The new Xbox, hands-on

Last Monday at their E3 press conference, Microsoft dropped…well, not a bombshell, but a really large firecracker, when they made official the long-rumored “Xbox Slim” and said it was shipping to retailers that same day. I snagged one from Best Buy on Friday and have been dinking around with it on and off since. So far I’m pretty happy.

Now I should put me and Xbox in perspective. My old Xbox 360 was a 20 GB model with a manufacture day of September 2006. It’s my third Xbox. My first Xbox (I was one of the lucky few to get a 360 on Day 1) died without having the decency of RRODing, so I had to pay $100 to get it “fixed.” It took several weeks for MS to get my dead one, replace it and get a refurb back to me. I was not a happy camper. My second Xbox died less than a year later, so my repair warranty was still in effect. That time turn-around was much faster, too.

But generally I haven’t been a huge Xbox 360 fan. Besides reliability issues, my old Xboxes were *loud*. If you have a relatively new model you probably can’t imagine how loud the original units were. With my first two units, I could play the Xbox with full headphones (not earbuds) on and still easily hear the turbine whine of the fan over the game sounds being pumped right into my noggin. It was that loud. You had to raise your voice to be heard over it. Seriously.

The third unit, the one I’m replacing, was a bit quieter but still too loud for me ever to watch Netflix or stream music on the 360.

So, low reliability and super noisy. The third problem I had with the original was that 20 gb hard drive. Back when the system launched that sounded like plenty of space, but for the past year or so I’ve felt extremely constrained on disk space. Of the 20 GB about 5 GB is taken up by the OS (or something). Suffice to say that if I wanted to download a new demo, I’d have to go and delete something else, and installing games to disk and Games on Demand were out of the question. The recent addition of USB support did help that some. A 16 GB USB stick pretty much doubled my usable space.

OK enough bitching about the old Xbox, let’s talk about this shiny new black model. The cost is the same as the old Xbox ($300 US) but it does come with built-in WiFi. Not a feature I’ll put to use since my entertainment center has wired internet access, but for a lot of people it’ll be a nice perk. A 250 GB hard drive feels enormous to me. (We’ll see how long that lasts!) When Kinect comes out, the new Xbox has a dedicated port for it that’ll supply power as well as data transfer to Kinect (not that I’m all that interested in Kinect at this point). 2 USB ports on the front, 3 on the back, so plenty of room for expansion.

What’s missing? Well, some of the bulk, for one thing. But this isn’t really an Xbox Slim in the same way that Sony drastically reduced the size of the PS3 with the PS3 Slim. The new Xbox is smaller but not radically smaller. Sites with whiz-bang electro-tools say this new one uses significantly less power than the old one, which is nothing but good news.

One other thing missing that MS is downplaying are ports for the old-style Microsoft Memory Units. If you’re upgrading and have data on one of those, you’ll need to transfer that data to a USB stick on your old Xbox before swapping in the new Xbox. That’s not a big deal unless you get home ready to play and find out about it. USB sticks are dirt cheap these days so just be sure to pick one up when you’re buying your Xbox. Also there’s no HDMI cable in the box, but I think MS stopped supplying those a while ago. They do include a proprietary composite cable; if you need component cables those made for the old 360 will work (thanks to JD at XBoxSupport for confirming this). The new Xbox has a separate optical audio port, thank goodness. For my set up, I used HDMI for video and optical audio (ancient receiver w/no HDMI ports) so I don’t need to use the proprietary cables at all.

One benefit of my tiny 20 GB hard drive is that I didn’t need a MS Transfer Kit to move into the new Xbox; I just used a USB stick. It was a bit slow but otherwise worked like a charm. I couldn’t transfer some saves from original Xbox games; I’m not even sure what the status of backwards compatibility is. Those saves were years old and I won’t miss them.

So now we’ve got this puppy all powered up (and how come swapping 1 component of your home theater always turns into a bigger project of tweaking everything else) what’s the experience like?

Well, it’s an Xbox. There’re no new revelations, really. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. When a disk is spinning, you can definitely hear it. It isn’t really whisper quiet, and in my case the noise, which is a low-frequency hum, really drives me batty. That’s a very personal observation. I’m just bothered by this type of sound; it gives me a headache. Y’know how some people are really bothered by fingernails on a chalkboard? Low-frequency hums do that to me. Angela doesn’t even notice it, and when I pointed it out to her she could hear it but it didn’t really bother her at all. If this kind of noise bothers you, you already know it and should be aware of the issue. If you’re wondering what the heck I’m going on about, just ignore this paragraph. 🙂

So far that’s the extent of the bad news, and with that big fat 250 GB hard drive it isn’t bothering me much, because my intent is to install all my games to the hard drive anyway. That way the Xbox just has to poll the drive to make sure the disk is there and then we’re back to silent running. Because when the drive isn’t spinning, the new Xbox *is* whisper quiet, and that has completely changed the Xbox experience for me. I find myself watching videos and poking around in the dashboard looking for things to watch. I’ll probably start using Netflix on the Xbox more now, just for the pseudo-social aspects of it (in our house we have approximate 523 devices that will stream Netflix…ok I exaggerate, but we have a Roku, 2 PS3s, the Wii, 2 iPads, all the computers plus the Xbox 360, all of which can stream Netflix. Before now the Roku was my #1 source).

Game demos? Load me up. Games on Demand? I’m downloading my first one as I type this. Who knows, I might even dabble in the Zune Marketplace to see how their 1080P content looks (generally I’m an Amazon Video-on-Demand/Roku guy, but that tops out at 720P).

Oh, and it’s worth noting that hardware-geek sites say the new Xbox loads games faster. I don’t really have a way to measure that, so I’ll take their word for it.

All in all, I’m very pleased with the new Xbox 360 so far. My one concern is whether it’ll have any reliability issues; so far I haven’t heard anything negative along those lines (and my guess is that MS went above and beyond the call of duty in insuring they don’t have a repeat of the RROD fiasco).

[UPDATE: Kotaku has a post showing a new Xbox shutting down due to over-heating. This is a good sign (at least in theory): if the system gets too hot it shuts itself down before (hopefully!) any permanent damage is done.]

So should you get one? If you’re like me and have a launch Xbox 360 with a jet turbine for a fan, then I’d say yes, it’s definitely worth it. Otherwise, if you’re considering an upgrade, it’s probably a safe bet that waiting for the fall will get you a better deal; there’s bound to be some kind of Xbox + Game bundles around the holidays, and if you’re interested in Kinect then for sure there’ll be Xbox + Kinect bundles.

Remember at the end of the day it’s still an Xbox 360. Quieter and with a nice big hard drive, but it’s not a radical change. It’s just a nice solid evolution on the Xbox 360 design. For me, I got HDMI, peace and quiet and lots more drive space so I’m very pleased with the unit so far.

6 thoughts on “The new Xbox, hands-on

  1. If you purchase electronics at Costco they extend the warranty to two years for no extra cost. If there is a problem you call up Costco congiere and they facilitate gettig it fixed. I’ll be buying my Xbox (now that it has built in wifi) from them.

  2. Awesome writeup, Pete.

    I borrowed a friend’s launch 360 a few years back to see if I wanted one and yeah, it was waaaay too loud for me. Plus, at the time, there were no games I wanted. I managed to hold out for two years (-ish) and got an Elite with 250GB around the time Mass Effect came out. It’s no noisier than my current desktop machine and since both are hooked up in my office, I’ve not done much with it except play games.

    The new 360 looks pretty interesting, but I don’t think there’s much reason for me to upgrade unless I decide to get a Kinect since there’s less wires to deal with.

  3. Yeah, for sure if you already have the drive space and the HDMI port (if that’s important to you) and you’re comfortable with the noise level, there’s zero reason to upgrade. I think this is MS’s ploy to get some more $$ out of us early adopters. 🙂

  4. Thanks for the review. My current 360 just came back from repair a few months back for a read disc error which is the second time I’ve had one repaired. I’m not sure the problem is fixed because it had trouble reading a brand new disc a week back, but I managed to clear the cache and that seems to have fixed it temporarily.

    But, since I seem to go thru Xbox’s on a regular bases, $200.00 in repairs over the last couple of years, it might be wise to get the new generation since I too am running out of space. (I got the 20 gig version as well.) I’m just trying to figure out if its a wise investment to get on now or to wait to see if there are any serious issues with this new product from Microsoft. If I can wait, I’ll be able to spend my money on a nice Ipod touch. I’ve had my current Ipod for about 4 yrs now and I’m just waiting for it to kick the bucket any day now. Then I’ll just wait till Xmas to pick up the new gen Xbox.

    Its tough. I’ve been to best buy several times since they got released into the wild and I’ve managed to resist temptation.

  5. Also it’s almost a given that there’ll be some kind of Bundles out for Xmas. Definitely a Kinect bundle, but quite possibly bundles with some hot holiday titles thrown in. If you can wait.

    One encouraging thing I’ve seen is that these new Xboxes shut themselves off when they get too hot. Some sites are semi-mocking this behavior, but I’d rather have the thing shut down than break. At least then I know its getting too hot and can better ventilate it.

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