This year marks a dramatic improvement to the Xbox 360 lineup, thanks to the new "S" version of the console, new "S"-styled accessories, and, of course, the exciting new Kinect motion-sensor add-on. If you've been putting off a video game console purchase, you're about to be rewarded with the best-ever set of choices. But even if you're an existing Xbox 360 owner, now is the time to upgrade, thanks to the quiet new Xbox 360 S consoles. Here's what's available this holiday season.
Xbox 360 S model comparison
Microsoft completely overhauled its Xbox 360 console in 2010, replacing the buggy and loud original generation console with the new "S" models. These new Xbox 360 consoles resemble their predecessors from a form factor perspective, but they feature black fascias, a smaller size, quieter operation, capacitive touch controls, and other changes. (See my review of the Xbox 360 S console for more information.)
There are now 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 the noise. Both consoles feature basically the same hardware otherwise, though the 4GB version has a matte finish, while the 250GB version is glossy (and more likely to show fingerprints).
While both consoles feature built-in Wi-Fi (802.11n), a Kinect port, an Xbox 360 composite A/V cable, and an Xbox 360 Wireless Controller, only the 250GB version includes an Xbox 360 Headset. And during the holidays, the 250GB console is sold in a Holiday Bundle that includes two Xbox 360 games: Forza Motorsport 3 and Alan Wake. These all combine to make this version a dramatically better choice than the 4GB console, at least during the holidays.
Kinect and Kinect bundles
While the new consoles are obviously a big deal, the Kinect motion sensor add-on is arguably just as big. (See my review of the Kinect for Xbox 360.) You can purchase Kinect in two ways, as a standalone add-on for existing consoles, or in a bundle with the two new consoles.
In standalone form, the Kinect Sensor retails for $150. 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. (Which is excellent, by the way.)
You can also purchase Kinect and Xbox 360 together in two different bundles. The Xbox 360 4GB Console with Kinect ($300) combines the sensor with the low-end console and saves $50 over purchasing both separately. The Xbox 360 250GB Console with Kinect ($400) provides the high-end console and offers the same $50 in savings.
If you don't already have a console and want Kinect, I recommend the higher-end version if you can afford it: This will let you install Kinect games to the hard drive, speeding load times, an important consideration because Kinect titles, in particular, seem to suffer from glacial load times currently.
Xbox 360 Limited Edition Halo Reach Bundle
In addition to the Kinect bundles noted above, Microsoft is also temporarily selling a third Xbox 360 bundle, the Xbox 360 Limited Edition Halo Reach Bundle ($400). This unique offering features a special version of the 250GB console that is colored and styled to match the Halo universe, and it comes with two wireless Xbox 360 controllers, a (black) Xbox 360 headset, and of course the game Halo: Reach. Purchased separately, these items would all cost about $410, so it's a reasonable deal, though the styling of this particular console will be a turn on or a turn off, depending on your point of view.
With the release of the Xbox 360 S consoles, Microsoft has revamped and restyled some accessories to match. Here are a few to consider.
Hard drives. Microsoft sells a 250 GB hard drive ($130) for purchasers of the 4GB 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.)
Controllers. With the release of the S console, Microsoft has also released a new, all-black wireless controller ($50; the previous black controller was partially gray). Also available, a new, all-black Xbox 360 Wireless Controller Play and Charge Kit ($65, with charging cable), the unique (and, curiously, all gray) Wireless Controller with Transforming D-Pad and Play and Charge Kit (also $65, and a bit hard to find), a new, all-black wired controller ($40), and some game-oriented controllers too ($60 each).
Headsets. Microsoft bundles a junk wired headset with some consoles, but it also sells the headset separately ($20) along with a wireless headset ($50) that is, sadly, also junk. In-game chatters might also consider the Xbox 360 Chatpad ($30), which clips onto the bottom of any Microsoft controller, providing a full QWERTY keyboard.
A/V cables. In a bid to save money, 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. But Microsoft also sells an Xbox 360 VGA HD AV Cable ($40) for PC-type displays and a Xbox 360 Component HD AV Cable ($40) for HDTVs.
Xbox 360 Hard Drive Transfer Cable. If you're upgrading from one Xbox 360 to a new S console, you'll need this useful tool, which lets you transfer all the data from your old console to the new one. It costs $20, and works quite well.
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 ($60) and 3-month ($25) membership gift cards, which are always appreciated. Also a good option is the Microsoft Points gift card, which comes in 1600 Points ($20) and 4000 Points ($50) variants. These cards let you buy items (like games and software add-ons) from Xbox LIVE Marketplace, or media content from Zune Marketplace.