This morning, Microsoft announced its long-awaited high-end Xbox 360 model, the Xbox 360 Elite, which comes in a stylish black case and includes a 120GB hard disk and an all-digital High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) port. However, contrary to rumors, the Xbox 360 Elite doesn't include the IP Television functionality that Microsoft previewed earlier this year. Presumably, that functionality will be available later this year in another Xbox 360 model or via an add-on of some sort.

The Xbox 360 Elite will cost $479.99 in the United States and will ship on April 29, Microsoft said. That price makes the Xbox 360 Elite about $80 more than the standard Xbox 360 (with a 20GB hard disk) and about $180 more than the Xbox 360 Core System (which doesn't include a hard disk). Microsoft will also be selling a 120GB hard disk for $179.99 that current Xbox 360 users can use to upgrade their systems. The larger hard disk is considered to be key for users who want to rent or purchase digital videos (many of which are available in high definition--HD) via Xbox Live, which provides TV show and movie download functionality.

The Xbox 360 Elite offers obvious advantages over Sony's PlayStation 3. The PlayStation 3 is more expensive than the Xbox 360 Elite, with the PlayStation 3 retailing at $499 (with a 20GB hard disk) and $599 (with a 60GB hard disk). The Xbox 360 Elite also includes the one feature the PlayStation 3 sported that previous Xbox 360 models didn't--an HDMI port, which provides digital video and audio via a single connection. And, unlike Microsoft, Sony doesn't bundle an HDMI cable with its console. Queue up another win for Microsoft in the next-generation video game console battle.

However, the Xbox 360 Elite doesn't fix some of the biggest problems with Microsoft's console. The Xbox 360 is almost as loud as a jet engine, especially when playing games, and although Microsoft is expected to move the console to a cooler and quieter chipset sometime later this year, the Xbox 360 Elite will apparently share the same internal circuitry as its predecessors. The Xbox 360 is also infamous for its reliability problems, most of which appear to be heat related. (I've had to have two Xbox 360s replaced in the past month because of these problems.)

The Xbox 360 Elite doesn't include High-Definition DVD (HD-DVD) playback capabilities, so users will have to purchase the add-on HD-DVD drive, which sells for about $200 and comes only in white. Microsoft is selling only a small number of Xbox 360 accessories in black to match the Xbox 360 Elite, including a wireless controller, a wireless headset, and a Play and Charge Kit.

In related news, Microsoft announced that more than 1500 hours of downloadable entertainment are now available from Xbox Live, thanks to the addition of TV shows and movies from A&E Television Networks, ADV Films, National Geographic, and TotalVid.com. Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. will also offer TV shows and movies in HD via Xbox Live for the first time. Titles available in HD include "Braveheart," "World Trade Center," and "Babylon 5: The Lost Tales."