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Review: Xbox 360 Fantastic, but Literally Very Hot

Microsoft has estimated it will sell three million Xbox 360s in the next three months. It may be right.

Except for a few design issues, we were very impressed with the console and its accessories. We get goose bumps thinking about what games will be like when the power of the 360 is fully unleashed.

For those of you who are trading up from the original Xbox, you'll be happy to know you can play most existing Xbox titles on the 360, including Halo.

Unfortunately, Microsoft includes no instructions on how to transfer saved games from an original Xbox to the 360, and we haven't been able to accomplish that yet either. And you will need new controllers, either wireless or USB-connected.

Under the Hood

The 360's hardware is designed with high-performance gaming and — far more so than the first version — aesthetics in mind.

So, inside a chassis that looks like it was designed with a Apple iBook or iPod very near by, is a processor capable of one teraflop, which is actually three symmetrical IBM cores running at 3.2 GHz each (although rumor has it that none of the launch titles use more than one CPU).

Superior graphics performance is provided by a 500-MHz custom ATI processor and superfast memory: The GPU and CPUs share 512MB of GDDR3 RAM via a unified memory architecture.

Games are supported in high definition with a 16-to-9 aspect ratio, at either 480p, 720p or 1080i, with anti-aliasing as well as standard definition. Audio can be mono, stereo, or Dolby Digital 5.1.

During installation, you can set audio and video preferences easily. The only trick is to remember to put the HDTV/TV switch at the base of the A/V cable on the right setting.

A detachable 20GB hard drive comes with the premium package; it can be used to save music, gamer profiles, and downloads.

The 360 has two slots for add-on 64MB memory units and three USB ports for connecting devices or controllers. Networking is accomplished with an Ethernet port; an 802.11a/b/g adapter is available ($100 street).

In our installation, the 360 correctly identified that the Ethernet cable was connected to an Xbox wireless gaming adapter, read the settings from it and effortlessly connected to our wireless network. Wireless gaming is built in and can accommodate up to four wireless controllers, which are sold separately for $50 each; one comes with the premium package.

Progressive-scan DVD playback is standard, and there's a small media-control remote that's currently shipping with the premium package. A full-size and universal remote is available for $30. The premium package also includes a headset for use with Xbox Live.

The wireless controller is well designed and solidly constructed. It fits comfortably in the hand, doesn't weigh too much, and is well balanced. The controls were precise and responsive in each of the games played. The controller takes two double-A batteries (included).

In choosing a physical location for your Xbox 360, you have to take a few things into consideration. It can be placed flat or on its side, but the unit throws a tremendous amount of heat from the back panel, so make sure you provide adequate ventilation.

The enormous transformer (8.5 by 3 by 2.5 inches) is roughly one-fourth the size of the console itself. We wonder why the Xbox 360, though smaller than the original Xbox, is still so big, if the power supply is outside the machine. Who has room for yet another big, bulky console from Microsoft in their entertainment center?

But How Does It Play?

Physical design shortcomings aside, playing Xbox 360 games is a transcendent experience. The graphics and audio quality of the launch titles we've seen is astounding. The only negative is that load times haven't been improved over those of existing consoles, but they may improve as developers learn more about coding for the 360.

The games we've played so far are impressive in every aspect. Project Gotham Racing 3 is simply beautiful, and the details are remarkable; each engine sounds unique, so you can hear a car behind you and identify it before it passes you. The New York City skyline when viewed from the Brooklyn Bridge is exceptionally detailed. And Ridge Racer 6 hits the nail on the head for an arcade-style racing game.

The animations and game-play mechanics in Kameo: Elements of Power are so smooth that the main character looks almost alive. Activision's Gun looks beautiful; when our character was riding a horse along a ridge and watching the sun setting across a valley, we were captivated and paused to reflect on the insane number of polygons involved in the moment.

Among shooters, Quake 4 is every bit as frightening and thrilling as the PC version, and Call of Duty 2 swept us off our feet and into the insanity of World War II ground combat. For sports titles, NBA Live is so detailed that players sweat and their eyes move to watch the ball. In NHL 2K6, the texture and reflectivity of the ice are a work of art. The crime drama Condemned: Criminal Origins is highly successful at setting the mood of a survival horror game with its excellent audio and video.

All in all, the Xbox 360 is a fantastic gaming platform, despite its still-too-big, heat-generating design. The launch titles are fantastic — and developers are only getting started.

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.