The Microsoft Xbox is, for better or worse, a lightning rod for debate among gamers. Microsoft needs no introduction, and their reputation for bad business has combined with the incessant analysis of any new trend, game, or piece of hardware to create a debate not seen in a long time.
A note: It is spelled and capitalized "Xbox." Not xbox or XBOX or xBOX or X-Box or any variation.
The Xbox itself is a largish black box, about the size of a VCR; large for a game console (which made it the butt of many jokes). The top of the case is a stylized black on black X, with a neon green circular Xbox logo in the center. The front of the case has a CD tray, the power button, and four controller connectors. On the back are a handful of (covered) undocumented ports, as well as a ethernet connector (more on that below). All of this is fairly standard, but more important is what's inside.
Two things really define the innards of the Xbox: off the shelf PC components, and a hard drive. A great deal of the Xbox's innards are standard computer components: the CPU is a 733 MHz Pentium III, nearly identical to the one you would find in a PC. (The GPU, however, is a 233 MHz custom design from nVidia, likely based on the GeForce 3 chipset.) The 64 megs of RAM are commodity parts, and even the hard drive is a standard 8 gig Seagate model.
The hard drive, a much ballyhooed feature of the Xbox, turns out to be of more use to pirates than gamers. (Many mod chips allow players to copy games to the hard drive and play them from there, without the game in the drive.) Its primary use is for storing game saves, saving players the trouble of buying memory cards. Many games (mostly early ones) installed onto the hard drive in the style of a PC game; later games simply used a portion of the drive as a disk cache, shortening load times (the alternative would be loading directly from the much-slower DVD-ROM drive,) It can be used to store mp3s ripped from music CDs (or CD-RWs; the Xbox seems to stubbornly not recognize CD-Rs), which can in turn be played by the Xbox's internal mp3 player or in place of the soundtracks in some Xbox games.
While "broadband online play" and "DVD movie support" are prominently displayed on the package, they both come with caveats. DVD movie playback requires the purchase of a $30 enabler kit, which includes a DVD remote. Many gamers were not amused. As far as online play goes, the Xbox one-ups the Dreamcast hardware-wise by including an eternet port, which would (theoretically) allow for broadband online play right out of the box (assuming you have a cable or DSL modem laying around and broadband internet access, but you have that, right?). Unfortunately, this support didn't materialize until about a year after the Xbox's release, with Xbox Live.
The Xbox Live service costs $50 a year (or $5.99 a month, for those who prefer to renew monthly instead of annually.) This money buys a fairly unremarkable online game matching service, comparable to services such as Gamespy's, with the addition of downloadable content for some games and voice chat and instant messaging linked to Microsoft's MSN Instant Messaging service. (Some games have downloads that cost an additional fee; these fees are generally nominal.) The pricing, however, has drawn a great deal of backlash, as Sony initially offered the PS2's broadband adapter for the same price as a year of Xbox Live, rendering the "advantage" of the included broadband moot. (Later, the broadband adapter would be included with all PS2s sold, again reigniting this debate.) Moreover, many gamers are unhappy with the lack of alternatives to Live (barring tunneling hacks for Halo or other LAN-capable games) and extra fees for some downloadable content.
For more info on Xbox Live, take a look at MechAssault (its killer app, and one of the first three games to recieve downloadable content), Unreal Championship and Splinter Cell (the other two of the first three games to get d/l content), GamerTag (the universal Xbox Live ID), and fondue's excellent w/u and withering (if now dated) criticism in Xbox Live.
The initial Xbox controller was very large, and something of a joke. It was as large as the much-criticized Dreamcast controller, although the cord extended from the top of the controller. The case was black, with neon green logo and writing in the "jewel" in the center. The buttons are oval (Y is yellow, X is blue, B is red, A is green, and the white and black buttons are unlabeled), the upper left and lower right circles are analog sticks (with a button under each, activated by tapping the stick, as with the Dualshock analog controller), the lower left circle is a D-pad, the select and start buttons are in the middle of the controller, and there are analog pressure-sensative triggers (labeled L and R) under each of the udders. The top of the controller has two ports for memory cards, rarely used due to the Xbox's hard drive.
A special feature of the controller is the connector for hooking them to the console itself. They have a pressure release switch, so yanking on a controller accidentally will disconnect the controller, rather than pulling down the console. While this prompted more jokes about the Xbox's massive size (the manual even says to keep small children and animals out from under where the console could fall), it is a handy feature for heated multiplayer matches.
(The ASCII art is representative with a monospaced font with equal height and width; designs will be vertically stretched in most monospace fonts.)
/ \-------------/ \
/ ___ _______ <O> \
| // | \\ / \ <•> |
| || ( ) || / \\ // \ (Y) |
| \\_|_// | >X< | (A) |
| | // \\ | (X) |
| \ X B O X / (B) |
| ___ \_______/ ___ |
| // | \\ // | \\ |
| ||--+--|| || -O- || |
| \\_|_// \\_|_// |
| / <•> <•> \ |
| /\ Microsoft /\ |
| / \___________/ \ |
\ / \ /
Due to the cumbersomeness of the Xbox controller, the Japanese controller quickly became a popular import item, due to its smaller size and compatibility with the US Xboxes. They became so popular, in fact, that many mainstream game retailers, like Electronics Boutique and Gamestop started carrying them. Microsoft eventually got a clue, and began distributing the Xbox Controller S. The Japanese and Controller S models were slimmer and smaller, with start and select buttons above the left control stick and white and black buttons below the XYAB buttons. The Japanese model had a neon green "jewel" (with the logo and "XBOX" in bas relief), shorter cords, and slightly lighter springs on the triggers, but was otherwise identical to the Controller S.
Despite some fan outcry, Microsoft has intentionally eschewed certain peripherals. There will not be a conventional analog/narrowband modem, as Microsoft's goal is to have lag-free, consistantly fast gameplay on Xbox Live. There won't be an authorized keyboard or mouse, (although Xbox controller port to USB adapters exist) for unspecified reasons. (Speculation ranges from expense to limited use to a lack of desire to compete with traditional PCs.) Microsoft will not release a lightgun, preferring to leave that to third parties; Mad Catz released a lightgun for House of the Dead III, the only Xbox lightgun title to date.
I only know about the US launch. Anyone interested in noding the European or Japanese launches in more detail than I have here is freely invited to; I'd be happy to point them to any helpful sources.
The Xbox was rumored as early as 1999, amidst a swarm of rumors about the upcoming PlayStation 2 and Nintendo's next offering, then code-named "Dolphin". It's now known that Microsoft was in talks with developers and nVidia as early as October, although at this time the hardware and even OS the console would use were still up in the air. (Groups within Microsoft were lobbying alternately for modified versions of the WebTV or Windows CE kernals; a crucial conflict between these kernals and the special extended version of DirectX being developed by a Microsoft team collaborating with nVidia would lead to the development of a new kernal based loosely on the Windos 2000 kernal.) Bill Gates himself approved the preliminary plans for the Xbox, officially beginning the project, on December 21, 1999.
On March 9, 2000, Bill Gates confirmed the rumors, saying that, yes, Microsoft was going to be entering competition against Nintendo, Sony, and Sega by releasing the Xbox, a new gaming console using off-the-shelf PC components. The next day, Gates made the same announcement at the Game Developers' Conference, also confirming a Japanese launch.
Needless to say, predictions were rather dire. Many see Microsoft is seen as the great Satan of personal computing, and blamed them for any number of real or imagined problems with computer gaming as a whole.
After about a year of aimless speculation, a minor scandal with touched-up "screenshots," and no real news, Microsoft unveiled a prototype Xbox at the Consumer Electronics Show (another sign of MS's inexperience; typically, big releases in the US are done at E3), and announced the official release dates for the system. The launch titles showed some of Microsoft's inexperience in console gaming: Munch's Oddysee was a "big-name" system exclusive from a series no gamers really cared about (a sequel which didn't resemble the previous games in any way), and many of the hyped launch titles, like Mad Dash Racing and Fuzion Frenzy were games in genres that are traditionally awful. One of the biggest mistakes was the pricey exclusive licensing of a special edition of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, which was came out at almost the same time as Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 for the PlayStation 2.
The Xbox did eventually come out on November 15, 2001, and would have been totally ignored in its first Christmas season, if it weren't for Microsoft's single good move early on. Microsoft had acquired a small game studio named Bungie Software. Bungie's long-awaited first-person shooter Halo was pretty much the exclusive game to have that first season. While Halo's quality was a subject of much debate ("it's god/it's crap" flamewars continue to this day), and Microsoft couldn't yet compete with the library of the PlayStation 2, there was at least a single game to hold up against the success of the (in some circles disappointing) Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid 2. The release of Grand Theft Auto III overshadowed Halo's success, but Halo kept the Xbox from being buried that first holiday season.
Through the first three quarters of 2002, the Xbox competed debatably well, while the GameCube picked up a handful of hits early and late in the year, and the PS2 chugged on competitively. Microsoft scored a coup on the competitors in May, slashing prices preemptively, both closing the gap on the cheaper GameCube and getting an advantage on the dominating PlayStation 2. Both Nintendo and Sony responded within a month, but in that time MS sold approximately ten thousand units.
Things picked up again in the holiday season; Nintendo had a range of big-name titles, including their major franchises, and Sony had Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a pair of excellent platformers, and the breakout online hit SOCOM: Navy Seals, but Microsoft had Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, Splinter Cell, and the surprise hit and Xbox Live launch title, MechAssault. Microsoft still ended up a close third behind Nintendo for both aggregate sales and consoles sold, but the Christmas of 2002 was good to Microsoft nonetheless.
Now the present. Microsoft is talking about a successor for 2005, and has a number of titles on the horizon. While there have been many major Xbox disappointments, like New Legends, Blinx: the Time Sweeper, and others, the next year has the potential to be a very good year for Microsoft and the Xbox.
This future, however, is not so rosy outside of the US. Both the European and Japanese releases landed with a thud, and the system is struggling in Europe and is all but dead in Japan. It remains to be seen if the US market can sustain developer interest in the console.
At the moment, there are no Xbox emulators. While there are a very paltry few homebrew Xbox games, as well as at least one functional SNES emulator, as well as the ubiquitous MAME, that will run on the Xbox, an Xbox has to be modified before it will boot any unofficial software, and chipped or modded Xboxes cannot log onto Xbox Live. Efforts are ongoing to defeat this (some of them resulting in fairly malicious damage, like stealing system IDs), but at the moment Microsoft is exerting their considerable pressure to squelch modding and emulation efforts.
And, no, there isn't a Linux build for the Xbox. Sorry. Never underestimate the persistance of OSS coders. There is now a Linux build for the Xbox, available at http://xbox-linux.sourceforge.net/. Bear in mind, this requires a mod-chipped Xbox, so Linux and Xbox Live cannoy coexist on Xbox Live.
Appedix A - Statistics
Taken from GameFAQs and xbox.com. Comments and inanities are in italics, and are my own.
- CPU: Intel Pentium III 733-MHz processor technology with streaming SIMD extensions
- Graphics processor: 233-MHz, custom-designed X-Chip, developed by Microsoft and Nvidia
- Total memory: 64MB of RAM (unified memory architecture)
- Kernal: Stripped-down version of Windows 2000 - Thanks to fondue for this info.
- Memory bandwidth: 6.4GB/second - This is a non-spec, as it can be measured several different ways.
- Polygon performance: 150M/sec - This is just blank triangles. Microsoft has not published stats for performance with textures, effects, etc. enabled.
- Particle performance: 150M/sec - Likewise.
- Simultaneous textures: 4 - It was approximately one month before developers figured out how to increase this.
- Pixel fill rate, no textures: 4.8 G/sec (anti-aliased)
- Pixel fill rate, one texture: 4.8 G/sec (anti-aliased)
- Pixel fill rate, two textures: 4.8 G/sec (anti-aliased)
- Compressed textures: Yes (6:1)
- Full screen anti-alias: Yes - Hardware-enabled. Notably missing on the PlayStation 2, but present in modern video cards and the GameCube.
- Storage medium: 2X to 5X DVD, 8GB hard disk
- I/O: Four game controller ports, Ethernet (10/100)
- Audio channels: 256, AC3 encoded game audio
- 3D audio support: Yes
- Midi/DLS2 support: Yes
- Broadband enabled: Yes - Well, sort of. There's an ethernet port on the back, and utilities exist to tunnel a LAN game over the internet, but to play games over the internet you really do need Xbox Live.
- Modem enabled: No
- DVD movie playback: Yes - Only with the purchase of a $30 DVD playback kit. More below.
Gamepad included: Yes - Duh. Thank you, xbox.com.
- Maximum resolution: 1920x1080
- Maximum resolution (2x32bpp frame buffers + Z): 1920x1080
- HDTV support: Yes
- Region coding: Yes - Again, sort of. Microsoft allows for DVD region coding in the spec, but, unlike Sony, doesn't require it. Most game companies added region coding anyway, MS included.
Appendix B - Timeline
Taken from xbox.com, although it seems to be gone now. Additional info culled from Gamespy and GameFAQs.
- October 1999: First developers signed off
- December 21, 1999: Xbox general specs officially signed off by Bill Gates and sent to developers
- February 2000: New secret third party developers meeting held in Seattle
- March 6, 2000: Microsoft goes with nVidia for the Xbox graphics engine
- March 9, 2000: Bill Gates officially announces the "XBox" on CNBC
- March 10, 2000: Bill Gates announces "Xbox" at the GDC and in Japan
- May 15, 2000: The Xbox processor speed increases to 733MHz
- November 7, 2000: Microsoft chooses Seagate as hard drive manufacturer
- January 6, 2001: Xbox is unveiled at CES
- October 2001: Preview units begin to arrive in stores
- November 15, 2001: Official North American launch, at $300
- February 22, 2002: Official Japanese launch
- March 14, 2002: Official European launch
- May 2002: Console price reduced to $200
- August 15 - November 2, 2002: Microsoft offers cashback on DVD add-on kit
- October 2002: Xbox Live launches
- November 2002: Microsoft reduces price to $150 and starts packing Sega GT 2002 and Jet Set Radio Future in with the system
- Winter 2003: Microsoft stops selling the Sega GT pack and starts selling a package featuring Xbox Live, including a 2-month Xbox Live trial and a special pack-in game combining Star Wars: the Clone Wars, Tetris Worlds, and a Live-only demo of MechAssault.
- May 2004: Microsoft launches the Halo Special Edition of the Xbox for $179.99, including a translucent green Xbox, a green Xbox Controller S with Halo on the "jewel", and a copy of Halo including preview videos of Halo 2.
Appendix C - Launch Titles
US launch titles
Japan launch titles
Europe launch titles
(Not all titles launched in all countries.)
Sources: GameFAQs, Gamespy, Microsoft's official Xbox site at xbox.com, Amazon.com