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Xbox 360 meets PS3, and it's ready to rumble

reporter's notebook But is it a fair fight between game consoles when Microsoft is calling the shots?

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

reporter's notebook It was a video gamer's dream: I was in a room with a new 46-inch LCD television, and bookending it were a Microsoft Xbox 360 with all the latest bells and whistles and a Sony PlayStation 3.

But this wasn't some rich uncle's house. This was a conference room here at CNET Networks' San Francisco headquarters, and I was sitting through a side-by-side comparison of the two video game consoles, courtesy of Microsoft.

The idea was to showcase the similarities and differences between the Xbox 360 and the PS3. Naturally, I walked into the meeting expecting it to be a highly one-sided taste test. And I wasn't disappointed. But give Microsoft some credit: with all the hoopla around the PS3 and Nintendo's Wii, it's easy to forget the company has had its next-generation console in stores for more than a year.

In fact, according to the latest holiday retail numbers, the Xbox 360, thanks to more than a year of manufacturing and wide availability, is outselling the PS3 and Wii. Market researchers at NPD said 511,000 Xbox consoles were sold in November, compared with 476,000 Wii units and 195,000 PS3s.

Of course, these days, it's hard to argue with one advantage the Xbox has: you can buy one in the store for its suggested retail price, while a PS3 is hard to come by unless you're willing to part with a small fortune on eBay.

So what's Microsoft worried about? Market buzz, I suppose, although it was hard not to laugh when two Microsoft execs rolled into the conference room with the giant TV, which just happened to be a Sony Bravia.

For an hour, Aaron Greenberg, the group product manager for Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, and Scott Henson, Microsoft's director of platform strategy, talked to me about why the Xbox is better on high-definition TVs than the PS3, why Xbox Live is better than Sony's PlayStation Network, why movies on the Xbox high-definition DVD accessory look sharper than on the PS3's native Blu-ray player, and so on.

Testing on two games
It was a whirlwind of information, and it went by quickly. They set up both consoles, and showed me two games: Resistance: Fall of Man on the PS3, and Gears of War on the Xbox. The idea was to demonstrate how Xbox does a better job of automatically upscaling game video that's programmed in 720p (meaning 720 lines of vertical resolution) to 1080p--the state of the art--on the Bravia HDTV.

Greenberg explained that the Xbox has a chip built into it that automatically performs the upscaling, while the PS3 has no such technology. Thus, a PS3 720p game plays at 720p--or even worse--on a 1080p TV, they said, while a 720p Xbox game effortlessly transforms into the best possible quality on a TV like this.

They showed me Gears of War and explained how the transformation from 720p to 1080p means that the level of detail in the game nearly matches that of live video.

"This environment really makes you feel like you're there," said Henson.

The problem is that I didn't agree. I looked at Gears of War and it looked great. But so did Resistance: Fall of Man on the PS3. To my eyes, which are admittedly not trained to see the minute differences that can show up on an HDTV, the two war games seemed about equal in quality.

Next, the Microsoft reps put the spotlight on the two consoles' controllers. The Xboxes, they reminded me, incorporates a rumble feedback system that responds to all kinds of activity in the games. By comparison, they pointed out, the PS3 controller traded in rumble feedback for motion-sensitivity.

That, they suggested, is a shame, since it's the rumble in the controller that gives players that little bit of extra edge when, for example, a tank is approaching from a player's blind side.

That said, we all agreed that Nintendo's Wii, which comes with a controller featuring both motion-sensitivity and rumble feedback, may have the best solution. But the Microsoft guys are clearly proud that their controller has something the PS3's doesn't. Never mind that the reverse is true as well, given that the Xbox controller doesn't come with motion-sensitivity.

Similarly, they tried to point out the deficiencies of the PS3's playback of Blu-ray movies, especially in contrast to the stellar HD DVD movie playback on the Xbox.

Again, however, I saw two very high-quality movies, and any differences are those that I think would be noticed only by someone with too much time on their hands.

It makes sense that Microsoft would want to go on the road right now to try to drum up some press for the Xbox while Sony is still basking in its

Correction: This story incorrectly described the technology used in the 46-inch Bravia television. It is an LCD TV.