Microsoft Xbox 
Home Theater Accessories Game Systems
Written by Bryan Dailey   
Friday, 01 March 2002

Introduction
With a few exceptions, playing video games on a console has always been a more enjoyable experience than on a home computer. In the '80s, the simplicity of popping a game cartridge into an Atari 2600 or Intellivision and blasting aliens on the family television set hooked millions of Gen-Xers on technology. Personal computers soon found their way into homes around the world and computer games soon followed, but something just wasn’t right with them. The controllers were sub par, often requiring the player to control the onscreen action with a keyboard via the arrow keys. The computer speakers were all horrible, the monitors were too small and the systems would often lock up. When I heard that Microsoft was going to be putting out a Windows-based video game system called the Xbox, visions of the blue error screen of death (For all you Mac and Linux users, this is what you get when Windows crashes) and cheesy USB video game controllers came to mind. Despite sharing many of the same components of home computers that crash and never quite seem to work right, I can say with 100 percent certainty the Xbox is far and away the single best Microsoft product that I have ever used. It works, it doesn’t crash, and amazingly, I don’t have to give Microsoft my Social Security and credit card numbers and I don’t have to call in to their Seattle headquarters to activate my Xbox. Could it be a kinder, gentler division of Microsoft that released the Xbox?

The Xbox weighs in at a hefty eight pounds, 13 ounces and is a 12-inch wide, eight-inch deep and four-inch tall rectangular black box with a front-loading disc tray. Much of the weight comes from the 10 gigabyte internal hard drive that allows you to save games in progress without having to purchase those annoying little memory cartridges that end up getting lost and cluttering up your living room. This feature has been long overdue on video game machines and, now that Microsoft has put one in the Xbox, chances are slim to none that any new video game systems will come along without an internal hard drive. You can also use portable eight-megabyte memory cartridges by plugging them into the slots on the top of the controllers to download stored information from the hard drive and you can then take them to a friend’s place and upload your stored game info to his or her Xbox.

Inside, the Xbox is very similar to a lower-end PC, with an Intel Pentium 3 733 mHz CPU powering the machine. This may sound like a weak system compared to today’s 2 gHz processors, but it actually the most powerful processor ever put into a game console machine. The 300 mHz custom-designed video X-Chip, developed by Microsoft and nVidia for the Xbox, makes for spectacular graphics. With a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1080, the Xbox is HDTV-ready and will probably blow my mind when I hook it up to an HD monitor someday.

Along the front edge of the Xbox, there are four controller inputs, two on the left side numbered 1 and 2, and two on the right side, numbered 3 and 4. Of course, the Xbox only comes with one controller, so if you want to have some head to head action with your friends or a two on two basketball game, you’ll have to purchase more controllers at $25 to $45 a pop, depending on the model you want. In the center of the front panel, there are two round silver buttons. The smaller button is the power control and the larger one is the eject trigger. These are not labeled, so you’ll need to remember that the large button with the arrow pointing up is eject, and the small button with the round circle on it is the on/off switch.

The back of the unit is surprisingly sparse for such a high-tech machine. There is an input for the power cord on the rear left corner and a 100 Mbps Ethernet port that allows you to network multiple Xbox units together and will allow online gaming when Microsoft adds broadband support this summer. Lastly, there is a multi-signal audio-video connector that allows for easy hookup to a variety of televisions and home theater systems, depending on the type of connector you opt to use. For this review, I used the RCA audio/video cable connector that comes standard with the Xbox. Microsoft and a host of other companies also make S-video, component video and an RF adapters that allow you to connect the Xbox to virtually any video monitor.

The Competition
There are currently two other home game systems vying with the Xbox for your expendable. Those systems are Nintendo’s Game Cube and Sony’s Playstation 2. Are either of these systems a better choice for you than the Xbox? There is no right or wrong answer to that question, but I’ll help point you in the right direction. Priced at $199, the Nintendo Game Cube is the least expensive of the three and, more than the XBox or the PS2, is geared toward young children. With ultra-successful franchises such as Super Mario Brothers and Zelda (to be released on the Game Cube in the future), Nintendo offers game titles that can’t be found on other systems and many of the titles are less violent and intense visually than the Xbox and PS2 games. Spec-wise, the Game Cube is slightly more powerful than the PS2, but it lacks a DVD player, which obviously explains its lower price. The Game Cube is a CD-ROM-based machine running a custom IBM Power PC "Gekko" processor at 485 MHz, with 42 MB of RAM. The sound for the Game Cube is generated by a Matronix 16-bit DSP sound card at 48kHz, using Matsushita's Optical Disc Technology on three-inch 1.5GB Nintendo Gamecube discs.

The Playstation 2 from Sony, priced at $299, is a product more comparable to the Xbox than to the Game Cube. This machine has garnered quite a following in the year and a half that it has been in stores and can be found in the Cadillac Escalades and Lincoln Navigators of virtually every rap artist in the world. Under the hood, the PS2 is technically the weakest of the bunch, with only a 300 MHz Sony processor, a 150 MHz Sony GS video processor and 38 megabytes of RAM, but Sony somehow makes this configuration jump through some big hoops. Game designers feel the system is awkward to design for, but if you walk down the video game aisle at Toys R’ Us, you’d never know it. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of PS2 titles. The system has been riding on the success of the PS1, despite its price tag and the fact that it is inferior to the Xbox and Game Cube on paper.

Setup
Using an open input video input on the back of my Sony STR-DE575 receiver, it took less than a minute to connect the Xbox to the receiver, plug in the power cord, and connect two controllers to the system It’s literally that simple. With modern game consoles such as the Xbox, which rely heavily for operation on internal system software, it’s a good idea to make sure that the controllers you intend to use are plugged in before turning on the machine to insure that the console will "see" the controller. The Xbox controllers have a unique feature that some people will love and others will hate. The controller cables are tipped with nine-inch detachable connectors. The small connector attaches the controller to the extension piece and comes apart fairly easily. If someone walks across the room and trips over the cord, it is intended to "break away," making it much less likely that the tripper is going to actually fall or knock your Xbox to the floor. The downside of this design is that if you are in a heated game of football, you might accidentally pull the cord out of the unit. The Xbox is programmed to automatically stop the action on screen, give you a warning that the controller has been unplugged and will allow you to resume playing once it has been plugged back in. I found that the distance of the Xbox from my couch was just far enough for the controller to occasionally pop out of the short extension piece. To alleviate this problem, I had to move the Xbox out about three feet in front of the television or sit on the floor in front of the couch. I am certainly a candidate for purchasing a couple of three- or four-foot controller extension cords.

The controllers are a good indicator that the Xbox is not designed for little children. Long gone are the simple days of the Atari 2600 joystick with one red button, or the small flat pad of the original Nintendo master system with two buttons and a small control pad. The Xbox controller is quite large, too large for children or adults with small hands to really use comfortably. Smaller after-market controllers are available. I felt quite comfortable using the controller, but it does takes a little time getting adjusted to the Xbox controller after using the substantially smaller PS2 control pads. There are a total of 12 buttons (actually 10 buttons and two triggers) and three control pads on the Xbox controller. The standard A, B, X, and Y buttons on the top right side of the controller are arranged in a diamond and are color coded: A = Green, B = Red, X = blue, and Y = Yellow. Just above these four buttons are two smaller buttons, one white and one black. Along the bottom edge of the controller are two spring-loaded triggers. These are operated with the left and right index fingers and are easy to press, even while pressing other buttons and using the control pads.

Speaking of control pads, the Xbox controller has three of them. In the upper left corner, there is a black control stick with a rounded end that pokes up about a half an inch, swivels 360 degrees and can be pressed down to add yet another button to the total number of ways to interact with the games. Just to the lower right of this black pad is a small, more traditional black disc with little indentations to allow the user's finger to fit comfortably on it. Some games allow you to choose either the control pad or the control stick to propel the action. On the right side of the controller is another control stick just like the one on the upper left side. This allows for an additional dimension of control, but it can be confusing if you are playing a game that requires you to use this right control stick and the buttons just to the right of it at the same time. This game controller is going to create a new generation of kids with very good hand/eye coordination.

When powering up the Xbox, the user is greeted with futuristic green menus. The first order of business is to set the language that you want the menus to appear in. English, French, Spanish, German and Italian are all available on the U.S. release of the Xbox. After choosing the language setting, the next step is setting the machine’s internal clock and other assorted options. In this menu area, you can set the Xbox to automatically turn itself off if left unattended for over six hours. This may not seem like a big deal, but there have been reports of some Xbox units overheating, so this feature makes sense.

The Xbox is not only a video game machine, but also a decent CD and DVD player. Not only can you play CDs, but you can copy tracks on to the internal hard drive (assuming the CD is not copy-protected), rearrange the tracks, even rename them if you want by using the virtual onscreen keyboard. You can then play the tracks back, even if you don’t have the original CD. You can’t, however, put your newly-ordered playlist back onto a CD, because the Xbox does not have a CD burner. It is only able to read the disc and write the data to the internal hard drive. I can't imagine that this feature would ever get much use, but it’s cool to know it’s there and I had no trouble copying audio tracks to the Xbox’s internal hard drive.

Even though the Xbox is a DVD player, you can’t just pop in a DVD and make it play without buying an extra piece of equipment. Microsoft makes a $35 "Xbox DVD Movie Playback Kit" that is basically a DVD remote, with an infrared sensor that plugs into any one of the four controller slots on the front of the console. With Sony’s Playstation 2 DVD player, you can at least use the regular game controller to operate it, so realistically this makes the Xbox’s retail price more like $335 if you really want to fairly compare it to the PS2. That said, the Xbox’s DVD player looks about like any $200 to $300 Japanese DVD player I’ve seen. I haven’t had a chance to see it with the S-Video or Composite connection, but you can assume these connections will look even better on most systems.

The Xbox’s DVD remote and the functionality of the DVD player are far superior to that of the PS2. The controls and execution of commands using the PS2 remote are clunky and frustrating. The Xbox remote looks suspiciously like a year-2000 RCA DVD player remote, with green and white buttons instead of red and blue, but it works well and is very intuitive. The remote sensor sits happily in the fourth controller slot and doesn’t have to be removed every time you want to play a two-player game, as it does on the PS2.

Playing Games On The Xbox
Now, let’s get to the fun part: playing the games. The initial batch of titles that was released for the Xbox was fairly small and there are currently only around 40 titles on the market, but they sure have started out with some great ones. Sports games tend to be my personal favorite genre and I’ve already built up a nice collection of games for the Xbox.

I’ve played just about every football game there is for the Playstation 2 and Sega Dreamcast, so I was very interested to see how well the Xbox football games measured up. Currently the two most popular football releases available for the Xbox are EA Sports’ Madden 2002 and Microsoft’s NFL Fever 2002. Sports game developers have made a smart move by naming their games with the year in them to make you feel obligated to go out and get the new releases as they come out annually. No one would be caught dead playing Madden 2001 in 2002. Each year, they add subtle bells and whistles to the games and update the player rosters and schedules to keep up with the real leagues. To compare apples to apples, I played a game of Madden 2002 on my PS2, using the RCA audio/video inputs, and then played the Xbox version. The first obvious difference between the two systems is the loading time when the game begins. With the higher clock speed, the Xbox loads quicker. I’m eagerly awaiting the 2002 Xbox version of my absolute favorite boxing game, Knockout Kings (EA Sports). The 2001 version for PS2 is one of the most addictive button mashers I’ve ever played, but the long waits between rounds are the game's only downside. I do hope that the power of the Xbox will make this already amazing game that much more engaging.

With video football games, one of the visually weakest parts for me has always been the grid lines on the field. As the "camera" moves around the stadium, these white lines on virtually every game system are slightly jagged and tend to flicker. Although still not perfect, the Xbox is better at reproducing the yardage lines than any other system on the market. The actual game play is very similar between the Xbox and PS2 version of Madden Football, but head to head, the Xbox version edges out the PS2 with its smoother graphics and faster load times.

Hockey is a different matter, not because of the visuals, but because of the sound. EA Sports NHL hockey games have progressively gotten better over the years, and now that they have taken advantage of the DTS outputs on the PS2, they have brought bone-crunching checks into the boards to new sonic highs in video game hockey. (If you have a PS2 and want to take advantage of the DTS sound, you’ll have to make sure your system is set to output DTS in the internal menu.) The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound on the Xbox version of NHL 2002 seems a little on the tame side after rocking the DTS PS2 version for a few games.

Nintendo began a trend in video games several years ago with a thing called the "rumble pack," a small device you could place in their N64 controller that would vibrate according to the action on the screen. Microsoft’s larger than average controllers have a built-in vibration mechanism that has a much wider range of vibration than its predecessors did. In football, the vibrations range from big hits that shake the controller pretty good, to minute vibrations when a running back stiff-arms a safety as he runs upfield. The game that takes the cake when it comes to effective use of the vibration feature is the futuristic space alien first person shooter game Halo. As your character walks through dark dank tunnels of an alien spacecraft, the controller emits a low buzz each time the ship is struck by enemy fire, then vibrates intensely when aliens blast through doors and hallways. It’s the most effective use of a technology that I found to be ineffective in most games in the past. It might also be interesting to place a set of Clark Synthesis Tactile Transducers under the couch to make your body shake along with the vibrating controller.

Some games for the Xbox have a logo on them stating "Only on Xbox." One of these is the "Star Wars" game Obi Wan, based on "Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace," featuring the voices of Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson. Obi Wan does double duty as both a one-on-one fighting game and an adventure game with missions that young Obi Wan Kenobi must complete, armed only with a lightsaber, the Force and occasional help from a computer controlled Jedi Knight Padewan. The head to head lightsaber battles with a friend are a little difficult because of the split screen camera, but they take standard fighting games to another level with the amazing jumps, flips and tumbles that the Jedi Knights can perform. Despite not having the most intense graphics, Obi-Wan is the only game for the Xbox that has given the processor any kind of trouble. When the screen fills up with enemies, bullets and other assorted objects, the action on screen will occasionally slow down and slightly glitch. The polygon-based graphics require an extremely powerful processor and there are times when even the Xbox just can’t keep up with the action on screen. Aside from this slight glitch in the game (it's only happened a handful of times), Obi-Wan is a must-have for "Star Wars" fans as you live out your fantasy of blocking bullets with your lightsaber and pushing enemies off large cliffs using the Force.

The Downside
The fact that the Xbox does not have DTS outputs is the only real disappointment for me. To hear the sound of games like NHL 2002 and SSX Tricky (both from EA Sports) in DTS is so engaging that it’s a bummer that Microsoft couldn’t have found a cost-effective way of making the Xbox DTS compatible. Reports are that Microsoft loses about $100 on each Xbox sold, based on advertising and production costs, and won’t start making money on the system until the end of 2003. To cram more features into the Xbox would have likely driven up the cost up too high for the competitive video game market.

Aside from my glitching problem with Obi-Wan, I don’t have a negative thing to say about the game performance of the Xbox. The games all look beautiful. The box itself, the instructions and the Xbox website are all top-notch and make owning an Xbox an enjoyable experience. The amount of titles that are available right now is a little on the low side, but since Xbox games run on DirectX 8 API, the same set of functions that game developers use to create PC games, games for the Xbox will soon be pouring out a dizzying rate. It’s just hard to sit and wait while high-profile titles like Spider-Man are not available.

Conclusion
Ultimately, there are only two choices, the Xbox and the PS2, for the home theater junkie who wants to add a game console to his or her system. I like them both, but the reality is that, since I bought my Xbox, the PS2 has gathered its fair share of dust in the corner of the room. It’s just more fun to go shopping for Xbox games than for the PS2, knowing how good they are going to look in this system. If you’ve already got a stack of Playstation 1 games, keep the good ones, sell the lame ones and your system and pick up a PS2, since it is backwards-compatible. If you have any money left over, put it towards an Xbox, like I did. If you are starting from scratch or only have a Sega Dreamcast or an older system, Xbox is the way to go. It’s just a better machine overall, with a small but very solid lineup of games that is poised to get much bigger very soon. The PS2 will most likely drop in price before the Xbox does -- I wouldn’t be surprised to see it at $249.99 by this Christmas -- but the Xbox is so new that you shouldn’t wait for the price to fall before picking one up. You won’t get a DTS DVD player as you would with the PS2, but it’s not going to replace your home DVD player anyway. Perhaps you could skip the Xbox DVD player kit and get the Xbox. It’s $299 well spent.
Manufacturer Microsoft
Model Xbox
Reviewer Bryan Dailey





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