Hands On: Microsoft Xbox 360 Elite

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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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