller introduced in 2003, being very slightly more tapered at the palm holds – most comfortable – and slightly heavier than the “J” version, yet lighter than the Xbox aftermarket wireless controllers. I found I could get at least 18 hours of continuous play out of the best Duracell AA batteries, while the rechargeable pack was good for 12 hours at a time. This was dependent on the amount of vibration induced by the game, of course, but I think this is quite extraordinary for a wireless product of any kind, all the same. There are two 64 MB memory slots, useful in transferring saved data from an Xbox to the Xbox 360 with older games (and a lot of help and a prayer) and touring with your saved data to other players’ homes, as well as three USB ports for expansion to additional controllers and accessories like a steering column and accelerator for Project Gotham Racing 3. The GUI is very TiVo-like as an interface, both simple and intuitive to operate. The operating system takes a new user through the usual date/time, screen aspect ratio, HDTV format and Dolby Digital sound selection, and in no time you will be playing both new and old games like you had the system set up forever.

Xbox 360 continues the Xbox Live tradition of offering games with both solo and online playability. While I have never found playing solo against the computer to offer the pleasure and diversity of playing literally against the rest of the world, the onboard fuzzy logic in the solo games now imitates and learns how to be smarter, just like online opponents would. Furthermore, offline play is made smarter through online play, as many games, particularly from EA Sports, add their fuzzy logic from online play experience to any game that’s played. This is a fascinating improvement in game logic which I believe is being tested silently now, which would account for the lack of rollout of a neat and critical feature.

It is important to note that, while many Xbox games are compatible with Xbox 360, each one must have an emulator program written specifically for it to run at all. I cannot entirely understand then why a new and exciting game like Star Wars Battle Ground II, released eight weeks before the 360 hit the streets, is still incompatible. Or Star Trek: Shattered Universe, for that matter. So before you go and sell your original Xbox and buy a 360, make certain that you have checked the Xbox 360 older game compatibility list, which changes almost daily, in order to avoid great disappointment.

Otherwise, the more diminutive and styli-able Xbox 360 sets up identically to the original Xbox, with the exception of a rather large external power transformer, nearly half the size of the unit itself. Initial reports since the November 22 launch have indicated there have been a small number of overheating incidents. This is suspiciously similar to the original Xbox overheating when the tiny two-prong IEC power cord supplied with new units prior to 2005 would overheat after many, many hours (say 12) due to the high current draw required to run more complicated games over time. A few cases cited fire, but I have never seen any pictures or seen any lawsuits, so this is perhaps exaggerated. Still, my experience was that the 360’s transformer did get quite hot, and I found myself setting it up as a precaution on end so that more air could flow around the unit – perhaps an unconscious concern over sudden immolation. The 360 console also gets quite warm along the backside, but this is no worse than most gaming PCs or front projectors with their cooling fans running on high.

Testing
As is true of all my reviews, I evaluated the Xbox 360 on a minimum of five different playback systems, ranging from the 24-inch Sony GDM-FW900 HDTV/Computer CRT monitor and the Sony 40XBR700 40-inch CRT television to the Sony Qualia 006 70-inch XBR100 SXRD RP and the NEC XG135-2 eight-inch CRT front projector (similar to the Runco 991 Ultra) on a Stewart StudioTech 130 screen of 12x6.75 feet, all the way up to the Sony Qualia 004 (with the 1080p mod and the Faroudja DVP 1080P scaler) on a Stewart 18x10.125-foot Snowmatte Laboratory Grade motion picture screen. Sound systems included the two-channel Bose Wave radio featuring Dolby Prologic II all the way through the Theta Casablanca III operating in 8.4 mode, plus two additional Bryston crossovers using my custom Snell THX 8.8 system to play back over 26 channels utilizing 30 McIntosh MC-2102 Vacuum tube amplifiers.

By comparison to anything other than the best gaming PCs currently available at four and five times the price, Xbox 360 is hands-down the best visual and sonic performer for almost any reasonable amount of money one might choose to spend. At the same time, it retains a nearly flawless controller interface with a basic 32-bit architecture, common controller design with the previous system, and, unlike so many PC games, there are few hang-ups, even after extended game play, which has been a real problem with certain original Xbox games, regardless of software iteration.

My initial concerns notwithstanding about the slightly smaller, snazzier 360 case design and its heat dissipation, as it has three times the processing power of the previous Xbox (and this must include the rather large and hot external A/C power transformer – boo!), I find this platform to offer the most significant improvement in both absolute picture and sound quality (particularly with the Component Video HDTV connection) of any standalone platform thus far created.

Equally as much, this platform offers an enormous and broad improvement in the quality of game play. Options and visual expectations that would be involved with those realities suddenly come to light in a very visceral way. For example, in any of the new EA 360 Sport games from NFL 2006, and NGA 2006 to NBA 2006 and NHL 2006, the impression of individual player’s attention (with eyes following the action closely) and fatigue as witnessed by sweating, drinking water on the sidelines, panting and overheating due to stress are palpable and visceral as the games progress, providing yet another previously unrealized physical element that can be portrayed as an element of game environment history. The play field also ages with time, showing scuffs on the Astroturf, scrapes on the court and blood on the ice after a scuffle – most realistic in a way we could have only imagined a few years ago.

To me, after this tangible improvement in the portrayal of time upon the environment (and any consequences that might happen) through game play, I now feel new games must be required to recreate an actual event accurately and tactilely. This includes the decimation of initially perfect players (or vehicles) and environments, which, over the course of the game, change to the point where they are not even recognizable or drivable. This level of “historical authenticity” produces an “almost live effect,” with lighting, camera angles and subtle detailing and damage effects giving both the flavor of the real event (as in earlier Xbox games) and the raw detail that is required to produce realistic results in 1920x1080 in real-time on a really large screen.

I find this effect to be of the same level of improvement as previous transitions in my personal history of new video game platforms, starting with that early flat black and white Pong game as seen with color gels fore and aft game in “Airport 1977” (Universal HDTV Network), which would lead to a new form of 2-D hockey and tennis, followed by great improvements that produced Space Invaders, Missile Command, and finally Zaxxon in 1983, the first third-person shooter. (Never to have been reissued – boo!!!)

Having said all this, my personal playing experience with the 360 is transcendent vs. any other currently available gaming system. On a large screen, in particular, the visual presentation at 720p, much less 1080i, produces an outstanding picture, as well as fantastic sound quality with a commensurate system. Unfortunately, loading time is just as slow as with the original Xbox and most PC gaming solutions. Oh, well, perhaps the Sony Playstation 3 with Blue-ray will be speedier.

Exciting games included Project Gotham Racing 3, with its completely realistic New York skyline, particularly the trip across the Brooklyn, Washington, and Varizano Bridges towards Manhattan. Equally as nonstop was the warmongering involvement of Call of Duty 2 in the European WW2 theater that included the streets of Paris and Berlin, among many others, coming to life as though you were there – brrrrrrr. The snow was as subtle as any I have experienced outside of a professional simulator or real life. Troop movement was like watching an HDTV movie, although it was clear during still moments that textures of people and places are matted onto a wire frame of visible points in a scene. Still, these two games in particular struck me for their nearly limitless playfields (well beyond the corner limits and local battlefields encountered in previous game formats), constant adaptations of computer opponents to actual live opponents, and a superb sense of beauty, subtlety, depth of field and total player immersion, particularly on large screen systems over 60” at close seating distances.

The Downside
First and most egregious in this day and age, the lack of an HDMI output is simply ridiculous. How can a new, cutting-edge HDTV system not give users access to the most common digital video/audio interface? And why must gamers contend with less then the best digital connection after spending nearly $500 on hardware? How are companies like Motorola and Scientific Atlanta able to make cable DVRs that offer superior picture quality to users at $10 a month and with an HDMI output as standard?

The rubber thumb grips, particularly the right thumb stick, have NESW extrusions, which, to my sensitive thumbs, become needlessly fatiguing after a few hours of play. The controllers are so close to offering a perfect fit that I can hardly imagine Microsoft would not fine-tune the existing results to create a perfect in-house product for their loyal public.

Possible carpal tunnel syndrome due to a clamped hand around a controller over many hours should have been reviewed before this new release went public. My research indicates that a soft gel-like contour or body, in place of the hard plastic exterior, would result in a tremendous increase in player focus and longevity over many hours of play.

The lack of total backward compatibility for all games is disturbing, since Xbox 360 must have been built upon the users who already play online with Xbox Live. Who needs to have two identical systems (one new and one old) online and pay for a two simultaneous yearly subscriptions?

The impending release in early May of Sony’s Playstation 3, featuring Blu-ray and 1080p playback capability, almost pushes Xbox 360 into obscurity before it is ever released. Considering Sony’s 78 percent world market share of personal video game sales, it is a wonder that Microsoft continues to carve out any market share at all, particularly against longtime game veteran Nintendo. Once Blu-ray HDTV discs become available, I fear that the 360 will not be upgradeable.

Conclusion
Microsoft has added to and enhanced its original Xbox platform into a cutting-edge tour de force of technology and software engineering. Now, with all 360 games coming out in HD resolutions of 720p or 1080i, wireless controllers as standard (in the deluxe package, anyway), easy to use Dashboard GUI and online Xbox Live support for all 360 games, plus with the addition of a Windows Media Extender, the ability for the 360 to act as an HD A/V media server to other PCs, iPods and standalone media servers, etc., the 360 platform has far more capability to come out as a standalone console and at a far lower price for what is essentially a three-core IBM PC.

It is unfortunate that, while the new games offer much better picture and sound quality, particularly on higher definition and large playback systems, the game play is not all that much better than with the original Xbox or, for that matter, Playstation 2. A generally lackluster sense of improved game play vs. the previous iterations of the same programs prevents most games from being more than just hyped visual and sonic versions of the earlier iterations of the same titles. This sometimes appears more like a movie or TV version of the game that one plays in between replays while watching on the couch. It does not always feature games that engage as much as the earlier versions of the same titles did without such visual bells and whistles.

All things considered, though, if you can tolerate the lack of an HDMI output, huge external power supply and possible incompatibility with certain older Xbox games, I must say that this new Xbox 360 game platform offers a most enjoyable and striking opportunity to play games with the quality of the best gaming PCs and the reliability and consistency that only a console can offer. This and an established online community certainly appear to offer a bright future for the Xbox 360 – that is, until the Sony Playstation 3 debuts.
Manufacturer Microsoft
Model Xbox 360
Reviewer Jeremy Kipnis





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