Just like the old Xbox, the new system offers top-notch Dolby Digital audio. In-game soundtracks are rendered in full real-time surround, creating an immersive sound field that envelops you in the game world. All of the AV cables include an optical audio output, but you'll need to supply the optical cable, as well as the compatible AV receiver or home-theater system. Each AV cable also comes with standard analog stereo connections for connecting to a TV or stereo, but you'll lose the surround effect, of course. Once again, you can opt to go with HDMI and have digital video and audio handled by a single cable.
Additionally, the Xbox 360 is a progressive scan DVD player that will output a 480p signal. As of now, even when using HDMI out, the Xbox 360 cannot upscale movies to higher resolutions. If you use your 360 as a CD player, you'll have the option of ripping tracks from the disc to be used as standalone music files or for listening while playing games. Hitting the silver guide button on your controller midgame will allow you to access and control your music as well. Accordingly, the system will lower the in-game music to allow for your custom tracks.
Dashboard and Interface
The Xbox 360's onscreen Dashboard interface is truly stellar--it's incredibly easy to navigate and explore. Composed of color-coded blades for the system's various features (Marketplace, Xbox Live, games, media, and system), you can slide from one section of the Dashboard to the next with ease. Since the initial dashboard release, the interface has gone through a number of upgrades. Every spring and fall, a new Dashboard update adds in a number of most-wanted features that improve the overall performance and usability of the dashboard. Like the faceplates, the Dashboard is customizable, with a host of themes preloaded on the hard drive and many more available to download.
The next update, due in fall 2008, dubbed "New Xbox Experience (NXE)," is the most significant update for the Xbox 360 in the past year. Some of the changes include a completely redesigned user interface, reminiscent of Windows Media Center, avatars in a similar vein to the Wii's Miis, instant Netflix streaming support, a redesigned Live Guide, and the option to install games directly onto the hard drives. Continuing the Xbox 360's customization kick is the Gamer Card, which consists of a personal picture--an icon chosen from a batch of Microsoft-approved images or an image you've captured using the Xbox Live Vision Camera. Gamers may also include a motto or personal quote that is 21 characters or less in length. The centerpiece of the Gamer Card is the Gamerscore: a point-total representative of predetermined goals, known as Achievements, met in each and every game (1,000 possible points per game). It's a nice way to foster offline competitiveness between gamers, as even completely single-player games such as Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion include Achievements.
Xbox Live & Xbox Live Arcade
Xbox Live was a large success on the original Xbox, but this time around Xbox Live is completely integrated into the Dashboard. Every model (assuming access to a broadband Internet connection and a storage option--either the hard drive or a memory card) has a base-level membership called Xbox Live Silver. That offers the capability to create a list of friends, view their gamer cards, and communicate with them outside of a game via voice chat, voice messaging using the headset, video chat using the Xbox Live Vision Camera, and text messaging as well. The Xbox Live interface is completely accessible at any time during a gaming session. Simply press the silver guide button and you instantly have access to any of the features of the service.
To play multiplayer games, you'll need to upgrade to Xbox Live Gold, which is basically the same $50-per-year service from the old Xbox. In addition to enabling online play, the Gold tier also gives players early access to some free downloadable content, such as new maps or levels for certain games.
Xbox Live Arcade refers to the various downloadable casual and minigames offered on the console. More than 50 titles are available, including classic arcade games and original titles built from the ground up strictly for distribution over the Xbox Live service. While the majority of these games offer free downloadable trials, the full versions do cost money. Pricing on Xbox Live works with a points system as currency. Microsoft Points can be purchased through your Xbox 360 console or in stores via an MS Points card. Xbox Live Arcade games range from 400 to 1500 MS points--80 MS Points equal $1.
One nice improvement over the Nintendo Wii's similar Virtual Console is that the Xbox Live Arcade games are always properly formatted for your preferred screen size (standard or wide screen). Many of them also allow cooperative or competitive online play via Xbox Live. Every Xbox Live Arcade game also has a set of 200 Achievement points associated with it as well--however, these points can only be obtained only in the full, purchased version of the game. Furthermore, many older games offer a choice between updated HD graphics or a "classic" retro look.
Marketplace and media capabilities
MS Points can also be used toward the purchase of TV show episodes and full-length movie rentals via the first blade in the Dashboard, the Marketplace. These videos are available in standard and high-definition formats, but be warned--high-definition media does start to fill space rather quickly, so the included 20GB hard drive may not be sufficient if you download a large amount of high-def videos.
The Marketplace is also where you can find free game and movie trailers as well as behind-the-scenes videos from certain gaming events in Europe, Japan, and North America. Additionally, the Marketplace offers premium customizable content for your Xbox 360. Gamers can download themes and picture packs that change the look of the Dashboard and your Gamer Card. These items are available for 80 to 200 MS Points, take up minimal hard drive space, and are yours to keep forever. They will also be able to transfer to the New Xbox Experience in November 2008.
What is considered by some to be the most crucial feature of the online Marketplace is the capability to download fully featured game demos. Prospective buyers now have the luxury of trying out a game days, weeks, and occasionally even months before its official release. This feature has become so popular that publishers are now making special arrangements for Marketplace demos such as the recent Call of Duty 4 beta demo. You get to make a first impression only once, so the actual quality of these demos has improved dramatically since their initial implementation.
While it's primarily a game machine, the Xbox 360 is a formidable digital media hub as well. Plug a digital camera, flash card reader, thumbdrive, or a music player into the Xbox 360's USB port, and if it's compatible with a Windows PC, you'll likely have plug-and-play access to browse your photos, listen to your MP3s, and play WMV videos. Digital media on your home network is similarly accessible: just install Microsoft's Windows Media Player 11, Zune software, or Windows Media Connect (all are free downloads) on any PC running Vista, and the 360 will be able to stream music and access photos and WMV videos from the remote PC. If your version of Windows is enabled with Media Center functionality (some versions of XP and most versions of Vista), the integration is even tighter. The 360 doubles as a Media Center Extender, letting you access live and recorded TV--including those in high-definition--from the networked MCE PC. There are also dozens of applications that will let Windows XP owners stream content to their Xbox 360 as well. We've had a lot of success with the TVersity application.
There are dozens of available accessories for the Xbox 360. Most recently, Microsoft introduced the Messenger Kit which includes an attachable keyboard add-on for your controller, making texting your Xbox Live friends much easier. You can also use your Messenger Kit for chatting with friends over MSN Messenger in the Xbox 360 dashboard. For more communication options, there is the Xbox Live Vision Camera, which allows you to video chat with friends as well as use it in games that support it. For example, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas allows you to take a picture of yourself and map it to your online multiplayer avatar. Sick of that wired headset? You may want to look into the Xbox 360 wireless headset, which includes a rechargeable battery built into the unit itself.
A drawback to not having Wi-Fi embedded in the console is that, should you want the ability to receive a wireless signal, you'll need to purchase the wireless network adapter. Another alternative is to go with a powerline networking solution instead.
The wireless controllers accept two AA batteries, but plenty of rechargeable options are available. The best is the Quick-Charge Kit, which allows for dual battery charging and even comes with a rechargeable battery ($12 when sold separately). Again, the snap-on batteries are a nice alternative to the wireless PS3 controllers, which lack user-accessible batteries.
The lack of a next-generation optical disc was one reason the Xbox 360 costs less than the PlayStation 3, which includes a built-in Blu-ray drive. Now that the format wars are over, the HD-DVD add-on has become an expensive relic for those who opted to buy one in the first place. As such, Microsoft has yet to release a Blu-ray version of its add-on drive to compete with the now more affordable PS3. It does offer a decent online selection of HD content from its Marketplace, and with the upcoming Netflix integration, a Blu-ray add-on drive might be an unnecessary feature for some who likes to exclusively view their movies and TV shows over the Internet. But the fact that the PS3 is the most affordable and the best performing Blu-ray drive out right now, strikes off one in the minus column for the console. The game library
When it comes to a console's lifespan, one factor can decide whether such a device can stand the test of time. When it is all said and done, the console with the best lineup of exclusive games will reign supreme. So far, Microsoft has done an excellent job in securing big game developers' sole allegiance to creating games for the Xbox 360. Notable Xbox 360 exclusives include BioShock (although it eventually found its way to the PlayStation 3), Dead Rising, the Gears of War franchise, Halo 3, the Project Gotham Racing series, and Mass Effect.
In addition to the Xbox 360's growing library of games, hundreds of games playable on the original Xbox will also work with new console (via downloadable software emulation profiles, which are automatically installed via Xbox Live). The entire list of backward-compatible games is available here; Microsoft expands the list periodically, but there's no guarantee as to if or when a favorite classic title will be added. Still, considering that the latest PlayStation 3 ditches backward PS2 compatibility altogether, what was once an Xbox 360 liability is now a comparative strength.
As of December 2007, a Dashboard update added an Xbox Originals service to Xbox Live. This essentially offers select titles from the original Xbox for download via Xbox Live for the equivalent of $15 in Microsoft points.
Matt Panton contributed to this review.