Microsoft Xbox 360Rating:
The Xbox 360 has changed since its launch in 2005. That much is transparently clear from the updated version that debuted in 2010.
The Xbox 360 S is smaller, sleeker and quieter than the previous model and designed to banish the infamous ‘Red Ring of Death’ hardware failure that forced Microsoft to extend its warranty on the system.
Likewise the arrival of Kinect, which has gone on to sell over 10 million units, has transformed the machine from solely the preserve of hardcore gamers to a casual gamer friendly environment.
While some of the novelty of Kinect may have worn off, if anything the games are improving – finding new ways to take advantage of what is still fascinating technology.
But Microsoft is and always has been a software company first and foremost and, fittingly, that’s where the Xbox 360 has changed the most. The NXE update of 2008 binned the old ‘blades’ system for an interface that was more welcoming to multimedia content and 2011 has seen another major update to the console’s operating system. One so substantial, we’ve felt it necessary to update this review to reflect what a different machine it is.
Whether it’s the old model or the new one, the Xbox 360 has now comprehensively changed from a machine primarily about playing games, with a modest selection of online content attached, to a fully featured entertainment and media hub.
The majority of forms of digital entertainment are catered for, there are extensive social networking features available and a new TV tab aims to replace traditional digital boxes with IPTV and catch up services.
The new dashboard, based around the Metro design language that also features in Windows 8 and Windows Phone 7, is a far busier interface, but it’s reflective of the huge amounts of content now available within the walled garden of Xbox Live.
Getting to it all has always been the challenge and Microsoft has made admirable steps towards making that a straightforward process.
You’d think that the most significant change for the new widely touted ‘Xbox 360 Slim’ would be its size, but surprisingly, it’s not.
At 270mm in height, it’s sufficiently shorter than the 310mm tall old 360. But it’s only a measly half-a-centimeter slimmer (and fatter than the PS3 Slim) and, would you believe, it’s actually slightly deeper than the old 360, too.
Just to make it easier at a glance, here are its dimensions beside the older model, and the PS3 slim just for some extra comparison:
- Xbox 360 250GB: 270mm x 75mm x 264mm, 2.9kg
- Xbox 360 Elite: 310mm x 80mm x 260mm, 3.5kg
- PS3 Slim: 290mm × 65mm ×290mm, 3.5kg
As you can see, its profile is not much ‘slim’ but more ‘light’. It’s the lightest of the current-gen consoles by a fair amount, although it’s worth noting right now that the PS3 Slim’s extra heft also counts for the system’s internal power supply, which disappointingly remains external (albeit smaller than the previous power brick) in the new Xbox.
Instead, the more significant changes are in the console’s aesthetics and hardware configuration. First of all, that matte plastic has been swapped for a super sexy gloss black.
Where the old console’s bubble-like roundness wouldn’t look too out of place on the Tomy Toys page of your Argos catalogue, the new console dons sharp edges and harsh lines that almost resemble a stealth fighter (fittingly so given its new quieter operating volume, but more on that later).
And then there’s that grill on the side – a surprisingly large and aggressive opening that’s more like something you’d expect from a third-party case mod than the usually reserved standard skin. Consoles usually hide away their tightly-packed insides but the new Xbox flaunts it, giving you a good look at the system’s case fan.
The power and disc eject buttons are no longer the clunky things they were before. In fact you don’t press them at all – they’re capacitive touch buttons that respond to no more than a gentle prod.
The console makes a funky beep sound to acknowledge your touch, but it’s thankfully a more calming chime and not that horrible microwave-style bleep of the PS3.
The console’s cleaner appearance is also partly thanks to the omission of the proprietary memory stick ports – MS updated the 360 recently to accept any USB stick as usable memory; a move which pretty much rendered the notoriously more expensive native memory cards redundant anyway.
The two front-loading USB ports remain, tucked neatly way behind a little flap which sits in line with the new bigger and more responsive controller sync button.
The console actually now has five USB ports total instead of the previous three, but those additional ones have been tucked away on the back of the console.
The new disc drive is considerably smoother and quieter than before. Now, we know some of you will, right off the bat, question MS’ decision to stick with a disc tray rather than the admittedly sleeker slot-loading drive like on PS3 and Wii. Honestly speaking we would have preferred a slot loader too.
Anyhow, the new drive has none of that Aiwa tape deck-like clunkyness to it. We always wondered what part of the old Xbox could possibly make such a loud ‘ker-chunk’ sound as the drive closed – that teeth-gritting sound is no longer present here.
We tried moving the console while a disc was spinning inside – something that resulted in a severely scratched disc in the old console. The result? We’re certain the result was even worse!
Clearly Microsoft has been unable to find a solution the intense centrifugal forces that bend the disc and make it touch harmful nearby surfaces in the drive. The console does in fact have a sticker on the front which warns against moving it while a disc is spinning. Does this make up for the flaw in our eyes? Not a chance.
On the backside
Flip the console round and you’re greeted by a few new ports, too. As we said before, there are three USB ports back here instead of one. You’ll now be able to plug a digital optical audio lead directly into the console for your 5.1 surround kits, instead of having to go through external ports on the AV lead.
Most interesting though is the ‘Aux’ port, which is basically where Kinect, Microsoft’s new motion-sensing gadget releasing in November, will be plugged in. This port will both operate and power the device. Users of the old console will plug Kinect in via a USB adapter and draw power from a wall socket.
Video is delivered to your TV either via standard HDMI or the proprietary Xbox AV port, which is the same size as before so all your old AV cables will work, which is handy for anyone upgrading from the old console because, ridiculously, the new Xbox comes with no HD video leads whatsoever.
All you get in the box is the standard composite lead, which only does SD – and poorly at that. Everyone else will otherwise have to add the cost of an HDMI lead to their bill before they can see the crisp HD resolutions this machine is capable of.
There’s an Ethernet network port back here too, although we’d like to think anyone grabbing the new console will make use of the now built-in Wi-Fi capability.
Finally, Microsoft is no longer bending you over a table with its £70 proprietary Wi-Fi adapter necessary before. Just turn it on and you’re wireless right out of the box.
Noise and storage
Compare the noise of the new Xbox 360 to the Elite and the PS3 Slim:
- Sound recordings were made six inches from the front of each of the three consoles. Results should only be used by way of comparison.
Perhaps the biggest improvement over the older console is actually an intangible one – the system’s operating sound. The quieter disc drive is coupled with a single larger internal cooling fan instead of three smaller ones as before, resulting in a stealthier console.
This is made possible by using a slimmer, more power efficient 45nm CPU with integrated GPU. With less power being generated by the processing chip, the console is able to run cooler, with a quieter fan. The difference is night and day.
When there’s no disc in the tray the console is totally inaudible. Fire up a game and the drive’s rapid read speed still inevitably makes sound, but it’s more of a gliding ‘whoosh’ than the whirring sound of the motor.
Take a look at the video clip above to get some idea of how the noise of the new Xbox 360 compares against the original model and also the PS3 Slim.
Instead of the fat top-loading hard drive of the old console, Microsoft has now hidden a more compact hard drive case in a slot accessed on the underside of the console (underside when stood vertically, that is).
To extract it you must remove the hatch covering and pull on a flimsy tag on the top of the drive, which does not seem like a good idea to us at all. If there’s one thing on this new Xbox we can see breaking, it’s this tag.
As with the other Xbox 360 consoles, the new 250GB model comes with one wireless controller. Aesthetically, it’s slightly different to the one that shipped with the 360 Elite.
The grey trim is replaced with glossy black, while the round silver Xbox button is now glossy silver rather than matte and the thumbsticks are black instead of grey.
Connect your Xbox 360 to Xbox Live (and with wireless now fitted as standard, you’ve no excuse not to) and you’ll be prompted to download an update to your console, which contains 2011′s sweeping dashboard refresh.
While the Metro-based design is too busy to be considered truly handsome, it’s borne of necessity. There is an enormous amount of content available to connected Xbox 360 users and the new dashboard does a great job of presenting it all in a logical fashion.
We had gripes with the NXE system that debuted in 2008, because of the jargon-heavy nomenclature of the various menu options. But now you’re presented with nine tabs across the top which are visible at all times and have logical titles.
The only potential confusion could come from the division between ‘video’ and ‘tv’, the lines of which are being blurred with every passing day. But while the ‘tv’ tab is the least populated at launch, as on-demand services such as iPlayer, 4oD and Five On Demand arrive on the service, that division will seem much more logical as another way to sort and subdivide the astonishing amount of media available to you.
The ‘video’ tab is the preserve of movies and the forthcoming YouTube application.
Similarly at launch the apps tab provides a number of redundant links to features that can be accessed elsewhere, such as the Zune Video and Zune Music marketplaces, both of which are also in their relevant tabs, and Sky Go which sits in the ‘tv’ tab.
While there’s unlikely to ever be as wide a range as Apple’s app store, if Microsoft is canny it’ll have apps that are cross platform compatible with Windows Phone 7 equivalents. At the moment though, this is arguably the biggest unknown on the Xbox 360 – less a case of anticipation as just waiting.
Games have actually been made more awkward to get to. While the disc in the tray (still the priority for most users) can be accessed from the first panel on the home screen, if you have an extensive selection of titles downloaded from Xbox Live Arcade, you have to navigate four tabs over to view them all.
Microsoft clearly feels that gamers will be more prepared to explore the interface than casual users, but the problem could easily be solved by a customisable home tab, something that feels more and more like a glaring omission the longer you spend with the dashboard.
Of course, the Guide button menu, activated by pressing the silver Xbox motif on any controller, remains largely the same as it always was and the savvier gamers may find that this is the most efficient way to get at what the console was originally designed for.
For everyone else, it would be easy for the amount of available content to become overwhelming and for that, Microsoft has included Bing-branded search functions. As an attempt to promote its ailing search brand, which currently claims less than four per cent of UK searches, it’s likely to be a busted flush, but as a means to sift through the movies, games and music on Xbox Live it’s a godsend.
If you’re a huge Batman fan, simply searching for Batman will bring up all Batman related content available on Xbox Live.
That means games, movies and even original soundtracks from the Zune Music marketplace. If that scattergun approach is too much, searching specifically for ‘Batman games’ will prioritise downloadable content relating to those and even full games on demand. It’s impressive stuff and a brisk education in just how much there is for sale through your Xbox.
If you’re not keen on navigating using the Xbox pad that, while brilliant for twin-stick shooters or precise racing games, still suffers from a doughy directional pad, you can use Kinect for either gesture or voice control.
It’s pleasing that it’s no longer ghettoised in a separate menu, but in practice, Kinect control largely feels like a novelty. Sweeping between the different tabs and using a hand cursor to select the various panels is absolutely as efficient and precise as Kinect has ever been.
There has clearly been plenty of time spent tuning it. But unless you don’t have a controller to hand or simply aren’t as accustomed to their use, it’s still a less efficient way to navigate the dash.
It’s a similar story with voice. While you can bark the name of any of the tabs and be whisked there, you can only ‘say what you see’. Memorising longer phrases in an attempt to dig into secondary and tertiary layers of the interface bears no fruit, meaning you’ll have to insert pauses into your speech patterns.
Also, given that many Xbox 360s have a microphone in the shape of an Xbox Live headset, the fact that voice control is limited to Kinect owners feels like a cynical, artificial restriction.
Voice control’s only real triumph is when it comes to Bing searches. From anywhere on the dashboard, saying ‘Xbox, Bing’ and then a search term will perform a near instantaneous search. It recognises a remarkable number of phrases too, meaning you can say actor names, obscure game titles and even the odd profanity and it will do an impressive job of obliging.
What the dashboard does offer you though is freedom of choice. Whether you’re most comfortable with controller, gesture, voice or some combination of the three, the entire interface supports it and that’s to be applauded.
Whereas previously an Xbox Live Gold subscription was seen as a tax on online multiplayer gaming, now that the service has spread to social networking and television, it feels like you get much more for your £34.99 a year.
And even if you only have a free ‘Silver’ account, it’s still worth connecting your Xbox 360 up.
Naturally Microsoft isn’t going to prevent you from spending money, so the marketplace is fully open to all Live users. What’s more, the BBC has maintained its position that the iPlayer must be free to download on all systems, meaning more frugal Live users will still get to enjoy Auntie on demand.
For subscribers, the reward remains the best online gaming experience around. Friends are managed in a global list and chatting or playing games together is made as simple as possible.
If you’re in a multiplayer session, simply bringing up the guide, selecting a friend and clicking the invite button is usually enough to have you playing together in a matter of moments. It makes a mockery of both PS3 and PC multiplayer, which are almost impossible to co-ordinate without an external form of communication.
The new dashboard brings several welcome new additions to the Xbox Live experience. Beacons are a new system to notify friends that you are keen to play a particular game without having to manually invite them all. Add a beacon, select the game you’re interested in playing together and set an optional message and the Xbox will inform all of your online friends.
Even if they miss the notification, when they hover over your avatar in the friends list, a speech bubble appears showing the game and your plea for companionship. With the new dashboard’s integration with Facebook (which also allows you to post your unlocked achievements to the social network) you can announce your play-date on your wall.
Another new feature is one that will be most useful to more social gamers, or those who own two Xbox 360s. Previous restrictions on profiles have been lifted, meaning an Xbox Live profile is now no longer tied to a single device. This means downloading your profile at a friend’s place has been made immeasurably easier.
Working in tandem with this is a new cloud storage facility. This appears as just another storage option along with your system’s hard drive and memory sticks, offers 511MB of space per profile and works absolutely seamlessly. There’s no noticeable delay as games are saved to it and is a godsend for anyone who has reason to play on more than one console.
Of course, even if you only have a single system, you can always use it to back up your most treasured save games in case of natural disasters, USB drives in the wash or the intervention of the vengeful god of hard-drive failure.
As a service, Xbox Live Gold is absolutely worth a monthly outlay of under three quid for anyone who regularly plays games on the system – it’s stable and still easily the most convenient way to play with friends, which given the often hostile online environment is usually preferable. The addition of new or updated apps and, crucially, television services means it’s recommended for consideration by casual users as well.
In the Xbox 360, Microsoft has successfully extended the lifespan of its console well beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected back when it was launched in 2005.
Granted there have been hardware updates and the arrival of Kinect, but neither has sustained the machine’s longevity as much as the services that are provided.
The NXE could be seen as Microsoft dipping its toe in the multimedia waters, but with this most recent dashboard update the Xbox 360 truly is a one-stop-shop for every conceivable piece of entertainment content you could hope to be pumped to a living room television.
The hardware on the Xbox 360 S is now a device you’d happily have nestled underneath the TV in your living room. It’s slimmer, sleeker and most importantly nearly silent – ensuring it won’t be whirring away during the quieter moments of a film or TV show.
Xbox Live is still the leading online gaming platform and it now boasts more instantly accessible content than ever before and a search engine capable of filtering results intelligently and with the minimum of fuss.
The new dashboard is cluttered, but it’s as elegant a system as you’re likely to find for arranging the sheer bulk of the content now available.
There’s little customisation of the new dashboard beyond a new background. We’d like to be able to arrange our most used apps and contents on our home page for easy access.
Voice control requires stilted speech rather than a natural flow, meaning it takes some getting to grips with. Also, why can’t we use voice control on the Xbox Live headset we’ve been using for six years?
Here’s some more articles you might like:
- Handheld Games Console Buyer’s Guide
- A Guide to Buying a Games Console
- Ouya console – What you need to know
- Nintendo 3DS XL Expert Review
- Xbox 720 and PS4 – how successful will they be?
- It's quiet!
- Built-in Wi-Fi
- Touch buttons
- Xbox Live
- No HDMI cable in the box
- Uses disc tray
- Still mangles game discs
- External power brick
- No Blu-ray
In light of the recent software updates, the new Xbox 360 is probably the most complete and convenient box that you can stick under your telly. Not only does it play the latest video games, but it offers a huge amount of other content in one slickly designed interface.
As more and more content fills the system, it’s only going to become more essential. What’s more, the lack of a Blu-Ray drive now seems almost inconsequential, with the Zune Video Marketplace filled with 1080p content that can be discovered and streamed or downloaded in a matter of moments.
The only sticking point will be the requirement for Xbox Live Gold for an increasing amount of what’s presented on the dashboard. Still, as long as you are the comfortable with the concept of subscribing at all it still comes off as a reasonable deal and is by no means mandatory to take advantage of marketplace content.
Whether you’re a gamer or not, it’s time to start seriously considering the Xbox 360 as more than just another place to play the latest Call of Duty or FIFA game.
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