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Review: Xbox 360 Elite & VGA vs. HDMI

UPDATE – Xbox 360 Spring Update “Reference Levels” explained.

Received an updated reply from Microsoft that further clarifies the reference levels enhancement included in the Spring Update. The reply is from Microsoft’s John Rodman, Senior Product Manager, Xbox Global Platform (followed by the original post):

Q: Any chance one of your tech contacts could explain in layman’s terms exactly what VGA level referencing is and how it affects 360 users who connect with VGA?

A: We added a new feature to the 2007 Xbox System Update which is actually fairly common among consumer electronics devices. You may know it by a variety of names; Reference Levels, Output levels, Black Levels, Blacker than black, Enhanced Blacks, Setup, PLUGE -all of this is talking about roughly the same functionality. In Xbox 360 we call it
“Reference Levels” for those using HDMI or VGA cables and “Black Levels” for Component or Standard cables.

At a very high level, this feature is here to accommodate the different methods that TVs use to receive a video signal. More specifically it addresses the different ways that “black” and “white” can be represented in that video signal. If you want to dig a little deeper, the easiest way to think about this is to imagine a scale from 0 to 100. 0 is the dark end and 100 is the light end of the scale.

Because of the multiple “standards” put out by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) there is some confusion around what the term “Black” actually means. Some TVs expect black to be 0 while others expect it to be at 7. So, if the Xbox 360 outputs 7.5 as “Black” and it is connected to a TV that expects “Black” to be 0, it will result in a washed out colors. Conversely, if the Xbox 360 outputs 0 as black and the TV expects to get 7.5, it will end up with a very dark picture.

If video from your Xbox 360 looks too bright or too dark, you should try each of the settings and see what works best for your particular TV. If you are happy with you’re the video from your Xbox 360, then don’t bother changing it.

(Original post, April 29, 2007):

Got my Xbox 360 Elite this morning. I went to Walmart first, found a woman in the electronics section, and asked where are the 360 Elites. She looked at the flyer in her hand and said “They ain’t out yet.” I said they’re shipping today, and asked if she’d check the computer for me, to see if they’re in back. “They ain’t here, I tol’ you – some people axed the same thing yesterday, we ain’t got none.” I said okay, told her to have a nice day, and she said the same in return.

I figured I’d go to Circuit City or Best Buy and wait till they open at 10. On the way there I noticed Target was already open, and on a whim went in to ask if they had the 360 Elite. The nice young guy in the games section said he thought so, he’d go check. He came out with four 360 Elites, selling one to me, and two to another guy who showed up.

I opted for the 3-year warranty for $29.99, bringing my total receipt to $544.62.

At home, I unpacked the 360 Elite and was bummed to find that the rumored transfer cable/kit was not included. I did a search to find out what was up, and learned that even if it was included, using the transfer cable would wipe out whatever new stuff was on the 360 Elite’s drive – not that any of it is very interesting. (A downloadable coupon in the Xbox.com support section entitles 360 Elite owners to a free transfer cable kit.)

I decided to transfer my stuff using the 64 MB memory card I had on hand. One look at the size of some of my saved stuff – like more than 1 GB for Oblivion alone – gave me pause. The I realized that for that game, and most others, I needed to transfer only the actual save game files, which were rather smallish; the rest, such as the 1+ GB Shivering Isles expansion pack I bought a few weeks ago, I could re-download once I was all set up. I also transferred over Arcade games like Uno, Wik, Worms and some others. The back and forth process from 360 to 360 Elite took about 45 minutes.

Now, for my most burning question: Would the HDMI connection be noticeably better than the VGA connection I was already using?

In a word: No.

An email to my Xbox press contact, asking for clarification, received this reply:

As you mention, the console can output 1080p resolution video over both VGA and HDMI. There may be very, very subtle differences depending on a consumer’s display, but we wouldn’t expect many people to notice.

There will be a difference between HD DVD video played over component and that played over HDMI. The content protection policies of HD DVD allow a maximum output of 1080i over component, so if you have HDMI (or VGA for that matter) you will get the full 1080p resolution.

In the end, by supporting HDMI we are giving our customers who have HD displays another option in the case their display doesn’t support VGA, plus they get the benefit of audio and video over a single cable.

In fact, others have reported that the HDMI isn’t noticeably better than the component video connection, either. On that, I disagree – switching from component to either HDMI or VGA is considerably different, and I notice a dramatic improvement with the Xbox 360 dashboard, in games, and when watching DVD movies.

My second biggest curiosity was noise, and whether the 360 Elite would be quieter than my original 360.

In a word: Yes.

When the DVD drive isn’t spinning, the 360 Elite is quieter than my original Xbox 360. When playing a game it is also quieter. Others have reported the drive isn’t actually quieter, just different in tone. That may be the impression for those who are comparing the old and the new in a large office environment, but in my bedroom, the new is quieter than the old. Perhaps that’s because my original Xbox 360 was the earliest of early units – shipped to me a few days before the 360 was released to the public. It’s that “old.”

But is it whisper-quiet? Nope. It’s still a pretty noisy product.

Bottom line: If you’re HDTV or monitor has an available VGA port, use it (by purchasing the optional VGA cable) with your existing Xbox 360 and enjoy video as good-looking as the 360 Elite’s. If my HDTV had only HDMI and component connection, I would definitely buy the 360 Elite for the sharper picture it delivers when connected that way. As for the hard disk, I had at least 8 GBs available on my old 360 and I don’t see filling this one up fast. My media lives on my MacBook (which I can tap into via the 360 with the add-on program 360Connect), and as far as downloading movies, which I do quite often (last night I watched The Parallax View, a 70s conspiracy theory film starring Warren Beatty that I highly recommend), I watch them then delete them, since they’re only viewable for 24 hours once you start watching. Still, others may want a bigger hard disk for their stuff, and the 360 Elite satisfies on that front (albeit at a pretty high price when compared to the GB-per-buck ratio found on PC add-on drives).

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