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Plugged In

20 tips for getting the most out of your Xbox 360

Plugged In

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Love it or hate it, the Xbox 360 isn't going anywhere soon. It's the oldest of the current consoles, but despite an onslaught of leaks and rumors, Microsoft has yet to officially acknowledge it's working on a next-generation system.

In the real world, it's a pretty safe bet that the next Xbox won't hit stores before Christmas 2013. That means you've got another year -- at least -- with your current model. And while it might be a little long in the tooth, there's still plenty of horsepower under the hood.

You probably already know the basics about how to effectively utilize the system to watch Netflix or find a new, worthy opponent in Modern Warfare 3, but there's a lot more your Xbox 360 can do. There are also a number of tricks to increase its performance without breaking your wallet. Here are a few things to try:

1. Display content on two screens at once

Having a game party and want to let spectators watch? Maybe you're watching something on Netflix with a large group of friends. You'll have to sacrifice high definition, but it's possible to show the fun on two screens. Flip the switch on the component/composite dual video cable to standard definition, then hook the two ends of that cable to two separate TVs.

2. Go Gold

Yes, it's kind of a pain paying for services that are free on other consoles, but a Microsoft study found that people who subscribe to Xbox Live Gold spend a lot more time online with their 360 -- 68 hours, compared to the 16 that Silver users average. Considering all the Gold tier offers, it's pretty much worth it.

3. …or play online without going Gold

While the $60 per year fee for Xbox Live Gold isn't a bad deal considering everything you get some people aren't able to (or don't want to) pay it. Here's a solution. Xlink Kai lets you use your networked PC to play multi-player games online for free on your Xbox. Simply install the program on your PC and make sure your console is online on the same network -- it will essentially be fooled into thinking it's on a LAN and will let you play against players online. You won't be able to take advantage of Microsoft's matchmaking service or other Gold features, but you'll at least be part of the game.

4. Foil would-be thieves

You read stories all the time about burglars stealing people's game consoles. But did you know you could bolt down your Xbox fairly easily? When Microsoft unveiled the redesigned Xbox 360 in 2010, one change was the addition of a Kensington security lock slot to the back. Used properly, you'll still be able to play games while the thieves nab your silverware.

5. Socialize sports

Between its partnerships with ESPN, UFC, MLB, NHL and the NBA, there are a lot of games to watch on Xbox that have nothing to do with a controller. What makes them unique is the ability to interact with friends who are watching the same thing. During UFC bouts, for instance, you can compare fight picks with your friends. And the addition of Monday Night Football this fall should take things to the next level.

6. Explore XBLA

Sure, you know it's there, but most Xbox 360 users haven't spent a lot of time exploring the vast wealth of games locked away in the Xbox Live Arcade section. From indies to retro games to blockbusters, there are actually over 500 titles there, some of which are as good as or better than the $60 game you're considering buying at retail. Most cost between $5 and $15.

7. Add a storage device

Hard drive filling up? Pull that old MP3 player or thumbdrive out of the drawer and use it as an additional storage device.  The system will only support up to 16 GB of additional storage, but that could be enough to save you the expense of buying an Xbox 360-specific hard drive, which can cost over $100.

8. Find the Netflix hidden menu

Admittedly, this is more a parlor trick than genuinely useful, but it's still fun. Once you're in the Netflix app, type in the following code, using your controller's D-pad: Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-Up-Up- Up-Up. That will bring up a menu letting you do things like view AV stats during playback and enable a framerate counter.

9. Clear your cache

System running a little sluggish? As with any web browser, it never hurts to clear the cache. Be warned, though: Doing this will erase all software updates for all games (but not your saved games or music), though you can always re-download those if need be. To give it a try, go to the 'Memory' system blade, highlight the hard drive, then press: Y, X, X, LB, RB, X, X.

10. Surf the web

Bing will let you search the web for Xbox-supported entertainment options, but if you want to view web pages through your Xbox, you're out of luck. The good news? There's a solution. First, you'll need to link up your 360 to Windows Media Center on your PC (here's a how-to). Once that's handled, just download and install the MCE Browser plugin on your PC to get web browsing working.

11. Video chat with friends

Sure, it'd be nice to have Skype included on your Xbox (what with Microsoft owning it and all) but that apparently won't be happening for a while. But if you and your friends have Kinect, you can still video chat for free. Microsoft has shown off this functionality before, but it quickly got overshadowed by the games.

12. Skip the component cables

The Xbox 360 still ships with component cables, and many people assume that gets them high-definition images. It doesn't. You'll need an HDMI cable to get the best graphics from your system. Don't bother with the expensive kind. Dirt cheap HDMI cables work just as well as the fancy ones.

13. Ignore Zune, use your iPod

Microsoft gives its own subscription music service a big push on the Xbox 360 dashboard, but there's no reason to pay up if you already have a robust music collection (and chances are you do). Just download the "Optional Media Update" from the Xbox Marketplace and install it. From there, plug your iPod into the system and you can play any MP3 files on the system. (Protected AAC files are not playable, however.)

14. Kid controls

If your children have selective deafness when you tell them to put down the controller, sneak into the system's parental controls and get your Xbox working with you. You can put curbs on their account, limiting them to a certain amount of playtime per day, or restrict the kinds of content they can access based on ESRB ratings. Just navigate to "Family settings," then "console settings" to take control.

15. Install your games

While most every Xbox 360 retail game can be played off the disc just fine, it's often a better experience if you install it to the system's hard drive. For bigger games, it's a must, as it saves time during play by cutting down load times. Just make sure you have plenty of space: the more you install -- and that includes downloadable games -- the more room you'll take up on the hard drive.

16. Blog!

Blogging about your own gaming achievements is kind of lame, but when your Xbox 360 does do it for you, it's kind of cool. Sign up for 360Voice and within a couple days, your console will tell the world about your gaming prowess. Fair warning: it gets cranky when you don't play anything for a while.

17. Forego wireless

Yeah, it's a pain to run network cable through your house or in your walls, but if you want a faster connection (with fewer interruptions) in your multiplayer games, a wired connection is the way to go. You'll mind the wires a lot less than your connection speed dropping without warning during a tight match.

18. Easier Netflix Browsing

Netflix is a heavily used Xbox 360 app, but finding new streaming movies isn't easy thanks to the somewhat wonky interface. Find out what's newly available on the service with InstantWatcher. The site not only lets you sort the Netflix streaming library in lots of ways, it lets you know what films are just added — and what's coming (and leaving) soon.

19. Enable cloud saves

If you alternate your playtime between home and a friend's house, cloud saves can be a lifesaver. You'll need an Xbox Live Gold account, natch, but with it, you can play on other people's machines — and still keep your achievement points and progress.

20. Turn it into a jukebox

Microsoft's own Xbox Music system will be out later this year, but there are still a lot of questions about that service. In the meantime, if you want to explore new types of music, the Pandora, Last.fm and IHeartRadio apps can be the free soundtrack to your party.

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