Microsoft Xbox at 20: Looking back at the original 2001 review
For the Xbox 20th anniversary, a games industry veteran revisits his original CNET review.
Dan AckermanEditorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications.
"Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
ExpertiseI've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever.Credentials
Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
It was 20 years ago, Nov. 15, 2001, when the original Xbox game console went on sale in the US. The launch was a gamble for Microsoft, a company then (and arguably now) known more for software supremacy than groundbreaking hardware.
Sony, Nintendo and Sega were the main living room console players at the time, led by the PlayStation 2, released a year earlier in 2000. Since then, we've seen multiple generations of Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo consoles jousting for our attention and entertainment dollars. The competition continues, and we've just passed the one-year birthday of both the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X.
Of those platforms, I see Microsoft's Xbox as the one that's most blurred the line between game machine and entertainment device. Even after 20 years, the latest Xbox Series X and Series S versions are still working on their prime directive: They're a Trojan horse that can hide a multimedia PC in your living room.
To put that original Xbox console in context, I went back to the text of our original CNET review, published in late 2001. That review was written by former CNET editor Darren Gladstone, whom I've known since at least the early 2000s. Darren's been connected to the gaming industry ever since, working at companies including 2K Games and Telltale Games. I asked him to revisit and annotate his original review with the hindsight of 20 years.
For ease of reading, I've copied and reformatted the original review below, with Darren's new commentary inserted throughout.
Microsoft Xbox review
Originally published Nov. 14, 2001
Best under-the-hood specs
Built-in broadband adapter
8GB hard drive for music and saved-game storage
High-resolution display support.
Big and bulky
Separate kit required to unlock DVD-viewing capability
No progressive-scan DVD playback.
The Bottom Line: The Xbox is the most versatile console and perfectly complements a home theater system.
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.
Darren Gladstone, 2021: It was just like this big honking device that sat there and dared you not to put it in your home entertainment center. It was like a "fish tails on a car" kind of design, just big, bold and brassy. It demanded attention, and rightly so. That "duke" controller [the nickname for the oversized first-gen Xbox gamepad] was love-it-or-hate-it. It was such an obnoxiously big controller and had this giant X in the middle that did absolutely nothing. OK, I get it, it looks cool. But it's like having a horn on your steering wheel that doesn't actually work. I look back at that fondly and laugh more than anything else because it's so ridiculous. It was just so over the top, it was kind of emblematic of the entire Xbox.
No small feat
With a front-loading disc tray, two buttons and four controller ports adorning the face, the monstrous case will look right at home among your other home-theater components. Inside this 8-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 matters what's on screen.
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 delivers 256 simultaneous voice channels -- previously unheard-of in a game system. All of this adds up to some of the richest, most realistic experiences seen in video games.
Microsoft didn't have a whole ton of great games. There was Halo, which it pulled away from Bungie, the company that was going to make it for PC, and locked it in on the Xbox. I remember doing a cover story on the original Halo when it was going to be a PC game back in the day.
There was this rivalry that got set up [between the Xbox and PlayStation 2]. But I think Microsoft will be remembered for generations because this was such a bold first step. Everyone was asking, what the hell did this company that makes PC software and word processing software know about games? And people forgot about the fact that it had a whole games division that had been making PC games for forever.
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.)
There's the fact that they had multimedia kits, where there were component and composite cables in different boxes, knowing you'd probably want to upgrade over time when you finally got a proper HDTV. Those were thoughtful decisions. One person might think they're just nickel-and-diming you, but I thought it was actually a very clever way at the time to say, if you don't need this particular component for your system, don't buy it. But when you're ready for it, you can do that.
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 buy 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.
Back then, not everyone had broadband. You might have had to go to your office to use broadband. So it was one of those things where Microsoft was really thinking of the future. Yes, there were online game services before, Compuserve or nonsense like that, and the Dreamcast had a 56k modem. At first Xbox Live was free -- it was like Microsoft was saying, "Your first taste is free. Just try it out and see what you think." And then it started adding features and eventually said, if you want to play multiplayer, this is what you need. And by that point, the company justified it by making it a more robust experience. It realized the future is in owning the network that supports everything.
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.
What it did for the time was a lot of what we'd think of now as "of course!" things, like an internal hard drive. I remember loading audio CDs onto the Xbox so I had my own soundtrack. But I also remember calling Microsoft out. Why couldn't I just load the games from the disc onto the hard drive so it would load faster? Looking back, it wasn't flashy, but the internal hard drive was so important.
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 audio-visual components, including a surround-sound package, to complement it.
The original Xbox really pulled that Babe Ruth -- it pointed at the fence and took a swing. You've got to respect that because Microsoft delivered on a lot of its promises. It's at the point now where there's a battle for dominance in your home entertainment system between Apple, Sony, Microsoft and any other company with a set-top box it wants to put in your living room. It's interesting to see even back then Microsoft was planting the seeds for that without actually calling it an "entertainment system."
Darren's 2001 review correctly identified the importance of both online gaming platforms and of combining multimedia entertainment and gaming into one device. In my 2020 review of the Xbox Series X, I followed that same thread: "If anything, Microsoft's Xbox Series X is a reductive evolution, fine-tuning and perfecting what worked so well in the Xbox One line. If the PlayStation 5 is a games-at-heart machine, flexing its classic gamepad prowess at the expense of all else, then the Xbox Series X is a more well-rounded console-as-ecosystem, leaning into multimedia, community, cloud gaming and cross-platform continuity."