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Microsoft Xbox 360 High Definition Home Entertainment Console

Part II

May, 2006

Kris Deering

 

Features, Features, and . . .  Yes, More Features

The 360 has so many capabilities that it is almost hard to decide where to start, so let's just go over some of the features in general. The 360 is definitely the first console gaming system that has taken convergence seriously. This is more like an entertainment hub, not a console gaming system. Sure, it represents the pinnacle of console gaming at the moment, but for the coin, you get a lot of REALLY cool multi-media features.

The 360 will tap right into your home network and allow you access to your music collection, photo collection, videos, and more. If you have a Windows Media Center PC in your home, the 360 complements it. With Media Center in the mix, you can view TV, plus store movies and videos. This can basically make the 360 a remote hub for a PC based media server that includes PVR functions, movie storage, and music library management. All of that for less than $400!

You could realistically store your entire DVD library and music library on a media center PC and have full access to it through your 360 in a completely separate room. Unfortunately, I do not have a Media Center PC at this time (on the wish list!), but I am using the 360 to access my entire music collection via my home PC, and it works perfectly. I can tell the 360 to play back any CD or track with just a few clicks, or I can have it just randomly shuffle through my entire music library for those days that I just want some tunes in the background.

If you don't have a home network (shame on you), you can still do the same thing with any portable media device like an iPod or MP3 player. Simply hook it to the console via USB, and tell the 360 that you want to listen to the tracks on the portable device. Very nifty!! I tried this with my Creative Zen Vision M MP3 player, and it worked without a single hiccup.

 

With photos, you can literally set up custom slideshows and have them shown with music that you want for when family or friends come over. That way, your vacation photos can be shown in a particular order on your TV with a soundtrack of your choice. If your 360 has a hard drive, you can even play back video that you store on the drive. This can be done by simply connecting a video device to the USB port and uploading the data.  

The Xbox 360 is also a very capable DVD player and definitely a step up from the consoles I've tested in the past. The original Xbox only supported 480i playback of DVDs, and the MPEG decoding left a lot to be desired. The Sony Playstation 2 eventually offered progressive playback in its later revisions, but its de-interlacing was mediocre at best and could be bested by most of the cheap players on the market.

The 360 supports DVD playback at 480p if you have the HD playback kit (component video connections only; standard with the Premium Kit) and uses a de-interlacing solution that was designed by Microsoft. I had the chance to run the 360 through our intensive Benchmark tests a few months ago, and it did quite well. You can find those results and some comments on DVD playback here. I was a bit bummed that the 360 wouldn't scale images to 720p or 1080i, but since the 360 does not offer a digital video output, this is a limitation imposed by the DVD forum. 

Another great feature that the 360 introduces is the Xbox Live Marketplace. This is completely new and offers an unprecedented number of features to the consumer.

Users can subscribe to Xbox Live at different levels. If you buy the Premium Kit, you get a lifetime Silver membership for free. The Silver level offers you full access to all of the features in the marketplace. Its only limitation is you cannot play online against other players with games. This is reserved for the Gold membership level.

A Gold membership is free for the first month if you buy the premium kit and costs about $50 a year after that. The membership can be purchased on a monthly basis as well if you don't want to spring for the full year or want to kick the tires a bit before you invest in a full year.

With the Live Marketplace, users can download all sorts of things. This includes music videos, HD movie trailers, game previews, fully playable game demos, and even full games!! You can also download skins and artwork to personalize the 360 user interface.  

I really liked the Live Marketplace. I can literally download whole levels of games and try them out for free before I decide to spring the $50+ for the game at the store. I can also check out the latest trailers for upcoming movies in full 720p and 5.1 sound. The Marketplace has a few music videos on it, but most are limited to 480p and stereo sound at the moment.  

Microsoft plans on offering full game downloads very soon with the popular Halo rumored to be the inaugural entry. Price and features still have not been determined, but the idea is pretty cool!  

Another new addition to the Xbox 360 is the Xbox Live Arcade. This is a groundbreaking feature that has to be one of the coolest additions I've ever seen for a game console. The Live Arcade is a place where you can download arcade games onto your console or just download sample levels of the available games. These games aren't quite as large as the normal games you buy at stores, but some of them are really good. There are a lot of familiar games that are popular on the Internet, including Bejeweled and Zuma, plus old classics like Joust and the upcoming Street Fighter 2 Hyper Fighting.

These games can be bought and downloaded for anywhere from about $5 to $15, and download times are pretty quick. My personal favorite is Geometry Wars, which is similar in some respects to the classic Asteroids game. The graphics start out simple, but as more and more bad guys get on the screen, the polygon count gets insane. So don't judge the simple games from their cover, they can get addicting and impressive fast. There are more arcade games in the works, including some old classics like Paperboy, Pac Man and Contra. All of these games support the full HD resolutions of the system and 5.1 sound! This is without a doubt one of the best features of the console so far, with lots more to come.

Click Here to Go to Part III.

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