Bill Gates finally gave us an upclose look at his new game console at the 2005 E3 convention in Los Angeles this past week. Taking it one step closer to being the next big thing to arrive on the gameing scene.
Upside: The new Xbox is notably smaller and more curvaceous than its brutish predecessor. The front panel is dominated by an oversize power button, but the look and feel can be customized with a variety of interchangeable faceplates. Furthermore, the Xbox 360 can be mounted vertically or horizontally, a la the PlayStation 2.
Under the hood, the Xbox 360 is a formidable piece of hardware. In addition to an IBM PowerPC-based CPU running at 3.2GHz and half a gigabyte of RAM, the 360 sports a customized ATI graphics processor capable of advanced antialiasing and shader effects. What that technical jargon means, in practice, is that new Xbox will have the processing power to deliver true 720p and 1080i wide-screen HDTV images for all of its games (by contrast, most games for the original Xbox maxed out at a DVD-level 480p). Multichannel surround sound is also standard, and the 360 natively supports up to four wireless controllers to cut down on cable clutter.
The success of the current generation of Xbox Live has led Microsoft to expand and enhance the next generation of the broadband online service. It will now be available in Silver and Gold tiers, with the former offering limited functionality to all Xbox 360 users, and the latter continuing the premium services Xbox Live users currently enjoy. But the big step up is the Xbox Live Marketplace, which will serve as an online launch platform for downloading value-added content, such as new demos, levels, maps, and skins.
Perhaps most interesting is the litany of Xbox 360's nongaming capabilities. Its built-in ability to serve as a Media Center Extender will let users stream digital video, audio, and photos from networked PCs running Windows XP Media Center Edition. Microsoft is also promising the "ability to stream media from portable music devices, digital cameras, and Windows XP-based PCs." Furthermore, the company is touting a video camera attachment, which presumably connects to one of the Xbox 360's three USB 2.0 ports, but it's unclear whether it is intended as a videoconferencing-style Webcam or an EyeToy-like gaming accessory--or both.
Downside: The Xbox 360 certainly offers a universe of potential--but the devil's in the details. Microsoft still hasn't confirmed bundling details and pricing, so we don't know if the detachable 20GB hard drive will ship with all Xbox 360s or be available only as an upgrade. Widely leaked photos, meanwhile, have shown Xbox Live headsets and a DVD-style remote control--both of which required an additional purchase for the current Xbox. The same questions apply to the wireless controllers, wireless networking options (the company says it's Wi-Fi ready, but doesn't provide details), and even connectivity details. Will high-def output require an add-on accessory, as with the original Xbox, and will it be a component or HDMI connection? Similarly, Xbox Live Marketplace sounds cool, until you realize that there's no guarantee that those levels, maps, and skins will be free.
More importantly, is the Xbox 360 already obsolete? That's the take you'll likely hear from Sony. The 360 uses the aging DVD format, while Sony's PlayStation 3 employs next-generation Blu-ray discs, which are capable of storing several times more data than standard DVDs and can play back high-definition movies as well.
An even bigger question may be, is Microsoft overreaching? One key to the success of the original Xbox was that it was (and is) a great gaming machine. Yes, the Xbox 360's enhanced media features sound intriguing, but will they simply amount to bloatware that prevents the console from reaching its true gaming potential? Who wants to play MP3s on a game console, for instance, if it means living with the possibility of a Windows-style blue screen of death in the middle of a Halo death match?
Finally, Microsoft has remained mum on whether the 360 is backward compatible with the current Xbox. Halo 2 addicts may very well need to keep Big Black in the entertainment rack for the foreseeable future.
Outlook: Now that the curtain is up on the Xbox 360, you're likely to hear a string of questions, from the watercooler to the financial pages: Is the Xbox 360 a bold new direction or a yawn-inducing retread? The most powerful gaming console ever or a sad second fiddle to the latest from Sony and Nintendo? The ultimate home entertainment device or a watered-down jack-of-all-trades? But there's really only one question that matters to the legion of fans who will be considering whether to plunk down hundreds of dollars on a new Xbox 360: What about the games? The MTV special showed brief glimpses of some impressive-looking titles: Madden NFL 06, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Gears of War, Ghost Recon 3, Quake 4, and Call of Duty 2. All of them are likely examples of the sort of must-have third-party titles that will look better on the 360 than on any of the previous-generation consoles (PS2, GameCube, and the original Xbox). But Microsoft also needs to deliver top-caliber exclusives--such as the much-anticipated Perfect Dark Zero--that will help draw fans to its new console, just as past Xbox-only games (Halo, Jade Empire, Ninja Gaiden) made the original a favorite. If Microsoft can make good on that potential, the Xbox 360 could be an all-around hit, regardless of what Sony and Nintendo have waiting in the wings.
For more info on the Xbox 360 you can visit the official website at: www.xbox.com