Saturday, October 21, 2006

XBox 360 - Trick or Treat?

XBox 360 launches in India
Having owned the original XBox console, I was elated to hear that Microsoft planned to release XBox 360 in India. The forums and articles indicated a Diwali launch - so naturally I was surprised to see the XBox launched a little earlier than schedule in Pune. I trundled down to the local store on MG Road in Pune to check out the console for myself. I was greeted by a couple of consoles perched precariously on a teetering table that looked like it would collapse under the weight of the consoles.

I went over and picked up the plastic handles connected to the console to check it out. The plastic handle came right off and the console dropped with a loud thud on the table which immediately started oscillating wildly. I clutched at the table and steadied it - and when it appeared to calm down - I re-connected the plastic handle and this time successfully hoisted the box and started reading the information on the package.

A couple of salesmen came over quickly and looked suspiciously at the oscillating table and hovered around me protectively to ensure that I didn't drop the box. Ignoring them I had a good dekko at the specs and product information on the box - I was looking for the DVD region encoding information but there was none. I asked one of the salesman whether he knew the regions that the XBox supported and whether it was region free. There was a look of panic on his face as he dashed away to find a supervisor to answer the question while the other salesman kept a watch on me to make sure I wouldn't get away.

The supervisor had a knowledgeable look of someone who has recently had an XBox orientation - so I popped the question - is this a region free DVD player? He had a startled look on this face - I suppose I had asked him a question that wasn't on his list - he went off to find someone who could find the answer. This is so typical of folks selling high end products in mass consumer stores in India - they have no clue what they are selling and chances of finding someone knowledgeable about the product is really slim. In my experience, the best folks are found in boutique stores that specialize in hi-fi systems.

I wanted to find out about the HD-DVD drive that was announced - no idea about that either. OK - do you know anything about when the XBox 360 will support 1080p - another blank stare. All right - how about whether the XBox has HDMI output connectors? Any idea when XBox Live will be launched in India? No answer there either. I gave up asking questions after that - on the way out I asked him how much the console cost - his face visibly cheered up at that question - finally one that he had an answer to!

They hadn't setup their gaming station yet - so I couldn't take the XBox 360 for a spin - the salesman said that it would be setup in a week or two. That was disappointing - I had heard so much about the wireless controller - and I wanted to try one out. Also I was curious about the interface on the XBox 360 - the one on the older XBox frankly sucked.

I also looked around and was happy to find an assortment of XBox 360 accessories - Media Remotes, Play and Charge Adapters, Extra Rechargable Batteries, HD AV cables and extra controllers (wired and wireless). They also had a bunch of games on display though I thought that the selection was rather limited.

Burning Questions:
I headed home and surfed the Internet to find out some answers:

1.) How does the HD-DVD drive interface with the XBox 360 and when will it be launched in India and what's the expected price?

HD-DVD drive is a separate unit that can be plugged into XBox 360 - so in effect you will have the standard DVD drive that comes with the XBox 360 and in addition you can attach the HD-DVD drive. The expected availability of the HD-DVD add-on in the US in November 2006 and no date has yet been announced for the India launch. The HD-DVD will act as a source of high definition content (480i/480p,720i/720p,1080i/1080p) that can be piped into a high definition monitor such as a plasma or LCD panel. Some interesting questions will be the region encoding issues around the HD-DVD and India pricing for the HD-DVD drive as well as software (none exists as of today). More details about the HD-DVD drive for the XBox can be found here. The expected retail price in the US is around $200 - no India price has been announced yet.

2.) Will the XBox 360 support 1080p high definition output? In what form will this upgrade be provided? What does it mean for me?
As of date, XBox 360 supports 720p and 1080i for most games - the official website describes support for 1080p in the form of an upgrade. Most likely the way this will work is to download the update from the website, burn a CD and pop it into the XBox 360 to update the firmware. This upgrade will allow the built in DVD player to upscale to 1080p. This raises some interesting questions about dilution of the HD-DVD drive if the built in DVD drive in the XBox 360 natively supports 1080p. Clearly there is a difference between a standard DVD player upscaling a 480p source to 1080p - and an HD-DVD drive that has access to native 1080p content which does not require scaling on the part of the DVD player. One key point to keep in mind, if 1080p is important to you, is that you need to double check whether your LCD/Plasma panel is capable of rendering at 1080p - because surprise surprise most panels in the market today only support 1080i. Read the brochures and product guides carefully before purchasing your hi-definition TV if this is important to you. As far as I know, none of the plasma/LCD models in India available today support 1080p. Read this excellent article for an in-depth insight into 1080p.

UPDATE Nov 5th 2006: Details on the 1080p upgrade for XBox can be found here.

3.) Will Microsoft provide HDMI connectors for the XBox 360? What does this mean for me?
As of today, there are no HDMI connectors provided by Microsoft - however there is a ray of hope, see this interview where Todd Holmdahl, Corporate Vice President of the XBox Product Group at Microsoft comments that Microsoft will release the HDMI connector when the market matures. If your TV has composite inputs, then HDMI is not a critical requirement. But its good to know that the XBox 360 will have support for HDMI down the road.

4.) What is the region encoding on the DVD drive in the XBox 360? Is it possible to make my XBox region free?
Region encoding is one feature I hate about the DVD specification because I have a bunch of US DVD's and some Indian DVD's and as I already have a US DVD player, I need to purchase another region free DVD player to run my Indian DVD's - what a pain!
The region encoding of the XBox 360 is set to Region 5 and of course All Region. This means that the XBox 360 will only play DVD's that have the Region 5 logo (or the All Region logo - but not always) on the back of the DVD box. This is a real pain considering that most DVD's available in India are a combination of Region 2, 3 and 5. The XBox 360 can be made region free by applying a mod - which is effectively opening up the XBox 360 and soldering a chip that changes the default behavior of the console. Please note that doing this will void your warranty and also you may not be able to log into XBox Live when it launches.

5.) Are the S-Video connectors available in India?
No - at the moment the S-Video connectors are not available in India (but available in the US). So if your TV has only composite and S-Video inputs (like mine) - then you are stuck with having to do all video on the composite input - which is the lowest video quality. This is an issue if you happen to own a US NTSC TV (like I do) which means that you will need an additional PAL->NTSC converter as the composite video signal is a PAL signal and needs to be converted to NTSC before displaying on an NTSC TV. I was initially under the impression that the S-Video connector will do away with the PAL->NTSC conversion problem, but found out later that I was wrong

6.) When will XBox live be launched in India?
I could not find an official comment on this on the official website, but the date of June 2007 has been tossed around on various websites/forums. I will update this information as soon as I have more reliable news on this topic.

The Purchase:

I finally purchased my XBox 360 Premium package on 14th October from a boutique store in Koregaon Park, Pune. It cost me around Rs. 27,500. I also picked up a couple of games - Perfect Dark Zero and Burnout Revenge to test drive the system. The games were Rs. 2500 each. The store owner was nice enough to let me take the box home without paying for it - as his credit card machine was not working. What's more he walked the XBox console and games to my car and dropped everything off - and told me to give him a call if I needed any XBox stuff like accessories or games - he would send his person over to my house to deliver. Now that's what I call customer service.

I felt what every drug junkie goes through as a mixture of adrenaline and endorphins (I need to find out if this is medically possible - but that's how I felt) surged through me as I unpacked the box and started going through the package. Here is what I got in my premium XBox 360 package:

  • XBox 360 Console
  • 20 GB Hard Disk
  • Wireless Controller with batteries
  • Power Adapter Brick
  • Standard Audio Video Cables
  • High Definition Audio Video Cables (the retailer handed this to me separately)
  • Ethernet Cable
  • Headset and Microphone Combo

Closing Thoughts
The reason I titled this article, XBox 360 - Trick or Treat? is because of the following reasons:

1.) No S-Video connectors: The S-Video connectors for XBox 360 are not available in India - forcing you to use either composite (lowest quality video signal) or component (highest quality video signal) found only on high end TV's.

2.) Region 5 DVD player: DVD Drive of the XBox 360 is set to Region 5 encoding forcing you to check every DVD you purchase in India for region compatibility and even then you cannot be sure. I recently purchased The Transporter DVD from a local Crosswords store in Pune, the disk had no region information on the DVD back cover, only upon opening the DVD did I find Region 3 stamped on the disk which of course meant that I couldn't play this on my XBox 360 or my US DVD player. So if you plan to use the XBox 360 as your primary DVD player, you can safely rule it out.

3.) No HD-DVD Drive and content in India: Lack of high definition content in India is the other pain point. HD-DVD Drive has not been announced in India and there are no HD-DVD titles available to purchase in India yet (I think it will take at least 2 years before HD-DVD is commonly available in India at a reasonable price).

4.) No XBox Live:XBox Live is not yet available in India - and is expected around June 2007 - this is another big minus for getting an XBox 360 in India.

5.) Impending PS3 release:Upcoming PS3 with the built-in Blu Ray player (as opposed to add on HD-DVD drive for XBox 360) is another negative factor - though given the lack of the Blu Ray titles in India, I think this point ranks lower than some of the other reasons above.

6.) Lack of choice in XBox 360 titles:There are only a handful of XBox 360 titles available in India - I expect this list to grow - but if you are looking for a lot of choice in games - then you are bound to be disappointed.

7.) Not backward compatible with old XBox games:No backward compatibility with the old XBox games - this is a real problem for me as I have a lot of the old XBox games. Microsoft has a compatibility chart that lists the old XBox games that will work on the XBox 360 - but I found that your results may vary.

8.) More reasons: Here are some more reasons why you shouldn't get the XBox 360 today, but keep in mind that this article was written just before the XBox 360 launch.

The bottom line is whether it makes sense to buy an XBox 360 today - or wait till the situation improves in terms of titles and accessories and online gaming. Also whether it might make more sense to wait for the PS3 launch and get access to hundreds of PS2 and PS3 titles (PlayStation has better backward compatibility compared to XBox) and the built-in Blu Ray drive (future proofing your purchase). In my mind its a wash - to be honest I don't see a real strong reason to purchase an XBox 360 today - unless you are an early adopter and don't mind paying the premium for getting to play with new technologies as they are released with the inherent risk that either a new generation product is launched a short while later or the product becomes obsolete very quickly(The DreamCast was a big mistake in my case - it's my favorite paperweight today). Don't get me wrong - I am all for purchasing an XBox 360 in India today and enjoying the awesome gaming experience it provides - as long as you are aware of all the caveats. The choice is yours, I hope this article provided some insight into important decision making points before you take the plunge. Happy Gaming and Happy Diwali!

Official XBox US Website
Official XBox India Website
XBox India Store Locator
How to hook up your XBox 360 - Step By Step Guide
XBox 360 1080p upgrade review for XBox 360

Inaugural Post

The idea for this blog came out of the frustration I experienced while researching high fidelity equipment - both audio and video - in India. While there exists a ton of information and reams of reviews and product information on high fidelity audio and video equipment outside India, primarily in the US, there is a serious dearth of material specific to the Indian market. Surprisingly even some of the well known brands and Fortune 500 electronics giants are rather sparse and terse when it comes to their India web sites. Also the vendors market the same product with different product names and model numbers across various countries - making it that much harder to compare models available in India and elsewhere.

The idea for this blog was born out of this lack of information about hi-fi products in the India market - to try and collate as much useful information and links to resources as I could and share my findings with the rest of you out there in India who are looking for similar information. The idea is to spend at least a couple of hours every week and reach out to the audiophile community in India and see how it goes.

To give you some concrete examples of the frustration that I had to go through:

XBox 360: I was looking to find detailed product information on the XBox 360 in India. The XBox 360 India site is adequate but not very useful if you want to find out whether the XBox is a region free DVD player like most of the other DVD players available in India (it is not) and if you are looking to get hold of a S-Video XBox Adapter (it simply doesn't list it as an accessory available in India).

In my case I needed to to connect the PAL version of the XBox available in India to my NTSC TV that only has composite and S-Video inputs. The default cable that comes with XBox has composite and component outputs only. After a lot of search and calling up the distributor, I found that the S-Video connector is currently not available in India.

Also the official web site does not mention (at during a cursory search) that the XBox will only play DVD's that are region 5 (and of course all region) encoded. I have a bunch of Region 3 DVD's that are available in stores like CrossWords in Pune, and those won't play on my XBox. I originally planned to use the XBox as my region free DVD player, replacing my older Xbox as well as my Sony DVP S500D DVD player which are all locked to the US region, having purchased them in the US.

So it was really frustrating after hooking up my Xbox to find that (a) the only connection option to my TV was composite - which is the lowest video quality (b) my XBox wouldn't play DVD's other than region 5 or all region. To compound my problems, I also had to figure out the PAL -> NTSC conversion to get my PAL Xbox to output to the NTSC TV.

So at the moment I have an Xbox 360 that only plays region 5 DVD's, is connected via composite video to my TV and requires PAL->NTSC conversion due to non-availability of the S-Video connector. Kind of fun figuring it all out - but would have incurred the wrath of the wife if I didn't manage to get all the bits working together.

My XBox 360 experience can be found on this blog - XBox 360 - Trick or Treat?

Hitachi Plasma: I am also in the market for a plasma at the moment - the one that looked interesting and was on my list was the 42PD8900TA - however go to the Hitachi India website and you draw a blank - the model is not even listed there, as of this blog posting, let alone any product specifications or information. I was finally able to get the information I needed from a friendly retailer in Pune.

Panasonic Plasma: The Panasonic Viera range of plasma TV's were launched with a lot of fanfare and billboards in Pune, but go to their website and try to locate a dealer in Pune and you will draw a complete blank - it just doesn't work and returns no results for Pune. I tried Mumbai thinking that perhaps they were still setting up operations in Pune - but drew a blank there too. That's when I figured out how important the India market was for Panasonic. I finally located the Pune dealer from one of their recent ads in What Hi*Fi Sound and Vision - currently my favourite magazine for audio video products in India - only to find out that the realy interesting models are not yet available and are at least a month away.

Thanks for staying awake through my rant, with that out of the way, here are the key objectives for this blog, as I see it:

  • Find and share resources about various hi-fidelity audio and video equipment in India
  • Share information about new audio/video product launches in India
  • Attempt to discuss and understand some of the technology underlying these products
  • Share configuration and connection settings and tweaks for various products
  • Share opinions and experiences with dealers, support network and retail stores in India

I am open to other ideas here as long as they fall well within the broad ambit of the charter of this blog. With that out of the way, here's to more adventures in high fidelity.