Review: Xbox 360 Elite

Xbox 360 Elite

Now having had my 360 Elite for just over one month (I bought it on release day), I’ve developed a good sense of its performance over the 360 Premium, enough so that I can give a true hands-on review with some depth of use.

Purchase (and Transferring Files–for current 360 owners)

I picked up the Elite on release day, Sunday 29 April 07. I’d intended to do so, and called ahead to my local Gamestop to ensure (1) that they’d have some in–was told they’d have 5 total, and (2) that the Gamestop/EB Games coupon re “trading up” from the Premium to the Elite with a $250 credit toward the Elite’s purchase would stand–was told it would.

Arriving at home, I called 800-4MY-XBOX for support and to order the Transfer Cable. I was told initially, and on Monday, that the cable would be available via a mere voice request but that the order system was not ready to take the requests, and to call back later. As many of you are aware, this was in error–either due to poor planning on MS’ part regarding demand, or lack of coordination between MS entities. In the end, I mailed on Tuesday, 1 May, the Transfer Cable request form. I received the transfer cable on Monday, May 7th–6 days later. While disappointed by MS’ planning, I was very pleased by Microsoft’s devotion of resources to keeping the request processing and shipment to the absolute minimum. MS clearly recognized the error, and moved to keep any complaints to a minimum.

Moreover, while I won’t discuss in any detail the experience of actually transferring the files, the process was painless and worked perfectly. I have yet to experience any problems accessing any of the TV shows or media I purchased prior to transfer, although consumers should note that those pre-transfer files do require connection to Xbox Live for access, per MS’ Digital Rights Management (DRM) policy. I understand the complaints some have, but this has not affected my enjoyment of the media I purchased, and moreover, any purchases using the Elite console will not similarly require access to Xbox Live to satisfy DRM. Apologies to those who differ, but I think this is a non-issue.

Setup

I’ve tested the 360 Elite with the 47″ Westinghouse LVM-47w1, a 1080p LCD screen with HDMI input, and a 5.1 surround sound system. Aside from the less-than-pitch-black black levels of this LCD monitor, the screen (Ultimate AV Mag describes it as “exceptional image quality”), as with most LCDs, is sharper than your typical plasma screen, and allowed a quick comparison of the 360 Premium with the 360 Elite’s display quality. Perhaps obviously, the typical purchaser of an Elite won’t be one who’ll be displaying media on an SDTV–the HDMI input sported by the Elite is an “HDTV connection format using a DVI interface that transfers uncompressed digital video with HDCP copy protection and multichannel audio,” according to Home Theater Magazine. That is–nothing you need to worry about, unless you own an HDTV. That said, HDTV prices have dropped in the past few years, and are predicted to drop further during 2007, so it’s not unreasonable any longer (and no longer requires mortgaging all of your belongings) to begin considering that purchase, if within your budget, of that flat screen high-def wonder you’ve been drooling over, for your TV/movie viewing/gaming needs.

Just out of the box, the Elite’s black case blends more naturally into my other black stereo components (not pictured) than the cream 360 Premium. (The Phillips HDMI 1080p-upscaling DVD player, pictured above, is disconnected and, given the very fine performance of the external HD-DVD drive in upconverting, will be disconnected indefinitely, having been supplanted by the Elite as the primary family DVD player… yes, even the wife likes it better.) This is merely a personal preference, but I much prefer watching movies in a darkened room and without a brightly-colored piece of tech sitting just below the television. While I formerly had the 360 Premium stationed behind my HDTV, the Elite quickly took front and center as part of the family entertainment center proper. It looks completely in place there.

Most of you have seen the largely glowing reviews of the 360 Premium when it was first released. The 360 Premium was a standard-setter for “next gen” gaming systems, and it delivered, and continues to deliver, even with the competition from Sony’s PS3 and Nintendo’s crowd-pleasing (and currently more close competition) the Wii. The 360 Elite is, more than anything, the next iteration of the 360 Premium, despite Microsoft’s statements that the Elite is the produce line’s replacement for the Premium. What follows is a review of the Elite, including which by definition, has redundancy with the Premium. If you’re here for the discussion only of the 1080p and 120 gig differences, skip immediately to far-below (“What a Difference an Elite Makes?“) for the discussion. Otherewise, forge on. If you’re continuing, you’ll note that several post-Premium developments are being discussed along the way–so the 1080p and 120 gig HDD are not the whole of the story of where the Xbox 360 has gone, from Dec 05 to date.

The Premium is a top-notch piece of home entertainment tech, and the Elite is virtually identical, except for the addition of the HDMI output and the 120 gig hard drive. I will note that there were reports of hardware unreliability with the Premium just after the 2005 release–the “bricking” of consoles, where the “red ring of death” appeared and the console was rendered inoperable, requiring replacement (albeit very speedy) from Microsoft. I myself experienced a bricking in January 2006 (which was not a “red ring of death” problem, but did involve the console “dying”), which MS replaced within about 5 days. I haven’t had a problem since. These reports, likewise, have tapered off, and no similar credible reports have emerged surrounding the 360 Elite. Consumers may be fairly confident that the 2005-release quality issues involving “bricked” and overheating consoles now have been addressed and rendered–save for the inevitable dud that slips through any company’s QC cracks–moot.

Note also that the Elite, like the Premium and Core before it, does not come with wireless connectivity installed. Obviously you can still plug the 360 into your internet connection–but you’ll need to purchase either the MS, or a third party, Wireless Network Adaptor, to establish a wireless connection between your 360 and the internet ($88.82 on Amazon; less for third-party adaptors). Likewise, the Elite doesn’t come with an internal HD-DVD player. That’s currently $199 on Amazon. PS3 partisans justify the much-higher cost of the PS3, and lambaste the 360, for not including these two items. Clearly, MS made a business decision–not everybody wants to connect wirelessly, not everybody wants a next-gen DVD player, and furthermore, the format war is only just heating up, despite premature cries of “Victory” from either camp citing various developments, rankings, or justifications.

I myself would be much happier to have the more secure, efficient, and faster wired connection from my router to my Elite, but my home setup doesn’t allow it–I’d have to drill some holes and run some wires, which I simply didn’t take the time to do. Others, clearly, could just run the short cord from their router to their 360, and be done with it–saving $90 off the bat. As for the HD-DVD, Blu-Ray debate, your own resort to Google and about 20 minutes’ serious research should provide you with the stats that show that despite the hooplah, the format war is going strong. My wife could care less about hi-def movies, many others agree, and MS made their consoles all the more affordable by deferring the decision to the consumer’s discretion. Should Blu-Ray look like it’s winning the format war, moreover, MS has let slip at various times that it will likely make a Blu-Ray addition available for the 360. We’re just not there yet. So put these two items aside, as we lawyers say, arguendo, as you continue with the review.

Gaming mechanics

The Elite comes with one black, wireless controller. The 360 controller has been dubbed one of the best 5 gaming controllers of all time. I personally agree: it sits easily in the hand, the curves are comfortable, and it’s neither too heavy (witness, the original-original Xbox controller) nor too light in the hand. The wireless capabilities make for much more enjoyable gaming, no wire entanglements, and approximately 30 hours per charge. I’ve been gaming with the controller since the Premium was released, December 2005, and I can vouch for the 30-hour figure. (The Elite comes with the battery pack, which is reported to last for approximately 40 hours on the included 2 AA batteries, but the “Play and Charge” kit may be had for $19.99, including the charging cable and a rechargeable battery pack, or the Quick Charge Kit, my preference, may be had for $29.99, including one rechargeable pack.)

Gaming is a very enjoyable experience with the 360. Epic’s astounding looking and highly-acclaimed Gears of War, and The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (which, those who doubt the essentially equivalent power of the 360 and PS3 should note, after a coming automatic update from Bethesda, will have identical graphics to the PS3 version), top my list, and for titles released in only the first year of the 360’s existence, they look amazing. Graphics, of course, improve as developers learn to use the console’s power–so expect future titles to astound further. Range of titles at this point is pleasingly broad. Battle for Middle Earth II, and within the past few weeks, Command and Conquer: Tiberium Wars, both are recent crossovers in the RTS (Real Time Strategy) format from the PC to the 360, and the translation from keyboard to controller as impressed many by how one-to-one the translation has remained, in terms of equivalent complexity and no dumbing-down of options. FPS (First Person Shooters) are in no scarcity (GoW, Clancy’s Ghost Recon, etc.). The Xbox Live Arcade releases weekly, with very few exceptions, either one or two smaller games, available for purchase over Xbox Live and priced approximately $8-$10, that are often quite good: yesterday’s surprise release of the surprisingly well-executed (and, even more surprisingly, fun) Pac Man-Championship Edition, is but one example. Another appears to be the upcoming re-introduction of the Wing Commander series (a, get-this, 16 player online game!), previews of which are getting good reviews.

Due to periodic (and still continuing) updates pushed automatically to the 360 via Xbox Live, increasing numbers of original Xbox games are compatible with the 360. I routinely play Halo 2–check me out as H Lime, but of course. I don’t have enough devotion to the reduced graphics quality of the original titles to play the other titles out there, but I’m holding out for compatibility for the Rayman titles!

User Interface/Blades

For those ingenues/newbies out there, the Xbox 360–the Core, Premium, and Elite–all share a pleasing graphics shell that is typically the first thing you encounter when you flip the switch. There are, in the most recent update to the OS (pushed automatically to your 360 when you login to Xbox Live), five “blades,” one each for “Marketplace,” “Xbox Live.” “Games,” “Media,” and “System.” Each contains easily navigable subsections, as follows:

  • Marketplace: purchase and download standard and HD Movies, TV shows, music videos, game videos, and “Themes” (skins and backgrounds for your system blades) and “Gamer Pictures” (essentially your avatar or identity picture, available for public viewing–you can also provide your own, which only your friends can see).
  • Xbox Live: send, read, receive email messages to other Xbox Live users; manage, add, and request Xbox Live users as “Friends”; and IM (instant message) other Xbox Live users or Windows Messenger users (including PC and Mac users and those with mobile access to Windows Messenger, eg, on cell phones or PDAs).
  • Games: track your “Achievements” (essentially picture-medals you earn for accomplishing feats in games, with an accompanying numeric value which is added to your Xbox Live “Gamerscore” total; a total typically of 1000 gamer points per major title); play Xbox Live Arcade games and view what games your friends are playing currently, and join them in multiplayer action; play game demos.
  • Media: listen to music, watch movies, videos, or tv, and view pictures, either from PCs or Macs (wirelessly or directly connected); turn the 360 into a Windows Vista/XP Media Center Extender.
  • System: set console preferences; set family settings, including media and game restrictions and passwords; manage and delete items from the hard drive; set up network connections, directly and wirelessly, including with security protections; connect to PCs and Macs (Macs require additional setup and possibly third party downloads); set up the 360’s “webcam,” the Xbox Live Vision camera, for dedicated video chat sessions, and for in-game use/chat.

The Blades GUI is quite easy to use, and has undergone several tweaks via the updates, the most recent including adding a dedicated “Marketplace” blade, and enabling IM chat via a small, translucent pop-up screen that doesn’t disturb media-watching, gameplay, or your activities within the Blades GUI. Of note is also that the roud “X” button in the top center of the 360’s controller is called the “Guide” button. Any time–during movies, games, etc–a press of the Guide button brings up a mini version of the Blades GUI, enabling essential tasks to be performed (reading and sending email, checking the time, starting/changing music selections from your HDD or your connected PC. etc), and then a second tap of the Guide button returns you to where you left off. Movies don’t stop, they continue running visibly and smoothly, with sound, in the background while you’re navigating the Guide selections, gratis the three PowerPC multicore design of the 360.

What a Difference an Elite Makes?

Admittedly, that’s the question. Some of you have already been sold on the 360 phenomenon and don’t need any more facts about what’s the same with the 360 Premium, you just want to know whether the Elite is a worthwhile upgrade. Some say the Elite is only an incremental upgrade without a tangible improvement, others find the HDMI and 120 gig hard drive a solid improvement worth the extra cost. I’m in the latter camp, with caveats. Here’s why.

– Insert which cord here?

With my 360 Premium, I first connected via component cabling to my 1080p, and found the colors rich and vibrant, beautiful compared to my recently discarded 32″ Sony Trinitron’s screen. I was happy, save for the knowledge that component only allows transmission of 1080i signals. While my then 42″ Westy upconverted all to 1080p, the picture was, nonetheless, simply an upconverted (i.e., an artificially enhanced) 1080i picture. Bottom line, I was only getting the 540 lines at any one time–not a true 1080p picture.

I next purchased the then-$199 Xbox 360 HD-DVD player. Knowing that the HD-DVD player was capable of outputting a full-HD picture, all 1080p lines, but only via VGA, I purchased and tested the VGA picture on my now 47″ Westy. Like many, I found the VGA picture washed-out, but slightly sharper than the component. A trade-off, and one I was hard-pressed to resolve. The Spring update remedies some of the contrast issues, allowing for a choice of 3 pre-set contrast/black-level schemes–“Standard,” “Intermediate,” and “Enhanced.” Even after the update, the 15-pin analog VGA could only handle so much data throughput–high-motion scenes in both games and video experience “tearing,” or an offset line partway down the screen.

Upgrading to the Elite, however, the difference, to me, was night and day. VGA’s 15-pin analog picture couldn’t hold a light to the pure-digital, crystal-clear image, and vibrant colors of the HDMI. Moreover, while component was merely 1080i (540 lines only at any one moment), the HDMI displayed all 1080 lines at once, that is, the full 1080p (or to rephrase it again, the highest HDTV resolution possible). And while the VGA, even post-Spring Update, experienced image “tearing,” HDMI was fast and responsive, mapping as it does pixel-to-pixel, processor to screen. The Elite’s motherboard added new circuitry to make this pixel-to-pixel mapping possible.

So that’s change one, and I count that a win for the purchaser, and–only if you have a 1080p capable set, mind you–by itself well worth the upgrade price. If you don’t have a 1080p set, then you’d have to be sold by the remaining two improvements.

– Next-gen Storage Space?

The second major change the Elite sports is a, relatively, massive 120 gig hard drive. The Xbox 360 Core comes with no hard drive (and is consequently the least expensive of the three), and the 360 Premium comes with a 20 gig hard drive. Despite some claims via the blogosphere and in reviews that the users never came close to filling the 20 gig, I had the opposite experience. With the weekly movie and game trailers (some over a half gig), demos (many over 1 gig themselves), movies and media that I’d download, along with the Xbox Live Arcade games on the HDD, I routinely found myself pressing against the 20 gig limit.

If nothing else, the media I stored on the HDD sometimes prevented me from downloading the one HD movie (4 or 5 gigs) that I wanted to watch a given weekend. Currently, television shows may be purchased, and once purchased, may be downloaded and deleted, free of charge, an unlimited number of times; movies currently may only be rented, and once viewing has started, must be watched within the following 24 hours.

The new 120 gig HDD may well expand the offerings: MS originally considered allowing movie purchases for somewhere around $19, just as television shows could be purchased. Clearly, the 20 gig HDD would have been in short order filled, foreseeably tugging negatively on the user’s other Marketplace purchases. Not so now–I anticipate MS revising its policy from rental-only movies, to allowing movie purchases, sometime down the road, particularly as the movie offerings continue to grow. (For example: I and my wife were surprised, respectively to see Letters from Iwo Jima (HD), and Music and Lyrics, on the movie download lists).

Not only does the HDD change the Marketplace dynamics and allow for greater gaming flexibility (it’s used for game save storage too, which, if the HDD was too close to full, could result in some frustrating gameplay experiences), but MS’ upcoming IPTV joint-initiative with AT&T almost necessitates the larger hard drive. By the end of this year, AT&T and MS will release their IPTV initiative available both on the 360 and on other hardware. IPTV will allow instantaneous channel changes (no flicker, bounce, and delay as with current cable and satellite channel changes). Moreover, the 360 itself–particularly the Elite, with its massive 120 gig hard drive–will become the set-top box. Anticipate the “Media” blade having a “TV” button, which launches TV/HDTV viewing automatically, retaining the Guide button functionality and the mini-window IM capabilities that the 360’s GUI has to offer. Reporting adds that MS will add TV/HDTV recording capacity to the 360 as well. That is, the 360 will become your IPTV Tivo. Assuming this is well implemented–and with the commercial success of the 360 and MS’ devotion to the 360 project, there’s no reason, at this point, to doubt MS’ intent to make this succeed–the Elite clearly has the potential to become quite the hot little living room box.

– Noise

One final change. A very common complaint with both the 360 Core and the Premium (now simply called the “Xbox 360 Console”), was the very noisy internal DVD drive, and that the internal fan was deafeningly loud. I have read reports online that the Elite hasn’t remedied that. That is not my experience. Whether or not I’m one of the lucky ones I do not know, but the Elite I’ve got has a whisper-quiet DVD drive. So too, the internal fan is quite a bit less noisy than my Premium. I count this as a plus, but I recognize that this apparently isn’t the universal experience with Elite owners!

Conclusion

The Xbox 360 Elite is a worthy addition to the 360 line. While the $475 price is steep, it likely will come down in the coming months to reinforce/remind the public of the 360’s media campaign as the common man/woman’s game machine. If you’re a current 360 owner, however, and do not own a 1080p television and don’t anticipate purchasing one, and do not intend to partake in downloads of online HD media, and are not interested in the upcoming IPTV offerings, I recommend you to keep your current 360–you’ll have little added benefit from the console.

If you’re like me and are keen on this online media revolution, the recommendation changes. If you can afford it now, have a 1080p television or anticipate purchasing one, and can find a reasonably inexpensive way to trade-up, I heartily recommend doing so. Likewise, if you’re a first time 360 purchaser, I even more strongly recommend the Elite for consideration.

The consensus that has developed is that there’s something of a toss-up in graphics between the more-expensive PS3 and the 360. This, combined with the fact that most of the once PS3-exclusives have now declared production for the 360 as well, and considering the great success of Xbox Live as an integrated online platform for gaming and video chatting with friends, IM-ing, and watching/purchasing online media, makes the 360 the winner of this round of the PS3-Xbox 360 war, and the Elite secures a front-running spot again in the race.

Good product: given the above caveats, I rate the Xbox 360 Elite as strongly recommended.

PROs:

  • stunningly sharp and vibrant 1080p HDMI picture surpasses VGA and Component options in a 1080p, HDMI compliant HDTV
  • 120 gigabyte HDD accommodates the hours of music, television, movies, cached game information, you may already be downloading, and is primed for Microsoft’s upcoming and very promising IPTV release in fall/winter 2007
  • Spring 07 update brings the mini-window IM/Windows Messenger capability, new options on “Reference Levels” (black levels/contrast) for VGA displays, and numerous other improvements
  • Highly successful Xbox Live with large worldwide gaming audience
  • Easy to use “Blades” user interface; attractive “art deco” design; black!
  • Fun, affordable hi-def/next-gen gaming.

CONs:

  • Price point at $479: more expensive than the Wii, though less still expensive than the cheapest PS3 competition
  • Those without HDTVs and particularly without 1080p sets, will see little benefit from the HDMI upgrade
  • Those with no internet access, those with no intention of downloading media from Xbox Live or utilizing the Xbox 360’s upcoming IPTV capabilities, will have no use for 120 gig HDD
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15 Comments

Filed under Gaming, Personal, Reviews, Tech, Windows Vista, Xbox 360

15 responses to “Review: Xbox 360 Elite

  1. Pingback: Xbox 360 Elite vs. 60 gig PS3: Xbox 360 arguably the best value « Armillary Observations: Life, Law, Games.

  2. Pingback: May 07 Xbox 360 Dashboard Update: Windows Messenger, Low Power Mode and more « Armillary Observations: Life, Law, Games.

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  4. Dominic

    I just purchased an elite on firday 7/13/07… I dont have a 1080p television at the moment but it is in the works. I just wanted to say though that the HDMI did make a noticable different on my 1080i plasma TV. One game to note is on Dance Dance Revolution Universe… The main menu has some real fine lines that are around the logo and elswhere on the screen and with just the component hooked up they are blured to the point where it seems as thought it is one line. With the hdmi I can see 3 verry obvious lines. And over all I gree with everything you said about why it makes such a difference.

  5. dan

    this be good review like coz i feel like learning from the people and this happened today.
    The mind is set, 360 elite shall be acquired and shall i be happy?, one is not to know until buying is processed at the till and games are shown on me 26″ tv.
    Thanks

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