Closing in on four years on the market, the Xbox 360 got a leg up on its competitors, the Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3, by launching a full year earlier in November 2005. Since then its HD graphics and the return of the original Xbox's popular Xbox Live service have made it a popular choice. Though not nearly as powerful as the PS3 and lacking the innovative gameplay of the Wii, the Xbox 360 still has quality games, and the lower-end packages can be had for less than the price of Sony's system. The Xbox Marketplace service also allows for the download of some new and interesting games and movies over the internet, and the 360 can playback CDs and DVDs. The Xbox 360 is currently offered in three configurations. The $200 Xbox 360 Arcade is white with a matte disc drive and a white controller. It lacks a hard drive, headset, and comes with only standard definition cables and no ethernet cable. The $300 Xbox 360 Pro is white with a chrome disc drive and white controller. It has an ethernet cable, 60GB hard drive, an Xbox 360 headset, and component cables for HD. It is also backwards compatible with games for the original Xbox and comes with a free copy of Hexic HD, a downloadable game. Finally, the $400 Xbox 360 Elite is black with a chrome disc drive and black controller. It has everything included with the Pro system, but the headset is black, the hard drive is a larger 120GB, and it also comes with an HDMI cable and two disc-based games: Halo 3 and Fable II.
The most budget-conscious consumers still may want to opt for Nintendo's system, and those looking for the most cutting-edge graphical superpower (as well as the most complete home theatre experience) will almost certainly choose the PlayStation 3 with its easy file streaming and Blu-Ray high-definition disc player. Microsoft chose to support HD-DVD in the format war, but with the defeat of HD-DVD by Blu-Ray, the add-on HD-DVD drive for the Xbox 360 was discontinued. There are, however, plans to release an external Blu-Ray drive for the Xbox 360 sometime in 2010 for an additional price. For a comparison of the three current game consoles, please see our Video Game Console Buying Guide.
The Prominent Pluses
* It looks however you want it to. Xbox 360 Faceplates, which start at $15, allow you to dress the system cute, cool or dark, depending on your tastes.
* The controller is a smooth alternative to Sony's popular DualShock line of controllers, which have become the industry standard for controller design. The Xbox 360's wireless device is smooth, sturdy, and lasts for more than a day on a single charge.
* Online is where the most intense video game experience lives, and the Xbox Live community, which you can join for a monthly or yearly fee, remains a popular gaming haven. One-month, three-month, and twelve-month subscription cards are available for $8, $20, and $50, respectively. Available for individual purchase are games, movies, and downloadable content for disc-based games from the Xbox Marketplace, similar to Sony's PlayStation Network or Nintendo's WiiWare service.
* The 360 runs high definition content, like the PlayStation 3, but starts at a slightly lower price, although the lower-priced configurations are a bit more lacking in features.
* Plays CDs and DVDs and can stream photos, music and videos from portable media players and digital cameras. There are also plans to release an external Blu-Ray drive sometime in 2010 that will allow the Xbox 360 to play Blu-Ray high-definition discs.
* Can be used as a DVR if you operate Windows Media Center on a PC network.
The Major Minuses
* It's still expensive, even if you opt for a cheaper package. Spending less on your Xbox 360 initially means that you'll need to buy many other accessories in order to use it fully.
* Nintendo and Sony make full online gaming free to consumers who purchase their systems, but Microsoft does not. In addition to the price of downloadable movies, games, and expansion content, Microsoft charges a relatively large amount of money for Xbox Live Gold subscriptions in order to play online.
* Xbox 360 games don't look as good as their PS3 counterparts, as the PS3 has more powerful hardware. As the years go by, 360 games won't look much better than they do now, while the PS3 still has more power for developers to work with in the future to create even better-looking games.
* The Xbox 360 doesn't have the motion-control capabilities of the Nintendo Wii, which offers new ways of playing games. The Xbox 360 plays games conventionally, and doesn't even offer the limited accelerometer-based motion functions of the PlayStation 3.
* Because Microsoft does not produce a handheld gaming system, the Xbox 360 cannot connect with any portable gaming devices the way that the Wii connects to the Nintendo DS and the PlayStation 3 can interface with the PSP.
* The PlayStation 3 and Wii have much shorter load times than the Xbox 360, which uses a relatively slow disc drive.
* The Xbox 360 suffers from a lack of exclusive games. The vast majority of games available for the system are also made for other systems, while the 360 cannot play many of the games that are only available for the PS3 or Wii. It can also be argued that the PS3 and Wii provide better versions of these games, with better graphics and motion controls, respectively.
* The Xbox 360 has become the butt of more than a few jokes in the gaming world (as well as several class-action lawsuits) because of some major hardware issues that have plagued the system. Here are a few:
** An Xbox is busted and needs repair when the ring around the Xbox logo lights up red, colloquially nicknamed the "Red Ring of Death." This is no laughing matter for Xbox 360 owners, who have had their 360 systems break down on them at an alarmingly high rate.
** Xbox 360s have been known to scratch discs after reading them, making the discs unusable in the future.
** Though the system is customizable to look how you want it to, it has an enormous, ugly power brick that isn't just an eyesore: it also generates enough heat that it has caused some housefires. Hide it from view, but make sure it won't put you in danger.
** Some updates released by Microsoft have accidentally "bricked" consoles, making them unable to turn on and therefore completely useless. (The term "bricked" comes from the fact that the consoles cannot perform any functions and effectively become nothing more than large, heavy "bricks.")
** Video output errors have become an issue with the 360, and many consumers have reported blank screens, distorted or fuzzy images, and system errors related to faulty video outputs.
** Updates to the New Xbox Experience interface have caused errors in reading media discs and in outputting audio.
Slick Picks for the Three-Six(ty)
The Fine Print
* Custom IBM PowerPC-based CPU.
* Three symmetrical cores running at 3.2 GHz each, with each sporting a RISC architecture.
* Two hardware threads per core; six hardware threads total.
* VMX-128 vector unit per core; three total.
* 128 VMX-128 registers per hardware thread.
* 1 MB L2 cache. 16k L1.
* Optimized for network play.
* Built-in 10 Mbps Ethernet port.
* Wi-Fi ready: 802.11a/b/g/n.
* Video camera ready.
* Ability to stream media from portable music devices, digital cameras and Windows XP-based PC.
* Ability to rip music to the Xbox 360 hard drive.
* Custom playlists in every game.
* Built-in Media Center Extender for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005.
* Interactive, full-screen 3D visualizers.
* All games supported at 16:9 widescreen, 720p or 1080i, with anti-aliasing.
* Standard-definition and high-definition video output supported.
* Multi-channel surround sound output.
* Supports 48KHz 16-bit audio.
* 320 independent decompression channels.
* 32-bit audio processing.
* More than 256 audio channels.
* Dimensions: 3.3" x 12.2" x 10.2" (HxWxD).
* Weight: 7.7 lbs.
* Stands vertically or horizontally.