Xbox 360 Elite games console
Small tweaks, big difference?
Review Apart from a sneaky bit of Xbox 360 gaming at lunchtimes in the Register Hardware offices, we've always been fairly hardcore PlayStation fans, having grown up with the Sony console series since its 1995 launch. Could Microsoft's new machine, the Xbox 360 Elite, persuade us to change allegience? Well, yes, it could...
MS' Xbox 360 Elite
We're talking the Elite, the newest addition to the growing Xbox 360 console range. It's more or less the same as the existing Xbox 360 aside from three notable modifications. It features an HDMI port, a 120GB hard drive and, of course, the appearance has changed somewhat. Instead of a cream-coloured casing, the Elite sports a stylish matt-black finish that, unlike the PS3, doesn't show up every single grubby fingerprint.
The £300 Elite represents the peak of the Xbox range. The Premium, equipped with a 20GB hard drive, becomes the mid-range model and is now available at £250, while the HDD-less Core is now considered the entry-level model at £180. In comparison, the 60GB PS3 now costs £400 and the Wii will set you back £180.
The colour-coded accessories included within the Elite package comprise a wireless controller, wired headset, component-video and composite-video AV cables, an HDMI Cable, optical and component audio links, and an Ethernet networking cable. However, according to Microsoft, there are no plans for now to release a matching matt-black HD DVD drive.
Like its predecessor, the Elite, which measures 30.9 x 8.3 x 25.8cm and weighs in 3.5kg, can placed horizontally or vertically. Its disc tray can be loaded fairly easily in both orientations, although it's not quite as tidy as as the PS3's slot-loading mechanism. The primary power switch, and the AV and HDMI ports are situated at the back of the unit.
At the heart of the Elite, is the same 3.2GHz IBM-designed PowerPC-based processor and 500MHz AMD/ATI graphics chip that are found in all the other Xbox 360s. So no upgrade there, and no built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, as per the PS3 and Wii, either.
MS' Xbox 360 Elite: big bundle
Setting up the Elite is straightforward and, as you'd expect, exactly the same as its predecessor. The machine takes you through both profile and resolution set-up step by step, and it's pretty much impossible to go wrong. The only difference is the option to set the console up for high definition. This is located within System, then Console Settings, then Display. We set ours up to work with an Evesham ALQEMI32SX 32in LCD widescreen HD TV via component-video, which didn't present any problems.
The default audio setting is Dolby Digital 5.1, but you can choose digital stereo or Dolby Digital with WMA Pro. The on-screen instructions, however, indicate that "you must use an Xbox 360 Component HD, Advanced Scart, s-video or VGA HD AV cable to get digital output".
For some reason the audio menu makes no mention of the HDMI AV cable - a sign it was thrown into the mix at the last minute, perhaps - and we weren't too sure what kind of audio to expect when using HDMI as a result.
Once a game disc was inserted, the Elite seemed to make considerably more noise than the PS3, and this continued all the time the disc was inside the machine. Of course, it's drowned out by the sounds of the games when you're actually playing, but it's definitely noticeable at quieter moments.
We tried an experiment and switched the set-up from component to HDMI. Unlike the PS3, alas, the Elite didn't automatically detect the switch of ports and thus gives us the opportunity to switch to optimum settings, in this particular instance 1080i. It's little user interface details like this that make the difference between OK and outstanding.
However, in favour of the Elite, the HDMI cable is included in the box. Not so with the PS3 - that'll set you back another £18.
One Register Hardware reader recently enquire if the Elite addressed problems a number of Xbox 360 owners have experienced with overheating consoles. Well, in our tests, the Elite didn't generate any more heat than the PS3, even after a considerable number of hours' spent gaming. And we didn't experience any malfunctions in that time.
It has been claimed by a number of websites that Microsoft has put in additional cooling apparatus into the US Elite. We don't know at this stage whether this is also true of the UK model, or whether the noise issue results from a lack of extra cooling.
When we pestered Microsoft for clarification, it responded helpfully: "We are constantly updating the console's more than 1500 internal components and therefore will not comment on details of specific components or manufacturing processes." So there...
|How they stack up: PS3 vs Xbox 360 Elite|
|Sony PS3||MS Xbox 360 Elite||The Winnner|
|Graphics||Nvidia RSX @ 550MHz||AMD ATI R500 @ 500MHz||PS3|
|Hard drive storage||60GB||120G||Xbox|
|Optical disc loader||Slot||Tray||PS3|
|HDMI cable bundled?||No||Yes||Xbox|
|HD optical disc built-in?||Yes - Blu-ray Disc integrated||No - optional add-on HD DVD player required||PS3|
|Wireless networking integrated?||Yes||No||PS3|
|Size||32.5 x 27.4 x 9.8cm||30.9 x 25.8 x 8.3cm||Xbox|
|Controller power source||USB-charged rechargeable||Two AA batteries||PS3|
|Controller auto-power off?||No||Yes||Xbox|
|Controller rumble function||No||Yes||Xbox|
|Native games available||Handful||Loads||Xbox|
Possibly one of the biggest factors under scrutiny in this test was the controller. Aside from the obvious design differences, the wireless joypad on the Elite is powered by a pair of AA batteries - unlike the PS3's controller, which is charged from the console through a USB cable. The Elite controller, however, switches itself off after about ten minutes' inactivity - a nice touch, and one missing from the PS3 joypad.
Xbox controller evolution: (L-R) The original 'Duke' controller, Controller S and the 360 controller
For many gamers, simple familiarity with one console or another will determine personal preference. The general layout of both the PS3 and Xbox controller is much the same - the most significant difference, aside from the Xbox device being a little more chubby, is that the left-hand joystick and the joypad have swapped places on the Xbox controller.
Clash of the controllers: PS3 (L) and Xbox 360
Despite our greater familiarity with the PlayStation controller, we were determined to keep an open mind. However, the non-symmetrical positioning of the left joysticks just feels wrong. Not to have both thumbs next to each other in a symmetrical configuration felt unnatural. But of course there are an awful lot of gamers who insist that this is an ergonomically superior layout. And in favour of the Xbox, the Elite controller has a rumble function.
We tested the Elite's gaming effectiveness using Gears of War and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2. Both were frankly fantastic in HD and whatever the sound being used was, it was pretty darn cool. The detail in both games was sharp and none of the images blurred at all in high-speed movement. Not that you'd normally notice, given the awesome, action-packed gameplay.
One of the most notable benefits for the Xbox buyer is the amount of features available online. Not only is the is the Xbox Live online gaming community enormous and growing all the time, enabling hard-core gamers to play each other all over the world, but there is a multitude of movies, TV shows, games and gaming extras on offer to download. And this is where your 120GB hard drive really comes into its own.
If you're not one to take advantage of the Xbox Live experience, however, and you just enjoy a few hours gameplay a week, then the other Xboxes do remain better value than the Elite. The Premium is £50 cheaper, and if HDMI means little or nothing to you, that's another game. Or two.
One thing to bear in mind, however, is that if you want to use your Xbox to watch HD DVD, then that little accessory will set you back another £130, pushing the overall price up to £430... more than the price of the Blu-ray equipped PS3.
Another fairly substantial advantage is that there are an awful lot of Xbox 360 games out there - way, way more than are available (native) for the PS3.
The price is something that sets this console aside from the competition and for most buyers, the sheer number of quality games available will make the real difference. The PS3 also offers an incredible gaming experience, but the majority of the games available are adapted variations of Xbox or PC games. Why pay more for play a game that invariably will have a glitch here and there? The only game that, so far, really demonstrates what the PS3 is capable of is Resistance: Fall of Man.
So laying out for a console only to enjoy it occasionally is a bit silly. If you're a keen gamer and want to play good games in glorious high definition, right now, the minute you've got your brand new console set up, then you want an Xbox 360 Elite.