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.

This update of the current Xbox 360 won't make sense for every gamer to upgrade to, but HDMI capability alone makes the Elite a more-appealing option if you're planning on buying your first Xbox. The new console went on sale in the US yesterday, and retails at $480. To buy it online into the UK currently costs around £350-£400, however.

Our 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 HD DVD Player, and the improved image quality offered by HDMI (the differences are there, albeit not as striking as one might expect).

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 we can appreciate that the Xbox 360 Elite will blend in better with the rest of your entertainment components, we're more interested in the unit's bolstered specs and what those new features will let us do. We were also interested to see how the unit handled - especially with regard to high-definition movie playback.

Breezy setup

Initial setup of the Xbox 360 Elite is a snap. Simply choose the language and establish your Xbox Live account or migrate an existing one.

From there, you can select the High Definition Settings option for choosing the optimal audio and video for high definition.

This option is prominently displayed on the console's screen, and we applaud its inclusion since many users will use the Xbox 360 Elite on a high-definition TV. However, choosing this option is a bit disappointing. It deposits you into the Console Settings panel, directly into the display settings. Adio was just one of many console settings we could adjust below that. We'd expected to go to a menu that unified setting the audio and video for high-def.

The menu showed our current, default setting for the display - 1080i wide-screen. We next drilled down two more levels within the menu, so I could select the HDTV setting. We chose 1080p, to match the resolution of the Pioneer Elite Pro FHD-1 50in plasma display we were using. The menu also has an option to select screen format, but on the unit we tested, that option was grayed out.

We then moved back to adjust the audio settings, to select the digital output. The default setting here was for Dolby Digital 5.1; however, you can also choose digital stereo or Dolby Digital with WMA Pro. The onscreen display warns you that you can get only digital audio output through certain connectors - you must use an Xbox 360 Component HD, Advanced SCART, S-Video, or VGA HD AV cable to get digital output.

Strangely, though, the menu doesn't make any mention of the HDMI AV cable, despite the cable coming with the Xbox 360 Elite (that inclusion is a nice touch since the cable could be expensive). That omission also means that the unit's setup makes no mention of what kind of audio you can expect to recieve over HDMI.

(We're awaiting confirmation on what audio the Elite can support over HDMI; if it's limited to the same stated specs as within the menu options, though, that would be a major disappointment - 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 the existing Xbox console. Hard drive capacity has jumped from 20GB to 120GB - a huge benefit if you plan to use the Xbox for lots of movie and music downloads via Xbox Live. The unit also now has an HDMI 1.2 interface; HDMI is the optimal interconnect for high-definition video playback, and can present a better image (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 usable up to a 30ft range. The Xbox 360 Elite also ships with a plethora of included cables: the aforementioned HDMI AV cable; the Component HD AV cable with component, S-Video, and composite audio inputs; an audio adaptor for composite audio and optical audio inputs; a headset; and an ethernet cable.

Trying to transfer content from your current Xbox? You'll have to procure the Hard Drive Transfer Cable (for moving content from your existing 20GB Xbox to the Xbox 360 Elite). Also missing from the box's bundled contents: a remote control. You'll have to buy one separately.

High-def movie playback

We were interested to see how Microsoft handled playing HD DVD movies on the Elite. In our informal hands-on testing of the console with Microsoft's HD DVD Player add-on drive, we could see some notable improvements over its predecessor, specifically in integration and image quality.

The Xbox 360 Elite and the HD DVD drive enjoy vastly tighter integration which, in turn, results in a far more seamless experience than you might have had with the Xbox 360.

Now, you don't even have to install a driver disc for the HD DVD drive - just plug it in, and the Elite recognises the drive. Once connected, if you move down to the open tray graphic on screen, it lets you open the tray for the Xbox 360, or for the HD DVD drive.

We found that HD DVD image quality on the movies we tested over an HDMI connection (and at 1080p resolution) appeared slightly better as compared to the Xbox 360 over component video (at 1080i resolution). Images were noticeably sharper when compared with the Xbox 360's images over component video at 720p resolution.

We noticed that those images were a little bit more crisp, and had a smidgeon more depth and detail in the costumes in The Phantom of the Opera, for example; and a brick wall in Mission Impossible: 3's chapter 7 - which was a problem spot for the Xbox 360 - rendered smoothly. Some colours seemed off, though; at times, I noticed in both of those movies skin tones redder than I would expect, for example.

HDMI and 1080p resolution may make less of an impact on how games appear than it does on how movies appear. This is because many games were created at 720p resolution; by contrast, all HD DVD movies are encoded at 1080p.

While we're not yet convinced that the Xbox 360 Elite would match the image quality of a dedicated HD DVD player, we look forward to doing a side-by-side comparison (as well as to checking out how the Xbox 360 Elite handles upconverting standard-def DVDs).

More important, we don't see anyone buying the Xbox 360 Elite solely for its high-def video playback. Its $480 price tag - not counting the extra $200 or so you'll pay for a HD DVD Player add-on drive - positions the Xbox 360 Elite squarely at the gamer audience. High-def playback over HDMI may be a nice bonus for movie playback, but only if you intend to buy the Xbox 360 Elite for multiple purposes.

Xbox 360 Elite: Specs

  • IBM PowerPC 3.2 GHz
  • 512MB GDDR3 SDRAM
  • 1MB cache
  • 120GB hard disk capacity
  • ATI Xbox 360 256-bit 2D/3D graphics acceleration
  • 10MB Video RAM
  • 1,920x1,080 max resolution
  • anti-aliasing
  • 16-bit surround sound
  • IBM PowerPC 3.2 GHz
  • 512MB GDDR3 SDRAM
  • 1MB cache
  • 120GB hard disk capacity
  • ATI Xbox 360 256-bit 2D/3D graphics acceleration
  • 10MB Video RAM
  • 1,920x1,080 max resolution
  • anti-aliasing
  • 16-bit surround sound

OUR VERDICT

If you haven't jumped on the Xbox bandwagon just yet, but had planned to (Halo 3, anyone?), the Xbox 360 Elite merits your consideration. The inclusion of the 120GB hard drive, HDMI, and full 1080p support may make this console pricey, but it's also a much more attractive option than its predecessor.

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