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Xbox 360 @ E3 2010

Xbox 360 @ E3 2010

Microsoft's presence at the annual E3 video gaming conference this year was quite a bit more impressive than at last year's show, where the software giant showed off a very early (i.e. non-existent) version of "Project Natal," the first Zune/Xbox 360 integration, social networking integration, and a slate of upcoming games, some of which still haven't shipped. This year was different. Very different. And while it all began with a near-final look at Project Natal, now renamed to Kinect ("connect"), I'm personally much more excited to see that Microsoft has finally updated its Xbox 360 console to a new, quieter form factor. So let's look at that first.

New Xbox 360 console

Price: $299
Availability: Now

Rumors have long suggested that Microsoft would replace its existing Xbox 360 console with a slimmer, quieter new model, and that's exactly what Microsoft finally did this week. Confusingly named the Xbox 360 just like the previous version, the new console is black rather than white, and much smaller (by perhaps 30 percent) than the previous versions. Microsoft says the new console is "whisper quiet" and I intend to discover the veracity of that statement as soon as possible. Mine is already on the way.

2010 Xbox 360 Photos
The new Xbox 360 is smaller, thinner, and quieter than previous versions. Will it be more reliable?

Compared to the current Xbox 360, the new version also includes an internal (but removable) 250 GB hard drive (as opposed to an external 120 GB drive) and built-in Wi-Fi N (as opposed to only Ethernet with a Wi-Fi G add-on available; don't worry, Ethernet is available on the new model too). The availability of internal Wi-Fi is a convenience, but it also brings with it an added benefit: Unlike with current solutions, it doesn't tie up a USB port, so there are always three available.

One problem with the new design is that hard drive: It's internal and not compatible with the Xbox 360 hard drive you already own. Today, my son and I regularly swap out the hard drives on our consoles that we can play on each other's machines with our own accounts. This won't be possible in households with both old and new Xbox 360 consoles. If you're upgrading from an old console to the new version, you can of course use Microsoft's hard drive transfer kit to get content from one to the other.

More controversial is the new styling. Where previous Xbox 360 models were understated and elegant looking, like an Apple product, the new version has far more in common, stylistically, with the original Xbox. And it's not just the color. It's more a kiddy race car thing, like when a young guy soups up a Honda with fins and a silly paint job. It's not great looking, to my eyes, but I'll need to see it in person before I can decide. I will say this: If this console is as quiet as Microsoft claims, and doesn't have the reliability issues of its predecessors, I couldn't care less what it looks like.

2010 Xbox 360 Photos
The new styling may turn off some people. You know, like adults.

(For now, at least, Microsoft will continue to sell the old, white Xbox 360 Arcade as its entry level Xbox. I expect that to change in the future.)

One rumor that didn't pan out concerned Microsoft building Kinect into the new console. But given Kinect's release date later this year, it's possible that we'll see a 2011-era Xbox 360 console with built-in Kinect.

I will be reviewing the new Xbox 360 as soon as possible.

Kinect for Xbox 360

Price: Not yet announced
Availability: Beginning November 4, in North America first and then worldwide

Kinect is a hardware add-on for all Xbox 360 consoles--including the new version of the console that's being released this week--that adds motion-sensing capabilities. The final version of the hardware looks a lot like the prototype shown off a year ago. But there's a big difference this year: Now it actually works.

2010 Xbox 360 Photos
Kinect (front) is an add-on for all Xbox 360 consoles.

Correctly seen for what it is--a belated response to the motion-sensing features of the Nintendo Wii--Kinect nonetheless goes quite a bit further than anything on the Wii, making your body, in effect, the controller. (In fact, Microsoft is promoting Kinect as "controller free gaming.") Many of the games that were announced for Kinect will look awfully familiar if you're a Wii fan, up to and including an obvious Wii Mario Kart rip-off. But again, since Kinect is so much more capable, the possibilities are more impressive as well. And for certain classes of games--especially fitness titles, a suddenly hot category--Microsoft could very well have a winner on its hands here.

The biggest difference between the Wii and Kinect--aside from Wii's years-long head start, of course--is that Kinect doesn't require a special controller of any kind. This can be good and bad. For many titles, not being forced to hold something will provide a superior experience. But for many other titles--things like racing games, sports where you would really be holding something in real life, and so on--I'm guessing it's going to be disconcerting. One of the coolest things about Wii Mario Kart, for example, is that you use a little steering wheel to control the on-screen player. With Kinect-based racing games, you instead have to hold your arms out in the air, in the classic 10 and 2 position, and pretend. You look like a moron, sure, but the big issue is that, in this case, the Wii is actually more like the real thing.

But I'm not casting a blind eye to the possibilities. In the demos Microsoft showed off this week at E3, game players can dance, spin around, run in place, jump, swipe in the air at onscreen balls, and so on, using much sophisticated actions than is possible with the Wii. I'm not sure this is a revolution so much as an evolution of what came before. But it's definitely better, and more impressive.

What really puts Kinect over the top, however, are the underlying capabilities of the Xbox 360, the things that already make this a more interesting console than the Wii. The graphics are dramatically better, and when combined with surround sound, can create far more immersive and realistic experiences. And games can take advantage of the unique features of Xbox Live, allowing gamers to invite others into Kinect games so they can compete in real time. And instead of sitting on a coach getting fatter over time, these competitions could actually make gamers healthier. What a concept.

Looking ahead, Kinect is going cast a bigger web than just the Xbox 360. Microsoft will be making the device compatible with the PC sometime in 2011, and will also link Xbox 360-based Kinects with the Windows Live Messenger service so gamers can have real-time conversations with friends on PCs and access the Windows Live-based feeds that update users about their friends and families.

Xbox 360 @ E3 2010
Video Kinect for Xbox 360 at first, with Messenger integration coming next year.

Zune music

Last year, Microsoft debuted its first bit of Zune/Xbox integration with the launch of the Zune videos service on the Xbox 360. I was really looking forward to more of a music experience, since that is, in my opinion, Zune's strongest feature. Well, good news: It's coming this year. Zune music will debut on the Xbox 360 in November, finally providing a way for Zune Pass subscribers to access the 7 million+ songs on Zune Marketplace in a seamless way from the living room.

Xbox 360 @ E3 2010
The new Zune UI on Xbox 360, coming this November.

And as with a coming new Kinect-compatible dashboard, the Zune interface on Xbox will be updated to provide for Kinect-based control, so you can control your music playback with hand gestures and voice. I'm excited to try Zune music even sans Kinect, but Microsoft's new hardware add-on could put it over the top.

Continue to Part 2: Upcoming games...

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