You may have seen Microsoft's first ads for the Holiday 2011 season--I wrote up a somewhat caustic news article about them the other day, if not--one of which involves the Xbox 360 and Kinect. The theme this year is "It's a Great Time to Be a Family," and while applying that to the entire portfolio of Microsoft's consumer products is a bit of stretch, it's fair to say that the company's Xbox product line has reached an interesting point of maturity.
Last year, of course, Microsoft updated the console hardware with the superior line of "S" devices, and while they continue this year largely unchanged, that's a good thing, given the high quality and near silence of these products. (See my review of the Xbox 360 S console for more information.) Continuing over, too, is the record-setting Kinect motion sensor add-on, which I'm a bit less excited about personally. And of course, we'll soon get the first of two major Dashboard software updates that are coming over the next several months, which should positively impact the Xbox 360 user experience for years to come.
Put simply, there's never been a better time to be an Xbox 360 owner, and while one must naturally wonder how long the ride can last, Microsoft's video game console shows no immediate signs of slowing down. Here's what's available this holiday season.
(Parts of this article are based on my 2010 Holiday guide; everything has been updated to reflect changes in existing products and pricing, and the new console bundles.)
Xbox 360 S model comparison
There are two versions of the Xbox 360 S, the Xbox 360 4GB ($199), which features 4 GB of internal, solid-state storage, and the Xbox 360 250GB ($299), which features an internal 250 GB hard drive. The higher-end version will allow you to install games to the hard drive, speeding load times and further reducing noise.
Both versions feature built-in Wi-Fi (802.11n), a Kinect port, an Xbox 360 composite A/V cable, and an Xbox 360 Wireless Controller. The 250GB version adds an Xbox 360 Headset. This year, both the 4GB and 250GB versions feature a matte finish, which is less likely to show fingerprints. I always preferred the matte finish anyway, so this is a win.
Xbox 360 holiday bundles
As with years past, Microsoft this year is offering two special holiday bundles, which pair a console version with a Kinect and some software titles. The first bundle includes the Xbox 360 250 GB, Kinect, the games Kinect Adventures and Carnival Games: Monkey See Monkey Do, plus 3-months of Xbox LIVE Gold ($399). The second bundle includes the Xbox 360 250 GB, the games Fable III and Halo: Reach, plus 3-months of Xbox LIVE Gold ($299).
There are also three previously-announced Xbox 360 consoles, each of which is based around a popular software franchise. The Xbox 360 Limited Edition Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Console includes a MW3-customized console, a 320GB hard drive, two customized controllers, exclusive downloadable avatar items, and a copy of the standard edition Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 game ($399). The Xbox 360 Limited Edition Gears of War 3 Console includes a custom-designed GOW3 version of the console, two custom-designed Xbox 360 wireless controllers, a 320GB hard drive, and a copy of the game Gears of War 3 ($399). Finally, the Xbox 360 Limited Edition Kinect Star Wars Bundle includes a custom-designed console and single controller based on popular Star Wars characters R2-D2 and C-3PO, a 320 GB hard drive, the Kinect, and the Kinect Star Wars and Kinect Adventures games ($449).
Additionally, Microsoft offers a non-holiday bundle called the Special Edition Xbox 360 250GB, which combines the 250 GB version of the console with a Kinect and the game Kinect Adventures ($399).
In standalone form, the Kinect Sensor retails for $149. This package includes the sensor itself, all the cables you need to connect it with any Xbox 360 (including the original generation models), and one game, Kinect Adventures. (See my review of the Kinect for Xbox 360.)
As with years past, Microsoft offers a number of high quality accessories for the Xbox 360.
Hard drives. Microsoft now sells a 320 GB hard drive ($129) for purchasers of either console who are looking for more storage. As with past Xbox 360 hard drives, this is a specially made and formatted accessory that only works with this particular generation of consoles. (Likewise, hard drives for previous Xbox 360s will not work with the S models.) But unlike with previous drives, this one comes with a free game: LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars.
Controllers and remotes. Microsoft now offers a wide range of hand controllers for the Xbox 360 console. These include an all-black wireless controller ($49), an all-black wired controller ($39), an all-black Xbox 360 Wireless Controller Play and Charge Kit ($64, with charging cable), and the unique and preferred (and, curiously, all gray) Wireless Controller with Transforming D-Pad and Play and Charge Kit (also $64). That latter controller is what I use.
There are also a couple of game-based, custom designed controllers, the Modern Warfare 3 Wireless Controller ($59) and the Gears of War 3 Limited Edition Wireless Controller (also $59).
There's also a unique new controller available this year for the first time: The Xbox 360 Wireless Speed Wheel ($59), which provides rumble feedback and motion sensor steering controls.
And let's not forget the new Xbox 360 Media Remote ($19), which provides media playback controls, TV controls, standard Xbox 360 buttons and menu navigation, and a nice, streamlined, S-style design. (It should be available shortly; expect a review here when that happens.)
Headsets. Microsoft bundles a junk wired headset with some consoles, but it also sells the headset separately ($19) along with a wireless headset ($49) that is, sadly, also junk. New this year is a Xbox 360 Wireless Headset with Bluetooth ($59), which I've not reviewed, and a special edition Xbox 360 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Wireless Headset with Bluetooth ($69), that applies the MW3 styling to the former.
In-game chatters might also consider the Xbox 360 Chatpad ($29), which clips onto the bottom of any Microsoft controller, providing a full QWERTY keyboard.
AV cables. In a cheap move, Microsoft bundles the absolutely lowest-end composite cables with its consoles. You'll want better, and the best you can get is an HDMI capable, which is broadly available anywhere, often cheaply. (Microsoft's version is $39, skip it.) Microsoft also sells an Xbox 360 VGA HD AV Cable ($39) for PC-type displays and a Xbox 360 Component HD AV Cable ($39) for HDTVs.
Xbox 360 Hard Drive Transfer Cable. If you're upgrading from an older Xbox 360 to a new console, you'll need this useful tool, which lets you transfer all the data from your old console to the new one. It costs $19, and works quite well. And for 2011, it's even restyled to match the "S" design.
Batteries and chargers. Microsoft sells an Xbox 360 Quick Charge Kit ($29), which lets you recharge up to two wireless controller battery packs at once. (It doesn't come with a battery.) Or you can get the Xbox 360 Play & Charge Kit ($19), which provides a Play & Charge Cable and wireless controller rechargeable battery pack. I use and prefer the former.
Xbox LIVE membership and Microsoft Points cards. If you're looking for a great gift for any Xbox 360 user, consider the gift of Xbox LIVE: Microsoft sells 12-month ($59) and 3-month ($24) membership gift cards, which are always appreciated. Also a good option is the Microsoft Points gift card, which comes in 1600 Points ($19) and 4000 Points ($49) variants. These cards let you buy items (like games and software add-ons) from Xbox LIVE Marketplace, or media content from Zune Marketplace. There's also an Xbox LIVE 12 Month Starter Kit ($74) that bundles a 12 month Xbox LIVE subscription, 400 Microsoft Points, an Xbox 360 Chatpad, and a wired Xbox 360 Headset; if you were going to buy all those things separately, this bundle will save you about $20.