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Microsoft first HD-ready games console arrives in Australia after an extended wait — set your faces to stun!

One of the secret pleasures of having a decent home cinema system is running games through it. Hook up a PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube or Xbox, – or in our case, all three – and you can enjoy a spectacular audiovisual experience.
Unfortunately, existing systems have never really kept pace with the home theatre revolution. Sure, it’s possible to illegally-modify an Xbox in order to squeeze a 720p output (from a handful of games) and install a cannibalised version of Microsoft’s Media Center, but the solution is far from ideal.
Thankfully, the first next-gen console to hit the market intends to reverse the trend. Not only does the Xbox 360 output 720p and 1080i high-definition pictures straight from the box through component, but it’s also a fully-rounded piece of home entertainment kit, and the clearest example yet of Microsoft’s intent to effect global home convergence via its Windows Media Center platform.
The company has managed to gazump Sony and its forthcoming PlayStation 3 by more than half-a-year.
With Nintendo keeping tight-lipped over release dates for the Revolution (rumoured to be sometime in 2007), there’s a great opportunity for the 360 to seriously advance Microsoft’s ambitions.

Xbox 360 comes in two different flavours: vanilla, and Core System.

Aesthetically, this machine is certainly  geared more for living room use than its predecessor. Gone is the geeky, un-friendly black behemoth look of the first Xbox. Instead, this is mostly off-white, with the sides and DVD tray in glistening silver, and sleekly styled. It’s much smaller too, and can be stood upright or laid horizontal. The 360 is available in two versions: the basic Core package priced at $499.95, and shipped without a hard drive, and the Deluxe edition, at $649.95. With the latter, there’s no prospect of ugly wire trails from the front, as the controller (only one is supplied in the box) is wireless. Opt for the cheaper package and your controller is tethered.
The model offers limited customisation. The faceplate can be changed using optional, additional designs, including our favourite – teak panelling.
Around the back of the machine is a proprietary AV slot to plug in whatever connectivity is suitable for your display. Currently, there are no plans to allow for digital video connections (DVI or HDMI), which means the machines rely on analogue cables to deliver HD pictures.
Supplied with the Deluxe HD version of the machine is an interconnector with component and composite video outputs and analogue stereo jacks, although a VGA lead and RGB Scart are available separately. As with the original Xbox, digital audio support is provided, and the 360 will be able encode 5.1 digital surround on the fly.
Incidentally, the Dolby Digital experience from Xbox games should prove superior to the 5.1 heard on commercial DVDs. Most discs have a ceiling of 448kbps. Xbox games can utilise extra space in the codec (fully compatible with existing Dolby Digital hardware) up to 640kbps. Nice.
The only other connectivity (apart from the proprietary memory unit slots on the front, which will remain largely unused with a hard drive installed) is an Ethernet port for connection to either a PC or broadband router and a USB 2.0 input for media archiving purposes.
It is these latter sockets which, alongside the in-built Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g), are of the most interest to home entertainment buffs. While there are future plans to introduce 720p and 1080i upscaling for conventional DVDs to the 360, it’s currently only progressive scan-enabled for movie watching; not likely to replace any conventional kit then. But the fact that this console doubles as a media centre extender is very exciting indeed, especially as no Microsoft extenders have been available in Australia before. When connected via Ethernet or Wi-Fi to a PC running Windows XP or MCE 2005, the Xbox 360 allows you to stream video, TV, music and on-demand movies stored on your PC’s hard drive. It can even stream high-definition content, although only via Ethernet due to the bandwidth required.


Beneath the hood is a custom-made IBM PowerPC-based CPU, with three cores running at 3.2 GHz apiece. Its 500MHz ATI graphics processor can blast out polygons at a blistering 500 million triangles per second.
The GUI on the console, in extender mode, is not too far removed from MCE 2005, and allows access to almost all the same functions. We would advise everyone to invest an extra $50 in the branded universal remote, instead of having to use the supplied joypad, but at least it can control your TV too and is actually nicer in operation than the pointer supplied with most media PCs.
And as exciting as this streaming function sounds, it’s even better in practice. We’ve long been a great fan of MCE 2005, even more so since the latest patch. The fact that the Xbox 360 can display all this recorded content from the living room without having to stick an ugly PC in your rack is a bonus that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Through a wireless connection, standard-definition pictures remain stable and true, and it nullifies the need to store video on the Xbox 360’s detachable 20GB hard drive (larger versions are expected at a later date).
And of course, there are the games. Thanks to its increased graphical horsepower, and HD quality output, playware on the 360 looks so much better than all its rivals. The graphics, through 720p and 1080i, can seem staggeringly beautiful. The cars in Project Gotham 3, for example, are photo realistic. If you thought that the previous edition for the regular Xbox looked good, you’ll be shocked to find this is in a different league.
Of course, those with high-end PCs will shrug their shoulders and say, ‘So what’, but this unit sells for a mere $500 and has none of the crashing and virus problems affecting normal PCs.
It’s a shame that disc playback from the 12x DVD ROM drive is only through prog scan, but with Microsoft promising upgrades and updates this could very well be the most significant piece of home entertainment kit we’ve seen this year.
The Xbox 360 represents the first part of a radical shift from standard to high-definition home entertainment. Highly recommended.

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Microsoft XBOX 360| $499.95 (649.95 Core System)|  
For: HD graphics; ability to stream content from a PC with Windows MCE 2005 
Against: No upscaling DVD video; only one controller included in package 
Verdict: Offering far more than just gameplay, the 360 heralds a shift to next gen home cinema

 

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