Microsoft's Xbox is a Trojan horse. The company has conquered the desktop and now seems intent on sneaking a PC into your living room. Yes, this black behemoth of a system looks and acts just like a video game machine--and a state-of-the-art one at that. But with built-in support for high-speed networking, an 8GB hard drive, DVD playback capabilities, and display support for HDTVs, the Xbox does more than just play games. Updated 11/13/02
Microsoft's Xbox is a Trojan horse. The company has conquered the desktop and now seems intent on sneaking a PC into your living room. Yes, this black behemoth of a system looks and acts just like a video game machine--and a state-of-the-art one at that. But with built-in support for high-speed networking, an 8GB hard drive, DVD playback capabilities, and display support for HDTVs, the Xbox does more than just play games.
No small feat
With a front-loading disc tray, two buttons, and four controller ports adorning the face, the monstrous case will look at right at home among your other home-theater components. Inside this eight-pound box you'll find the power of a PC (a 733MHz Intel processor; 64MB of RAM; and a custom Nvidia graphics board, the NV2A) and the heart of a video game console. Still, as nice as all that processing power is, what really matter is the onscreen results.
Video enthusiasts will appreciate that the Xbox works not only with standard 4:3 TVs but with HDTVs as well. If you have an HD-ready set, you can set the Xbox to output 480p, 720p, and 1,080i signals in either normal or wide-screen (16:9) aspect ratios for your games. The Xbox is capable of producing 1,080i images, but the games themselves, such as Halo and Dead or Alive 3, haven't been optimized for that high a level yet. Still, the images are crisp and sharp. A nice complement to this visual horsepower is the fact that the Xbox supports 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and deliver 256 simultaneous voice channels--previously unheard of in a game system. All of this adds up to some of the richest, most realistic experiences we've yet to see in video games.
However, to get the most out of the system, you will have to spend some extra cash on optional accessories. The Xbox ships with composite video cables and RCA audio outputs like every other game console. But for improved audio and video performance, you'll have to spring for the $15 Advanced AV Pack, which has an S-Video connector as well as optical digital audio jacks. The $20 High Definition AV Pack offers component video connectors (Y, Pb, Pr), plus the optical digital audio jacks. And what about DVD playback? Well, unlike the PS2, which plays DVDs right out of the box, you'll need to shell out an additional $30 for the DVD Movie Playback Kit. (Note to videophiles: Even with the extra kit, the Xbox won't output your movies in 480p, so hold on to that progressive-scan DVD player.)
PC perks in the living room
While Microsoft makes you pay to unlock some features, it does include some PC-like ones that can't be found in competing systems. First, there's a built-in Ethernet adapter for broadband multiplayer gaming, regardless of whether you're using a cable modem, DSL, or an office LAN. For an extra $50, you can purchase Microsoft's Xbox Live Starter Kit, which allows you to play games online (broadband connection required) free for a year. Several, but not all, titles are Xbox Live-enabled.
The console also comes with a built-in 8GB hard drive, so you don't need to buy expensive memory cards to save your game progress. (Proprietary memory cards are available to share files with friends.) That hard drive also opens up some other possibilities. For starters, games load quickly because they can cache levels on the speedy hard drive rather than having to read all of the game's information from the disc. Another fringe benefit is the ability to drop audio CDs into the unit and copy songs to the drive. You can then use the console to play your music rather than fumbling for your CDs. Too bad you can't install whole game discs.
Price is no longer an issue when it comes to the Xbox. Now $199, the Xbox sells for the same price as the PlayStation 2 and costs about $50 more than the GameCube. Clearly, the Xbox has a lot of power under the hood and sports some unique features (a hard drive, an Ethernet adapter, 720p and 1080i support for HDTVs) that are missing from competing systems. Does that make it a better choice than the PS2? While the PS2 currently has a plethora of great games, as well as such PS2-exclusive titles as Grand Theft Auto Vice City, most top games are being released on Xbox simultaneously, and the console has its own excellent Xbox-only titles such as Mech Assault. Overall, the Xbox offers superior graphics and is the best choice for those who demand the best audio and video performance from a system and have the A/V components, including a surround-sound package, to complement it.