Forget about DLP vs. LCoS or Blu-ray vs. HD DVD. The biggest battle heating up in the home-entertainment world right now is over who's going to rule the next generation of gaming. And Microsoft just launched the first strike - 100 megatons worth of silicon known as Xbox 360.
•12.125 x 3.25 x 10.125 inches
•High-definition, widescreen, Dolby Digital gaming
•Stream digital photos and music from any Windows XP PC
•Built-in Media Center Extender adds streaming video - including HD - from PC in another room
•$399 option includes console, detachable 20-GB hard drive, wireless controller, wired Xbox Live headset, component-video/optical digital audio output cable, and (for a limited time) Universal Media remote control
• xbox.com >> 800-469-9269
You might be one of the lucky ones who gets a 360 this holiday season - that is, if the gift giver pre-ordered your console and put the deposit down months ago. But as I write this in mid November, I'm one of only ten people in the country with one - and that's about as cool as it gets.
Looks and Brains
But the new Xbox is far more than just a gaming machine. For years, Bill Gates has wanted to come up with a component that would give Microsoft as much sway in the living room as it's had in the office. To accomplish this, the 360 has been crammed with enough high-tech features to serve as the hub of your digital-entertainment empire - and the strategy is just sneaky enough to work.
While the original Xbox had all the styling of a Borg cube - black, utilitarian, and loaded with power - the 360 looks like it was kissed by Apple, with a sleek, hourglass-shaped, cream-colored chassis. (When your iPod dreams, it fantasizes about becoming a 360.) To keep the Xbox's svelte physique, the power supply was removed from the chassis. Microsoft calls the external supply a "power brick," and it's literally as big and heavy as one!
The 360 comes in two flavors. The $299 core system includes a wired controller and a combo output cable that feeds composite video and both analog and digital audio. But the smart money is on the $399 version I tested, which comes with a detachable 20-gigabyte (GB) hard drive, a wireless controller, a wired Xbox Live headset, a component-video/optical digital audio output cable, and (for a limited time) a Universal Media remote control.
The Xbox 360 would be worth its price even if it only played games, since it costs more to buy a video card for your computer that delivers close to the 360's performance. But this is far from a one-trick pony. Pop in a DVD movie and you get progressive-scan playback with Dolby Digital or DTS sound, and you can navigate the disc with either the Universal Media remote or the gaming controller. Considering this baby's video-processing horsepower, I expected to see solid picture detail and resolution on DVDs, but progressive-scan conversion wasn't as good as it should be. Jaggies and stairsteps ought to be things of the past, but after watching a combination of movies as well as test patterns from the terrific HQV Benchmark DVD from Silicon Optix, I realized that the 360's video processing is geared more for game graphics than movies. This is a serviceable DVD player, but state of the art it ain't.
Your Media - Extended
The Xbox 360 has definitely got what it takes, though, to turn your home into a digital playground - but first you need a broadband network. While the broadband connection on the original Xbox was mainly used for online gaming, the 360 uses its wired or optional wireless connection to reach out and touch the outside world. (A wireless networking adapter is $99. The 360 supports Wi-Fi: 802.11a, b, and g.) Once you're connected, exciting possibilities open up.
Using the new Xbox to access music and photos on networked PCs is a breeze. When I installed the free Windows XP Connect file onto my laptop, the 360 immediately appeared on the list of available devices. (Video files weren't supported at the time of the product launch but might be later.) The Music and Picture tabs on the onscreen Xbox Media dashboard gave me almost instant access to my stored files. Of course, photos looked way better on my 61-inch HDTV than on the PC, and my favorite tunes sounded great pumped through my home theater rig.
Way cooler, though, is that every 360 comes with Media Center Extender technology, giving Media Center Edition 2005 PC owners an incredible one-two punch of performance and versatility. To borrow from Snoop, this is the shizzle, making the basic XP Connect features pale. The 360 acts as a virtual extension of your PC, letting you enjoy the good life on your big screen with an interface identical to the one on your computer.
Copyright © 2013 Bonnier Corp. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.