Product Review - Microsoft's Xbox - April, 2002
Microsoft Corporation; http://www.xbox.com
Up until recently, console-based gaming has really offered only one thing: games. With the advent of CD-ROM-based machines came the ability to use your gaming system not only for games but also for CD audio playback. Now with our favorite little format DVD in the marketplace, gaming companies have been quick to implement this massive storage device not only for its media holding capabilities but also for the convergence factor of movie playback. With the obvious advantages this medium can bring, and the already successful industry console gaming has become, another media giant decided to join the war: Microsoft.
For many years the console rivalry was between Nintendo and Sega. Sega bowed out gracefully this past year due to the competition of its old rival and the new king on the block, Sony. Sonyís dominant Playstation took hold of the gaming world almost instantly and pronounced Sony as a major gaming company. This now leads to the recent Playstation 2. For the first time, a gaming console had offered a piece of convergence hardware that could develop itself as a home entertainment hub. Not only did it offer top-notch video gaming, but DVD playback. Most looked at Sonyís piece of the pie and their new system as unbeatable, well, most except Microsoft. They took what Sony had done and basically expanded it. Not only do they offer DVD playback and cutting edge graphics, but have thrown in a broadband modem and hard drive, as well as a multitude of other resources that Iíll touch on later. The Xbox is truly a no compromise gaming system that could really only falter due to the games developed or not developed for it.
The Xbox System
The first thing I noticed when unpacking my new Xbox was the weight. This isnít some tiny kid-friendly console that normally comes out of a box. No, this has some heft. In fact my wife was even surprised by its size and immediately commented on where we could put it. The matted black casing has a molded X garnishing its top, with a green orb in the middle, having the word ďboxĒ in it. On the front are four USB game controller jacks that when paired with the optional IR sensor and DVD remote, allow for DVD playback. Also up front are a Power button and a big green Eject button for the disc tray. The back boasts three separate connectors for power, A/V output and Ethernet connection. This is by far the most solid console I have ever seen or held, and I have held them all. The controller, shown below, is also a beast. While I see some people not liking it at first due to its size, I think it is a very nice design that fits comfortably in your hands. It has a nine-foot cable with a breakaway connection as well. This is a nice feature designed to unhook the controller from the console if someone trips on the cable, so that the console doesnít come crashing onto the floor. For those who donít care for the large controller, Microsoft will soon be selling a smaller controller of a similar design.
Despite the fact that the Xbox is the same price as the PS2, there are considerable differences under the hood. The Xbox is centered around a 733 MHz Intel CPU. Of the other consoles out there, the most you can find is 405 MHz. Adding to that is a 233 MHz 64 MB 132 bit custom Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) designed cooperatively between NVIDIA and Microsoft. This chip at time of launch was touted as the ďmost powerful graphics processor to dateĒ. It can handle 125 million polygons per second and has a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1080. That means it can handle true high-definition resolutions if the gaming provider decides to support it. So far, all games are only 480P but rumors abound of future games at 1080i. The Xbox also sports a built in 10GB hard drive. While this is claimed as a first in the gaming world, it really isnít. In 1994, 3DO launched its short lived 32 bit gaming console. This console did feature a hard drive. But the Xbox is the only console on the market today with a hard drive included out of the box.
Now if your going to have great video performance in your games, you better have good audio too, right? Say no more, yet another first for consoles, the Xbox offers true Dolby Digital 5.1 in game play. This provides an unparalleled immersive gaming experience when utilized. The audio card also supports 64 audio channels and 256 stereo voices. Coupled with the optional communicator, players gaming over a network can talk to each other or everyone all at once, in real time. Gone are the days of typing messages I guess.
I purchased the Xbox along with the high definition A/V pack, shown below ($19.99). This allows for 480p, 720p and 1080i playback of games, as well as the 5.1 audio through a Toslink connector. Unfortunately, the Xbox does not presently support these resolutions for DVD playback. This may disappoint some home theater buffs, but really, what are you truly buying this system for? Once I hooked everything up, I ran into a bit of a problem. I have a first-run Panasonic high definition RPTV that only accepts signals of 480p or higher through its component input. This was a problem because the Xboxís menu system (shown above) only runs in 480i and you have to turn on the other available video settings through this menu. I ended up having to run the luminance signal by itself into a standard composite input and use the menu in black and white to adjust the console's settings. This may not be an issue with newer HD sets that will accept any format through their component inputs. But for me, this was still a minor drawback of the console, since now when I start up I get nothing on my screen until the game boots up. Another problem is that not all the games are 16x9. Since I have a RPTV that locks into Full mode, I cannot display the proper aspect ratio for certain games. While this isnít as bothersome as movie playback, software developers should be aware of this and hopefully compensate with either masking or 16x9 support.
Once I did get the games up and running, though, I remembered why I bought this system in the first place. To put it simply, the Xbox is nothing short of stunning. The graphics this machine can produce are quite a step above and beyond what the other systems to date can provide. Now of course this is really going to be determined by the game designers and how much effort they want to spend, but when done correctly there is no denying the beauty of the results. Immediately I noticed how great the color rendition was. I always noticed that the Playstation 2 had a sort of washed out look to it, especially in its color palette. You wonít see that here. Colors are rich and saturated and really bring the image to life. Detail is also phenomenal and can be breathtaking in some games. Two games worth mentioning are "Halo" and "Rallisport Challenge". If you want to see graphics that only PC gamers who paid at least 4-5 times as much as for an Xbox have seen, look no further. Unfortunately though, NVIDIA didnít deliver 100% on their chip design. Originally the specification for the GPU included advanced anti-aliasing with no performance hit. This spec was not met, and the optional use of this feature by software designers will result in a performance drop.
One of the most annoying attributes of games that has always bugged me is the stair stepping jaggies you always notice in what are supposed to be straight lines. This can really hinder the image especially in backgrounds and close ups. The demonstrations of the Xbox that I watched prior to release showed none of this, and Microsoft reps boasted the fact that it wasnít there. However, out of the box, it showed its ugly face immediately. Some of the games I have donít show it a lot, but others such as "Project Gotham Racing" have it severely. Although this is a big issue, be advised that the other gaming consoles on the market suffer from this as well. Otherwise the Xbox delivers in spades. I have yet to put in a game that hasnít blown me away visually and I am quite a stickler when it comes to graphics.
With the graphics as good as they are the sound is even better. I was skeptical on how good real 5.1 game play would be. Well itís awesome. Imagine being in a first person shooter and being able to tell based on the sound alone exactly where the enemy is and where your comrades are. In "Halo", you get just that. The audio creates complete immersion into the scenarios and gives you a better feel for the environment of the game. While 5.1 audio is not a requirement, it is being utilized quite extensively so far with almost all the current catalog boasting this feature. Music is also delivered with excellent fidelity and presence. One of the cool features the Xbox implements is the ability to save your own music to its hard drive. Why would you do that you may ask? Well, how about playing your game with your own custom audio mix streaming instead of the games music! This is done in real time and all the sound effects of the game are intact. Never has this sort of user customizing been available in the console gaming market. I loved this feature. Never again will I have to be tormented by badly produced game soundtracks. When hooked to a home theater system, the Xbox will deliver an incomparable sound experience that will delight any user.
The bottom line in any gaming console is always going to be the games that are available for it. While every system has its high points, consumers should really look at the games as the key issue in their purchasing decision. I bought my system not only for its hardware performance but also for the games that this system was offering exclusively. The idea of having high definition-capable graphics and real time 5.1 sound was a huge selling point, but the games themselves really are what make this system shine. While I highly recommend this console, be sure you research thoroughly before you buy!! Enjoy!!
- Kris Deering -
System used for review:
- Panasonic PT-56wxf90 HD RPTV
- Marantz SR-9200 Receiver
- PSB Image 6T L/R, 9C Center, 10S Surrounds, 1B rear Surrounds
- Dual SVS 25-31CS subwoofers
- Sampson 700 2 Channel 700W Amplifier
- Monster Cable Interconnects
© Copyright 2002 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
Return to Table of Contents for this Issue.