Microsoft: Xbox 360 S The Best Box We've Ever Built

Xbox 360 S

It's smaller, shinier, and back in black: Microsoft's new Xbox 360 took many by surprise at E3 this June, though some of us had speculated for months that a 'slim' model was in the works.

More than just a component and size shrink, Microsoft added 802.11n wireless (previously a $100 external USB adapter) and packed in its premier 250GB hard drive without adjusting the standard system's $300 price tag.

What changed inside and why? How'd they make it quieter? Will t really reduce your electric bill? And why does it automatically shut down if it gets too warm?

I spoke with Microsoft's Senior Director of Xbox Product Management, Albert Penello, to find out. (The first part of the interview is here.)

Game On: The Xbox 360 S jumped from three USB ports to five, two on the front, three on the back, plus you've added the separate Kinect port. Why isn't Kinect using USB?

Albert Penello: It was just part of redesigning the board. There's a lot of stuff that in retrospect I wish we would've done with the original Xbox 360. Now it's like, there's a lot of Rock Band accessories and stuff, so let's do it, because we've got the power on the board.

But the reason there's a special Kinect port...actually Kinect does use USB, but the USB ports on the back of the Xbox 360 S don't have enough power to run the Kinect camera. So the Kinect port on the back of the Xbox 360 S is actually just a high-powered USB port. We changed the connector so you don't accidentally plug something else in there. Likewise, we don't want you plugging Kinect into a regular USB port because it won't work.

On the older model Xbox 360, you'll plug Kinect in through one of the USB ports, but then it'll require a cell-phone sized wall plugin power adapter. So Kinect still works with all versions of the consoles, we just eliminated the need for a power supply with the new Xbox 360 S.

GO: You're still running HDMI 1.2 spec, right?

AP: Yes.

GO: And though the PS3 supports HDMI 1.3, the only benefit for you would be if the Xbox 360 were offering something like Blu-ray playback?

AP: That's right.

GO: And just to be clear, while the PS3's ethernet connection specs 1Gb, you're still at 100Mb with the Xbox 360 S?

AP: Yep.

GO: The tray touch-opens now, it's quieter while it opens and closes, and it's strikingly quieter than the original when the drive's spinning at top speeds. How'd you accomplish that?

AP: The team spent a lot of time working on just the thermal and acoustic properties of the new packaging. We moved to one larger fan from two smaller fans and worked on damping the drive. It was just one of those things we really wanted to do.

The original Xboxes're basically trying to cram a small PC into a box. For the Xbox 360 S, with its smaller CPU size, smaller power consumption, and a lot of knowledge over time from building the boxes, they spent time on thermal and acoustics just trying to get things packed in a certain way. That's why we moved to the single fan on the side now, and they did some damping stuff on the drive itself.

Unfortunately we still have physics to contend with, and we're spinning the disc at 12x, so there's still going to be a little more noise than our competitors, because that's the reality of how fast our discs spin. That said, I think it's pretty impressive what our engineers were able to accomplish.

GO: The fans on the original Xbox 360 never bothered me as much as the drive spin noise, but the new fan seems exceptionally quiet.

AP: It's pulling air in from the top and bottom and venting it out the side...well, depending how you orient it. If you have your console standing vertically, it's pulling air in from the top and venting it out the side.

Next: But will it actually save you money?

Xbox 360 S

GO: Estimates are you've halved the power usage from the original model, which in theory saves on an electrical bill, and while it's not a lot of money, it's not pennies. Any reason you're not talking about that?

AP: There's only so many things you can get out there, and I feel like we have an embarrassment of more exciting things to talk about. But yeah, we really looked at the whole system top to bottom, and my goal with this was, whenever anyone asks us a question about the box, I for the most part didn't have to answer why we didn't do it. The answer's simple "we did it." Part of that's just Moore's Law working in your favor over time.

Fortunately there's a lot there about the box for the people that really care about that stuff, so the answer's yeah, you know, we also changed the standby power like between 90 and 100 percent, so we're down to one watt standby. Your play time power consumption is lower, yes, but we also support the new European standards for one watt standby power draw.

GO: The older Xbox 360 elites included an HDMI and component video cable, but the Xbox 360 S only packs in the lowest-end composite video connector. Another money-saving measure?

AP: When we lowered the price, the removal of the HDMI was tied to the price drop on the elite about a year ago. When we went from $399 to $299 we took the HDMI cable out. Part of that's a cost-savings on our part, you know, where consumers would rather have the $100 price drop.

But really, the decision about what cable to put in the box, at the end of the day, on the original Xbox 360, in order to get optical audio it required a special adapter that only came with our cables. Now we've moved the optical audio port off the cable and onto the back of the Xbox 360 S itself. So when I'm thinking about the tradeoff of what I'm giving the customer, I can guarantee that every customer in the world has a composite plug on a TV, whether you've got the highest-end high-def TV or the crappiest old 13-inch TV. I need to guarantee someone can get it home and it hook it up. And beyond that, HDMI cables are a commodity, they're very inexpensive, and the same is true if you'd rather run component or VGA or whatever, but since those are options we can't predict, we base our price model on things we can, like composite.

GO: The red ring of death is no more, apparently. You've removed that error light, and apparently the new Xbox 360s will automatically shut down with a warning that says something like "take me out of your solid oak entertainment center with no ventilation, please."

AP: The whole red ring thing was an unfortunate situation, and I know people who have those stories like to tell them, but the reality is that problem was something that plagued us in the very early boxes. The last few years of boxes, that problem has largely been gone.

Unfortunately when you build 40 million of something, there's a component failure rate, and if you're at 1 or 2 percent on 40 million units, that's still a lot of people. So the red ring thing continues to be a kind of internet meme well past the point it was a legitimate issue, and why would I put myself through that again?

The new boxes are going to have a very low failure rate as it is. They're the best boxes we've ever built. Why would I want to see that error come up again? So part of it was just the decision to put that behind us.

The thermal thing, you're right, now the box will just...we've done a lot of testing, and most of these people I think are actually blocking the vent. It's not that it's inside a case. If you block that vent, or put the console right up against the side of your cabinet, we'd rather err on the side of "this isn't a good environment for the box," so we're going to turn it off before something goes wrong.

GO: Thanks Albert!

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