Tales of an Xbox 360 HDD Upgrade

You might have heard there's a brand new Xbox 360 operating system lurking just around the corner, the so-called "New Xbox Experience" or NXE, and since last week, I've been toying with it on my test box. I can't say much more than that until the embargo lifts this Wednesday, but I will say that it's set me face to face with a couple of extremely irritating hardware functionality issues that I'd managed to avoid until the NXE happened along and made it virtually impossible not to.

One of the update's most intriguing new features is the option to install any game straight to your hard drive. That's right, the entire game. Just slip the game disc into your 360's tray, choose "install to hard drive," wait about 10 minutes for the average 6 or 7 GB dual-layer disc to copy itself over, then bam, you're running 100% from your zippy 3.5-inch optical adjunct. (You have to leave the disc in the drive, which is annoying, but it's just for verification purposes -- while playing the game, you'll never hear the drive spin up again.)

Why clutter up your hard drive with game code? Easy: Because running games directly from the hard drive not only decreases load times, it converts your Xbox 360 into a whispery shadow of its clamorous former self. The DVD drive in the 360 may be one of the great overlooked disasters in modern console design, a hideously cacophonous beast of a loading mechanism that's had me try every trick in the book to shut it up, from muffling the system with pillows to tucking it away in thermally unfriendly enclosures. I have little doubt the drive is behind a bunch of the so-called "red ring of death" failures, which seem to happen more frequently when the 360 overheats, which it's very likely to do behind an entertainment center's closed doors. (Hey, if you couldn't hear your game over the sound your game system was making, what's the first thing you'd try?)

Installing games to the hard drive eliminates that issue, which is great news, right? Well sure, until you realize the 20GB hard drive that's been sitting with 10 or 11 GB of free space since your bought your system years ago is going to hold one, maybe two games, tops. For example, I managed to just squeeze both Fable 2 and Fallout 3 onto my 20GB hard drive, and then only after considerable pruning of nonessential save files and game demos and Xbox Live Arcade downloads. Eventually I realized spending $150 on Microsoft's extortionately priced 120GB hard drive upgrade was painfully inevitable.

Off I went just yesterday to pick up the drive at the local Argos -- a rather fascinating UK retail chain where you walk into a smallish storefront, find what you want at a catalog station, scrawl the catalog ID on a ticket, then take the ticket to an order counter where you pay and wait for someone to go pluck the item off a shelf in the attached warehouse.

Mission accomplished? Sadly no. The 120GB hard drive upgrade comes with a USB transfer cable that lets you plug your new hard drive in while leaving the old one seated so you can transfer everything one to the other in a single one-time move. Only problem: Microsoft inexplicably made the hard drive transfer disc region-specific. I'm in the UK, using a US Xbox 360, so a UK disc registers as "incompatible."

Bummer. But while I can't think of a single good reason to region lock this particular piece of software, it's not the end of the world. I figure I'll just take one of my external USB backup drives and use it to copy things over manually, right?

Wrong. Turns out that while the Xbox 360 can read data from USB storage media, it can't write data back (at least not officially , anyway). Why? Conspiracy theorize your hearts out, but I'm guessing it falls somewhere between "piracy deterrent" and "show us the money" (for our proprietary storage peripherals). All I know is that my FAT32 formatted Corsair Flash Voyager USB key and 320GB WD Passport portable USB hard drive were completely off limits as far as the 360 was concerned. No transferring save games or user profiles.

Last resort? My original "roomy, portable, and stylish" 64MB Xbox 360 memory card. Almost threw it away this summer. What are you going to do with 64MB, anyway? Quite a lot, it turns out. Working file by file and popping hard drives on and off like kettle covers, I was eventually able to copy over the most important info and get my new 120GB hard drive more or less "seasoned."

All of which seems awfully user-unfriendly when you consider how simple it is to read and write files to USB storage devices on Sony's PlayStation 3. When I upgraded my PS3's hard drive from 60GB to 160GB this summer, I simply tapped my portable USB hard drive and copied everything over. No fuss, no muss.

The reason I bring it up at all, is that when the free NXE update finally rolls out later this November, and once folks realize just how much quieter installing games to the hard drive makes their 360s, I suspect a whole lot of you sitting on 20GB hard drives are going to suddenly find yourselves eyeballing that pricey storage upgrade. And while virtually none of you will have to deal with the region compatibility issues I did, you may well end up grappling with the USB storage problem if you're thinking you'll "back things up, just in case." After all, Microsoft's disclaimer on the transfer software washes its hands with a convenient disclaimer: "If you proceed with the data-transfer process, you do so at your own risk and you agree that Microsoft is not liable for any loss of data resulting from the transfer process."

Lovely.

(Of course, there's always the homebrew route, if you're feeling slightly more intrepid than I was this weekend.)

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