Friday, July 4, 2014

Dr. X-Love or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Xbox 360 E

When I think of an Xbox 360, I think of this:

No Kinect. No Netflix. When you check your friend list, people are playing Halo 3 and they aren't just watching Netflix. They want to actually play games. You'll constantly get requests to play a different game than you're actually playing, and for the most part, you'll actually stop and change games to play with the person.

I've played video games for as long as I can remember, starting out with an Atari 2600 clone, the Sears Video Arcade II.

The Video Arcade II was actually made by Atari. It was sold as the Atari 2700 in Japan, and rebranded by Sears to be sold in the US. Then I moved on to a Sega Genesis, a Nintendo 64, and a Gamecube. When I got an original Xbox from a friend, that was when games really started to click with me for some reason. When the Xbox 360 was announced, I could not wait. Everything about it was better than the Xbox in all the right ways. I didn't get one at launch, and not too many people did. Supplies were scarce. Strangely, I started dating a girl on the day it launched. I don't know if that was coincidence or not. I ended up getting one for Christmas in 2006, and it was probably a perfect time for it since the 360 was at its peak for the next few years. I had my appendix taken out a day or two before Christmas so my response was muted, but I was ecstatic. It probably would've been lamer than the Nintendo 64 kid video since I was 16, but thankfully I was in pain and on drugs. I nodded approval and leaned back on the couch.

Since a 360 was a pricey acquisition ($400 for the premium package), I didn't get any games. So, I played some Hexic HD and Scarface (which is a fantastic game) on the Xbox emulator. The next day I gathered up some money and bought Gears of War, which ended up not being a favorite of mine.

2007 ended up being an incredible year of gaming. Mass Effect, Halo 3, Crackdown, Bioshock, Rock Band, Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter II, Project Gotham Racing 4, Forza 2, holy shit. Six of those were Xbox 360 exclusives at the time. Now we're lucky if we get two 360 exclusives a year.

I read Ayn Rand because of you.

Special mention goes to Crackdown. Everyone bought it for the Halo 3 beta; everyone ended up playing Crackdown more. I played enough with a friend of mine that we leveled up enough to get to the top of the agency tower. The game has a special lighting renderer that it uses only at the top of the tower, so it was a bit more impressive than just "well, we did it." We stood at the top for a while, then he slowly turned towards me and kicked me off the side. Probably one of the funniest online gaming moments I've ever had. It still gets brought up sometimes if we're talking about working at that shitty pizza place we worked at.

I didn't really have a natural way to work this in.

2008 was stacked with games as well; Devil May Cry 4, Grand Theft Auto IV, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts 'n Bolts, Mirror's Edge, Fable II, Fallout III, Gears of War 2, The Last Remnant, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Too Human (it didn't suck). I don't want to recap every year here, so I'll just say that my 360 came along with me to college, and there was a lot of drinking and a lot of Halo 3. After 2008 the exclusives started to dry up a bit and lose variety, and it was sort of a slow decline from there.

Aside from nostalgic reasons, let's talk about why I'm so stuck on that beastly, loud old white 360. Besides just being how I see an Xbox 360 since that was my original experience with it, it's actually a well designed piece of hardware (crippling heating issues aside). It was the first Microsoft product that had a real unity of hardware and software.

Take a look at the original dashboard (I MISS YOU). Note the curves to the blades and the area that shows what disc is in the drive. Now take a look at this crappy 3D render of the console that was the best example I could find:

While the curve of the blades are more extreme, it's clearly meant to recall the physical form of the device with its inward curve. The indicator for what disc is in the console on the dashboard also mimics the physical disc drive, making the purpose of the button in the software immediately obvious. I'm not saying this is absolutely fantastic design of the console or the blades UI, but it is highly functional and the software is an extension of the hardware.

Microsoft is Microsoft though, and blades wasn't enough. The Wii was outselling the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, so just as Microsoft matched Apple's philosophy of combining hardware and software, they decided to match Nintendo's philosophy of "hey, let's make little digital people." So came the New Xbox Experience.

It sucked.

You can tell just by looking that this is less functional. Avatars were everywhere, I guess Microsoft was banking on those helping to sell more 360s. What the fuck is going on here?

So... we go up and down to move to different categories... then left and right for different subcategories within categories? What the fuck. You can't even see all of the main categories because they aren't on the screen. You can see they start to fade out at the top. This was truly horrible and one of the worst interfaces I have ever seen. It was on my Xbox for years and I never figured out how to navigate it. Every time I wanted to do something other than play a disc I was flipping through pages like a moron. Let's look at blades again..

Want to buy stuff? Go to marketplace. Xbox Live shit? Go to Xbox Live. Games? Go to games. There's five blades, and everything is neatly contained. You can see on the NXE picture there's three different marketplaces. This is excessive.

The 360 returned to being usable with the don't-call-it-that-anymore Metro interface.

This... makes sense. It's got a lot of ads, but it makes sense. I'm okay with it. Stop fucking with it, Microsoft.

The NXE was sort of a turning point. Microsoft stopped caring about games. They realized that people were stupid enough to buy an Xbox 360 as a Netflix box, when there were much cheaper alternatives. Games fell by the wayside (except for Call of Duty DLC exclusivity). The Metro interface works, but would you think that it's running on a system dedicated to games? Not really.

Anyways, the Xbox 360 E. My Xbox 360 was resilient enough to make it to 2011 without experiencing a RROD. I did a bolt fix, which held up pretty well until about a year ago. Then it started freezing about every hour. I found a "reliable" website doing reballs to repair the GPU. I won't explain this here. I sent away my original 360 for a reball, because I really, really hate the 360 S.

It looks like a glossy Transformer took an angular shit. I really hate everything about this thing. I hate the stupid chime noise it makes when you open the disc drive, I hate the angular's just too sharp. It's tacky.

Long story short, if you find a website doing Xbox 360 reballs and they're located in Pennsylvania, you run the fuck away. They have the worst customer service I have ever dealt with. They told me it was repaired after being in "heat testing" for about a week. I got it back and... same problem. I don't know what the fuck heat testing means. Apparently just turning it on and off, or they would've realized the problem still existed. God forbid they took any time of that week to play a game for an hour. Anyway, they had it for about two and a half months and then I tried to get them moving on a replacement board for two more months. When I was told they would "change my order" when I didn't even have a current order since I was trying to get my prior "repair" rectified, I was over it. They were clearly just jerking me off.

I went and bought a 4gb Xbox 360 E with a 320gb drive later that day.

Not so angular, sort of looks like a flatter original Xbox 360. Takes some design cues from the Xbox One (not necessarily a good thing). Doesn't make a stupid chime noise when you open the disc drive. I can deal with it. I gotta take a moment here and point out something that I do not understand.

The circular disc scratches. This started with the Xbox 360 because Microsoft decided to cut a corner and leave out a tiny component. Most DVD drives have rubber bumpers on the top part of the drive. This prevents the disc from wobbling to the point that it scratches against the laser. This probably saved them a buck or two. People started scratching their discs immediately from the console wobbling for one reason or another. I actually fixed this in my original 360; I just opened up the drive and put some rubber up there. You can shake the fucker while it's playing a game and it won't scratch. I actually did it just to see if it worked. Microsoft still refuses to put those little rubber pieces in the drive though. The 360 S didn't have them; the 360 E doesn't have them. They even put a warning sticker on that tells you not to move it in any way. Is that sticker really that much cheaper than just putting a few pieces of rubber in there and avoiding any negative reactions from consumers? I guess it is.

Anyways, I actually like the E. It's really quiet and it seems to be well ventilated. It puts out a lot of heat, but it doesn't concern me too much since it seems to be getting the heat out of the console instead of leaving it trapped like the original model. There are some things that reek of "final console revision corner cutting," though.


It's not as bad as the Genesis 3, but there's some stuff worth pointing out here.

It's a fair amount smaller than the original 360. It's not a vast difference, but it is more noticeable than the difference between the original 360 and the 360 S. It is slightly longer than the original 360. The glossy bits are a magnet for fingerprints and dust.

On the back we've got two USB ports, an ethernet port, a Kinect port, an HDMI port and a 3.5" headphone jack for SD video output. The lack of an AV out is sort of disappointing as it limits your video options, but I can live with just HDMI. Speaking of that, I've been surprised at the HDMI output. My original 360 had a Xenon motherboard; the days before HDMI. The component output never bothered me much, but it did look a bit blurry if you were seated close. The clarity boost with HDMI is pretty astounding; colors are a lot richer and the image is sharper. The power connection is sort of a weird oversized AC adapter looking plug, which seems cheap.

The HDD is hidden away on the bottom side of the console. That would be dust and some paint from our entertainment center already dirtying my ~week old console. That small corner piece pulls down to reveal the drive bay like so:

Microsoft also did away with the proprietary connector on the end of the drive. The 360 HDD has always been a standard laptop size SATA drive, just with an arbitrary connector attached to the SATA plug. You can see the regular SATA ends here:

With that, it should be possible to just format a regular SATA drive with HDDhackr and simply slide it into the console without an enclosure. It might be a bit loose, but if you don't want to spend $10 to get a knockoff Chinese enclosure, then you can rig something up.

All in all, I'm pleased with it. It's really not too feasible to use a Xenon 360 anymore. The XGD3 copy protection that newer games use is pretty hard on the old 360's laser. I had to lower my resistance quite a bit to get it properly reading new games without throwing up dirty disc errors. Besides that, I think there have been some revisions to how the hardware actually functions. I've noticed that the dash responds more quickly on S and E 360s and they just seem to be a lot more responsive overall. The only huge downside I've seen so far is the license transfer. Even if you transfer your content licenses to your new Xbox, you still have to redownload all of the content for it to work offline. Which really sucks.

It may not be the 360 I remember, but it at least plays the games I remember. Plus it's a lot better looking than this atrocious ass:

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