The secret's out! The Xbox 360 is a technological Goliath, far more powerful than anything you can possibly imagine. Here's a detailed rundown of everything that's important about Microsoft's bold bid for living room domination, from its unthinkable graphical horsepower to its sleek, redesigned case and wireless controllers.
First and foremost, Xbox 360 is an immensely powerful gaming console. That doesn't mean that Microsoft won't allow users to download music and movies in the future; for now, the focus is strictly on cutting-edge games. And for gamers, that's great news, as the Xbox 360 will allow for the most ridiculously decadent video games ever seen. Just wait until you get a peak under the hood of this monstrosity!
For a gaming console, the first and most important barometer of graphics performance lies in RAM. Simply put, the Xbox 360 has an insane amount of RAM. Early speculation suggested that the Xbox 360 would feature a robust 128MB, or at most, 256MB. In reality, Microsoft has soared far above those perfectly rational estimates: the Xbox 360 packs in a mind-blowing 512MB of high-performance RAM.
To put this in perspective, remember that the original Xbox weighed in with just 64MB of RAM (a huge amount by 2001 standards). By going with 512MB, the Xbox 360 is boasting eight times as much RAM as its predecessor. It's a bold, expensive move on Microsoft's part, and has almost certainly thrown a massive monkey wrench into Sony's and Nintendo's next-gen plans -- in light of this news, they may have to rethink their hardware specs entirely.
But what does the Xbox 360's huge cache of RAM mean for gamers? Simple. More RAM equals sharper visuals, cleaner textures, and more detailed game environments. The Xbox 360 will be able to render massive environments loaded with an eye-popping level of detail. The Xbox 360 could run Halo 2 -- one of the most visually demanding games on the original Xbox -- by using just a tiny, tiny fraction of its immense power. And there's good news for owners of High Definition TV sets: Xbox 360 will fully support all standard and HD TV modes, with two levels of anti-aliasing. The end result will be the crispest, sharpest, cleanest visuals ever seen on a gaming console (especially if you've got an HD TV set).
Phew. Now that some of the shock from that RAM announcement has worn off, it's time to delve deeper into the high-tech guts of the bleeding-edge Xbox 360. Frankly, it's like looking two or three years into the future of PC gaming. The system's state-of-the-art graphics chip, developed by Canadian graphics giant ATI, runs at an impressive 500MHz (in comparison, the original Xbox's brawny nVidia graphics chip ran at just 233MHz). The chip will also handle an astonishing 48 pixel shader pipelines, empowering developers to create jaw-dropping special effects and a dizzying array of stunning environments. Pipelines has often been seen as the bottleneck to graphics card performances, and the next-gen Xbox more than doubles what's currently out in the market
Finally, we come to the brains of the Xbox 360: three symmetrical IBM PowerPC processor cores running at 3.2GHz each (each core being roughly eight times the power of the Xbox's lone 733MHz processor). This adds further muscle to the Herculean Xbox 360, and will allow programmers to load games with performance-draining features like high-end character physics (for realistic movements and "ragdoll" death animations) and detailed particle effects (explosions will look unbelievably realistic). This brute processing power will also provide a further boost to polygon counts so characters and environments will feature still more detail. It's simply staggering. There's no doubt that the Xbox 360 is an unprecedented achievement in the video games industry; even after adjusting for processing "inflation," no hardware company has ever released a gaming console remotely as powerful as the Xbox 360. It's simply ridiculous.
The nuts and bolts
As far as we know, Xbox 360 games will ship on standard and dual-layer DVDs, unlike Sony's PS3, which will use high-density Blu-Ray DVDs. This is an interesting technological compromise on Microsoft's part. In the long run, this could make the Xbox 360 a bit more vulnerable to software piracy, as standard DVD burners are commonplace (Blu-Ray burners don't even exist...yet). But here's one last-minute rumor: Variety is reporting that Microsoft "is expected to announced this week that HD DVD (a competitor to Sony's Blu-ray format) will be a non-exclusive component of the upcoming Xbox 360."
That's potentially big news, and Microsoft's only comment is that "Microsoft does not comment on rumor and speculation." One thing we do know, however, is that the Xbox 360 will support DVD playback right out of the box (you won't have to buy a separate remote control). It also supports progressive scan for smoother, sharper video playback. And yes, it does include an integrated hard drive -- it's 20 GB, and it's detachable and upgradeable.
The unit itself is decked out with a sleek chrome look, a far cry from the clunky plastic hell that was the original Xbox. It also features a customizable, removable faceplate. The unit's size is roughly a quarter to a third smaller than the existing Xbox -- welcome news to players weary of lugging that bulky behemoth to Halo parties. And like the PS2, users can stand the unit either horizontally or vertically (on its side, tower-style). The internal cooling system is also more advanced, and can adjust its fan speed (decreasing the noise) when the unit is being used for DVD playback.
The controllers are wireless, and aside from an Xbox Live-enabled toggle button (placed dead-center on the controller) and re-positioned White and Black buttons (they're shoulder buttons now), Microsoft made very few changes from the Xbox's now-standard Controller S, and it's about the same in size. Players will also have the option of using wired controllers, via the unit's USB ports. And as an added bonus, PC players will be able to use the Xbox 360 controllers, too.
The future is soon
There are still some unanswered questions. The biggest one is a no-brainer: does the Xbox 360 support backward compatibility?. Microsoft has been extremely quiet on the subject of backward compatibility, and that's not a great sign. We're going to go out on a limb here and quietly suggest that the Xbox 360 will not support backwards compatibility, but that's pure speculation and we could be wrong -- we'll just have to wait and see how it plays out.
We'll hopefully know for sure at E3. So why wouldn't the Xbox 360 be able to play original Xbox games? Legal squabbles or time shortages could be the issue, but the biggest barrier may end up being purely technical: the differences in the proprietary rendering technology used on nVidia's Xbox graphical techniques and rival ATi's Xbox 360 graphics techniques are different enough to potentially cause problems.
From a technological standpoint, the Xbox 360 is best described as absurdly powerful. Sony and Nintendo have a bitterly long roe to hoe if they plan on one-upping this technological titan. But in the end, all the technology in the world won't save you if you don't have great games to back you up; Microsoft's biggest challenge will be roping in top-tier publishers (such as Rockstar and BioWare) and providing amazing Xbox 360-only games. It's already at a good start, considering Microsoft's recent deals to work with Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and Tetsuya Mizuguchi.
But, damn, does the Xbox 360 make an awesome first impression.