Two events today embody the spirit of AC/DC: both Spider-Man and the XBox are back in black. Personally, I’m more into reliving the saga of Venom on the silver screen than rehashing some gamehead gear, but this is a column about technology, not comic books (alas).
Besides adopting a Vader-esque personae, Microsoft’s new XBox 360 Elite video game console features only two substantial improvements over its rebel son: a much larger hard drive, and high-definition video cables in the box
This isn’t enough. Microsoft is clearly responding to Sony’s hunkier Playstation 3 with this upgrade. If the Redmond-based monster truly wanted to bury their competition, they should have made at least two other improvements to the XBox 360.
First and foremost, they should have included a built-in HD-DVD drive. Sony’s Playstation 3 has a built-in Bluray drive. Microsoft does offer an external HD-DVD drive for those who want to view hi-def movies, but that’s not good enough. There’s a high factor of ugliness that goes along with external components and their associated mess of cabling; plus the drive comes in white only.
Arguably, omitting the HD-DVD drive may have been an issue of cost. That doesn’t jive for me. This is the primo XBox 360, designed to battle the Playstation 3’s dark looks and advanced capabilities head on. Even if you buy the external unit in addition to an XBox 360 Elite, the total bill still rings up no higher than that of a Playstation 3.
I’d hazard a guess that Microsoft is omitting the HD-DVD drive from the 360 Elite out of self-interest. The Bluray drive in the Playstation 3 is a trojan horse for Sony, a company that stands to profit directly from media sold to play in that format. Microsoft doesn’t maintain any major financial interests in HD-DVD formatted media, so they wouldn’t directly benefit from supporting those discs.
Instead, Microsoft wants to drive its customers to online movie and television sales in their homebrew 360 Marketplace where they take a direct cut of media sales, hence the upgraded hard drive.
All the same, this move is premature in terms of the market and not in consumers’ interests. Microsoft would have done better to include the HD-DVD drive in order to more directly compete with the Playstation 3.
After all, it’ll be a tough slog for the XBox 360 Elite to compete against the AppleTV in the downloadable media content market, considering Apple’s dominance there. To date, the XBox 360 has clearly marketed itself as a gaming system. Re-educating consumers to the unit’s developing capabilities will be difficult and costly.
All this brings me to my second essential upgrade that Microsoft missed the boat on: silence.
I sold my XBox 360 because the thing sounded like a jet idling on a runway. The combined noise of the fan and optical drive was unbearable and forced me to crank my stereo up to unacceptable levels just to hear games and movies. This is a well-recognized problem with the XBox 360 and a significant selection of after-market products has sprung up to respond to it.
Considering that Apple trumpeted the fact that the AppleTV is “whisper quiet” at only 7 dB to 10 dB, noise is clearly an issue to consumers. The XBox 360 has been independently measured as reaching up to 61 dB during use. Considering that decibels are a logarithmic measurement (i.e. 60 dB it ten times the noise level of 50dB), that’s really friggin’ noisy. In fact, 60 dB is the rough equivalent noise level of normal conversation. So it’s as though two annoying people are in the room with you, engaged in a lively conversation, constantly talking while you’re trying to play games or watch movies.
Microsoft should’ve worked hard to silence their video game console. And then they should have made a big deal out of the fact they’d managed to make it quieter than the Playstation 3 (which isn’t particularly quiet, itself).
The XBox 360 Elite could have been something really great, which would have cause the Playstation 3 irreparable harm. Instead, despite gaining some much-needed aesthetic improvements, the new black XBox is merely a ho-hum improvement on its predecessor and leaves consumers plenty of reasons to pick a Playstation 3 instead.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, May 4, 2007.