Thursday, 27 December 2007

Xbox 360 - unpacking & first impressions

Heading to the checkout with the 360 Pro Bundle through a heavy Boxing Day crowd I found out that this is no lightweight console! I didn't weigh the pack but it's pretty hefty and by the time I made it back to my car in a nearby multi-story car park I was glad for a rest (I'd made a short diversion to an Apple Centre to check out the new iMac for the first time as well). I later went to another store and picked up a dirt cheap new copy of the 360 Tomb Raider Legend, as you do...

Once home (after going via a friend's place for a little show-and-tell ;) I opened it up and started the setup. Unpacking it showed where a fair chunk of the weight was - the power pack is ginormous! By itself it seems bigger than the combined slimline PS2 and its power pack, although it's probably not. Well maybe it is... Apart from the console and power pack, the 360 Pro pack contained a combined composite/component cable, ethernet cable, controller, media remote, SCART adaptor, four AA batteries for the two gadgets, and a disappointingly small manual (which is actually fairly thorough). The build quality of all the components looks very good and one gets the impression that it's a very solid piece of equipment. I hope that impression holds up over time... (It's a pity it's beige, but it's a nice shade of beige ;) There was also the two-game bundle in a single case tucked in a narrow space on one side of the box. Internal packing material was kept at a minimum, with only folded cardboard around the console, and a couple of narrow foam strips under it, as well as a lot of mostly green plastic bags of course.

At this point I should say that a few months ago my 60cm Panasonic CRT TV lost its picture and I've yet to decide whether to get it repaired or just hang out until I can upgrade to an LCD. In the meantime I've been using my old 1986 National 34cm colour portable, which is 50Hz only, mono audio, and only has RF input (meaning the only way to get a signal into it is using the co-axial aerial connection). This means that I have to stage all my gear through a VCR, then into the TV via the aerial connection, thus requiring an AV switcher and standard composite cables, and some loss of quality even for standard PAL 480i. The TV does have a good picture though, which has deteriorated little over time apart from a slight decrease in contrast (not enough to really notice), and despite its size (or maybe because of it) it looks pretty damn good! On the audio side I have my big late-90's Aiwa Dolby Surround stereo, which is in its element with gear like the 360 which defaults to 5.1 audio (even though the Aiwa's Dolby Surround is only 4 channel, it translates 5.1 well).

Once I'd completed the simple assembly, the only complication being to add yet another! AV switcher to handle both the 360 and PlayStation 2, I fired it up. I positioned the console horizontally as I've seen advice on the internets that this puts less strain on the optical drive, and on top of my cabinet so it was well ventilated. Turning it on is most easily done using the cordless controller, which is able to switch both itself and the console independently (meaning that you can turn the controller off to save batteries but leave the console on, or save yourself that exhausting walk to the console to turn it on or off ;) After a very short and quite intuitive setup procedure, there followed a short intro video which was light-hearted and showed off the surround audio nicely.

One thing here - with the slimline PlayStation 2 sitting next to the 360, the difference of one generation in gaming consoles is highlighted by the fact that the PS2 is tiny in comparison, and virtually soundless at normal viewing distances. Close up you can just hear the PS2 optical drive working, but as there are no fans it's very quiet. Of course the main difference is in the games themselves, and the differences are massive there, as I mention a little later.

After browsing through the various blades (menu items) it was time for a game. The two bundled games are unfortunately 60 Hz only, so I can't play them until I either switch to a spare computer monitor (and lose the surround sound as it would have to go in a different room), get the Panasonic TV repaired, or upgrade to an LCD TV. But Tomb Raider Legend is PAL 50/60Hz (I already knew this from the PS2 game) so it found its way into the optical drive without further delay. Which happens to be the noisiest part of the revised hardware - the cooling fan is barely audible at normal viewing distance if you place the console near the TV, but there is the constant moderate optical drive noise. Fortunately with normal game audio it's not intrusive though, and it has to be quieter than my MDD Power Mac wind tunnel!

Tomb Raider Legend was quite a surprise! I've played the PlayStation game four times now and I'd got quite used to the fuzzy result of the graphic aliasing needed for the low power console, so to see it in DVD quality was quite an eye-opener, and I can only imagine how it would look in 720p or higher! The colour and contrast is fantastic, the graphic detail is everything I hoped it would be, shadows are mostly quite realistic (including the shadows cast by Lara's rechargeable light) and in the early stages the video is beautifully smooth. I don't expect every moment of the game to be as smooth but I'm very impressed so far. And the surround audio is also superb - even switching to the binoculars changes Lara's voice to closeup, as if you're right there with her!

The 360 controller is solid and robust (meaning that it's quite heavy) but as long as you can handle the extra weight it's nice to use, and the lack of a cable means you can get a more comfortable position than with a corded controller. I'm long accustomed to the PS2 controller, or more accurately the compact Logitech version, so the larger size and weight, and the difference in the position of the D-pad and left stick (they're reversed compared to the PS2 so I found myself going for one when I wanted the other) all took some getting used to. And the default shooting controls are also flipped vertically, with the weapons draw on the bottom left (trigger) button, and Fire the right trigger button. But it works well and I only need a bit more experience to settle in.

I have reservations about cordless controllers but I have to say that the lack of a cord does make it more convenient to use despite the extra weight, and I'll get a 'play and charge' kit which makes rechargeable batteries more convenient to use. I may also get a 'Sun' faceplate sometime so I'm not looking at beige but that's low priority. And if I decide to switch to a spare VGA monitor I'll need to buy the VGA adaptor as it's not included. But out of the box the 360 Pro pack has everything most people would need, it's easy to set up, and the performance of both video and audio is great. And as the Pro console has a hard drive it can also play many Xbox games, so the game catalogue is quite comprehensive if you don't mind a drop in graphic detail with the older games. If you do this though, you need to download or order a backwards compatibility update - I have to wonder why they didn't just have that installed from the start, it's not that big..? Oh, and don't forget to check the online listing of compatible Xbox games before you jump in and buy one.

The hard drive (Australia/New Zealand release) comes with a bunch of arcade games included such as Uno and Pac-Man, but they're mostly trial versions. There's also a Lego Star Wars II demo, and some promo movies for games like Bioshock & Halo. The 20GB hard drive has about 6GB taken up by the formatting & system and nearly 4GB by other content, so there's not as much room as you'd think until you trash some of the extra content. But unless you're downloading games or adding music or movies, there's plenty of room for any amount of DVD-based game's saves with about 10GB free. I don't think I'd use it as a music library as it's a lot easier just to plug my MP3 player into the stereo, or run an MP3 disc in my CD player - the 360 console uses a fair bit of power and for me it's a game machine, not a media centre...

I've never used an early model 360 with the overheating problems, but after about 30 minute's use, roughly evenly split between setting up and playing TR Legend, the case was still cool except for a small area around the rear vents which were blowing moderately warm air (a later session of about 30 minutes in Legend made the case slightly warmer, but not by much, although these sessions were on cool days). I've read that the new hardware configuration with better cooling, the 65nm CPU, and possibly a smaller die GPU, does run a lot cooler. One possible cause of the earlier three red ring failures could have been overheating, and if that's the case then I doubt it will be a problem with the new model with the Falcon board.

So was it worth it for me? Well as I managed to get a great deal that put the price of the Pro pack hardware around the price of a sale-priced Wii (allowing for a value of the two included 360 games at around $AU100) then it's a resounding yes, at least so far! It not only gives me high res TR Legend and Anniversary, but it future-proofs me for a few more Tomb Raiders to come, as well as complementing my PlayStation 2 game catalogue with a whole extra bunch to choose from. Heaps more games than a Mac, better graphics, and way lower cost (even with the cost of a moderately sized LCD monitor added on) make it compelling. Add to that the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive add-on for maybe half the cost of a free-standing HD-DVD player, and it has a lot going for it in anyone's language, although the addition of the HD-DVD drive does put it up around the base PS3 price range. Time will tell if the reliability problems have been solved, but it's sounding good from what I've heard! I'm glad I waited all this time for the 65nm CPU, not to mention the much lower price :)

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