Hands On: Microsoft Xbox 360 Elite

Microsoft's Xbox 360 Elite is here, and this version of the sleek game console offers more than just cosmetic improvements. The unit's bolstered specs--such as a 120GB hard disk drive and an HDMI 1.2 connector, perfect for today's high-def TVs--mean more room to store digital content and a better way to view high-definition content.

Though I don't think this update of the current Xbox 360 makes sense for every gamer to upgrade to, the HDMI capability alone makes the Elite a more-appealing option if you're planning on buying your first Xbox. The new console goes on sale Sunday, April 29, and will cost $480, although some sites are charging a premium.

My first impressions of this new iteration of Microsoft's two-year-old game console are generally positive--particularly with regard to the dramatically improved integration of the optional Xbox 360 HD DVD Player, and the improved image quality offered by HDMI (the differences are there, albeit not as striking as one might expect). For photos of the Xbox 360 Elite and its components, see our slide show.

Basic Black

The Xbox 360 Elite differs from the current Xbox 360 in ways beyond cosmetic finish. Black, however, really can be slimming--even in the context of an inanimate game console. The matte-black Xbox 360 Elite manages to look more svelte than its off-white predecessor.

Looks aren't everything, though. While I can appreciate that the Xbox 360 Elite will blend in better with the rest of my entertainment components, I'm more interested in the unit's bolstered specs and what those new features will let me do. I was also interested to see how the unit handled--especially with regard to high-definition movie playback.

A Mostly Breezy Setup

Initial setup of the Xbox 360 Elite is a snap: You just select the language and then either establish your Xbox Live account or relink to an existing one.

At this point, you can select the High Definition Settings option for choosing optimal audio and video settings for high definition. The console's screen prominently displays this option, and I applaud this design decision, since many users will use the Xbox 360 Elite in conjunction with a high-definition TV. But when I actually chose this option, it moved me directly into the display settings of the Console Settings panel; audio was just one of many console settings I could adjust below that. I had expected to go to a menu that unified the process of adjusting audio and video for high-def.

The menu showed my current, default setting for the display--1080i wide-screen--so I drilled two levels farther down to select the HDTV setting; there, I chose 1080p, to match the resolution of the Pioneer Elite Pro FHD-1 50-inch plasma display I was using. The menu also has an option for selecting screen format; but on the unit I tested, that option was grayed out.

I then returned to the audio settings, to select the digital output. The default setting here was for Dolby Digital 5.1; alternatively, you can choose digital stereo, or Dolby Digital with WMA Pro. The on-screen display warns you that digital audio output is available only through an Xbox 360 Component HD, Advanced SCART, S-Video, or VGA HD AV cable.

Strangely, the menu doesn't mention the HDMI AV cable, which comes bundled with the Xbox 360 Elite. Nor does the unit's setup discuss what kind of audio you can expect to receive over HDMI. (I'm awaiting confirmation from Microsoft of what audio the Elite can support over HDMI. I would be disappointed if it's limited to the specs stated within the menu options--especially considering that many HD DVD movie titles have shipped with multichannel Dolby TrueHD or Dolby Digital Plus audio tracks.)

Specs Boost

On paper, the new Xbox 360 has several advantages over its predecessor. Hard-drive capacity leaps from 20GB to 120GB--a huge benefit if you plan to use the Xbox to download lots of movie and music files via Xbox Live. And the unit now has an HDMI 1.2 interface; HDMI provides the optimal interconnection for high-definition video playback, and it delivers better image quality (at up to 1080p resolution) than can component video (limited to 1080i output on the Xbox 360) or VGA (at 1080p).

The system ships with a matching black wireless controller, which Microsoft rates as having a 30-foot range, and a plethora of included cables: the aforementioned HDMI AV cable; a Component HD AV cable with component, S-Video, and composite audio inputs; an audio adapter for composite audio and optical audio inputs; a headset; and an ethernet cable.

To transfer content from your current Xbox to the Xbox 360 Elite, you'll need a Hard Drive Transfer Cable. Also missing from the box's bundled contents is a remote control. You'll have to buy one separately ($20); or rely on the one included with the $200 Xbox HD DVD Player add-on.

High-Def Movie Playback

Having recently looked at the Microsoft Xbox 360 for PC World's High-Def Video Superguide, I was interested to see how Microsoft handled playing HD DVD movies on the Elite. In my informal hands-on testing of the console with Microsoft's HD DVD Player add-on drive, I saw some distinct improvements over its predecessor in integration and image quality.

The Xbox 360 Elite and the HD DVD drive enjoy vastly tighter integration--which, in turn, results in a seamless experience for the user. You don't even have to install a driver disc for the HD DVD drive: Just plug it in, and the Elite recognizes the drive. And once it's connected, if you maneuver down to the open tray graphic on screen, you can open the tray for the Xbox 360 or for the HD DVD drive.

In my informal tests, HD DVD image quality of the movies I tested over an HDMI connection at 1080p resolution was slightly better than what the Xbox 360 delivered over component video at 1080i resolution; its images were significantly sharper than those produced by the Xbox 360 over component video at 720p resolution.

For example, the costumes in The Phantom of the Opera looked a little crisper and had slightly more depth and detail; and a brick wall in Mission Impossible: 3's chapter 7--which was a problem spot for the Xbox 360--rendered smoothly. Some colors seemed a bit off, though, with redder skin tones than I would have expected.

HDMI and 1080p resolution may have less effect on how games appear than on how movies appear. This is because many games were created at 720p resolution; by contrast, all HD DVD movies are encoded at 1080p.

Though my limited testing of the Xbox 360 Elite doesn't convince me that it can match the image quality of a dedicated HD DVD player, I look forward to doing a side-by-side comparison (as well as to checking out how the Xbox 360 Elite handles upconverting standard-def DVDs).

More important, I don't see anyone buying the Xbox 360 Elite solely for its high-def video playback. Its $480 price tag--not counting the extra $200 or so you'll pay for an HD DVD Player add-on drive--positions the Xbox 360 Elite squarely for gamers.

For movie playback, you can buy a 1080p Toshiba HD-A20 dedicated HD DVD player for just $499; and that player will operate far more quietly and efficiently than the noisy combination of the Xbox 360 Elite and HD DVD Player will in combination. High-def playback over HDMI may be a nice bonus for movie playback, but only if you intend to buy the Xbox 360 Elite for multiple purposes anyway.

If you haven't jumped on the Xbox bandwagon yet, the Xbox 360 Elite merits your consideration. (Our sister publication, GamePro, has another perspective; see "Eight Reasons Why the Xbox 360 Elite Isn't Elite.") The inclusion of the 120GB hard drive, HDMI, and full 1080p support may make this console pricey, but it's also a far more attractive option than its predecessor.

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