Editors' note: Microsoft has since discontinued the 20GB Xbox 360 reviewed here. As of September 2009, there will be only two Xbox 360 SKUs, the Xbox 360 Arcade and the Xbox 360 Elite. Please check out our Xbox 360 resource page for all your Xbox 360 questions and needs.
Microsoft's Xbox 360 was the first "next-generation" game console to hit the market in November 2005, beating the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3 by a full year. Like its peers, the 360 initially suffered from a somewhat anemic game lineup and some annoying hardware and software limitations. Since its launch, however, the Xbox team has implemented an assortment of incremental improvements, even going so far as to release an updated version of the console. The result, as of fall 2007, is the best version of the Xbox 360 to date. The current model features the HDMI output with 1080p video support that was missing on the original version, as well as a host of other tweaks and improvements to the system's underlying software. Best of all, the 360 now boasts the largest--and many would argue, the best--game lineup. In addition to great games such as Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty 4, the 360 is the only console where you can play such must-have exclusive titles as Halo 3, BioShock, Gears of War, and Mass Effect. Add to that a host of impressive digital media features, including an add-on HD DVD movie player and a decent online selection of downloadable pay-per-view HD movies and TV shows.
The console's real Achilles' heel has been its unacceptably poor reliability: A vast number of Xbox 360 consoles have suffered the dreaded "red ring of death" error, a fatal glitch that renders them unusable. It's been a huge frustration for even the most forgiving 360 owner. That said, Microsoft has made amends by offering a three-year limited warranty, guaranteeing replacement of those faulty consoles. Anecdotal evidence continues to suggest that the problem afflicts mostly older consoles. In other words, those manufactured in 2007 or later--the ones equipped with HDMI ports--should be much more stable than their predecessors.
In addition to the (we hope) improved reliability, we wish the upgraded version of the console had included a few more substantive fixes as well--a smaller power supply, a quieter disc drive, and built-in Wi-Fi. Nevertheless, the addition of HDMI, a best-in-class game library, and the cheapest price to date ($50 lower than the original console) make the Xbox 360 an offer that few gamers will be able to refuse.
Xbox 360 models compared
The 20GB version (reviewed here--often called the "Xbox 360 Pro" or "Xbox 360 Premium") will suffice for most users, while those who wish to maximize the console's video and gaming prowess will want to invest an extra $100 in the 120GB Xbox 360 Elite. (The Xbox 360 Arcade should be avoided--you'll just end up having to buy the add-on hard drive later anyway, thus eliminating the apparent savings.)
|Model||Xbox 360 Arcade*||Xbox 360 20GB^||Xbox 360 Elite 120GB|
|Hard disk size||n/a (includes 256MB memory card)||20GB||120GB|
|Included accessories||One wireless controller, composite AV cable||One wireless controller, headset, Ethernet cable, component/composite AV cable||One wireless controller, headset, Ethernet cable, component/composite AV cable, HDMI cable|
|Unique bundled items||Currently ships with five Xbox Live Arcade titles.||Currently ships with Forza Motorsport 2 and Marvel Ultimate Alliance.||Currently ships with Forza Motorsport 2 and Marvel Ultimate Alliance.|
|Notes||Can't download online content or play original Xbox games without the addition of an add-on hard drive accessory (sold separately).||Best price/feature mix for most users; avoid older version that lacks HDMI port.||Larger hard drive is ideal for heavy downloaders of games and video.|
*Replaces the Xbox 360 Core System, which has since been discontinued
^The Halo 3 Limited Edition Xbox 360 features identical hardware, a Halo-themed camouflage paint job, and no bundled games.
As mentioned above, the Xbox 360 has been plagued by a series of hardware problems, most commonly represented by the now infamous "red ring of death"--the three flashing red lights that the console displays when a major hardware malfunction has occurred. Microsoft has yet to confirm the reason for the problem, but it's widely attributed to overheating and poor airflow within the console's innards. Since admitting to the problem in July 2007, Microsoft has extended the original 90-day warranty on all newly purchased 360s to a full year. Additionally, any Xbox 360 that suffers from a hardware failure marked by three red flashing lights is now covered for three years from the original purchase date.
Since the middle of 2007, it appears that most Xbox 360s have been manufactured with the so-called "Falcon" CPU, a 65nm processor that's said to be smaller, cooler, and more energy efficient than the 90nm version found on earlier 360s. Improved heat sinks in the consoles have also helped cool down newer units as well.
The upshot is that the newest Xbox 360s should be much more reliable than their predecessors. We'd seek out an Xbox 360 with HDMI output when purchasing, both because it's a great feature to have, and because it's a sign that you've got one of the latest models that have been manufactured. Of course, if you've already gotten a non-HDMI model, or a possibly faulty pre-Falcon model, you can at least be confident that Microsoft's expanded warranty won't leave you stuck with a lemon.
When laid horizontally, the 8.8-pound Xbox 360 is 12.15 inches wide, 3.27 inches high, and 10.15 inches deep, and it's actually slightly smaller than the original Xbox, which also weighed in at 8.8 pounds. Unlike the original, the Xbox 360 can be propped up in a vertical position and, as you're probably aware, can be customized with interchangeable faceplates that cost as much as $20. Custom faceplates aside, it's worth pointing out that the beige color of the system tends to clash with the silver and black of typical AV components.
One of the reasons Microsoft was able to keep down the 360's weight is that instead of building a standard, desktop-style hard drive into the unit itself, it's gone with a smaller--and more expensive--laptop-style hard drive that's detachable from the main unit. However, unlike the PS3, which accepts any standard 2.5-inch laptop drive, the 360's drive is encased in a proprietary snap-on module. You can upgrade to a larger 120GB model for around $180--but if you're already interested in that much storage, save some money and just pick up the 120GB Xbox 360 Elite instead.
As part of the $349 bundle, you'll also get a wireless controller--the 360 has built-in wireless capabilities but only for controllers, not Wi-Fi. Each 360 console can support as many as four wireless controllers--you'll also like that a green LED on both the 360 itself and the controller indicates exactly which controllers (1 through 4) are connected. This is also true if you are playing with a mixture of wireless and wired controllers; you know who has which controller. All in all, we really like the design of the controllers. They're a slight upgrade from those that came with the original Xbox--and they're now available in several colors, including pink, blue, and black.
On the front of the unit, you'll find two USB ports hidden behind a hinged door in the faceplate, as well as two memory-card slots that allow you to take saved games and other content on the go. Those ports are where you'll plug in any wired controllers and other USB accessories that will become available, as well as cables to connect a digital camera, MP3 players, or even your iPod or Sony PSP. Many USB keyboards are compatible, but for the most part, they are strictly relegated to communication and data entry functions, not gameplay. For easier data entry, consider instead the Xbox 360 Messenger Kit, a small keyboard accessory that snaps onto the controller.
The 360 sports an infrared (IR) port on the front panel, which lets you use compatible remote controls--including nearly any universal remote--without the need for an external dongle. Furthermore, you can power the console on and off and open the disc tray with a remote or a controller--another convenient improvement over the old Xbox. By contrast, the PS3 lacks standard IR, which limits it to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi control only.
The Xbox 360 has two big design shortfalls: its oversize power supply and its incredibly noisy disk drive. The power brick is the largest you'll ever see on a consumer device--easily half the size of a cinder block. Meanwhile, the 360's DVD drive often sounds like a helicopter taking off while you're playing a game--and the system's exhaust fan is audible as well. All in all, the system is just a lot noisier than it should be--definitely more so than rival consoles from Nintendo and Sony.
Video and audio specs
The guts of the Xbox 360 comprise what is, for all intents and purposes, a very powerful computer. The customized IBM PowerPC CPU boasts three processing cores running at 3.2GHz each. We could go on and on about the detailed specifications of the system, but for the sake of comprehension, we'll hold that back. What you really need to know about the Xbox 360 in terms of performance though, is its ability to output HD graphics. Every single Xbox 360 game has been designed to output at a minimum of 720p, and--if your TV supports it--they can be upscaled to 1080i or 1080p (just choose your preferred resolution on the console's settings page). HD output is available via the included component video cable, or you can supply your own HDMI cable instead. Alternately, you can pick up VGA video adapters from Microsoft ($40) or Joytech ($20), which let you connect to HDTVs and PC monitors that offer a standard 15-pin VGA/RGB connector.
Don't worry if you don't have an HDTV--the Xbox 360's component adapter includes a fallback composite output, and the system can output standard 480i resolution with formatting for squarish 4:3 (non-wide-screen) sets.
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.