Xbox 360 60GB First Impressions and Photo Gallery

I have been an unabashed fan of the Xbox 360 since my first introduction to the console in early 2005 (see my Inside Xbox 360 articles for details). It has transformed the way I game, and I've been a heavy video gamer for virtually my entire life, having most recently worked through a succession of mostly first-person shooters on the PC over the previous decade.

But the Xbox 360 isn't without its faults. Virtually every unit I've had through my home has failed, for whatever reason, bringing up the dreaded "red ring of death" and necessitating a nervous phone call to Microsoft. The software giant's $1.1 billion warranty troubles this past year have led to a sort of don't-ask-don't-tell policy when it comes to fixing the console, so we're pretty much at the point where any Xbox 360 can be fixed for free. But the reliability issues are disconcerting, and troubling. And it's getting to the point where I wonder if we'll ever be able to trust the long-term reliability of this thing.

The Xbox 360 is also loud. I'm talking obnoxiously loud, maybe dangerously loud, as the console grinds its way through whatever heat issues are caused by too much electronics being jammed in too small of an enclosure. The DVD drive, too, has been the source of many noise-related complaints. It rattles and hums like a tank, rendering DVD movie watching on the device a painful experience.

To address all of these issues, Microsoft has made many internal modifications to the Xbox 360 console over the years. Last year, the company shipped an Xbox 360 Elite model (see my photo gallery) that brought some important and notable changes to the console for the first time, adding an HDMI port, a 120 GB hard drive, and slightly more efficient CPU cooling. Microsoft downplayed these changes, noting that it has subtly revised the console over time to address cost and reliability. But the Elite seemed to mark the beginning of a more reliable Xbox 360 generation.

This month, Microsoft replaced the mid-line Xbox 360 model, simply called the Xbox 360 (though often referred to incorrectly as the "Pro" model), for the second time. Since late 2005, this mainstream and best-selling version of the Xbox 360 had trudged along largely unchanged save for the addition of HDMI output in late 2007. Now, the new version of this console adds a 60 GB hard drive (replacing the 20 GB version that had always graced previous versions). It doesn't offer any other major changes per se, but it does benefit from the years of minor improvements that Microsoft has had to this console. On the inside, there's a more efficient heat sink on the unit's graphics processing unit (GPU), a change that had begun appearing earlier on repaired 360 units. And Microsoft has replaced the bottom-mounted memory chips from all previous Xbox 360 consoles with denser memory chips that appear only on one side of the motherboard, reducing heat output a bit.

Looking ahead, Microsoft plans to one day ship next generation Xbox 360 consoles that include far more revolutionary changes to the unit's CPU, GPU, and heating infrastructure. This long-awaited major update is much debated in the Xbox 360 community, but Microsoft has remained largely mute on the subject. Let's just say I expected to see this new Xbox 360 console before now, and my best guestimate is that we'll never see it before this year's holiday season. So the new 60 GB version of the Xbox 360 "Pro" console is pretty much it for revisions for the time being. It represents the current Xbox 360 state of the art, such as it is.

Previous to this unit, my most recent Xbox 360 was an Arcade console that was purchased in December 2006. Or at least I think it is: I had two other Xbox 360s (both "Pro" consoles") replaced/repaired last year as well, so these devices potentially have more recent innards. One thing they all have in common--aside from the lack of an HDMI port--is that they're incredibly loud. Too loud, in fact, to be used as living room digital media set top boxes. And I've written as much, in various articles, including a recent multi-part series about Windows Vista-based Media Center Extenders. But I've heard from several readers that 2008-era Xbox 360s are much quieter than the older consoles. So I grabbed one this week to check out what's changed.

From a first impressions standpoint, its shocking how little has changed. The Xbox 360 out of box experience is literally identical to that of the console from three years ago, with the same exact packaging and virtually identical accessories and documentation. I'm astonished that Microsoft hasn't changed the packaging at all, though my guess is that this is a cost-saving measure: They've already paid for this design once and, let's face it, it's not like the Xbox 360 business is raking in the bucks these days.

The big question of course is, is the new Xbox 360 any quieter? And the answer, for now at least, is an unqualified yes. This is the quietest Xbox 360 I've ever owned, by far, and by a very noticeable amount. It isn't silent in the way that a Nintendo Wii is silent. And it's not quite as near-silent as is the Sony PlayStation. But in just running the console, with no disc in the drive and no game playing, the Xbox 360 hums along very quietly, maybe a hair more noisy than the PS3. Pop a disc in, or boot up the system with a disc in the DVD drive, and a familiar (but slight less noisy than before) racket ensues. I'm not sure why the DVD drive in these consoles is so loud, but it is. It really ruins the experience, especially if you're playing a DVD movie. Naturally, if you're immersed in a game, especially a loud action title, the noise coming off of the console won't be too problematic.

I'll be testing this new 360 to see if the noise levels remain consistent and whether the device is more suitable as a Media Center Extender or digital media receiver than were previous versions of the console. I'll also be updating my Xbox 360/Wii/PS3 comparison chart to address this console revision (and some changes in the other consoles) soon. In the meantime, here are some unboxing shots, which won't be too exciting if you've ever seen an Xbox 360, given how little its changed.

Photos