Xbox 360 Buyer's Guide

Thinking of purchasing an Xbox 360 with or without Kinect? Read this first

Kid playing XBox360
Junko Kimura / Staff/Getty Images

When you are going to spend your hard-earned cash on a new game console, it is usually a good idea to do your homework first so you know exactly what you are getting yourself into. The games a system currently has, as well as its upcoming titles, are the most important part of choosing a system, but there are a few other things to consider as well. Backwards compatibility, online play, multimedia capabilities - all of these things can be a deal breaker. This Buyer's Guide outlines what the Xbox 360 offers as well as what you need to do to really get the most out of your system.


While the Xbox 360 has seen a handful of revisions and different releases since it was released in November 2005, there are two main hardware variations on the market today. In June 2010, a "Slim" version (Xbox 360 Slim Hardware Review of the Xbox 360 was introduced that included built-in Wi-Fi, a smaller, sleeker design, and either a 4GB or 250GB hard drive. The 4GB Xbox 360 Slim system has a MSRP of $199 while the 250 GB Xbox 360 Slim system has an MSRP of $299.

We highly recommend the 250 GB Xbox 360 system. It is tempting to go for the cheaper option, but 4GB of hard drive space is absolutely not enough. You can buy replacement hard drives, but it is better to save the time and money from the start and just go with a 250GB system.

It should be noted that Xbox 360 Slim systems do not come with high-definition cables to connect them to your TV. They only come with red, yellow, white composite cables. You'll need to buy a separate Xbox 360 component cable or HDMI cable, and each can be found for less than $10 if you look around. Don't be fooled into buying expensive HDMI cables that retailers try to sell you. A $5 one from works exactly as well as the $40 cable Best Buy wants to talk you into buying.

Older Xbox 360 Models

There are also, of course, older model Xbox 360 "Fat" systems still available, particularly on the used market. Older systems come in configurations of 20GB, 60GB, 120GB, and 250GB in a variety of colors. They do not have built-in Wi-Fi, however, and require an extra dongle if you can't or don't want to use Ethernet. Any new-in-box systems retailers might still have are fine, but be wary of buying used systems.

Older Xbox 360 hardware had quite a few issues that led to breakdowns. Before buying a used system, always check the manufacturer date, which you can see on the back of every Xbox 360 console. The more recent, the better. Also, because of illegal modifications, some Xbox 360 systems have been banned from using Xbox Live and unscrupulous sellers on Craigslist or eBay try to scam people by selling these banned systems. Always be careful when buying used.

Red Ring of Death And Other Issues

One unfortunate thing you have to watch out for with the Xbox 360 is a disappointingly high failure rate. Original "Fat" systems have (or had, as older system warranties have expired) 3-year warranties where Microsoft would replace them for free if the system experienced a Red Ring of Death (three lights on the front of the system flash red) or an E74 error - both of which were caused by the system overheating. As time went on, the systems did get more reliable, so the newer your system is the less you should have to worry about. There are a few steps you can take to extend the life of your system, most notably keeping it clean and making sure it has good airflow around it.

The new "Slim" systems introduced in June 2010 were completely redesigned to hopefully solve the overheating issues. The Slim systems only have 1-year warranties. So far, there haven't been many problems reported. We can only hope it stays that way.


In 2010, Microsoft launched a new motion control device for Xbox 360 called Kinect that allows users to play games without a controller. With Kinect, you move your hands and your body or use voice commands to control games.

Kinect is available on its own, bundled with the Kinect Adventures game. You can also buy Kinect bundled with Xbox 360 Slim systems. The 4GB Xbox 360 Slim with Kinect is about $300 new, and the 250GB Xbox 360 Slim with Kinect is tough to find but sometimes you can grab one used. Once again, we recommend the 250GB system for the same reasons as stated above.

In addition to playing games, you can also video chat with other Xbox 360 owners using Kinect as well as use it to control Xbox 360 dashboard functions. Soon you'll be able to control Netflix with Kinect as well. This is significant because it lets you fully control your Xbox 360 without ever having to pick up a controller or remote. You just use hand motions or voice controls to do everything. Read our Kinect Hardware Review and Kinect Buyer's Guide.

Kinect launched with around 15 games, and more have been trickling out over the months. Microsoft is really pushing hard with Kinect in 2011 and beyond, and the games should get better and more plentiful as time goes on. Read our full reviews of Kinect games here.

The nice thing about Kinect is that it is entirely optional. Unlike the Wii where you are sort of stuck with motion controls whether you want them or not (oh, and last-gen graphics), the Xbox 360 with Kinect offers a huge library of hardcore games, a growing library of motion controlled games, and all of them are in high-definition. There is no compromise here. Everyone gets what they want.

Family Safety Functions

The Xbox 360 has a full suite of family safety functions that parents can access. You can set timers for how long your kids can use the system as well as set content limits for what games they can play and who they can play with or contact on Xbox Live. You can learn all about it in our Xbox 360 Family Settings FAQ.

Xbox Live

Xbox Live is pretty much the centerpiece of the Xbox 360 experience. It isn't required to enjoy the Xbox 360, but if you don't use it you really are missing out. It lets you play games or chat with friends, it lets you download demos, games, and more, and you can even watch Netflix or ESPN programs.

Xbox Live Gold vs. Free

Xbox Live is available in two flavors. The Free version (formerly called Xbox Live Silver) lets you download demos and games and send messages to friends, but you can't play online or use some other features such as Netflix or ESPN.

Xbox Live Gold is a paid subscription service that costs $60 per year (though you can usually find it for $40 or less if you look for deals, read our How to Get Xbox Live Gold For Less article for details), and with that subscription you can play online with your friends, watch Netflix and ESPN, get earlier access to demos, and more. Gold is definitely the way to go. Online services from Nintendo or Sony may be free to play with your friends, but Xbox Live is generally agreed upon to be the best of the bunch. Better services, better speeds, better reliability - you do get what you pay for here.

Xbox Live Cards and Microsoft Points

You can buy Xbox Live subscriptions either on your console via credit card, or at retailers in 1, 3, and 12-month subs. We do not recommend that you buy or renew your subscription via credit card on your console, however, because it sets you up for auto-renewal and it can be difficult to turn off. Use subscription cards from retailers instead.

The currency of the Xbox 360 is Microsoft Points. They exchange at a rate of 80 = $1, and you can buy them in either in stores for $20 (1600 MSP) or $50 (4000 MSP) or on your Xbox 360 via credit card.

You can activate Xbox Live Subscription or Microsoft Point codes either on the Xbox 360 console or by visiting

The Xbox Live Marketplace

is where you download demos and much more. You can download full versions of Xbox and Xbox 360 games, Xbox Live Arcade games, demos, and Indie Games. You can also buy TV show episodes and save them to your Xbox 360 or even rent high-definition movies. There is also Twitter and Facebook support so you can update your friends on what you're doing right from your Xbox 360 dashboard. You can also watch ESPN shows or games broadcast live, but this feature requires that you have an ISP with an ESPN agreement (not all do).

Xbox Live Arcade

The Xbox Live Arcade is a collection of games available for download for anywhere between $5 (400 Microsoft Points) to $20 (1600 Microsoft Points). The games range from classic arcade games to modern re-releases to completely original games designed specifically for XBLA. New games are added every Wednesday. For many gamers, the Xbox Live Arcade is the highlight of the Xbox 360 experience. There are a lot of really great games available on the service.


Watching Netflix on Xbox 360 requires that you have an Xbox Live Gold membership as well as a Netflix subscription. You watch movies or TV shows from your Netflix Instant Queue, which you can update an organize either on your PC or your Xbox 360.

Xbox 360 Games

Of course, the real reason you should get an Xbox 360 is because of all of the great games available on the system. The Xbox 360 has been around for almost 6 years now, and in that time a ton of great games have come out to suit any taste. Sports, shooters, music, RPGs, strategy, racing, and more are all on Xbox 360. We have our top picks for the best of each genre in our Xbox 360 Gift Guide, or you can see all of our Xbox 360 game reviews here.


Extra controllers, steering wheels, arcade sticks, Wi-Fi adapters, memory units, and more are all extra accessories you can consider buying for your Xbox 360. We have reviews and picks for the best of the best here - Xbox 360 Accessory Reviews.

Backward Compatibility

The Xbox 360 also allows you to play more than 400 original Xbox games. Not every game works, but most of the best ones do. Playing these games on the Xbox 360 also gives you a bump up in graphics, which can make some OG Xbox games look surprisingly nice even today. You can no longer play original Xbox games on Xbox Live, unfortunately, but their single-player portions still work just fine. You can see a full list of all of the backward compatible Xbox games, with our recommendations for the best ones, right here.

Media Capabilities

In addition to playing games, watching Netflix, and everything else the Xbox 360 offers, you can also use it as a media hub. You can stream music, movies, and photos from your PC to your Xbox 360 over your local network. This is a great way to be able to watch videos or look at pictures with friends and family on a nice big TV screen. Streaming music from your PC instead of ripping it to your Xbox 360 hard drive is also highly recommended over wasting space on your HDD. You can also watch movies, use music, or view pictures off of a USB flash drive plugged into the Xbox 360 as well.