Monday, 19 July 2010

Feature: Hands-On With The Xbox 360 S

On Friday 16th July gamers in the UK were finally graced with the release of the brand new Xbox 360 S; a slimmer, quieter version of the current Elite model 360, with a 250gb hard drive and built-in wireless adaptor. It comes as no surprise that early sales of the machine have been brisk, with many stores opening up on midnight in order to generate further hype for the launch. And by and large it has been largely successful, bar perhaps the odd complaint of having a faulty hard drive, or trouble with the new machine recognising the Data Transfer cable.

Naturally, I took it upon myself to pick up one of these new slim consoles in order to write this in-depth report for IQGamer, in which we’ll be covering the machine’s design, connectivity, build quality, and of course operating noise.

On first impressions, and before holding the unit for the first time, the 360 S appears better in every single way than the old ‘fat’ models that came before – especially compared to my original 20gb launch unit (just about going strong) – although on further inspection it is clear that not all is quite so perfect. But then again, it doesn’t really matter given the massive improvements that have been made in almost ever area with the new machine.

The first thing you’ll notice is that upon initial viewings the packaging is pretty similar to the one that housed the old 360, featuring the same square shape, whilst instead having bottom-opening flap allowing easy access to the contents inside. If you haven’t seen the old box in a while then the new one looks to be the same size, maybe only slightly smaller. However, side-by-side comparisons show a clear inch or two being cut off the sides, whilst being slightly taller overall.

Seeing as the actual console is almost the same size as the old 360 it isn’t at all surprising to see a similarly sized box that keeps it all together. However it does weigh noticeably less than my 20gb Premium when boxed up, although by no means light, simply commanding less strength in order to lug it from the retail store to the bus stop, and then home than the older model.

Inside, the 360 S is packaged similarly to before, except that now the individual compartments for holding the controller and other accessories are better organised allowing for things to be unboxed and boxed up again more easily. Underneath where the actual console sits are four distinct compartments, each housing the different peripherals that come with the machine. The largest one contains the controller and wired headset, whilst the two on either side contain the power cable and composite lead, along with the scart adaptor. At the end of these three compartments is where the power supply lives.

The overall internal layout is much simpler this time around, thus making it easier to pack away the console if need be in the future. Also, two of the sections are clearly marked with small stickers dictating what should occupy these specific spaces just in case you forget. Yet another improvement over the horridly packaged ‘fat’ model 360.

In terms of the actual console, noticeably, Microsoft have gone to town in producing a sleeker, more high-end looking aesthetic for their new Xbox 360 S. The old matt plastic look has been replaced with a smooth, glossy finish that only comes in black. Chrome highlights provide a small contrast between the black contours synonymous with the Xbox 360 Elite; the new power button and both outer edges of the machine benefiting from this touch of class. Round the back the aesthetics again change slightly, instead becoming a combination of the new shiny gloss design with a slight hint of the old matt finish around the various ports.

Annoyingly, this new shiny design as stylish and sexy as it is, is prone to attracting dust and fingerprints which can cover the machine in seconds if you’re not careful. Likewise, the 360 S also scratches really easily. Even using a fine micro fibre cloth regularly used for cleaning the PSP and ‘fat’ PS3 can leave very slight marks. Although these are only visible in certain lighting conditions and from a specific angle, so its not too much of a problem.

The previous inhaled design remains on the ‘S’, although now it is complemented by a new angular focus with sharpish curves leaning inwards on both the front and back of the machine. Initially this looks somewhat strange, especially when resting the machine in its standard horizontal position. However, standing upright it looks incredibly stylish and far more desirable than the old console. This new look and feel is accentuated by the use of touch-sensitive buttons for powering on/off the unit, and for opening and closing the disc tray, which remains a traditional slot loading drive.

Surprisingly, the new 360 S is still rather heavy, more so than I expected, and the overall build quality is superior to the old versions of the console. However there are some parts of the design which feel decidedly cheap to the touch. Like with the plastic casing on both the top and bottom of the machine, which tends to creak as you hold it. The console also feels a touch softer and more flexible too - no doubt made this way to better enable the plastic to constrict and contract as the internal temperature of the machine heats up during use, and cools down after.

Compared to the old 360, the ‘S’ is only slightly smaller in size covering almost the entire length of the original console, though it is slightly shallower as well. For something rumoured, and sometimes officially recognised as the 360 Slim in passing it’s quite disappointing how similar in size to the original it is, especially when you consider that the power supply is still external. Sony, with their Slim PS3 should really be commended on their engineering prowess seeing as both the power supply and hard drive are both built-in, and the machine itself runs a little bit quieter overall.

Despite this, Microsoft’s first entry into redesigning a console midway through its life-cycle has much to offer, and the use of the old-fashioned slot-loading DVD makes shrinking down the internals that much harder. Effectively how much smaller can you make that drive, is the question you should be asking.

Either way the new ‘S’ variant of the 360 hardware looks far more sophisticated, and highly stylized.

In terms of connectivity the new 360 S features the standard two USB ports situated around the front of the machine, under a flap next to the new rectangular shaped controller sync button. The disc tray remains a slot loader like the previous models of the console, although it is much quieter and feel a tad more solidly built. Round the back you have a further three USB ports, along with an Ethernet port, optical output, one HDMI port, multi-AV out, and a special port design solely for powering and interfacing with the Kinect unit.

Like with the Pro and Elite model 360’s, it is still possible to use the HDMI cable with the AV audio adaptor if you require the option of analogue stereo sound from the machine going into a hi-fi system or external amplifier.

The machine also features the use of a semi-built-in hard drive located on the bottom, or right hand side of the unit depending on whether you have it laying flat or standing up. I say semi-built-in as although the HDD is housed inside the 360 itself, it is fully removable and comes locked away in its own plastic casing. As we first revealed here, the HDD is a Hitachi HTS545025B9SA00 1.5Gbps hard drive which connects to the 360 using a standard SATA connector.

Moving on to the controller, and you can see that Microsoft have made similar aesthetic changes in order for it to match the new style of the console. The entire controller, save for the four face buttons and the Guide button have been made uniformly black. The underside of the pad is now finished in glossy black rather than the matt grey of the Elite and Pro models, or the shiny metallic silver of the Core and Premium units. Both the D-Pad and analogue sticks have also gone through a similar change, appearing black instead of dark grey, while the Guide button has given a shiny chrome finish representative of the highlights present on the console.

Other than the look of the controller not much else has changed. The D-Pad does feel slightly more responsive compared to the one that came with the controller with my launch unit, although it doesn’t appear to have full eight-way precision like the on the Japanese Sega Saturn pad. In that respect, playing fighting games using this new D-Pad is still a chore with certain quarter-circle type movements being incredibly fiddly to pull off. At least all four directions actually work this time around, unlike on my launch 360 controller in which parts of the D-Pad have always been largely unresponsive requiring a heavy push in order for the press to be recognised.

Outside of the console and controller both the hated power supply unit, and AV cables have been given a complete makeover, appearing to match the new styling present for the entire range of ‘S’ accessories and hardware.

Styled in black, with a matt finish, the PSU is now much smaller and lighter than before. Curved in its appearance it can finally be considered stylish for the first time, though more importantly it seems to accompany the main hardware pretty well, rather than looking like an eyesore trailing out from behind the 360. The power cable that goes from the PSU to the 360 also slots into the back of the machine almost effortlessly; a stark contrast with the constant wiggling and pushing required to get it coonected with the old non-HDMI models.

The same principles when it comes to styling have been applied to the AV cables, which now have a more angular look to them. They are less rounded compared to the old ones, but still display just enough of the smooth curves to be consistent with both the 360 brand as a whole while matching the new 360 S console.

Sure enough, from a purely design and aesthetics point of view the new 360 S is lovely, but all that isn’t going to count for much if it still sounds like a Jumbo Jet taking off from Heathrow now, is it? And the less we talk about the noise problems of prior versions of the old console the better.

However Microsoft have made waves with this new design, the newly fabbed Valhalla chipset demonstrating some noticeable decreases in operating temperature, and most importantly, noise, especially when inserting a game disc into the system.

Powering on the console for the first time using the touch sensitive button on the front of the unit, you are almost immediately graced with a fairly loud, but smooth ‘bing’ sound coming from the machine. It’s s very welcoming and goes well with the aesthetic style Microsoft have created for the console, and the new sound effects used in the NXE 360 dashboard.

Reassuringly, this is the most noticeable noise to come from the console at start up.

One of the main complaints about previous models of 360 was the high level of operating noise coming from the machine, especially when a disc-based game was inserted into the system. Installing games onto the hard drive partially solved this problem on the old 360, but now this is no longer required for an all-round quieter experience. Claims by Microsoft of the new unit being ‘whisper quiet’ were initially to be taken with a pinch of salt. However, when idling the new 360 is actually barely audible unless turned on in a completely silent room. By contrast my 20gb launch unit can be heard at all times whether or not a disc has been loaded into the system.

Like with my 20gb Premium, installing games into the new 360 S leads to an even quieter gaming experience. When playing a game via a disc however, the fan speed still ramps up on this new model and the familiar electronic humming noise appears, albeit no longer drowning out the sound coming from the TV. Installing the game means that this never happens, with the fan speed sticking at idling levels for the duration of your gaming session.

Installing games then is still the best possible way to experience just what the 360 can deliver, with less noise leading to greater levels of immersion and less in the way of a distraction. But does the new HDD equate to shorter install times and quicker loading compared to standard disc-based approach?

In short, yes and no. You see whilst I found the new 360 S quicker to load up games off the hard drive I also found it slightly slower in installing them in the first place. Right off the bat I can tell you that average install times for the few games that I tested (Alan Wake, Halo 3, VF5, Gears 2, and Resident Evil 5) was about one to two minutes slower than on my 20gb Premium. Loading times however, were either on par or slightly faster, as was the case when trying out Bungie’s Halo 3 on both machines.

This is an interesting find to say the least, but also somewhat confusing as I’m not too sure why it should be happening. Could the size of the hard drive have something to do with it? Or perhaps something to do with cache size and speed. Maybe we shall do a proper investigation into this later on at IQGamer, as our initial results are surprising.

In conclusion, from all my time spent with the new Xbox 360 S I can definitively say that the machine IS what the original 360 console should have been. Even though it isn’t that much smaller – in fact it’s pretty much the same size – it looks a whole lot nicer and runs far quieter than any of the old models. It should also be noted that we shouldn’t be seeing any more of that RROD death problem which plagued most original and Falcon chipset 360’s, not least of all because the rend ring physically doesn’t exist on the new model, but simply due to the reductions in operating temperature and better cooling provided by the 45nm Valhalla revision to the CPU and GPU.

So, in the end the 360 S represents an improvement over the previous design in almost every way, minus perhaps the shiny finish which will certainly see the unsightly disfiguration of many consoles before reaching the end of their natural life-cycle, and shows how much time has been spent consolidating the hardware, and making changes where necessary.

Outside of the sleeker look, quieter operating noise, and built in wi-fi and 250gb hard drive there isn’t much to sound off about, and a much to be content with. Some may complain that the machine isn’t really a ‘slim’ version of the console, but given the technological and financial constraints it is unlikely at this point in time that Microsoft could have done any better. The end result is a highly polished successor to the long running line of original Xbox 360 consoles, and a brief look at the future of the platform.

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