First look at Microsoft's Xbox

Microsoft Corp. is making its first foray into the gaming console market, releasing the high-powered Xbox system to crowds of eager gamers. With only an estimated 300,000 units of the US$299 console available for launch Thursday, initial shipments are expected to sell out quickly.

Microsoft has been talking up Xbox for nearly two years, originally unveiling it at a game developers conference in March 2000. Company officials have offered several peeks at the console and heavily promoted it to developers. The console beats the rival Nintendo Co. Ltd. GameCube to the market by mere days, and also competes with Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.'s PlayStation 2.

PC World took the system for a test drive along with several of the games available at launch. Initial finding: It's a worthy competitor to Sony's PlayStation2, the current king of the consoles.

Assessing hardware

Take a look at Xbox's specs, and you might think you're shopping for a cheap PC. That's because Xbox is built around a collection of PC parts. A 733-MHz Intel Pentium III CPU (central processing unit) acts as the brains of the unit, while a 250-MHz NVidia GPU (graphics processing unit) provides the graphics muscle. Using the newer NVidia chip puts the Xbox's graphics a notch ahead of the GeForce3 chip, which is one of the fastest PC graphics chips available. The system uses 64MB of 200-MHz DDR RAM to hold graphics and game code data.

Games play through the system's 5X DVD-ROM (digital versatile disc-read-only memory) drive, and you can save them to the 10GB internal hard drive or to proprietary 8MB memory cards that fit into the controllers. Sound is enabled by a custom NVidia chip that can handle 64 3D voices simultaneously, and can output audio encoded in Dolby surround to your stereo's surround system for better effect. A built-in 100-Mbps Ethernet port lets you network Xboxes together for competition play and will allow online gaming when Microsoft adds broadband support, promised in summer 2002.

All that horsepower drives games written for a version of Microsoft's DirectX 8 API--the same set of functions that game developers use to create PC games. That's one attraction of the system for game developers--DX8 is a familiar environment, so they can get games up and running quickly. And Microsoft is delivering about 20 games on launch, as promised.

A hands-on take

Don't expect PC-type boot times and crashes with the Xbox. Just hit the power button and after a brief splash screen, it's ready to go. (The PC should work this well.) You won't have to install games, either--they play off the disc just as they do on other consoles.

The Xbox itself looks more like a high-tech stereo component than a game console. It's a heavy machine with an imposing profile, significantly larger than Sony's PS2. All of the controller's eight buttons and two triggers are pressure-sensitive, and the two analog sticks plus a digital direction pad provide for plenty of control options. Unfortunately, the button placement is a little awkward. The controllers are large, too, perhaps a bit too large for even some adult hands. That's one of the few drawbacks to an impressively designed system.

Of course, Xbox isn't just a games machine. You can play DVD movies on it, too, although to keep costs down, Microsoft kept DVD movie playback out of the basic console package. You need to add a $30 DVD Movie Playback Kit to play DVD videos. The kit includes an infrared remote and receiver that plugs into one of the controller ports. Though some games can play at higher resolutions on HDTV sets, Xbox doesn't support progressive scan for DVD playback.

On the audio side, you can rip songs to the Xbox's hard drive using a simple audio console app. You then assemble those songs into soundtracks that can act as background music when you play games. While you can't copy songs between Xbox and your PC's music collection, you can play back any of your soundtracks directly from the audio console. This lets the Xbox double as a digital audio jukebox like Compaq's IPaq Music Center.

Getting to the games

As with any console, the success of the Xbox will depend on the quality of the games available for it. Microsoft has covered most of the gaming genres with its lineup of launch titles, and the early games show an admirable amount of polish for a completely new system.

A fighting game called Dead or Alive 3 may be the most visually impressive title available at launch. The large, detailed characters fight through some truly amazing multitiered arenas, including a stunning forest level with thousands of moving leaves. Another level features beautiful snow effects, and characters even leave tracks through the fallen snow.

Another game, Halo, provides the first-person shooter game play found in PC games like Quake 3. Halo's graphics have some subtle but impressive touches as well, including some beautiful reflective surfaces. Xbox's networking capabilities allow for cooperative or competitive multiplayer games, though those will probably be scarce until broadband access is available for the machine. Still, there's nothing like mowing down aliens with your friends, and the split screen mode proves an enjoyable diversion.

Since the Dreamcast and PlayStation2 days, sports games have grown closer to being indistinguishable from watching an event on TV. Xbox's sports titles continue that evolution--NFL Fever 2002 features extremely lifelike players. Project Gotham Racing has you careening through the almost photo-realistic streets of Tokyo, London, New York, and San Francisco to rack up "Kudos" points and unlock better cars and more tracks.

What's next for X?

Xbox faces some stiff competition for the hearts and dollars of gamers. Nintendo promises to have ample stock of its $199 GameCube system, which is also capable of some stunning graphics effects. Sony still has a significant system in the $299 PlayStation2, which of course already has a year's worth of games available.

Still, Xbox has some strong support from key developers like Electronic Arts, and all signs point to Xbox being a serious contender for the foreseeable future.

A coming broadband link to online gaming should strengthen that future. And considering the ease with which Xbox games can transition to PCs and vice versa, it's not hard to imagine Xbox gamers fragging PC gamers across the globe within the next year or so.

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Eric Dahl

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