E3 Roundup: Microsoft Xbox 360

At two pre-E3 events—an MTV unveiling last week and a press conference Monday night—Microsoft finally presented the future Xbox to the public. And the news, video game fans, is good. Actually, it's not just good, and it certainly doesn't concern just video game fans.

Microsoft is wisely positioning the next Xbox, dubbed Xbox 360, as more than a video game console. In Microsoft parlance, it's a home entertainment system that will connect users with their PC-based digital media content and other Xbox 360 users over the Internet. This vision is in sharp contrast with that of the first Xbox, which was perceived as a "pure" video game machine. But after the Xbox got off to a lackluster start, Xbox cocreator Seamus Blackley left Microsoft, and the company got busy turning the Xbox into a digital media wunderkind. The results, on display in the Xbox 360, are impressive.

Sure, the Xbox 360 will kick ass as a video game machine. It sports a 3.2GHz PowerPC processor with three processing cores, and 512MB of RAM. Its ATI-based graphics subsystem will support native HDTV 720p and 1080i resolutions, although the system will automatically down-sample games for standard-definition TV sets. It will output multichannel surround sound. It includes wireless controllers, three USB 2.0 ports, and a removable hard disk.

The device itself is stunning and quite iPod-like, with a white hourglass fascia. It also bears absolutely no resemblance to the original Xbox. All these modifications are by design, Microsoft says. The new design, the company believes, is far more attractive and will find favor with non-gamers. Also, users will be able to swap out the device's front fascia with a variety of faceplates for a custom look.

Early demonstrations of upcoming Xbox 360 games are breathtaking and look like HDTV promotion clips rather than the actual game play they represent. In Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06, for example, you can see individual blades of grass and pants fabric rustling in the wind. Call of Duty 2, meanwhile, accurately portrays the horrors of World War II. And the cars in Project Gotham Racing 2? My God. The cars.

The Xbox 360's multimedia features, however, have me most excited. First, the Xbox 360 will work with an astonishing number of optical disk formats, including DVD-ROM, DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, CD-DA, CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, WMA CD, MP3 CD, and JPEG Photo CD, and will play DVD movies natively. You can rip audio CDs to the Xbox 360 hard disk directly from the console. But you can also use the integrated Windows Media Center Extender technology in the Xbox 360 to link to the digital media content on your PC, over the home network, and play back that content on your best TV and stereo system. However, unlike today's fairly limited Extenders, the Xbox 360 will also be able to stream HDTV programs—both live and recorded—and HDTV movies. This is astonishing, heady stuff for AV geeks.

Microsoft is also hugely improving the Xbox Live service for the Xbox 360. First, all Xbox 360 customers will be able to access a new Xbox Live service level, called Xbox Live Silver, for free. With Xbox Live Silver, users can create their own Gamer Profile, which includes a Gamer Card (user summary) and a GamerScore (online and offline gaming achievements and feedback from others). Silver users can also access the Xbox Live Marketplace, from which they can download game trailers and other content, and purchase new game levels, maps, weapons, vehicles, skins, and other types of new content on demand. Finally, Silver users can denote which GamerZone they want to compete in. Zones include Family for all-ages gaming, R&R for casual gamers, Pro for the gaming elite, and Underground, a currently ill-described zone that will reportedly appeal to nonconformists.

A new Xbox Live Gold service will replace the current Xbox Live subscription service and come with a yearly fee. At the Gold level, members get all the benefits of Silver but can also play multiplayer games online over the Internet with others. Gold also adds video-chat functionality, using an optional 640 x 480 USB 2.0-based video camera that Microsoft will sell.

As for compatibility, the news isn't so good: Microsoft has designed the Xbox 360 to play only the "top-selling" titles from the original Xbox, and thus the new console won't support the entire range of currently available Xbox titles. The problem is technical: Because the Xbox 360 runs on a completely different hardware platform than that of the original Xbox, the company will have to manually create software workarounds for each title that let them play on the Xbox 360. No word yet on exactly which games the new console will support.

Overall, however, the Xbox 360 picture is surprisingly rosy and, unlike Sony's PlayStation 3, the hardware actually exists and real people are using it. (At E3, Sony showed only prototype PlayStation 3devices, which people couldn't touch or use.) Microsoft expects to ship the Xbox 360 simultaneously in North America, Europe, and Japan—itself quite a feat—in November.

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