- Review Price: £299.95
It seems like a very long time since I reviewed the Xbox 360. In fact Microsoft’s second console has been with us for nearly two years – it launched in the UK on 2nd December 2005, and I can still remember sitting up all night making sure that I had the review written in time for launch day. Microsoft did very well to bring its console to market so long before both Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii, and since Sony chose to delay the PS3 launch in Europe, the X360 stole a 16 month march on its archrival. But despite the long wait for the PlayStation 3, it did bring with it some significant advances for high definition gaming. Now Microsoft is hitting back with an update to its already impressive console, in the shape of the Xbox 360 Elite.
I should probably point out that the original Xbox 360 options are still available, although the prices have dropped to reflect the arrival of the Elite. The previous top end Premium Xbox 360 now carries a price tag of £249.99, while the entry level Core machine is available at a Wii rivalling £179.99. This allows the Elite to slide in at the top with a price of £299.99, which is actually cheaper than I expected, and a significant £125 less than the PS3. Of course you are getting a Blu-ray player with the PS3, but if you’re just looking for a games console, the additional Blu-ray functionality is just a costly extra.
So, what differentiates the Elite from the X360 that’s been on sale for almost two years? Well, it’s black. I know that the colour may not be the most important or compelling update for many, but the Elite really does look better than its off-white siblings. The funny thing is that when the X360 launched I thought it looked great, but the subsequent releases of the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii have taken much of the shine of Microsoft’s machine, at least from an aesthetic point of view. The Elite on the other hand, has a certain understated, even stealthy design characteristic. Yes, the gloss black PS3 maintains the more striking of the two, but it’s also a dust and fingerprint magnet, especially since my 19 month old daughter seems to like wiping her grubby little paws on it. But the matte finish of the Elite suffers no such woes, while the silver detailing of the DVD tray and the hard drive has far more visual impact when surrounded by black rather than white.
Of more importance is the improved connectivity offered by the Elite. Whereas the original X360 relied on a component video connection to pump its high definition images to a TV, the Elite has the added advantage of an HDMI port. This means that there is no digital to analogue or analogue to digital conversion going on, and ultimately should result in a cleaner and sharper image. The inclusion of HDMI connectivity is important since the PS3 supports HDMI, and many a PlayStation fan boy has used that fact as ammunition against the Xbox crowd. To be fair to Microsoft, even Sony didn’t realise how important HDMI was at first, since the cheaper version of the PS3 was originally set to ship without it.
It’s worth mentioning that despite the fact that Sony made sure that the PlayStation 3 shipped with HDMI connectivity, it wasn’t generous enough to bundle a cable in the box. In fact, Sony didn’t even bundle a component cable in the PS3 box, meaning that there was actually no way to connect your already expensive PS3 to your high definition TV without incurring extra cost. Incredibly, Sony’s super-powered, high definition gaming console shipped with a composite cable in the box – a connection method that I wouldn’t be seen dead using with a PS2 let along a high definition PS3!
Thankfully Microsoft has ensured that it hasn’t fallen foul of similar bad feelings when it comes to unboxing the Elite and connecting it up. Not only do you get an HDMI cable in the box for digital high definition connection, you still get the component/AV cable that shipped with the original X360 for analogue high definition hook up. Sony, take note! Oh, and for those mad enough to be using an Elite with a standard definition TV, there’s a Scart converter for the composite AV cable.
Because HDMI carries both digital video and audio, it has the advantage of being a single cable solution, assuming that you want to use your TV speakers of course. If you want to use an external surround sound amplifier or processor, things are a little more tricky. Recent TVs tend to have a digital audio output, which allows you to pass through the digital audio carried via HDMI to an external decoding device. But don’t worry if your TV doesn’t have a digital audio pass through, because you’ll find that the answer is waiting for you in the Elite box. Bundled with the console is an analogue and digital breakout cable. This plugs into the AV socket and allows you to output stereo analogue or optical digital audio to an external amp or processor, while you’re feeding digital images to your TV via HDMI.
Of course the big question is whether an Xbox 360 connected via HDMI actually looks better than one connected via component, and I’ve got to say that there’s not much in it. This isn’t a poor reflection on HDMI, but rather an indication that component video is still a very good connection for high definition sources. If you really look hard you’ll probably admit that the HDMI connection gives you a marginally sharper image, due to the lack of DAC and ADC processing, but if you’re actually enjoying a game rather than evaluating image quality, you’ll probably never spot a difference.
I hooked the Elite up to a Toshiba Regza 42X3030D 42in TV, which has a Full HD 1,920 x 1,080 panel and will accept a 1080p input. Interestingly, when connecting via HDMI, the Elite seems to default to the best possible resolution, so the output instantly switched to 1080p when the console was turned on.
There’s no denying that bright and vivid games like Virtua Tennis 3 and Dead or Alive 4 look amazing on the Elite when connected to the Toshiba over HDMI. Likewise, dark and atmospheric games like the superb Bioshock and Gears of War looked crisp, clean and just generally awesome. However, when switching to component output and firing up the same games, the effect was no less impressive – the Xbox 360 still looks pretty damn good, no matter which high definition connection method you opt for.
Strangely Microsoft chose to equip the Elite with an HDMI 1.2 port, rather than the newer 1.3 standard. This means that you won’t be able to output a lossless Dolby TrueHD audio stream from an HD DVD – assuming you have an HD DVD drive of course. It also means that the Elite won’t be able to make use of the high bit depth Deep Colour feature that HDMI 1.3 supports, although there’s still no software available that utilises Deep Colour.
Very little has changed at the rear of the console, with the HDMI port squeezed in next to the standard AV connector. I do mean squeezed too – so much so that you can’t actually fit the component/AV cable and the HDMI cable in at the same time. The breakout audio cable has a far slimmer plug than the component/AV cable, which allows it to be plugged in along with the HDMI cable.
The other big change is the hard disk. The original Xbox 360 Premium console shipped with a 20GB hard drive, which gave you around 13GB of actual storage space straight out of the box. Of course this was still a big improvement over the 8GB hard drive that shipped with the original Xbox, while the PlayStation 2 had no mass storage at all. However, once you start to download high definition trailers and music videos, along with game demos and game save data, that 13GB starts to run low.
The Elite addresses the hard disk capacity issue by shipping with a 120GB drive as standard. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Elite has a hard drive that’s twice the size of the unit that Sony ships in the PS3, after all “twice as big” sounds pretty good if you’re a marketing type that believes that size matters. Of course it’s worth remembering that the hard drive in the PS3 is user upgradable with a bog standards 2.5in SATA unit. You can also plug an external USB hard drive into a PS3 to augment storage, something that you can’t do with an Xbox 360.
The extra hard disk space is a very welcome addition, especially if you find yourself downloading lots of high definition content and game demos from Xbox Live Marketplace. The increased capacity will also be necessary when Microsoft launches its Video Marketplace in Europe, which allows users to download entire high definition movies and TV shows to the hard drive.
At the Elite launch earlier this week, I had the chance to see the already launched US Video Marketplace in action. The idea is to add video on demand to the X360, with content paid for using Gamer Points. Of course as with BT Vision, it’s not so much video on demand, but video that you demand and wait for – if you want to watch a standard definition video you’ll be twiddling your thumbs for 10-15 minutes, but if you want to watch some pristine high definition content, you could be waiting up to four hours. The quality is pretty impressive though, with an HD download of the superb 300 looking staggeringly good.
There’s nothing definite about how Video Marketplace will be implemented in the UK, but if it’s like the US, you’ll be able to download a film like 300 (for approx $3.50), then you’ll have a week in which to start watching it. Once you start watching the movie, you will need to finish it within 24 hours. If you think that sounds a bit convoluted, I concur. Far more simple is the idea of buying content outright, and you can do just that with many TV shows. The ability to download TV shows in high definition could prove very popular in the UK, since many US shows that are shot and broadcast in HD in the States, are shown is standard definition over here. So, if you want to watch House, CSI or even Supernatural in HD, you better hope that they turn up on Video Marketplace.
The 120GB hard disk should allow you to download your fill of your favourite shows and watch them at your leisure, and if you’re an existing Xbox 360 owner and like the sound of all that extra space, worry not, because the 120GB drive will be sold as a separate accessory too. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to pay £129 for the 120GB drive, which is a ridiculous amount of money considering that a 2.5in bare 120GB hard drive can be had for under £50 online.
If you buy the 120GB hard disk separately, you get a transfer cable in the box. This allows you to transfer all the data from your old 20GB drive to the new 120GB drive – game save data, demos, videos etc. Unfortunately there’s no such cable in the Elite box, but I can understand why it’s not there. Microsoft feels that the majority of Elite customers will be fist time X360 buyers, so they won’t need the transfer cable. However, if you buy an Elite and would like a cable, you can contact Xbox support, and one will be dispatched to you free of charge.
So, the Elite offers a sleeker colour, HDMI and a 120GB hard disk for a £50 premium over the old package – at least for now. You see Microsoft as admitted that the Xbox 360 Premium (or Pro as it now seems to be called) will start to ship with HDMI support towards the end of the year. In fact the Halo 3 themed X360 that will appear next month in line with the game launch, will be a Premium console with only a 20GB hard drive, but with HDMI output.
”’Halo 3 branded X360 and accessories will be available next month when the game arrives.”’
But even with the standard Xbox 360 destined to be HDMI equipped, the Elite still looks like good value, especially when you consider the price that Microsoft is charging for the large drive. The Elite is definitely a nice package, and it’s good to see that the black console has also been bundled with a black controller and black headset.
Slightly disappointing is that the Elite is every bit as loud as the original X360 consoles. So if you’re trying to play a quiet game, late at night, the effects are likely to be drowned out by the sound of the disc and fans spinning. By contrast, the PlayStation 3 barely makes a whisper, even when playing a game. At least you know that if your X360 suffers from the red ring of death within three years of purchase, you’ll get a replacement free of charge – no questions asked!
But even though the PlayStation 3 is quieter, fuller featured, can play Blu-ray movies and sports niceties like built in Wi-Fi, it lacks something very, very important – decent games. If I were to try to make a list of A-List games for the PS3, I’d probably get stuck trying to think of number one. With the Xbox 360 it’s a simple procedure – Gears of War, Bioshock, Oblivion (OK, so it turned up on the PS3 over a year after the 360) and of course the soon to be released Halo 3. Yep, if you’re looking to play a clutch of superb high definition games, the X360 is where it’s at.
Ultimately, it’s that large catalogue of great games that makes the Elite such a compelling proposition. Not only is it reasonably priced and well specified, with everything you need in the box, but it also opens the door to some awesome titles that will keep any gamer happy for months on end. When it comes down to it, a gaming console should be about games and not multimedia functions, and that’s just what the Elite gives you, in spades.
The Xbox 360 Elite may not address the noise pollution issue that has plagued Microsoft’s console since launch, but it does bring some key new features to the platform. HDMI support is a welcome addition, while the increased hard disk capacity will definitely be needed when the full Video Marketplace launches in Europe.
The lack of an integrated HD DVD drive could well be a missed opportunity though, especially considering that there are no plans for a black external HD DVD drive to match the Elite. That said, the sub £300 price point makes the Elite a very attractive prospect for anyone looking to move up to high definition gaming, while the ”very” strong catalogue of titles keeps Microsoft well ahead of Sony in the next gen console race.