Digital Media Adapters Part 7 – Xbox 360 “Slimline”

So far I have looked at the Apple TVGoogle TVBoxee BoxWD TV Live HubRoku XD S and now I will look at the Xbox 360. The original Xbox was introduced in 2001 and the Xbox 360 in 2005. For this analysis, I used what is known as the Xbox 360 S for “slimline”, which became available in 2010. The Xbox 360 uses “Xenos” graphics from AMD, optimized for the game console. Many see the Xbox 360 as the best console out there, but the question is, how does it do as an entertainment DMA?

Video Content

The Xbox 360 can view video in many different ways, including buying and renting movies, TV shows and music videos. Those can be streamed or downloaded using the Video Marketplace and I could choose from 480p SD or 1080p HD resolutions, so there isn’t any question of what you are actually buying. When you buy movies from Zune, you get the rights to stream and download to the PC, Zune Player, and Windows Phone 7.

Zune TV and movies looked great. I was very impressed with the compelling backgrounds even while browsing for movies… a really immersive experience. This is very distinguished versus the other DMAs I used.

With an Xbox Live Gold account at $59.99 per year, I got ESPN and Netflix. My cable company, Time Warner, doesn’t support pass through ESPN3, so I don’t get access to live sports. ESPN clips looked really good and the experience with avatars and multiple “windows” was, again, immersive. Netflix looked the best I had seen on any of the DMAs I have tested so far.

I also streamed video from other sources, including networked Windows PCs via DLNA, Windows PC via Media Center, and external USB storage. The Xbox 360 handled UPnP and DLNA quite well and very fast, too. I had some CODEC issues streaming without Media Center; like a lack of audio playing back iPhone 4 video. When I pulled the same content from Media Center, the video would playback. I can only assume that my Media Center PC was recoding the video into a format the Xbox recognized.

The Xbox also comes with an integrated DVD player to play standard DVD movies.

Audio Content

The Xbox provided music in a few different ways. First, I could stream music via Last.fm and it looked absolutely fantastic on the display. Cover art was blended with iconography that redefined the music experience and turned it into a video show.

Users can also purchase a Zune Pass for one year at $149. This gets you one year of unlimited music downloads to PC, Xbox, and Windows Phone 7, and 10 songs per month to keep forever, even if you cancel. Like Last.fm, Zune Pass music also had these beautiful and artistic backgrounds.

Like video, Xbox 360 played audio from networked Windows PCs via DLNA, Windows PC via Media Center, and local USB storage. I recommend doing it over Media Center as the Xbox 360 interface is attractive, fast, and pulls over all of the cover art.

Photo Content

Unfortunately, there is no service to pull in pictures from Flickr or Picasa like all of the other DMAs. BUT, it DID provide iPhone and digital camera connectivity via one of its five USB ports.

The other way to see your pictures is similar to music and videos, via networked PC, Media Center or USB storage. I recommend doing it through Media Center because it is fast and looks great.

Game Content

As you would expect in gaming, the Xbox 360 rules infinitely over all the other DMAs I’ve tested. There are 2,732 games as of January 23, 2011. This includes some of the most popular game titles ever, including titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops, which Activision announced had grossed over $1B in less than two months.

Games can be purchased and demoed through the Games Marketplace.

Also, gamers can chat through audio or text while playing each other by purchasing one of numerous accessories.

Communications and Social Media

The Xbox 360 has many different ways to communicate with each other. Users can use text-chat using the optionalChatpad on Facebook and Twitter.

Users can also voice chat over Xbox Live using an optional wireless or wired headset.

Video chat (Video Kinect) is enabled with the optional Kinect peripheral and an Xbox Live subscription.

Networking

Like the other DMAs, the Xbox 360 S provides hard-line Ethernet and built-in WiFi “n”.

Home Connectivity

The Xbox 360 fit into my home environment better than anything I have tested so far. The UPnP and DLNA capabilities gave access to all my networked PCs and very reliably and consistently. I didn’t try to max out external content storage, but there are 5 USB ports, more than some PCs. As I outlined above, I could even “play” pictures off of my iPhone 4 and certain digital cameras.

Out of the box, my Xbox 360 S comes standard with composite video support and HDMI-out with the purchase of a standard HDMI cable. Component connections are an optional cable purchase.

Simplicity

The Xbox 360 provides a lot of different usage models spanning from hard core games to videos to music. It isn’t nearly as simple as the Apple TV but I find it much easier than the Google TV. The start page could be intimidating at first, but once you get used to the horizontal user interface, the easier it gets. The Xbox 360 controller gets some getting used to as it’s unlike any other living room controller around.

Using the Kinect controller, I could actually control my media using voice commands and hand gestures. This IS the way of the future for all consoles and TVs and I am amazed how usable Microsoft made this feature.

The Xbox 360 is by far the largest DMA I had ever tested, but then again it does a whole lot more than others. It was also the loudest, but given its spinning DVD drive and hard drive, it makes sense. It wasn’t distracting however. I have owned two previous Xbox units and the noise suppression work on the Xbox 360 S was nothing short of amazing.

Price

The range of price really depends on how you want to use your Xbox. If media streaming is your primary usage model, I recommend the $199 for a 4GB model. If your main usage model is media purchase and download, I would recommend the 250GB model at $299. The more storage, the more music and movies you can buy and download. This makes you less reliant on immediate network speed. There are bundles of the 4GB and 250GB models with Kinect, a savings of about $50. Services on the Xbox are pricey, particularly if you want to get Netflix and streaming audio over Last.fm. Those require an Xbox LIVE Gold membership for an additional $5 per month. A Gold membership also gets you unlimited downloads of game demos.

Conclusion

Using the Xbox 360 S as a living room media device was like watching a big-budget Hollywood movie, while many of the other DMAs were Indie films. Every transition and visual, whether it was for video, music, or games, felt produced and exciting which really separated it from other devices. At $199 for the entry model plus $5 per month for a Gold membership, I could strongly recommend the Xbox 360 S to anyone I knew except perhaps for the complete CE newbie and users wedded to Google Picasa and Pandora in their living room.

Next up, I will look at the multi-purpose Windows 7 PC and see how it stacks up as a living room device.