Xbox 360 Elite and HD DVD Add-On Drive Page 2

I next moved on to the HD DVD performance and looked at 1080i over component and HDMI, and also 1080p over HDMI. First off, from the time you throw an HD DVD disc in the player until you get a picture on the screen is less than 30 seconds, which is comparable to Toshiba's second-generation standalone players. As to the HD DVD video performance, I am happy to report that the video quality with HD DVD discs was much more satisfying than DVD playback. To examine the relative merit of the 1080p output, I pitted it against a first generation Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player set outputting 1080i into a JVC DLA-HD1 1080p projector.

While I saw excellent image quality from chapters 7 and 8 of Mission: Impossible 3 from the HD-A1 player at 1080i with the JVC, this will not be the case for everyone. The JVC projector uses the excellent Gennum processing. Most displays on the market can't do this and will quickly show moiré in the bricks in chapter 7 and major flickering in the stairs in chapter 8. On most 1080p-capable displays the excellent performance I saw from the Elite at 1080p would be noticeably superior.

It should be noted though, that the output is currently limited to 1080p/60 instead of the more desirable 1080p/24 output. A true 1080p/24 output eliminates the need for 3/2 pulldown entirely, which can make motion look smoother as a result of eliminating the time distortion known as "judder."

Next, I popped in the Silicon Optix HQV HD benchmark HD DVD disc to test the 1080i-1080p deinterlacing of the Elite. While it didn't fare as well as the processing in the JVC projector when it came to the "jaggies" tests, I didn't notice any issues in actual viewing material. This is a brutal test of a player's ability, and to perform as well as it did, the combo of the Elite and the HD DVD add-on should be commended.

As a final test, I watched specific scenes from top quality HD DVDs, specifically The Matrix Trilogy and Batman Begins. These standout HD DVDs showed excellent detail, accurate colors and phenomenal black levels. From the pure video perspective, the HD DVD add-on delivers the goods.

Another added benefit of HD DVD is the HDi enhanced interactivity. This includes picture-in-picture features such as Warner's In-Movie Expereince and Universal's U-Control, book marking specific scenes, access to production photographs and other interesting tidbits of information that runs in real-time during the movie. The Elite's powerful processor is more than up to the task of handling two video streams and the "In-Movie Experience" on The Matrix played just as fast as with my Toshiba HD-A1 standalone player. So from a usability standpoint, the Xbox add-on ranks right up there with the CE devices.

The $64,000 question is does 1080p over HDMI make a huge difference in the video quality? Huge, no. But it can result in a superior picture in certain circumstances. If your display accepts 1080p, then sending a 1080p signal to it is probably your best option, as described above. In my particular case, my display deinterlaces a 1080i film source properly so there is little difference between an HD DVD player at 1080i vs. 1080p. But I would be ecstatic if a 1080p/24 output was available here. While no HD DVD player has that ability currently, Toshiba just announced that the HD-A20 ($399) and the HD-XA2 ($799) will be upgraded to 1080p/24 output after a September firmware update. It will be interesting to see if MS follows suit with the Xbox add-on at some point.

Performance: Audio
As I mentioned earlier, there are three audio output configurations to choose from in the audio setup section of the Dashboard. Unfortunately, PCM is not among those choices. As stellar as the video quality is from HD DVD, the new audio codecs created for the HD formats- Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD lossless- are equally impressive.

The standalone HD DVD players from Toshiba decode these higher resolution streams to multichannel PCM, which is then passed digitally via HDMI, or converted to 5.1 analog channels for a superior audio experience compared to the legacy Dolby Digital and DTS tracks that are found on DVDs.

Unfortunately, even with the addition of the HDMI output provided on the Elite, it will not decode the True HD or DD+ audio to PCM. It instead converts these signals to legacy Dolby Digital or DTS, which is a lesser audio experience, especially when TrueHD is on the menu. When you choose your audio format in the HD DVD menu, the Xbox 360 decodes TrueHD and DD+ signals to either DTS at 1.5Mbps, Dolby Digital at 640kbps, or to Windows Media Audio for output to your AVR over HDMI or Toslink. Testing both the DTS and Dolby Digital outputs, I preferred the DTS output marginally, but neither sounded as good as the PCM output from my Toshiba HD DVD player. My current AVR (Denon 4806CI) is not capable of decoding the WMA stream, so I was unable to test that output.

I also tested the difference between choosing a Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD audio mix on The Matrix HD DVD, and did perceive increased clarity when from the TrueHD mix over the Plus mix. This was a bit surprising to me, but perhaps it helps that the internal audio decoder has more bits to deal with when the conversion is performed. The moral to this story is to always choose the highest bitrate audio stream.

Gaming Performance
Since this is first and foremost a gaming machine, I would be remiss if I didn't comment on this aspect of the Elite. Unfortunately, I don't have as much time as I had in my youth to enjoy these games, but when time allows, I like to sneak in a game or two a week, if possible. As with the standard 360 unit that I own, I couldn't be happier with the gaming experience. The graphics are phenomenal. I played MLB '07, Gears of War and Call of Duty 2 on the Elite, and all of these games performed beautifully.

Xbox also offers the ability to play many games online with the multiplier experience through the Xbox Live Service. There isn't a free lunch here though- the service costs $50 a year for Gold Membership (about $4 per month). I had a limited trial of 30 days to use the service, which worked flawlessly. But I have a hard enough time beating the computer generated players let alone 15 year-old boys who play the game for 20 hours per day, so the multiplier aspect isn't my cup of tea!

As for the games available on the system, there are plenty. Whether it is old Xbox games (which are mostly supported), cross platform games in the likes of the Madden Franchise, or exclusive 360 games (Halo series, Gears of War and Lost Planet), there is more than enough software out there to keep a person from having any social life whatsoever for many years to come!

Media Hub
What this generation of game consoles has over the previous generation, besides better graphics and speed, is the ability to be a fully functional media hub. The mainstream Xbox 360 and the Elite both fit this role very well. In conjunction with a PC running Media Player 11, Zune Software, or Window's Media Connect, the Xbox platform will interact with your Windows XP or Vista computer and allow access to photos, music (either MP3, WMA or WMA lossless), and Windows Media Videos, which can also steam over your home network from your computer to your family room. If you have a PC running Windows XP Media Center, the Xbox will pull any of your standard definition or high-definition recordings off of the Media Center PC allowing the Xbox to as a Windows Media extender. Very slick indeed!

To add to the Media Hub experience, Microsoft also has the Xbox Live Marketplace with a plethora of downloadable content including demos, movie trailers, TV shows and movies with both HD (720p) quality as well as Standard Definition (480i/480p). Access to Xbox LIVE Marketplace and television and movie downloads does not require you to be a paid Xbox LIVE Gold member. While the demos and movie trailers are free, you have to pay for most of the content using the proprietary Xbox points system, which can be purchased online or at retail stores for about $20 for 1600 points. Downloaded movies cost about $3 (160 points) for a standard definition movie and around $4.50 (240 points) for an HD movie.

One negative to movie downloads is the time that it takes to download them. A full-length movie with 720p resolution and Dolby Digital sound can take over six hours to download, depending on your broadband speed. But, a recent update to Xbox LIVE allows "progressive" downloads- you can start watching HD videos before they are fully done downloading. Times can vary dramatically based on your Internet connection, but Microsoft estimates that viewers can start playing downloading HD movies within an hour's time, and HD television shows even sooner.

You have only 14 days to watch the movie and once you start it you have only 24 hours to finish it. The quality is nowhere near as good as what you would see from HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc, but it is in the ballpark of Comcast's HD offerings, and much better than Comcast's On-Demand system.

The Competition
On the gaming front, there are three "next generation" consoles vying for your money. The Xbox 360 was the first to hit the market in 2005, with the PlayStation3 and the Nintendo Wii following in late 2006. The PS3 was launched to great hype and positive reviews, it hasn't garnered the number of sales that were expected. The biggest surprise is the Wii, which stands at nearly 8.5 million units sold ( The thing is, the Wii isn't even a high-definition gaming system, but with a price of only $299 vs. $599 for the PS3 and $480 for a Xbox 360 Elite, it's more appealing to the gaming masses.

When you look at the devices as the centerpiece of a home entertainment system, though, the Xbox 360 Elite and the PS3 are in such a different league that the Wii isn't even in the conversation. Back in December 2006, Shane reviewed the PS3 and was glowing in his praise of it, and I concur with his findings. The PS3 is $79 less, has Dolby TrueHD support and a recent firmware update added true 1080p/24 output from Blu-ray Discs, features the Elite with its HD DVD add-on currently lacks. Where the Xbox 360 beats the PS3 is in the marketplace aspect, as well as its performance as a media hub. Yes, the PS3 will interact with a PC, but it isn't as refined as the Xbox Live system and doesn't yet have the content that the Live Marketplace offers in terms of movie and TV show downloads. But as with so many things these days, that could change in a relatively short amount of time.

I have been able to spend some time with the Xbox 360 Elite with the HD DVD add-on and the end user experience isn't all that different from my old Xbox 360 with the same add-on. The HDMI output is a nice addition, but not a mandatory connection if your display will take a 1080i signal and properly process to 1080p. But if this isn't the case, the Elite's HDMI connection with a 1080p output is a welcome addition. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the audio experience. The lack of support for the high resolution audio that's available on HD DVD is short sighted, in my opinion. Once you hear Dolby TrueHD, the sound from a regular Dolby Digital or DTS track sounds hollow in comparison. The Elite does offer the larger hard drive which will certainly come in handy if you plan on downloading content from the Xbox Marketplace, but I can't help to think that the Elite is more of a marketing tool for Microsoft in its battle against the PS3, allowing MS to say, "we now have HDMI too and a hard drive that's twice as big!"

I try to break down everything to value. Your cost at retail for this system would be $678- $479 for the Elite plus $199 for the add-on. The PS3 costs $79 less and has a fuller feature set for both the video and audio from Blu-ray Discs. And if you are looking at something just for movie playback, then the Toshiba HD-XA2 is a better value as it can be found at street prices that are lower than the Elite + add-on combo. However, if you are more of a casual movie watcher and are looking for an all-in-one solution for gaming, movies (downloaded as well as on disc), and a media hub, then I think the Elite's value proposition rises considerably because of the plethora of games available for the system as well as the features offered through the Xbox Live Marketplace.

Excellent Gaming Machine and Media Hub
Excellent HD DVD video quality
Xbox Live Marketplace well implemented
WMA lossless support w/ Windows Media Player 11

No integrated wireless support (add-on can be purchased)
Loud CPU cooling fan
External HD DVD drive an aesthetic mismatch
No 1080p/24 output
No advanced audio support over HDMI
Poor DVD performance