Regardless of how you obtain your Xbox 360, the Xbox 360 console itself is, of course, the heart of your Xbox 360 experience. In this section, we'll examine the Xbox 360 hardware and software, and the other related elements most Xbox 360 users will encounter.

Hardware

With one stunning exception, the Xbox 360 hardware is top-notch. From its industry-leading triple-core PowerPC processor, running at an astonishing 3.2 GHz, to its HD-capable ATI video hardware, to its support for multichannel surround sound, the Xbox 360 meets or beats the specifications of next generation game consoles from Sony and Nintendo that may or may not ship as far away as next year.

While the Xbox 360 hardware specifications are impressive (see my technical comparison of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for details), there are a few gaps. Most curiously, Xbox 360 ships with a 12X dual layer DVD drive, which offers a scant 8.5 GB of storage space, maximum, per gaming title. This is a problem because the DVD format is virtually obsolete technology. By comparison, the PlayStation 3 will ship with a DVD-compatible Blu-Ray drive that is capable of at least 25 GB of storage space (for a single layer disc; a dual layer Blu-Ray device can handle a whopping 50 GB).

And though Xbox 360 includes three standard USB ports for device connectivity (two on the front and one on the back), it does not include a multi-format memory card reader, which would have been a nice (and inexpensive) touch. Also, it can support only four wireless controllers, while the PlayStation 2 will allegedly handle up to seven. If you dedicate each of the USB ports on the Xbox 360 to wired controllers, you will have a maximum of seven controllers (four wireless, three wired), an unusual number.

Griping aside, the system itself is solid looking and, as noted previously, surprisingly hefty. The unit is mostly white, with gray and silver trim, and decidedly more beautiful (and, ahem, iPod-like) than the original Xbox. You can rest the unit horizontally on a desk like the Xbox (Figure), or you can stand it up on its side (Figure), though the precarious nature of that stance might necessitate a tight space where it will be immobilized, or the complete absence of children, who could tip that sucker over within minutes if challenged.

If you look at the Xbox 360 in its more typical horizontal mode, you'll see a number of features on its front bezel. First, on the top left, is the optical drive. Below this, from left to right, are the IR interface, two slots for 64 Memory Unit (MU) cards, and a small Connect button, which is used to link wireless controllers to the console (Figure).

In the center right of the console is the power button, which is surrounded by a circular ring of light that is broken up into four sections, or quadrants (Figure). The lights on this circle are used in a variety of ways during usage. When you power on the machine, the entire circle is lit up, and when you eject a disk, the circle of light flash. If no controller is connected, the four lights will periodically flash. And during game play, the lights can react in different ways, depending on the title. To the right of the power button is a latch under which two USB ports hide. These ports can be used for connecting wired controllers or digital devices such as digital cameras and iPods.

Moving to the back of the Xbox 360, there are fewer connectors. On the back left is the large power supply connector. On the far right is the humongous AV connector, an Ethernet jack, a single USB port, and two indented areas to which you can affix the optional wireless adapter (Figure).

On the left side of the Xbox 360 (the side that will be on top when the unit is placed vertically) is the 20 GB external hard drive (Figure), a curious looking clip-on affair that is easily removed if need be (or replaced, I'd imagine, at a later date with a higher capacity version). The hard drive is responsible for a good bit of the Xbox 360's noise output. Like its predecessor, Xbox 360 runs loud, with a very noticeable fan noise. It's no louder than the original Xbox, I guess, and not much louder than the PlayStation 2 (which, curiously, is hard drive-less). But I find the noise troublesome, especially for a device that's supposed to be used in your living room for both games and casual entertainment like watching TV, photo slideshows, and movies. Heck, the fans even run after you turn the unit off. Perhaps we're seeing the end of the line for computer-based devices that feature fan- and heat-sink-based cooling. The next generation could very well be water cooled.

Xbox 360 Controllers

Xbox 360 ships with a single wireless controller (Figure), but you can purchase wired (Figure) and wireless controllers separately, and also grab a handy Play and Charge Kit (see "Accessories," later in this review) to keep your wireless controllers in working order. Microsoft's use of wireless by default is both a first for any console maker and somewhat questionable, given the problems many have had with multiple types of wireless devices in the home.

In my admittedly limited tests over the past week, the Xbox 360 wireless controller worked just fine for the most part, but I did run into occasional issues where a wireless controller would appear to be dead and would not interact with the console. Ejecting the battery clip and then reinserting it usually did the trick. Overall, I've never been a fan of wireless controllers, and my experience with Xbox 360 hasn't convinced me otherwise, yet, though I'll keep trying. Certainly, not having two cables cascading across the room has been nice.

Microsoft says that while you can connect up to four wireless controllers to each console, it has tested scenarios with multiple consoles and over 20 controllers in the same room, and hasn't seen any interference issues. I'm eager to test that, and will, but it will likely be several months before enough of my "Halo Havoc" buddies jump on the Xbox 360 bandwagon and make that test possible. Suffice to say, Microsoft's plug and play approach to mating controllers and consoles will need to be tested in the real world before any conclusions can be reached.

Ergonomically, the controllers (both wired and wireless, as they're functionality identical) are very similar to the S controller that Microsoft first offered in Japan for the original Xbox, and then later made standard elsewhere in the world. Compared to the S controller, the Xbox 360 controller is, well, white and gray instead of black, but appears to be made of identical plastic, offering a similar feel. The Xbox 360 controller is a bit smaller than the S controller and the wired version is considerably thinner, mostly because it does not include the two enormous expansion ports found on the S controller (these were used for a memory unit and the Xbox Live headset) or the battery pack used on the wireless controller. Likewise, the new controllers are noticeably lighter. As with the S controller, rumble capability is built-in for sensory feedback in games.

The button layout on the Xbox 360 controller is similar to that on the S controller but is improved in my opinion. The two control hats, d-pad, and colored A, B, X, and Y buttons are all present and in similar locations. But everything else has changed. Now, a new Xbox Guide button sits in the middle top of the controller, replacing the round (and nonfunctional) Xbox logo on the S controller (Figure). Unlike its predecessor, the Xbox Guide buttons performs a number of useful functions. For example, it can be used to turn on the Xbox 360, and perform various Xbox 360 UI functions, even while in games. Its most interesting feature, however, provides feedback in the form of a ring of colored lights that is divided into four sections, or quadrants. These quadrants light up at various times. For example, in a four-player multiplayer game, each quadrant can represent an individual player, and the respective quadrant will light up when you receive a message from a player.

The Back and Start buttons were moved to either side of the Xbox Guide button, getting them out of the way and prevent inadvertent button presses. Likewise, the white and black buttons from the S controller are missing, replaced by new left (LB) and right (RB) buttons at the top back of the controller. Like the S controller, the new Xbox 360 controller also features both left (LT) and right (RT) trigger buttons as well; these are below the left and right buttons on the back of the controller. This, too, was a smart change: In fast moving games such as Halo and Halo 2, it was too easy to simply forget those buttons were there, because they were hard to reach in the heat of battle. Now, their placement ensures you'll be able to click them easily. Good move.

With the expansion ports missing from the new controller, you might be curious about how the devices that used those ports now connect to the system. Memory Units now plug directly into the Xbox 360 console using a dedicated slot on the console's face. Meanwhile, the huge "puck" that the previous Xbox Live headset required is gone in the new version. Instead, a small MIC-type jack plugs directly into the bottom front of the new controller. Both of these changes were quite wise, and the Xbox 360 controller benefits hugely from the resulting size reduction.

In short, the new controllers are absolutely balanced and a big improvement over the S controller. Amazingly, they work equally well in my huge gorilla hands and in my seven year old son's much smaller mitts. Like so much of the Xbox 360, Microsoft hit a home run with the Xbox 360 controllers.

Media remote control

The Xbox 360 temporarily ships with a small Media remote control, not to be confused with the larger and more full-featured Universal Remote Control (URC) (Figure). The smaller Media remote resembles the love child of a Media Center remote control and the Xbox 360 controller and performs two basic functions. You can use it with Xbox 360's Media Center features (see below), or you can use it to navigate through the Xbox 360's user interface and the Xbox 360 Marketplace (again, see below). That means it can be used to play audio CDs and DVD movies, interface with various portable devices, and do anything else you can do with Xbox 360 outside of the gaming experiences. You can also use its Xbox Guide button to turn on the Xbox 360 from the couch. Actually, that might be its best feature.

Like the Xbox 360 controller, the URC is white and gray and pleasant looking. It has a solid feel in the hand, and offers a decent button layout, though minor differences with the HP Media Center remote I usually use caused a bit of relearning. There is no obvious way to adjust volume with this remote, which is problematic, and of course it doesn't offer a number of buttons found on the nicer URC, including Volume (up and down), TV, Mute, Channel (up and down), Enter, and Clear. Also, the buttons on the Media remote control don't light up when pressed, as do the buttons on the URC.

Headset

The Xbox 360 headset is as flimsy and bare-bones as the Xbox Live headset you could get for the original Xbox, with cheap foam inserts for the ear piece and microphone (Figure). There is a mute switch and volume control on the plug that connects the headset to the controller (wired or wireless).

On to Part 4...