Sunday, January 11, 2009
International Xbox 360 Stuff...
A little while back I did some research (including some questions in the public forums on www.xbox.com) around the Xbox and international scenarios. As readers of my International Living Blog know, I live both in the US (Houston) as well as in Austria. In the past, I have always had an Xbox in Houston and a PlayStation 2 as well as a Wii in Austria. I am really more of a PC gamer, but I do get a fair amount of use out of my Xbox (360). Especially the media capabilities are of interest to me, in addition to the games. In the past, I played my PlayStation 2 on occasion (the Wii gets next to no use at all) and I somehow always assumed that I would eventually buy a PlayStation 3 in Austria, but I somehow could never work up any excitement for it. I pretty much get all the interesting games for the Xbox too (Metal Gear, Little Big Planet, and Fat Princess just don't count for enough in my book) and Xbox Live is a big draw. Streaming media from the PC is great on the Xbox too (especially in combination with a Windows Home Server). So long story short: I started to think more and more about buying a second Xbox 360 in Austria.
The big unknown for me however was whether I could reuse any of my existing Xbox 360 investment in Austria. I have tons of games that I bought in the US and I do not want to re-buy them in Europe. (And I found myself in the somewhat unique situation that we - if I do not buy a game then Ellen does - already owned every Xbox 360 game that either appealed to us or rated well, so I really had no interest in buying new ones in Europe). Also, I of course wanted to make sure that my gamer account (gamer tag and achievements) work in Europe too.
Interestingly enough, it was quite difficult to come by any information around this stuff. Neither online nor in stores or any of the community outlets I was aware of, did anyone have any facts. So-called "experts" babbled incoherent wild guesses that conflicted wildly. In the end, I decided to take the plunge and buy another box, especially since the price for the Arcade SKU had dropped to Euro 175,-- before Christmas 2008, so I figured the damage was relatively small and worth the benefit I'd at least get out of media streaming.
As it turns out, the investment was worthwhile, since the vast majority of the games works fine on both US and European systems. Here is more detail on individual aspects:
Xbox 360 on a Standard Definition TV (PAL vs. NTSC)
Initially, I ran my new 360 on an old standard definition television, and everything worked fine, much to my surprise. In the past, the PAL vs. NTSC differences were a problem for many gaming systems (in the old days, even for home computer systems such as the Commodore Amiga). In fact, when you buy an Xbox game in the US today, it has an "NTSC" logo on it, identifying the game as the NTSC version, while European games have a "PAL" logo. So I had assumed that with standard definition TVs, US games would only work on US systems, while European versions would only work in Europe, and vice versa. However, most of the games worked just fine (see below). So that was a very nice and positive surprise.
Note: "PAL" refers to a video encoding standard for standard (low) resolution TV. Europe as well as much of the world has been using this standard for a long time. PAL is basically 576i resolution (more info on PAL can be found on the Wikipedia). The US traditionally used the lower resolution NTSC system, which is 480i (NTSC on Wikipedia).
Xbox 360 on an HDTV (1080p)
Shortly after I purchased the Xbox, we also upgraded our television to a new HDTV with full 1080p (a 40" Samsung model I am thrilled with, but that is a different story). I had always assumed that since there is no difference in resolution between US and European HDTV, games would work. That assumption turned out to be correct. The games worked just fine. (I guess after the low-res stuff worked - which was a surprise to me - it was no surprise that HD worked as well).
Login and Gamer Tag
Probably the least surprising aspect was that my regular login (with gamer tag, gamer score, games I own, and so forth...) worked just fine. I have to do a "transfer gamer tag" when I log in in Europe/the US the first time, which is a bit of a surprise each time and takes longer than you'd want it to, but that is just a minor nuisance.
One of the most important aspects to me was whether or not games I bought in the US would work on my European systems, because if that was the case, I could simply carry a few discs back and forth. Luckily, it turns out that most of the games work fine. Apparently, there is no real technical difference between PAL and NTSC games, as all NTSC games worked just fine on the PAL system. And as I expected, they worked OK on the HD television too. However, some games (not many) do have regional encoding, which keeps you from playing them outside the region they are encoded for. It seems that those limitations may have to do with licensing (my copy of EA's NHL 2009 does not work in Europe for instance) or legal issues (my GTA4 for instance does not work in Europe, which I assume to be due to the European versions featuring less violence... at least that is my guess).
A complete list of games and whether or not they have regional encoding, and if so, which, can be found here, here and here (and you can probably google more lists).
One of the most popular features of the New Xbox Experience (NXE) is the included Netflix service, which includes streaming much of Netflix' movie library straight to your television. When I installed my new Xbox, it immediately downloads the NXE update, which includes Netflix. As it turns out however, the Netflix service is not available in Europe. (One can go through the whole activation procedure on the Xbox until one reaches a step that has to be completed on a computer, at which point one is told that the Netflix service is only available in the US). Why the update includes the Netflix feature in Europe then is beyond me. However, the otherwise useless feature (in Europe) turned out to work well for me. It turns out that if one already has an account activated, one can link the Xbox to it through a US-based computer (which one could - hypothetically ;-) - have access to over Terminal Server). At that point, all the videos that one has queued through a US computer - hypothetically of course - become available on a European Xbox for watching. And thanks to the great bandwidth I enjoy in Austria, video quality - hypothetically - is great :-).
None of the Xbox 360 hardware (as far as I can tell) is regionally encoded, meaning that hardware bought in the US can be used in Europe, and vice versa. When we originally bought our Xbox 360 in the US it came with a 20GB harddrive, which is not much considering all the stuff one downloads these days. Buy a lot of Arcade games or Rock Band songs, and the harddrive fills up in no time. Add the NXE "copy to disk" feature, and 20GB is nothing. So I have long wanted to buy a bigger drive in the US. Instead, we have now taken our 20GB drive to Europe while here, we spend Euro 199,-- to buy an Xbox 360 with a 60GB harddrive, which we will now take back to the US. All that seems to work without a problem.
Posted @ 12:44 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)