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Sometimes it’s really just about what’s shinier

Recently, I bought an Xbox 360 (Elite) unit, to replace my now-dead PlayStation 3 (yes I’ll replace that as well, but for now this option was cheaper, and I can borrow a few games from a friend of mine this way). Please don’t start with the whole “Micro$soft” crap, and learn to attack your adversary on proper (technical) ground rather than with slurs and similar.

Besides, I can’t see any reason why any of the three current-generation consoles is better than any other for what concerns Free Software ideals: sure they do use some open source software in their products (PS3, PSP and Sony Bravia TVs) but as far as I can see they don’t give much back in term of new software, nor they seem to support Free Software that could somewhat work with their hardware (like a proper Free DLNA implementation, that would be something very welcome by PS3 and Bravia users). Even the one thing that PS3 had that the others lacked – support for installing Linux using PPC64 and the Cell Broadband Engine to develop for IBM’s new platform – was dropped out of the new “Slim” model.

I also have to say now that even when I’m taking time off I end up thinking about the technical details, to the point that my friends do dislike me a bit when I start decomposing the way things are implemented in games; probably just as much as I disliked my friend the amateur director when he decomposed the films we see together — on the other hand, after helping him out with his own production, I’m much more resilient to that and I actually started to take a liking to watch the special content of DVDs and BluRays where they do the same. So with this in mind, I did make some consideration about the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, and how they fare in comparison, from what I can tell in my point of view.

For some reasons, I always have seen the Xbox having a worse graphic engine than the PlayStation 3; this was somewhat supported by my friend who owns one because he had it hooked up to an old, standard definition CRT, rather than to a modern Hihh Definition LCD, like I had the PlayStation 3 set up. With this in mind, I definitely thought of the Xbox as a “lower” console; on the other hand I soon noticed, after connecting it to my system, that it fares pretty well in comparison during game play (I’m saying this looking at Star Ocean The Last Hope — gotta love second hand games stores!), so what might have brought this (at least here) common mistake about Xbox’s graphics being worse?

  • the original Xbox models, especially the Arcade entry-level one, lacked HDMI support; while even the PlayStation 3 ships with just the worse cable possible (video composite), it has at least out-of-the-box support for standard HDMI cable which are both cheap and easy to find;
  • the only two cables supporting High Definition resolutions for the original models are VGA and video component cables; the former is unlikely to be supported by lower-end HD LCDs – like the one my friend bought a few months ago – and also depends on having a proper optical audio input port to feed the sound; the latter is difficult to find as only one store out of ten that sell games and consoles in my area had some available;
  • since a lot of people bought the entry-level version to spend as little as possible, it’s very likely that a lot of them didn’t want to spend an extra 30 euro to get the cable, by the way, which means lots of them still play in standard definition;
  • even those who spent money to get the cable, might not get the best graphics available; I got the cable for my friend as Xmas gift (note: I’m using the name Xmas just to note that it is mostly a convention for me, being an atheist – and my friend as well – I don’t care much), and he was enthusiast about the improvement; it was just a couple of weeks later that I found he didn’t configure the console to output in Full HD resolution through the component cable;
  • the Dashboard menu is not in HD quality; it might sound petty to note that, but it does strike as odd to have these heavily aliased fonts, and blurry icons on top of an HD-quality game render – such as the above-noted Star Ocean, or Fable 2 – especially when it happens for a trophy an achievement reached;
  • cutscenes are the killers! While the renders are pretty much on par, if not better than the PlaStation 3, the pre-rendered full-motion videos are a different story: Sony can make use of the huge storage provided by the 50GB BluRay discs, while Microsoft has to live with 4GB DVDs; this does not only mean that you end up with 3-disc games, like Star Ocean, that need to get fully installed on the hard drive (which is, by the way, optional for the entry-level system), but also that they cannot just put minutes over minutes of HD FMVs, and end up compressing them; the opening sequence of Star Ocean shows this pretty well: the DVD-quality video is duly noted, especially when compared with the rest of the awesome game renderings; luckily, the in-game cutscenes are rendered instead.

So why am I caring about noting these petty facts? Well, there is one lesson to be learned in that as well; Microsoft’s choices about the system impacted on its general reputation: not providing HDMI support, requiring many extra additional accessory over the basic system (high definition cable; hard drive), and not supporting standard upgrades (you need Xbox-specific storage to back-up and copy saves around, and you cannot increase the system’s storage, while Sony allows you to use USB mass storage devices for copy – and backup – operations, as well as having user-serviceable hard drives). A system that might have been, on many areas, better is actually considered lower-end by many, many people.

No matter how many technical reasons you have to win, you might still fail if you don’t consider what people will say about your system! And that includes the people who won’t be bothered to learn manuals, instructions, and documentation. This is one thing that Linux developers, and advocates, need to learn pretty well from others, before being crushed by learning that the hard way.

And as a final note, I got the Xbox for many reasons, among which, as I stated above, was the chance to borrow some games from a friend rather than outright buying them; on the whole experience, though, I think I still like the PS3 better. It’s more expensive, and sometimes it glitches badly in graphics and physics (Fallout 3, anybody?), but there are many reasons for which it’s better. The Xbox is much more noisy – even when installing the games to hard drive – to begin with, and then the PlayStation 3 plays BluRay, does not need line-of-sight for the remote control, does not require special cables to charge the wireless controllers. I think the system is generally better, although Xbox got more flak than it should, at least from the people I know around here, for the above-noted problems.

Comments 3
  1. Just to add: The XBox’s DVD reader is fully capable of reading dual layer DVDs, which means that my Mass Effect 2 (which I recommend you check out, but grab ME1 first, since the game series’ story unfolds way better that way) occupies 18GB of the hard drive.Still, the necessary compression for cutscenes can be an issue compared to the PS3, depending on the TV one has at home.

  2. Good point, I missed the dual-layer and miscalculated. But you got the point anyway :)And yes, ME1/2 are among those that I’m going to borrow from my friend 😀

  3. The people around me (in the uk generally) have seemed to favor the xbox. Although having played both, I do agree the ps3 is better. Still won’t be buying either, still running my sega dreamcast, retro.

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