Microsoft Xbox 360 (with HD-DVD drive)
4.4Overall Score
Price (RRP): $900 Manufacturer: Microsoft

Reviewer: Anthony Fordham

Until now, the Xbox 360 – released in Australia back in March 2006 – couldn’t really be compared directly to the PlayStation 3. While it is a next-generation games console with HD output and media centre functionality, it lacked an HD optical drive.

Microsoft has fixed this with the release of the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive. It’s a free-standing unit with its own power supply that connects to the 360 via a USB2.0 cable. Grabbing a full-spec 360 and the HD-DVD drive bumps the price up to $900, which is much closer to the PS3’s $999 RRP.

Now both consoles do all the same things – play games, go online, play music and movies from an external storage device, and now play HD movie discs.

Features

The Xbox 360 is a slightly inelegant but very powerful unit. Its love-it-or-hate-it looks don’t really blend with any AV gear (except a custom 360 speaker set done by Pioneer) but it is a slim and unobtrusive device that you should have no problem hiding in a cupboard. Unfortunately, the power supply is external and brick-sized and a pain to find a space for.

The current top-end unit offers a 20GB hard drive, and basic AV connectivity. There’s no digital video output in the form of HDMI, but there is digital audio via optical to take advantage of surround – 5.1 only though.

Games play via a built-in DVD drive. HD-DVD discs can only be played using the separate drive which you’ll have to find a place for, as well as a second power point.

Naturally the unit plays media from a device connected via one of its three USB2.0 ports, or you can rig it up to your PC using Windows Media Centre functionality – there’s even a Windows button on the included remote.

Performance

The 360 is very much a gaming machine first. Since it’s been in the shelves for just over a year, there’s an impressive array of titles to choose from and the system really does push console graphics to the max. Titles like Gears of War and Oblivion look amazing at 1080i.

And taking a leaf from Sony’s book, Microsoft is supporting custom controllers such as the Guitar Hero II X-Plorer guitar, which helps make the 360 very much a party toy and fun for all, not just the hardcore gamers.

There’s no WiFi networking built-in, but once you connect to a router via an Ethernet cable (or wireless adapter) you’ll be able to take advantage of Xbox Live! widely regarded as the superior online system for consoles. The system tracks your performance and compares you against your friends, and it’s easy to find your friends when they’re online, even if they’re playing a different game.

Media centre performance is fine, although the Blade interface is garish and hardly makes you feel like you’re operating a serious bit of tech instead of a toy. We had no trouble with a variety of devices, including our PC, an external HDD, and an iPod. Naturally, there’s full support for WMA files as well as DivX and the usual audio suspects. HD-DVD playback is excellent. Sweeping pans and heavy motion are smooth and completely jerk-free. Of course, it’s all running at 1080i instead of 1080p so it won’t take full advantage of your fabulous new display.

Directly comparing HD-DVD playback on the 360 to the PS3’s Blu-ray, it’s very difficult to spot the difference, although of course we couldn’t compare the same movie. You do get King Kong free in the box for an immediate hit of HD, which is most welcome.

Conclusion

Compared to the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360 is a much less elegant and more fiddly device. But unlike the PS3, you can choose to get the core functionality and spend as little as $400. There are more games and the online gaming component really is excellent.