The Xbox 360 Elite is the first hardware revision of Microsoft's multi-million-selling console, a chance for the Xbox team to revisit the classic hardware, add additional high-definition functionality and hopefully address some of the reliability and noise issues.
That being the case, we decided to source an NTSC retail model and put it to the test - the only challenges there being finding an unsold unit, and then having customs and excise sitting on it for a month.
The remit for this hardware test was very straightforward - to put the Elite up to the highest possible scrutiny, to provide accurate quality tests of each of its HD outputs and report on the changes Microsoft has made to the core package, for better or for worse.
So here's the breakdown of our analysis:
There really are very few surprises about the 360 Elite packaging. Colour aside, the basic design of the box, and the contents themselves are pretty much identical to the current Premium Pack. So the basic inventory is essentially:
- The console
- Wireless controller
- HD component cable (SD switchable)
- 4x AA batteries
- 120GB Hard Disk
- Audio dongle
- HDMI cable
Obviously the last three elements are all-new. The 120GB hard disk actually weighs in with 107GB of free space - enough to handle all the Live download content you could possibly want. You still can't transfer over your video files though, so you can't help but think that it's actually a case of overkill in terms of storage potential. It's not as if Europeans are going to be making use of the Live Video Marketplace any time soon, buying TV episodes or 'hiring' HD movies.
The audio dongle supplements HDMI audio by offering a route to a surround sound amp either via dual RCA phonos (stereo) or Toslink optical audio (5.1 surround). It's also useful when using an HDMI-to-DVI cable as there is no provision for audio at all in this scenario otherwise.
The HDMI cable may well be Microsoft grey with a nice little hologram sticker on it, but it's really just a bog standard cable. Still, at least it's actually present...
Build Quality & Noise Levels
Let's not beat about the bush - this may well be a revised model but any actual improvements over the current model are relatively slight. It's the same case, the same monstrous power supply and the same controllers (still complete with dicky d-pad). The only obvious difference, colour aside, is the inclusion of the all-important HDMI output on the rear of the unit.
Internally there's a very slightly refined motherboard with what looks to be a tweaked cooling assembly. Hopefully, this should help with the reliability issues the 360 has had, but we're still suspicious about its effectiveness as the new console doesn't feature the new heatsink being implanted into refurbed 360s. Maybe it'll make it into the final European version of the Elite.
The only other major change under the bonnet is the new HANA video display chip, replacing the old ANA version in the classic 360. This chip has erroneously been described as the silicon that deals with the 360's inbuilt hardware scaling. In truth, Microsoft has now confirmed to us that it's merely a video output chip - a means of transferring the framebuffer into all of the different signals: composite, s-video, RGB SCART, component, VGA and - the key addition with HANA - HDMI. Scaling itself is actually performed by the Xenos GPU (most likely using a variation of Lanczos resizing) so in that respect the Elite performs identically to the original Xbox 360. The presence of HANA confirms that there will be no aftermarket HDMI solution for the current model.
Moving onto the cooling situation and there's no doubt that noise levels are still poor, but marginally improved over the current model. It's difficult to provide a comparison as many retail 360s run at various fan speeds, but put it this way: if you can run Live Arcade games and demos and the fan speed stays low, like a constant whirr, that's what the Elite is like too - maybe a touch quieter in fact. If your fans don't stay quiet in this scenario, expect the Elite to be a revelation. With all 360s, heat dissipation seems to be much improved if your console rests vertically.
The disk drive is still far too loud though. Our test unit has a Hitachi drive that while much quieter than the launch model is still insanely noisy compared to the PlayStation 3 drive, or indeed any modern DVD-ROM. The Philips/BenQ drive is quieter, but not massively so.
In short then - the 360 has evolved, it handles all its new features nicely (but not spectacularly) and it seems as though a little effort has been expended on sorting out its issues. But it's not nearly enough to be honest; it's as though the design has "stopgap" written all over it.
The Xbox 360 Elite dashboard is virtually identical to the Caucasian retail unit's, to the point where even the HDMI settings are handled identically to the existing video outputs. Connect up the unit to an HDTV and you get exactly the same options as you would with component - 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p selections. The same as PlayStation 3, or indeed any other HDMI device.
But hook up a PC monitor using an HDMI-to-DVI cable and the console recognises that it's no longer in HDTV territory, and offers up its full range of VGA resolution options. This is a wonderfully insightful move by Microsoft - not only can you get the console to scale to the exact resolution of most displays, but it also means that even those cheapo Chinese GBP 100 LCD screens can be used as highly effective HD screens. So for those of us who play 360 in the study, bedroom or wherever, are well taken care of. Indeed, it's a shame that the same resolution options are not available when the Elite is connected to an HDTV. Very few displays actually run at native HD resolutions (1024x768 and 1366x768 being the norm) so it's impossible to get the Elite to scale to the exact resolution of the set.
Another aspect of the Elite that I really appreciated was the complete omission of copy protection (HDCP) on the HDMI output. There are hundreds of thousands of perfectly capable DVI monitors out there (including many that can handle native 1080p) that won't work with PlayStation 3 as they don't feature the HDCP decoder chip required to descramble the image.
This is no problem for the Xbox 360 Elite, which only invokes the HDCP encryption when viewing an HD-DVD movie. It's the most logical state of affairs and it's very puzzling why Sony doesn't follow suit. I can only assume that internal Blu-ray playback precludes this from a licensing perspective as I can see no point whatsoever in encrypting gameplay video. This is further substantiated by HDCP being disabled on development PS3s which have no Blu-ray functionality whatsoever.
HDMI 1.2 vs HDMI 1.3
The Elite is an HDMI 1.2 level device, which basically means that it can only transmit lossless sound through the HDMI cable in stereo and is limited to component and 24-bit RGB digital video output. The PlayStation 3 on the other hand is an HDMI 1.3 level device, in theory offering better audio support and compatibility with superior colour depths. We'll come back to this later in the HD-DVD performance part of the test, but suffice to say for gaming, the Elite's support for the older profile is barely worth criticism.
To the best of my knowledge, no PS3 games have yet supported anything other than 24-bit RGB, just like Xbox 360. And while Warhawk supports 7.1 uncompressed LPCM audio over HDMI (something 360 can't do), it's not commonly supported in PS3 games.
Digital Quality Tests
If you have the right equipment, it's relatively straightforward to test the quality of the digital output of the new Xbox 360 Elite. Development 'debug' stations can be interfaced with a PC, and direct dumps of the console's framebuffer (the actual video RAM if you will) are transferred across at the touch of a button. It's how most of the games press take their own screenshots when they can be bothered. So getting a reference quality shot direct from the innards of the 360 is no problem.
Then it's just a case of loading up the same game on the retail 360 Elite, connecting it up to a sufficiently powerful capture system and then getting the same shot. This is extremely straightforward using a Digital Foundry HD direct-to-disk recorder - the only system capable of losslessly grabbing 24-bit colour depth and full HD capture resolution. Just initiate a mammoth video capture, then extract the shot that most closely matches the shot we already have from the debug station's video RAM.
Test #1: Call of Duty 2
I've always had a soft spot for Infinity Ward's classic wartime shooter, and since I already had a couple of framebuffer grabs lurking on my laptop, I set out to replicate them via the digital output of the Elite.
Since the capture unit was in this case digitally calibrated to full-range RGB, I set the reference levels on the 360 Elite to 'Enhanced' and went ahead with the capture. The comparison shot speaks for itself really. Aside from the colour being just a touch out, the HDMI output of the Elite is doing a fine job in pumping out the 360's framebuffer with no loss of detail.
Test #2: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2007
Impressed with the results of the first test, I wondered what could be learned by comparing a 360 framebuffer shot with HDMI grabs from the Elite and the PlayStation 3. Time to boot up Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2007, a game I found to be virtually identical across the two formats in round two of the Eurogamer PS3 vs Xbox 360 face-off.
A quick trip to Hole 18 of St Andrews was enough to confirm that in the digital domain, there really is practically zero difference whatsoever. The Elite's HDMI signal proved to be the match of the 360's framebuffer and once again, you can only tell the difference by looking at the tiny variations in the colour saturation.
It's the same with the PS3 version of the game too - identical resolution, very slight change in the colour.
The Xbox 360 Elite offered up everything I was hoping for in terms of the overall precision of the image over HDMI. It's simply sensational. However, I am surprised a little that the colours aren't completely identical between the video RAM and the HDMI output. Although the 360 offers up three different reference levels for colour, none of them were identical to what was lurking inside the video RAM. The 360 apparently renders everything internally in the component colourspace, so maybe the translation into RGB for output over HDMI is causing this.
But this is monumentally obtuse criticism considering a tiny tweak on your display would resolve the difference - a difference you're not going to notice in all probability any way.
HDMI vs VGA vs Component
Or... "Should I upgrade from my classic 360?"
OK, so the nice black case looks a bit better than the original retail Xbox 360. And that 120GB hard disk is not to be sniffed at. But the $64,000 dollar question boils down to whether the HDMI output of the Elite is sufficiently better than the VGA and component options that the current unit already possesses. In short, is the Elite a worthwhile upgrade if you already have current generation 360?
Microsoft has said time and time again (presumably to counter PS3 hype) that the analogue options on the 360 are more than good enough to match a pure digital output. Indeed, they've been dubbed 'broadcast quality' on more than one occasion by Microsoft's ever-present internet evangelists such as Amir Majidimehr from Microsoft's Consumer Media Technology group, a regular on the AVS Forum
Now, thanks to the option of a digital output, we can finally put that to the test once again thanks to the Digital Foundry HD capture unit, a machine that captures the full quality of any HD signal, be it analogue or digital, component or VGA, DVI or HDMI.
Just like the HDMI quality test, we chose games where we could get exact frames duplicated, so we could capture the same action using all three output options. So that would be a welcome return for Ridge Racer 6's AV Player, a recorded battle from the Halo 3 beta featuring Johnny Minkley and Richard Melville being ruthlessly gunned down like stinking pigs, and a couple of shots from the intros to Shadowrun's training missions.
There's a small degree of difference in the colour levels between all three shots (which may well be down to the capture unit - calibrating analogue is not an exact science) but the important thing to notice is that all the key resolution is maintained in both the analogue (component, VGA) shots and the lossless HDMI output.
Now, the Digital Foundry HD capture machine is extraordinarily precise - far more accurate than any consumer monitor has any need to be. So the real question revolves around how good your display is. Typically, cheaper HDTVs and flat panels work better with digital (converting analogue signals back to digital can be a tricky business), whereas you'll be hard-pressed to notice the difference between component and HDMI on a good screen.
My test screen was a Dell 2405FPW, and while HDMI looked brilliant, there was a tangible loss of quality on VGA and component looked far worse. I'm sure it'll be a different story on many different displays.
So while Microsoft is right to extol the virtues of its component and VGA outputs, the fact is that a digital output cuts out an additional element of processing analogue to digital at the display end and in many cases, this gives a huge quality boost. The only question is, if picture quality is an issue, do you upgrade your Xbox to Elite status, or do you put the cash towards a better display? Much as I prefer the Elite to the original 360, I think I'd sooner have a higher quality display capable of better results from a wider range of sources both analogue and digital.
With the Microsoft add-on HD-DVD player now available for purchase at a mere GBP 99 from certain outlets, the Xbox 360 add-on is surely the cheapest way to get "into" high definition movies without the worry of sinking untold hundreds of Pounds Sterling into a format that may not last the course.
When combined with the classic 360, the drive certainly does a great job - 1080i via component provides an excellent picture, and 1080p over VGA is marginally better still (some shots can be found in our original HD-DVD player test.
The introduction of HDMI adds another 1080p-capable output, and one that works with far more displays than VGA. HDMI also allows for 1080i digital output - something the 'classic' 360 has yet to offer and a signal that in theory offers the optimum quality level that's compatible with all displays featuring the "HD Ready" badge.
As soon as the HD-DVD spins up, HDCP digital copy protection is enabled on the HDMI port, so only the more recent widescreen LCD monitors, and of course HD-ready HDTVs, will work with it.
HDMI Quality Tests
First up is the movie we received bundled with our HD-DVD drive, King Kong. Many months after its release, it's still held aloft by HD-DVD fans as 'reference quality' - a turn of phrase that's meant to suggest that the movie is virtually identical to the quality of the original master.
As you'd expect, the picture is virtually flawless - to the point where the huge resolution combined with the pin-sharp clarity shows up just how artificial much of the CG is in the movie. Check out the screenshot gallery here and spare a quick thought for the aggravation we had in defeating the HDCP copy protection to get these genuine 360 grabs. Also note that as with gaming, the quality is barely a touch better than the VGA output.
Next up is the more controversial Batman Begins. It's an altogether softer movie than Kong, and while it still looks great, it's definitely not the picture quality showcase of Peter Jackson's good-looking but ultimately tedious effort. Check out our Batman Begins 360 HDMI screenshot gallery for more.
While a digital 1080i/p output is a clear advantage, the bottom line is that whether you're comparing HDMI to component or to VGA, once again it's the quality of your display that is far more significant than the 360's output.
What is perhaps of more interest to HD-DVD fans is that the Elite doesn't solve any of the 360's existing HD-DVD audio shortcomings. There is no provision for transmitting undecoded surround sound through the HDMI cable, and all audio is still internally translated into a format the console can output via Toslink SPDIF. Despite this internal conversion having been recently upgraded to support Dolby Digital, DTS and WMA Pro output, it's still some way short of the full-fat uncompressed audio experience. You have to wonder why Microsoft couldn't have added improved audio support to the HDMI output, or just added six or eight phonos on the rear of the unit for direct connection to an amp. I can only conclude that despite its premium price-point, Microsoft doesn't take HD-DVD that seriously.
Therefore, despite its pretensions as a high-end HD device, I can't help but feel that HD-DVD owners are going to feel a little short-changed by opting for an Elite. It's essentially addressing an issue that wasn't a problem in the first place (picture quality) and completely ignoring the key area where the HD-DVD experience disappointed.
I guess I just expected more - Sony is doing everything in its power to make the PS3 the best Blu-ray player money can buy. It's clear that Microsoft doesn't have that same level of commitment to HD-DVD.
I find it quite amazing that there's so much to write about a machine that is essentially a tweaked version of the same console that launched at the tail-end of 2005. It's perhaps because the original 360 was such a flawed classic. It's a system that offers so many essential gaming moments - it's just sad that they're all accompanied by a constant raucous racket from the DVD-ROM drive. Additionally, thanks to the terrible reliability issues and the spectre of the three red lights of doom, you're left with the nagging worry that every gameplay session may well be your last.
So, the first facelifted model to come along is going to face a lot of scrutiny - not just for the additional functionality and options it offers, but to see just how much Microsoft has responded to the criticism of the original unit's shortcomings. And in these respects, the Xbox 360 Elite is something of a Jekyll and Hyde scenario.
Oooh you are awful...
On the one hand, the core issue that most gamers had with the machine has barely been addressed. Yes, the machine is tangibly quieter than the current unit, but it's still loud when running a game from the DVD-ROM. It's also still a lottery as to which drive you'll end up getting, with the BenQ unit being a little less noisy than the Hitachi. However, the notion that there should be any disparity at all between any given system is crazy in the first place. Why not one use one supplier with a quiet drive? The stupidly large power block is unchanged too - another aesthetically hideous aspect of the 360 that I really wanted Microsoft to do something about.
While the 120GB hard disk is a nice addition, I was disappointed that the transfer cable to port across your data was not included in the package. Microsoft should have recognised that their hardcore fanbase are going to want to upgrade and it should have given them all the tools to do so painlessly. Of far more value of course would be the ability to allow users to back-up their stuff onto an external hard disk or flash drive in the first place. The files are encrypted and DRMed up to the eyeballs any way, so what's the problem in storing them remotely?
The jury's also out on reliability. The Elite is a little quieter and hopefully the tweaked cooling solution will help the machines last longer. But the bottom line is that the same components are still pumping out the same amount of heat and historically that has not been good news for reliability. That being the case, we're inclined to ask where the 65nm revision of the PowerPC CPU has got to? It's not in the Elite, that's for sure.
... But I like you
However, on the plus side, I can't help but really like the new console. A lot. I've always admired Microsoft's philosophy of bringing HD gaming to as wide an audience as possible. Every HD-ready plasma and LCD has a component port, but with the 360 launch they went one better and provided VGA support - opening up a whole new range of potential new HD gaming screens for their system, or just freeing up an extra port on well-specified displays.
With the Elite, they've done it again with a brilliant quality digital output that works beautifully on any screen you plug it into, be it a low budget GBP 100 Chinese LCD monitor or a GBP 3,000 Panasonic 1080p plasma. Microsoft has stripped away the copy protection nonsense that plagues PS3's digital output and made exceptional picture quality available to gamers no matter what kind of equipment they use.
In many ways, the HDMI port and the bigger hard disk makes this the machine that the launch unit really should have been. However, I find it hard to recommend the Elite as an upgrade to a current model as all the evidence suggests that pumping the cash into an improved display gets you all the picture quality you could ever want from the current system.
But as I said, it's hard not to like the 360 Elite. Microsoft's 360 offering is simply a great console, and the fact that the Elite is undoubtedly the best version makes it hard to resist.
The Xbox 360 Elite launched in North America in 29th April, and is due for a Europe-wide roll-out in the autumn.