Staring down the new Xbox 360

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When I heard about the slimmed-down, redesigned Xbox 360’s unveiling at last week’s E3 in Los Angeles, one question came to mind — does a new design mean I won’t have to worry about it suddenly dying on me, like its predecessor?

Both critics and devout fanboys of the original 360 would acknowledge that the engineering of Microsoft’s vaunted console has always been an source of dynamic discussion, the kind that brings out sentiment ranging from typical nuts-and-bolts talk to the passionate (though sometimes wayward) deconstruction of Western and Eastern design philosophies. By now, even casual gamers or people asking about the Big Three systems (Wii, 360 and PS3) have heard about the 360’s famed “Red Ring of Death,” it’s penchant for overheating, the “towel trick” and other tales.

The new 360, armed with a few extras, is hoping to change some of that. So, as a shopper or a new gamer, you have a choice to make. If you’re looking to break in the family’s first game system, is this the time the 360 separates itself a bit more from the pack?

I’m going to share some of what I’ve seen in the new 360, and hopefully it’ll make that choice a little easier for you.

One of the first things you’ll notice about the new Xbox 360 is that it’s lost some size. It’s shorter, slimmer and narrower than its older brother, which looks hulking and archaic standing next to it.

It also has holes and buttons in different places. The original white 360 has two big slots for memory units, a button that helped it sync up with controllers, a power button roughly the size of a 50-cent piece and a slot/chamber for two USB ports. It also has an eject button, which opens a wider disc tray.

The new black 360 doesn’t have many buttons at all. Reminiscent of the PS3, the eject and power buttons are now touch sensors. There’s also a slot housing two USB ports (to go with three more in the back). More USB ports means more connectivity to people who love to play with media and memory, especially on their flash drives. The tray is also smaller, and the infrared sensor and sync-up button aren’t as easy to pick out.

Another thing to notice on the new 360 is the absence of a external hard drive. The original 360 featured a detachable external hard drive perched on top (or on the side, depending on your setup) of the machine. While some enjoyed the portability of their files, gamer profile and other items, others felt powerless if their hard drive got lost or mixed up with someone else’s (a problem not uncommon in gaming lounges or places with multiple systems). The new 360 has a 250GB internal hard drive, so you don’t have to worry about the gaffes that can come with a drive that snaps on and off your machine. It also lets you install more games onto your system, which I have found to be a more efficient and smoother playing experience every time I’ve done it.

To me, the internal drive also leads to more ventilation. The original 360 was famous for overheating, which then led to the famed red ring. Instead of the grid of holes on various sides of the unit, we now have air-conditioner style grillwork on both narrow end of the new machine, as well as a much larger ventilation section on one side.

More air and a cleaner look also led to what I personally think is the best feature of the 360 — very little noise. Even clean, air-blown versions of the original 360 made a decent amount of whirring and churning when fired up. The most popular sound comparison people will toss out is “jet engine,” and it wasn’t that much of an exaggeration. The most you’ll get out of the new 360 is a low murmur. It’s not “Red October” silent, but it turns the 360 back into a more viable DVD-watching device, since you don’t have to worry cranking up the TV to drown out annoying residual buzzing or spinning.

The last two things I want to point out are the built-in WiFi and compatibility with the upcoming Kinect technology. I can’t say much about the WiFi, since I use a hard line for my home console. However, the fact that it’s built-in eliminates the need for a sometimes troublesome wireless adapter, which had to be stuck in the back of the original 360. It also had an adjustable mini-antenna.

Kinect, which used to be known as “Project Natal,” is Microsoft’s effort to capitalize on the allure of motion-sensing in gaming, which the Nintendo Wii brought to a lot of families and is what is also being touched upon by Sony with its “Move” technology. Kinect is essentially a device that reads the movements of your whole body — no wand, no wiggling controller. Basically, as Microsoft puts it, your body serves as the controller. The built-in Kinect compatibility with the new 360 essentially means you can just plug in the device and get rolling. If you’re still rocking the older 360, you’ll need an adapter.

As far as gameplay on the system goes, there’s no change. I mention this because I’ve heard this question more than a few times from neophyte game shoppers whenever there’s a system upgrade or retooling. The graphics aren’t going to be better than the old 360, nor are the games “faster” in any way.

However, the new 360 seems to have added compatability, efficiency and convenience without losing anything. It sucks up less power than the original version, and it comes ready to immediately handle what’s sure to be one of the holiday season’s more popular items. Whether or not that’s enough for you to bring one into your home is your call.