Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Review: Xbox 360, Microsoft's Best Product Ever

My wife purchased an Xbox 360 for me as a gift for my 31st birthday in April. I actually argued with her NOT to buy it, as I said at the time I was holding out until the PS3 and Wii details were announced at E3. She ignored me, as wife's are so good at doing, and now I have a next generation console. The Xbox 360 is easily Microsoft's best product ever, as Engadget in an editorial on the future of the PC recently hinted, and I agree so I figured it was time to write the review. The Xbox 360 is Microsoft's most Apple like product. The ability to control the whole widget proves its superiority to building compelling product once again (e.g. iPod, Mac). Especially with the Spring 2006 update to the system software (which added a download manager, an annoying problem in the RTM version, and DVD playback improvements among numerous changes), the system is very refined. There are still some features I want to see added to the Dashboard (e.g. Turn off Notifications while watching a DVD), overall the attention to detail and the execution of the implementation are excellent, unlike say Windows in general. The mission with the 360 is to be an excellent game machine for power gamers, and Microsoft has succedded admireably.

As far as game graphics, things are hit and miss depending on the title. Call of Duty 2 looks great, very impressive even at just 480p, it makes me think next-gen, as does Oblivion and Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, but Hitman: Blood Money only looks good, but not mind-blowingly better than Xbox Classic.

Controller The wireless controllers are the first ones I have used that "just work" and I can't detect a difference between wireless 360 and wired Xbox Classic. Even with the headset in sending and receiving audio, no latency that I could detect and immensely satisfying no to have cables dangling (except when charging of course).

The controller itself is easily the best of any Xbox controller, and I prefer it to the PS2 controller. It feels very comfortable, they fixed the white/black button disaster of the previous two Xbox controllers (I could never hit them without loooking for them), replacing it with shoulder bumpers that are easy to hit, and everything else just feels right.

Xbox Live Marketplace Being a previous Xbox and Xbox Live user, one of the things I was most interested in was how MS was going to extend the Xbox Live functionality. Marketplace is very much like taking the iTunes Music Store and making it about games. This is one area that greatly benefited from the Spring '06 patch, with better categories, the download manager (RTM only allowed you to download one thing at a time, and nothing else could be done with the system, ARRRGHHH), and better identification of new content. All that aside, the killer ability is downloading game demoes. This is one of those core abilities your take for granted on the PC, or even listening to song previews on iTunes, and adding this to the Xbox was a magnificent addition. Frankly, I didn't know about this before I got the 360, and it was a very pleasent find.

About the only thing I find missing here are content Notifications. Why can't I subscribe to, say Halo 3, and whenever I logon to the box, new content is automatically downloaded and I am told its available? I think Nintendo has hinted at this with the Wii, and MS should be able to easily add this with the next X360 patch, just use RSS!

Xbox Live Arcade This feature is also a very welcome surprise, and like a lot of people, I downloaded Geometry Wars. I love the concept of simpler games available for download that don't require hours and hours of time just to get into. I am eagerly awaiting Street Fighter.

DVD Playback One of the tipping points for getting the 360 was that my Xbox Classic was having a hard time playing back Netflix movies. The DVD playback software on the 360 is leagues better than the Xbox Classic, information overlays are transparent and nicely down, and greatly improved with the Spring '06 update. One of the only drawbacks I knew about was no upscaling to HD resolutions, which was added in the Spring '06 update over the (optional) VGA connector. Also, the picture quality seems better.

Ok, so what's wrong with it? There are only a few issues with the 360, which I am sure Microsoft is working to address. When playing games, the fans are very loud when playing a game. The surround sound thankfully drowns out this noise except during quite times, but that is acceptable. The power supply is frikkin' huge, immense actually, and its pretty damn silly looking and I can't stick it behind the entertainment center for fear of overheating, so it sits right behind the X360 on the shelf, kind of ruining the asthetics of the X360 which are very good, with one exception.

The hard drive, which slots onto the top of the 360, even at the .5 inches it is, is out of place because its not flush with the rest of the case. I would have preferred they simply extended the case so that the left edge of the X360 and the HD were flush. I can imagine they did this as an optical illusion to make the X360 look just that much smaller, but its kinda transparent and they aren't fooling anyone.

I don't have an HDTV yet, but there is no HDMI connector available for the 360, and my understanding is more hardware would be needed in the box for the 360 to add one. Perhaps this is coming with the HD-DVD add-on, but current information suggests not.

Backward compatability is problematic. Of the 5 Xbox Classic games I have on the shelf, only 2 worked up until the most recent backward compatability update. Halo 2 is a good example. Everything appears to work fine in the game, but then movie segments stutter. I don't have a huge library of old games that I need to play, but I have nearly bought a few old games that I didn't get around to playing before I got the 360 and I am glad I didn't buy them, because they weren't compatible with the 360. Also, any new titles that come out which aren't for the 360 aren't compatible. Here is an interesting idea. Hitman: Blood Money is out for nearly every platform, but it's the most expensive on the 360 ($60). Because of the back compatability issue, I can't choose the cheaper Xbox version to play the game, even if I didn't care about Achievements or the minor graphical enhancements.

Conclusion Even with the problems mentioned, there is no question this is the best home game console on the market. If the games on the 360 interest you, I highly recommend picking one up. Of course, there are rumors of a price drop this holiday season, so maybe you want to wait until of if it happens, but knowing what we do about the PS3 ($599 for the full deal), I would easily buy the Xbox 360 now and start playing some good software, and buy a Nintendo Wii when it comes out for $199 or at most $249.