Hands On: Microsoft Xbox 360 Elite Regina SK

Improved high-def movie playback and bolstered specs--including HDMI--highlight Microsoft's newest version of its popular game console.

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Hands On: Microsoft Xbox 360 Elite

Introduction

Microsoft's Xbox 360 Elite is here, and this version of the sleek game console offers more than just cosmetic improvements. The unit's bolstered specs--such as a 120GB hard disk drive and an HDMI 1.2 connector, perfect for today's high-def TVs--mean more room to store digital content and a better way to view high-definition content.

Though I don't think this update of the current Xbox 360 makes sense for every gamer to upgrade to, the HDMI capability alone makes the Elite a more-appealing option if you're planning on buying your first Xbox. The new console goes on sale Sunday, April 29, and will cost $480, although some sites are charging a premium.

My first impressions of this new iteration of Microsoft's two-year-old game console are generally positive--particularly with regard to the dramatically improved integration of the optional Xbox 360 HD DVD Player, and the improved image quality offered by HDMI (the differences are there, albeit not as striking as one might expect). For photos of the Xbox 360 Elite and its components, see our slide show.

Basic Black

The Xbox 360 Elite differs from the current Xbox 360 in ways beyond cosmetic finish. Black, however, really can be slimming--even in the context of an inanimate game console. The matte-black Xbox 360 Elite manages to look more svelte than its off-white predecessor.

Looks aren't everything, though. While I can appreciate that the Xbox 360 Elite will blend in better with the rest of my entertainment components, I'm more interested in the unit's bolstered specs and what those new features will let me do. I was also interested to see how the unit handled--especially with regard to high-definition movie playback.

A Mostly Breezy Setup

Initial setup of the Xbox 360 Elite is a snap: You just select the language and then either establish your Xbox Live account or relink to an existing one.

At this point, you can select the High Definition Settings option for choosing optimal audio and video settings for high definition. The console's screen prominently displays this option, and I applaud this design decision, since many users will use the Xbox 360 Elite in conjunction with a high-definition TV. But when I actually chose this option, it moved me directly into the display settings of the Console Settings panel; audio was just one of many console settings I could adjust below that. I had expected to go to a menu that unified the process of adjusting audio and video for high-def.

The menu showed my current, default setting for the display--1080i wide-screen--so I drilled two levels farther down to select the HDTV setting; there, I chose 1080p, to match the resolution of the Pioneer Elite Pro FHD-1 50-inch plasma display I was using. The menu also has an option for selecting screen format; but on the unit I tested, that option was grayed out.

I then returned to the audio settings, to select the digital output. The default setting here was for Dolby Digital 5.1; alternatively, you can choose digital stereo, or Dolby Digital with WMA Pro. The on-screen display warns you that digital audio output is available only through an Xbox 360 Component HD, Advanced SCART, S-Video, or VGA HD AV cable.

Strangely, the menu doesn't mention the HDMI AV cable, which comes bundled with the Xbox 360 Elite. Nor does the unit's setup discuss what kind of audio you can expect to receive over HDMI. (I'm awaiting confirmation from Microsoft of what audio the Elite can support over HDMI. I would be disappointed if it's limited to the specs stated within the menu options--especially considering that many HD DVD movie titles have shipped with multichannel Dolby TrueHD or Dolby Digital Plus audio tracks.)

Specs Boost

On paper, the new Xbox 360 has several advantages over its predecessor. Hard-drive capacity leaps from 20GB to 120GB--a huge benefit if you plan to use the Xbox to download lots of movie and music files via Xbox Live. And the unit now has an HDMI 1.2 interface; HDMI provides the optimal interconnection for high-definition video playback, and it delivers better image quality (at up to 1080p resolution) than can component video (limited to 1080i output on the Xbox 360) or VGA (at 1080p).

The system ships with a matching black wireless controller, which Microsoft rates as having a 30-foot range, and a plethora of included cables: the aforementioned HDMI AV cable; a Component HD AV cable with component, S-Video, and composite audio inputs; an audio adapter for composite audio and optical audio inputs; a headset; and an ethernet cable.

To transfer content from your current Xbox to the Xbox 360 Elite, you'll need a Hard Drive Transfer Cable. Also missing from the box's bundled contents is a remote control. You'll have to buy one separately ($20); or rely on the one included with the $200 Xbox HD DVD Player add-on.