Diet Xbox: A Look at the New Xbox 360 S

By Tom Banks

Last month at E3 Microsoft managed to pull off something which is getting harder and harder to do in the industry - they managed to surprise people with a new console design. Sure, there had been rumours and the day before an advert was leaked showing the new console, but many believed the advert to be a fake, and no-one expected the new console to be hitting U.S. shelves by the end of that week. Sadly for us in the UK and Europe we have had to wait a little longer than our brothers across the pond, but finally the new Xbox 360 has arrived here.

Before I go into the details of the new console I'll take us all the way back to December 2005. The Xbox 360 had just been launched in Europe, supplies were slim and the PS3 was nowhere to be seen. If anyone wanted a "next-gen" console it would have to be an Xbox 360, which would have been fine if it wasn't out of stock everywhere. I ended up with a Core model; it no hard-drive and no chrome DVD drive, but it was awesome. I purchased a wireless dongle, thinking nothing of it at the time as no consoles had the option for wireless before, let alone having it built-in and included in the cost of the console (oh, PS3 and Wii, how you changed things). It wasn't until a year later that I started to realise that the Xbox 360 wasn't what everyone had hoped. Towards the end of 2006 I noticed that there were quite a few people complaining about hardware failures. I thought nothing of it until November when I put in my shiny new copy of Gears Of War into my console... and it died. The now infamous RROD (Red Ring Of Death, named after the ring of red lights on the front of the console people saw when their console had a problem) had struck. My console was repaired under warranty and I got a replacement back after 3 months (massive mix-up at Microsoft on that one) and life went on (unlike vast numbers of launch Xbox 360s - which were failing all over the place). Microsoft had realised the error in their design was the consoles were getting too hot - and so they went through several internal re-designs of the Xbox 360 - first was a better cooler bolted down with a back plate to keep the chips cooler and help prevent the motherboard warping (bending). That didn't really fix the problem. Next they gave the chips a die-shrink (using a smaller manufacturing process - this lowers power consumption, size and heat output). That didn't work either, not fully anyway. Finally another die-shrink on the processor and graphics chip seemed to fix the issue. Microsoft was left heavily out-of-pocket after extending everyone's warranties and even worse than that the Xbox 360 was left with a terrible reputation. This left Microsoft with a problem; they needed to boost hardware sales, improve the Xbox 360's reputation and give the Xbox a refresh so they can keep the current consoles relevant for the next few years and continue to profit from game sales.

Microsoft's solution is the new £199 "Xbox 360 S" (replacing the Elite at the £200 price point). They didn't follow Sony's lead and call it the "Slim" edition, after all the new console isn't significantly smaller than the old Xbox 360. They have followed the naming convention they used with the original Xbox when they released the smaller controllers, which carried the "S" at the end of their name to denote a newer, better version. The question is, is this new console any better? Can it improve the Xbox's battered reputation for being loud, hot and unreliable? Does it introduce anything new which will get owners of current Xbox consoles to re-buy something which doesn't change their gaming in any way?

What's changed?

The first difference you’ll notice with the new console is that it looks very different compared to the old model. Everything is shiny, black and chrome (dust magnet!), wrapped around a new angular shape which includes a giant vent in one panel. This is no mere tweak to the manufacturing process to make the components last longer. This is a complete re-design, both inside and out.

The new console is smaller, but only just.

The new console is smaller, but only just.

There are a lot of changes other than its looks. Firstly, to make sure the overheating issue can never, ever, ever come back Microsoft has had both the CPU and GPU manufactured at 45nm - the most recent revision of the Xbox Elite has both chips at 65nm. This reduction helps lower both heat output and power consumption. The CPU and GPU have also been combined onto one chip package - this means that you only need to cool one area instead of two inside the console. There is one large heatsink on the new CPU/GPU with a very quiet fan on top which is directly next to the main vent at the top of the Xbox. This should now have permanently killed off the overheating issues, and if it hasn't, Microsoft's marketing department has guaranteed that the RROD will never occur on the new version; the red LEDs behind the ring in the console have been removed with a single red LED in the middle of the power-on button replacing their function. If there is a common hardware fault with this version it will have to be referred to as the RDOD - the Red Dot Of Death.

Old and busted, meet the new hotness.

Old and busted, meet the new hotness.

Due to the change to the cooling design Microsoft have managed to remove the two smaller fans at the back of the console which were used to push warm air out the back. This has helped make the console quiet, very quiet. Note my comparisons here are to a repaired launch version of the Xbox 360 and not to one of the more recent versions which were meant to be quieter. Still, I doubt that any of the previous versions are as quiet as the new one; it is almost inaudible when running. Comparing the new Xbox to my PS3 "fat" edition, the Xbox is slightly quieter when on the dashboard, which is more than good enough as you don't notice that it is running unless you listen for it in a very quiet room.

Thanks to improved cooling in the new console we can have lots of ports.

Thanks to improved cooling in the new console we can have lots of ports.

The issue with the old Xbox 360s being loud was the DVD drive. Many users wouldn't be wrong in comparing it to a circular saw with how loud it was. Microsoft tried to remedy this by allowing gamers to install a game onto their hard-drive which meant that the disk didn't need to be spun when playing. The downside of that was with games taking 6-8GB of hard-drive space to install those of us with 20GB hard-drives had to uninstall and re-install our games quite often, which isn't great. The new Xbox has this issue fixed at last by working with the DVD drive manufacturers to make the drives as quiet as possible. The new DVD drive is about as loud as my PS3 when installing a game to the hard drive. Yes, you can hear it, but the noise is very muted and not annoying like the previous drives were. By fixing the heat, reliability and noise issues of the old Xbox 360, Microsoft can be confident in marketing the console to current owners and to new customers who have read about the faults of the old Xbox 360 hardware and stayed away. The question is how can Microsoft sell this new version to people with Xbox 360s who are relatively happy with their existing experience?

The Extras

The answer is simple; they have given the console some extra features to try and entice Xbox 360 owners to dump their current console and buy a new shiny one instead. First, Microsoft has added built-in Wi-Fi with 802.11b/g/n support, saving users from having to buy a £60 dongle which plugs into the back of the console and uses up the only USB port on the back. Speaking of that USB port, Microsoft has bumped the connectivity options now that the back isn't taken up with a giant vent; the new console sports HDMI, optical audio out, standard A/V out for those without HDMI, 3 USB ports, Ethernet and a special "Kinect" port. For those who don't know what Kinect is, it is Microsoft's new control method, which is essentially a camera which can see in a 3D space and map out where your skeleton is to give you controller-free gaming. It’s due to be released in Autumn this year. It is fully compatible with all Xbox 360 consoles; for the older models it uses a USB port to talk to the console, but as the device still needs more power an adapter to plug the Kinect into a wall socket is also required. However, those with the Xbox 360 S can just plug Kinect into its new special port. To avoid damaging normal USB devices Microsoft have given the port a slightly different shape so you can't accidentally plug something in which can't handle the extra current it provides to Kinect. Connectivity at the front of the console is very simple; there is the now silent DVD drive, an IR port to allow the Xbox 360 remote (and any other controllers with Xbox compatibility) to work with the console and 2 USB ports hidden behind a hinged panel (giving the console a total of 5 USB ports). That's it. Some of you will have noticed that I have not listed any memory unit ports and that's because there aren't any; memory units are not compatible with the new console at all. Microsoft have a solution for those who want to be able to carry their saves with them; the USB memory stick support they added in the Spring 2010 update lets users use a stick to carry data around on. This is probably also why there are more USB ports on the new console, after all, the three the Xbox 360 used to have wouldn't be enough to handle a USB stick, wireless dongle, Kinect and a play-and-charge kit for a controller.

On the subject of incompatibility the new console no longer supports different faceplates. It's obvious why; out of all my friends I am the only one who was foolish enough to buy a different faceplate for my console, so removing that option hasn't cost Microsoft anything, especially as old faceplates would never have fit on the new shape anyway.

The power brick which comes with the console hasn't been put inside the new version. There were rumours that it had been made internal, but I can confirm that the brick remains. However, it is now significantly smaller than the old model and should run cooler as it delivers around 30% less power to the console thanks to the new CPU and GPU chip redesign and the fact there are a lot less fans in the chassis now.

The new power brick is significantly smaller and runs much cooler.

The new power brick is significantly smaller and runs much cooler.

The buttons on the front of the new console have been changed from physical buttons to touch sensitive ones, similar to those on the original PS3. This change doesn't make any difference to me, although I do like the confirmation beep you get when you hit the DVD eject button as it prevents me from not realising when I accidentally hit it (which I have done a few times already).

The hard disk drive (HDD) in the console now sports a 250GB capacity. Some of the older Xbox 360 models had been released as "super elites" carrying a 250GB drive but they were hard to find and came in game bundles. The increased size is nice (especially since I install games onto the HDD to get faster game loading times), however this is the only positive about the HDD in the new Xbox 360 S, as unfortunately Microsoft has again made them proprietary so you can only use Microsoft-branded and sold drives. This is really annoying, and I wish they would follow Sony's lead and allow anyone to install any 2.5" HDD into the console. The worst thing about the new HDD is that it is a completely different shape to current Xbox 360 drives, so there is no way to use a current HDD in the new model. Way to punish your customers Microsoft. Fear not, though; if you want to get all your save games and extra content onto the new console from an existing one you can do so with the Microsoft data transfer cable, which Microsoft stopped giving away a while ago and now sells for about £16 (a complete rip-off). Once you have the data transfer cable you can copy everything off your old drive into your new console. This took about 4 minutes on my machine as I copied 2GB of data from my old 20GB HDD to my new one (you can't transfer game installations, but you can easily re-install from the original disc). The alternative to using the data transfer cable is to use a USB memory stick, but this will not move DLC such as map packs or arcade games unlike the transfer cable. Once you've copied all your data to your new Xbox 360 S you then need to transfer your licences for Arcade and DLC, as you can only have them assigned to one console, sadly. To transfer the licences Microsoft has put up a snazzy web-interface where you can very quickly and easily transfer your licences to play all your games and extra content onto the new console and it takes about 2-3 minutes to complete this. Once that is done you now have a complete clone of your old Xbox 360 on your new one. All your saves, all your DLC and Arcade games too.

That's about it for the hardware changes on the console and I bet some of you will be wandering if the console itself is any faster; will it play games better? Well, the console won't play games any faster, nor will it load them faster because of the new HDD, which is only about as fast as the old models. Once thing which has been improved, though, is the startup and shutdown times. My old console took 20-30 seconds to startup after hitting the power button and took a good minute from telling it to shutdown before the fans would stop spinning. The new console is much faster as it shuts down completely in around 5 seconds and only takes 5-10 seconds to startup.

The Future

So, what's next for the Xbox 360 console? Will this new shape make its way down to replace the Arcade version? The answer is yes, as Microsoft has already announced that a new 4GB model will launch on August 20th for £150. It has built-in Wifi, and all the features of the full size version, except for an HDD with the 4GB coming from on-board flash storage. Importantly, it features all of the noise, heat and reliability improvements of the new machine, and when Kinect is launched later this year, it’ll be available in a bundle for £250.

Round-Up

What comes in the box for £200, then? Is it the same as the old Elite pack? Sadly, Microsoft hasn't included everything which you got with the old Elites, with the notable item missing being an HDMI cable which you will have to buy separately. This seems like a lousy move from Microsoft, although adding a 70p cable to every box would add up if you consider the 40 million Xbox 360 consoles that had already been sold up until April this year. The things you do get are:

  • A shiny new console
  • Power brick and cable
  • Standard A/V cable and SCART adapter
  • Black wireless Xbox controller with a chrome Xbox button (oooh...shiny)
  • Wired headset for voice communication over Xbox Live

The kit is basically everything you would need for a standard Xbox gaming experience (bar the HDMI cable, of course). Since the new Xbox 360 is fully compatible with all the controllers and headsets which work with the old model then this should be enough kit to satisfy both newcomers to the Xbox world as well as keeping current 360 owners looking for a better version of the console happy too.

Overall, the new Xbox 360 looks good, is quieter, cooler, more reliable and has more ports than you can shake a stick at, whilst costing the same as the old Elite models did. It’s a worthy successor which has brought much needed change.

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