Sunday, February 13, 2011

Getting started with your Xbox 360

Getting started with your Xbox 360Microsoft's gaming console is an entertainment center in waiting The Xbox 360 has become the elder statesman of the "next generation" of video game consoles — but this is as much a testament to its ability to keep on the cutting edge of the market as it is to a vast video game library (some original Xbox games can be played on the 360, too). If you've finally gotten your hands on a 360, setting it up is a simple matter, but there are a few additional tricks to making it much more than just another video game system.

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Hooking it up
After taking everything out of the box, you'll want to get it connected to your television for sure, and maybe your Getting started with your Xbox 360home theater system (for surround sound). All Xbox 360s come with a composite A/V cable, but there's an optional adapter that allows you to split the signal between that and a digital (optical) audio line that can run straight to your home theater; an HDMI A/V connection is also an available option. Depending on what kind of connections you have free on your TV and receiver, you can decide which of these arrangements is best for you and run your cables accordingly.

Who is that small person, and why is he waving at me?
Once you've got your 360 set up and turned on, you'll go through a quick setup procedure to do things like set the clock, register for tech support, and that kind of nuts-and-bolts stuff. And then something slightly unexpected happens: Your dashboard will want you to create a cartoon character, which will hang out while you're flipping through the Dashboard (what Microsoft calls the interface you have with your console). 

You can customize your avatar to look as much or as little like you as you want. (Mine shares the goatee and black T-shirt with, but has much better hair than, the real thing.) It's a cute touch, and if you have little ones at home, having a friendly character (or a reminder that Mom Is Making Sure You Behave Yourselves) can be a fun addition to the basic interface.

Each account on your 360 can have one of these little avatars; when you set up a second (or third, or eighth) profile, you can create an avatar that's unique for it.

Getting started with your Xbox 360
You're in control
The 360 has a somewhat novel option for turning it on, in addition to pushing the button on the front of the console. You can push the round, silver "jewel" in the middle of the controller to do so, too. This works for both wired and wireless consoles, and the first controller turned on will become Controller 1 for that session, regardless of which USB port it's plugged into or whether or not it was Controller 1, 2, 3, or 4 last time. 

This is especially handy if you've got folks in your house who are apt to leave their controller somewhere unusual (like the kitchen counter), since you're not tied to any particular configuration. If you have friends who want to bring their own controller for a gaming session, they can sync to your 360 for the evening, too.

The lights on the controller correspond to those surrounding the power button on the console: #1 in the upper left, #2 in the upper right, #3 in the lower right, and #4 in the lower left. This way, you can tell at a glance which one you're holding; this is especially convenient if you've got a lot of friends over and are trading controllers for drinks and snacks frequently.

While they're not expressly part of the initial setup, a lot of folks find that picking up the wireless controllers and the rechargeable battery pack that goes with them to be a worthwhile investment. The cable that charges the battery also carries the signal from the controller to the console, so even with a dead battery (or none at all), you can still use it.

Getting started with your Xbox 360Wave your arms 
The biggest new thing to come to the Xbox 360 is the new Kinect controller / interface, which is Microsoft's foray into the motion-controlled gaming field. Using detailed infrared motion-capture technology, it turns your body into the controller for an ever-growing collection of games. This promises to usher in a whole new realm, with the player in the room literallybeing the player in the game. Some clever independent users have already made 3D motion-capture cameras by hooking their Kinect controller up to their computers and working a little magic. Living in the future like this is amazing.

As when Nintendo rolled out the Wii, there have been reports of Kinect-related injuries and household mishaps. Please make sure you're not going to knock anyone or anything over if you decide to give this a try!

To the internet, and beyond!
The Xbox 360 really comes into its own when you connect it to your home network and the internet (this latter does require a subscription to Microsoft's Xbox Live service). The dashboard allows you to connect to music and movies you have on your computer(s), so you can play them on your television or home theater, turning your 360 into an entertainment center. 

By connecting to the internet, you will also be able to get updates to the dashboard, as well as take advantage of online services like Netflix and Twitter. You can even download movies and music from Microsoft's Zune Marketplace. Navigating these using your game controller takes a little getting used to if you're accustomed to visiting sites on your computer or smartphone, but their functionality remains the same.

Xbox Live (often referred to as XBL) has become one of the major selling points of the 360 (and one of the legacy systems to carry over from the original Xbox). It's a persistent online account that tracks the achievements you unlock in all the games you play (as do the local user profiles), with the added bonus of letting your friends see how and what you're doing. It also allows you to see which of them are online while you are, so you can strike up a conversation by using recorded voice messages, text messages, or even voice chat. You can also see if they want to play a game with you, if you've both got the same game handy.

XBL also allows you to play with folks you don't know, if the game you're using offers that feature (most sports, racing, and combat-type games do; many other types are adopting this as well). And if you find someone you enjoy playing with, it's easy to add them to your list of friends to get together with at another time.

Getting started with your Xbox 360
What are these "points"?
Setting an account up on Xbox Live also gives you the ability to download additional content, from purely cosmetic things like dashboard appearance kits and clothes for your avatar, to entire standalone games, to extra stuff for the games you've already got. This downloadable content (DLC) can be offered for free (a lot of games offer demo versions this way) or using XBL "points," which are the currency used by the system; there are 80 points to the dollar, but buying in bulk makes them cheaper. A few games have their own internal currency for purchasing in-game content; for instance, EA Sports' Madden NFL 11 uses "coins," which can be earned through certain types of game play as well as purchased using XBL points. 

Any way you look at it, DLC represents Microsoft's presence in the marketplace of microtransactions, all of which are completely optional.

Game on!

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