7 Exercise Tips How to Stream 'Rabbit Hole' Roblox's AI Efforts 9 Household Items You're Not Cleaning Enough Better Sound on FaceTime Calls 'X-Ray Vision' for AR 9 Signs You Need Glasses When Your Tax Refund Will Arrive
Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?
No, thank you

Xbox 360 unveiled, and it's coming next year

Microsoft has officially taken the wraps off the Xbox 360, its next generation console that features a sleek new design, a detachable hard drive and more than a teraflop of processing power.

Microsoft has officially taken the wraps off the Xbox 360, unveiling it via a special aired on MTV around the world. The new console features a sleek new design, a detachable hard drive and more than a teraflop of processing power, and is set for release in Australia in early 2006.

While there's no official word on price yet, plenty of of other details have been released, including:

Elegant compared to the current-gen Xbox, the console's exterior was co-created by two high-end industrial design firms in Osaka, Japan, and San Francisco. Like the PlayStation 2, the device can either lay flat or stand on its side. But while it will come in a white-silver colour, its appearance will also be customisable, courtesy of a detachable faceplate. The console's dashboard will also be customisable, as will the pop-up guide described by Microsoft corporate vice president and chief XNA architect J Allard in his 2005 Game Developers Conference keynote speech.

Microsoft has also confirmed the Xbox 360's technical specifications. As had been long-rumoured, it has a custom IBM PowerPC-based CPU with three symmetrical 3.2GHz cores capable of 9 billion dot product operations per second. It sports a 500MHz custom ATI Graphics Processor with 10MB of embedded DRAM, 48-way parallel floating-point dynamically scheduled shader pipelines, and a unified shader architecture capable of 48 billion shader operations per second. Its polygon performance is 500 million triangles per second, with a pixel fill rate of 16 gigasamples per second. The 360's unified memory architecture will rival that of a high-end PC, with 512MB GDDR3 RAM and 700MHz DDR. Overall, the console will be capable of a whopping teraflop of overall system floating-point performance.

Besides its processing guts, the Xbox 360 will come with three USB 2.0 slots hidden behind a trapdoor for peripherals, and an infrared port that will work with any standard universal remote to control music and movies. It will have both HD digital and standard audio-visual outputs, since all games will be supported at 16:9 widescreen at 720p and 1080i resolution, replete with antialiasing functionality.

The Xbox 360 will come standard with one wireless controller, which the console is optimised for. The controller, which takes two AA batteries, can also be plugged in via USB for trickle charging.

The Xbox 360 controller has also been redesigned. The removable memory cards--now upgraded to 64MB in size--will be inserted into the console directly, allowing for a less-bulky controller. The black and white buttons have been moved up to the shoulders, with each controller having a jack that is compatible with any standard cellular phone headset (which gamers can use as an Xbox Live headset)

Speaking of Xbox Live, the unit will be "optimised for online play" out of the box. For the hardwired, it will sport a built-in Ethernet port like the original Xbox. For the wireless, it will be "Wi-Fi Ready" for 802.11 A, B, and G Wi-Fi capability, which will be available via a connector pack.

According to its spec sheet, the Xbox 360 will come with an external hard drive. But, contrary to rumors, the hard drive will only be 20GB -- not the rumored 40GB. As shown in previously leaked pictures, the 360's "outrigger" hard drive will snap into one end of the console, and can be removed and plugged into other 360s.

Besides its own multimedia capabilities, the 360 will be able to link up to a Microsoft Media Center PC for further functionality, allowing you to stream music, photos, or movies from your media centre. The Xbox 360 will also come with complimentary access to the next generation of Xbox Live--sort of. Again, as previously rumored, Xbox Live will soon come in two flavours: Xbox Live Silver and Xbox Live Gold. The silver version of the service will be free to Xbox 360 owners and will give gamers access to basic next-gen Live services.

First off, Silver subscribers will be able to create their own Gamer Profile. As J Allard mentioned in his GDC keynote, this will have several components, including: the "Gamer Card" summary of its owner, a "Gamerscore" summary with said owner's on- and offline gaming achievements (which will also be listed separately), and a "Reputation" showing how other gamers rate the owner via an eBay-style feedback system. This will also list the owner's preference of GamerZone.

Xbox Live Silver will also give users access to the Xbox Live Marketplace, which will allow players to download "new game trailers, demos, episodic content, new game levels, maps, weapons, vehicles, skins and other types of new content on demand," according to Microsoft. While some of this content will be free, most will cost a small amount of money via microtransactions of less than one dollar. But rather than charging their credit cards for every five-cent Project Gotham Racing III decal, Xbox Live subscribers will have to prepurchase blocks of credit, either directly from Microsoft or via prepaid cards.

The gamer profile will also denote which "GamerZone" the owner prefers. That's right: to separate the n00bs from the 733ts, the new Xbox Live is broken down into four zones: "R&R," for casual players; "Pro," for the hardcore; "Underground," for "those who take an alternative approach to gaming," according to Microsoft; and "Family" for all-ages gaming.

Not just for games any more, voice chat in the new Xbox Live will now be accessible to Silver subscribers whenever the 360 is on--making it a de facto alternative to the phone. "You no longer have to be playing the same game or in the same game session to communicate," said Microsoft. "You can be playing a game while your friend is watching a movie."

Xbox Live Silver also includes access to massively multiplayer online games, though subscription fees to said games still apply. But to engage in online multiplayer sessions with any other type of game, gamers will have to shell out for Xbox Live Gold, the 360's premium service. Xbox Live subscribers will be able to swap their current accounts for Gold accounts for free.

Besides facilitating online play, XBL Gold will also feature the video chat functionality Allard demonstrated at E3 in 2004, although it will require the purchase of an EyeToy-like peripheral for the "video camera ready" console. Gold members will also be able to enter multiplayer online tournaments that Microsoft plans on staging, as well as participate in "Xbox Live online programming" such as celebrity gaming sessions and contests.

But for all the details Microsoft did release today, several major questions about the Xbox 360 remain unanswered. Foremost among these is the console's price, which analysts estimate will run between US$299 and US$399--and some predict will be US$360. Nor did Microsoft address whether or not there will be more than one version of the Xbox 360 on store shelves at launch.

Microsoft also danced around the subject of backward compatibility--for the time being. More details are expected to be released during Microsoft's presentation at E3 next week.

And in regards to availability, Microsoft Home and Entertainment Division Regional Director for Australia and New Zealand David McLean says he expects the new console to hit our shores early next year.

Keep up to date with the latest games news, reviews and features by signing up to CNET.com.au's free Games Spotlight weekly newsletter. Sign up now!