Xbox 360 S Review

The arrival of the new 2010-era Xbox 360, called the Xbox 360 S, caused a major sensation in my household this week. My son, in an unprecedented move that I'm still struggling to comprehend, compulsively unpacked the new console while I was away, and did so in such an excited fashion that he actually ruined the top of the box. This episode triggered a rare dressing down when dad got home, and while I'm considering psychological counseling for the kid as I write this, I guess it's time to move on. And let's face it: The darn thing is exciting.

Why this is so may require a bit of reflection. In the five years since Microsoft first released the Xbox 360, the software giant has lived through--some might say suffered through--an amazing series of highs and lows. The Xbox 360 has established itself as the true gamer's console of choice, with an amazing game title lineup and an online service that seamlessly connects millions of players from around the world each and every day. Since getting the Xbox 360, I've never looked back, and I've spent--wasted, more likely--more hours on this console than I'm comfortable admitting.

[ Read my original 2005 review of the Xbox 360. ]

On the other hand, Microsoft's console has also been an unmitigated disaster from a business standpoint. Developed at a cost of several billion dollars, the Xbox 360 will almost certainly never make money for the company, and it's thought that Microsoft has, to date, actually lost money on each console it has sold. Despite a year-long head-start over the competition, it's currently the number two console with about 45 million units sold, well behind the number one Nintendo Wii, which has sold about 75 million units. More troubling, perhaps, by the time this console generation concludes, the 360 could actually come in dead last, as the Sony PlayStation 3 is rapidly catching up to Microsoft's console, with over 38 million units sold.

But it's so much worse than that. The Xbox 360 has been so unreliable that Microsoft was forced to undergo the most expensive consumer electronics recall in history and extend the console's warranty to essentially cover and all issues. Over the years, Microsoft has tried to correct these issues with its console by subtly modifying the Xbox 360 internally, and its utilized new processor and GPU generations, new component chipsets, new arrangements of fans and heat sinks, and the like. Nothing has worked. I've personally had a whopping nine Xbox 360s through my house over the past five years, and so far 8 of them have failed, one twice.

[ Read about the failure rate of previous Xbox 360 console versions. ]


Despite this, Xbox 360 owners retain a love-hate relationship with their consoles is, a fact that is probably not completely understandable to those on the outside looking in. But we're addicted, frankly. Addicted to the great games, the seamless connectivity, and the amazing interactive experiences. The Xbox 360 may never make money for Microsoft, but it doesn't have to: This is the software giant's most prolific push into the living room, and a natural tie-in to the other cloud based services Microsoft offers, especially the digital media-related Zune services. And those who own the Xbox 360 generally love the console, and simply put up with the balky reliability.

For 2010, Microsoft has for the first time completely revamped the Xbox 360 and released an all-new version of the console, the Xbox 360 S. Reliability remains an open question, one that won't be answered for months or years down the road. But even with just a few days of experience, I can firmly state that this new Xbox 360 is the best one yet. It's quieter, sleeker, smaller, and more power efficient than any of its predecessors. It's also more attractive, despite my initial concerns about the kiddy-racer styling, and more comfortable in a living room alongside other similar consumer electronics products. Microsoft claims that this is "the Xbox 360 you've been asking for," and while I'm not comfortable just regurgitating marketing mumbo jumbo, there's some truth to this. Here's what's changed.

New form factor

While the basic Xbox 360 S form factor is unchanged from its predecessors, you'll immediately notice the differences. Yes, it's black, but then so was the Xbox 360 Elite. What makes this one difference is the size--its about 17 percent smaller than all previous 360 consoles--and the look and feel. Where previous Xbox 360s featured a matte finish, the new S model is all sleek and glossy, and as a result it picks up fingerprints as fast as any Apple product. Even the power brick is smaller--much smaller--than that of its predecessor.

2010 Xbox 360 Unboxing

Gone, too, is most of the accent styling. While previous generation Xbox 360s (and Xbox 360 hand controllers) featured a second color on accent pieces, there is no accent color on the Xbox 360: It's all a glossy jet-black, and that includes even the bundled wireless hand controller.

2010 Xbox 360 Photos

Some changes are more subtle. The power button and optical drive eject button are now capacitive touch and not mechanical, which takes some getting used to. In fact, you can tap near the eject button and mistakenly open the optical drive tray, which could be annoying if you're not careful. Each of these button presses is accompanied by a charming little "ding" sound that, too, is new to this console.

Speaking of the power button, the Xbox 360 "ring" still displays which controllers are connected, as before, but no longer displays a series of red bars if something goes wrong. That means that Xbox 360 S owners won't ever suffer from the dreaded "Red Ring of Death," or at least they won't know it as easily as before.

Overall, the new Xbox 360 S is attractive and clean-lined, much more so than is obvious from pictures. And when you stand this console next to its predecessors, you get a feeling for how much smaller it is than older 360s. It's a nice update.

Port changes

There are some important port changes with the Xbox 360 S. On the front of the previous consoles, there was an optical drive, an IR port, two Memory Unit (MU) card slots, a connect button (for tying a controller to the console), and a small door, behind which were two USB ports. On the back was a third USB port (which could be used up if you added an external wireless adapter, sold separately), an Ethernet port, an AV port (and, on newer models, an HDMI port), and the power cable port.

The S console drops support for MU. But Microsoft is overcompensating for this by bumping up the number of USB ports to five (two on the front, three on the back), and since Wi-Fi N is built in, you'll never need to waste one. And thanks to a software update from last year, Xbox 360 users can now use standard USB memory keys as portable storage.

[ Learn more about the Xbox 360's support of USB storage. ]

The S features a different power cable port, a dedicated S/PDIF port, A/V and HDMI as before, and a somewhat mysterious new "AUX" port that I'm told is for a direct connection to the upcoming Kinect add-on. And here's one other nicety for S owners: Unlike with previous generation consoles, the Kinect won't need a separate power cable connection when used in conjunction with the Xbox 360 S, thanks to the addition of this new port.

2010 Xbox 360 Unboxing

Finally, the Connect button has been moved from the center of the console over to the front door which, as before, hides two USB ports.

Hard drive

Over the years, Microsoft has steadily increased the size of the hard drive it bundles with its mid-level and high-end consoles. (The low-end consoles shipped sans hard drive.) This started with the very first Xbox 360, which came originally with a 20 GB hard drive, and was replaced, in subsequent generations by 60 GB and then 120 GB hard drives.

The new Xbox 360 S comes with a 250 GB hard drive, just like the previous generation Elite console. However, unlike all previous Xbox 360s, the S utilizes a (proprietary?) SATA-style hard drive, one that isn't placed in a weird, custom shell. This has good and bad implications. On the good front, you should be able to more easily and cheaply upgrade to a larger hard drive in the future, and because the Xbox 360 S hard drive is connected internally, via a neat pop-off lid in its base, it's not protruding from the top of the unit as before.

2010 Xbox 360 Unboxing

But this new hard drive type also means that you can't mix and match hard drives between consoles, so my son can't pop off his hard drive and use my console as he could before. And if you are upgrading from an older console to the Xbox 360 S, you'll need to purchase a separate $15 hard drive transfer kit (which was true before as well).

Optical drive

Previous generation Xbox 360 consoles shipped with a 12X DVD drive, and aside from the capacitive touch eject button on the new console, I can't tell if there's any difference here. It's still tray loaded, and appears to look and work just like its predecessors.

2010 Xbox 360 Unboxing

Wi-Fi

I was as much a doubter of Wi-Fi for intensive online gaming as I was, originally, of wireless controllers, and the Xbox 360 has made me a believer in both cases. Even the previous generation Wi-Fi G (802.11g) add-on adapter worked just fine, and by bundling in an even faster and more reliable Wi-Fi N adapter, Microsoft has pretty much erased any concerns one could have about this type of connection. And of course the internal adapter means you won't have to waste a USB port if you want to go wireless. It's a win-win.

Accessories in the box

The Xbox 360 S comes with a (new) black controller, a black headset, and a rudimentary AV cable with composite connections. There is some very basic documentation as well, nothing like the nice packet of documentation that came with previous versions.

Noise, heat, and power consumption

Microsoft claims that the Xbox 360 S is "whisper quiet." This is a bit of an exaggeration. The Xbox 360 lets off a steady humming sound, reminiscent of the PlayStation 3. But this sound isn't horrible. In fact, depending on the conditions, it's either acceptably quiet (such as when you are browsing around in the Dashboard UI) or not quite as loud as its predecessors (when you're playing a graphically-rich game). And that is actually a huge improvement: One of the big knocks against the Xbox 360 is that it has historically been too loud to use in a home theater set up, because the noise of the fans and optical drive would get in the way of enjoy movies, music, or other media. This is no longer a problem: The Xbox 360 S is, I think, acceptably quiet for the living room.

Some may be alarmed that the Xbox 360 S throws off a lot of heat, via a new rectangular grill on the top of the unit. This is understandable--it gets almost too hot to touch, actually--but is actually in line with the heat thrown off by other devices, including the Apple TV (which is actually a bit hotter than the 360 even when it's just sitting there idle) and any typical plasma television. The key here, as always, is to provide good ventilation and make sure that grill is open to the air. I've placed my Xbox 360 S in the stereo component cabinet in the wall, replacing a WD TV, Roku Netflix box, and DVD player (because the console can perform the duties of all three) and will monitor its sound output and reliability over time.

One benefit of the Xbox 360's new internal design--in which the CPU, GPU and eDRAM have been combined into a single, more efficient chip, while the overall number of components has been reduced dramatically--is vastly reduced power consumption. At idle, the Xbox 360 S consumes just 70 watts, down from 94 watts in the previous generation console and 156 watts in the original Xbox 360.

The big question: Reliability

Reliability is, of course, the big question going forward. Will the Xbox 360 S reverse the reliability issues that made previous versions of the console an accident waiting to happen? I hope so, but of course have no evidence one way or the other. What we need, simply, is time, time to use the console as we have previous versions, and see how it fares. I'm crossing my fingers. But I've been burned too many times to get too optimistic.

Final thoughts

I'll provide an update if and when anything does go wrong with the Xbox 360 S and of course I'm looking forward to future software updates, including the new dashboard, the updated Zune software, and the Kinect stuff. Overall, it's turning into a great year for the Xbox 360, and if this console proves anything, it's that Microsoft's five-year-old product still has plenty of life left in it. (To put this life cycle in perspective, the original Xbox was supplanted by the Xbox 360 in just four years.) This is astonishing when you consider how quickly the technology industry changes in general. But when you fire up newer games, like Modern Warfare 2, or see demos of upcoming titles like Gears of War 3 or Rage, it's hard not to imagine enjoying this console for years to come. Hopefully, the Xbox 360 S will provide a solid foundation for this future, one that is more reliable than its predecessors. Already, it's better looking, quieter, less power hungry, and more capable. That's a fine start.

As for my son, I need to think of a suitable punishment. Maybe I'll make him use the Wii.