Microsoft took its much-awaited leap into consumer console gaming on Thursday with the launch in the US of its new Xbox console. The company, which debuted the device at midnight in New York's Times Square, hopes to sell 1.5 million of the consoles before the end of this year. For consumers, the Xbox represents the first new games console to be launched since Sony put its PlayStation 2 on sale in the US just over a year ago. Judging from early reviews, the difference shows. In much the same way a new PC compares to a year-old model, reviewers and gamers have welcomed the Xbox and applauded its graphics and speed. Most of its power has to do with the hardware inside. Built on top of a 733MHz Pentium III engine and a 233MHz NVidia graphics processor, the video game console packs a punch that rivals a desktop PC. It also boasts an 8GB hard drive, a DVD player, and a built-in Ethernet connection, which will facilitate Microsoft's plans to bring the Xbox online by the third quarter of 2002, the company said. The hardware profile is winning Microsoft fans in the most unlikely places. Speaking at the Comdex Fall exhibition in Las Vegas this week, even Kunitake Ando, president and chief operating officer of Sony, said he couldn't help but be impressed by its performance. "I thought the Xbox was impressive," said Ando during his keynote speech. But his praise was short-lived, as he maintained that "by the time the Xbox will have influence the PlayStation 2 will be the runaway winner." After one and a half years on the market, the Sony console is just now beginning to fulfill its potential as programmers learn its idiosyncrasies. That learning curve may be shorter on the Xbox because it is based on an Intel platform that is already familiar to millions of programmers - at least, that's what Microsoft is hoping. Certainly, the company won't have the same lead time to stake out a slice of the market. It is already running head-to-head with Sony, and Nintendo plans to launch its new Gamecube console in the US next week. But beyond hardware, software is seen as the key to victory in the console marketplace. "The winner is the one who runs faster than the others, and that also applies to software development," Ando said. Even with its late start, Microsoft says it is running faster than Sony when it comes to developing games for the console. At launch 19 games are available, from tire-screeching auto races to near-real pigskin footballs in "NFL Fever 2000" and "Madden NFL 2002." The company's software launch plans received a major boost a month earlier when it signed up two of Sega Corp.'s top game developers to the Xbox. "The Xbox was designed for game developers," said Seamus Blackley, Xbox chief technology officer at Microsoft. "It's really easy because it makes use of a familiar architecture and tools that enable developers to make great games." One of those is Microsoft's popular Visual Studio software suite, a widely used programming environment among Windows developers. The software is also built with DirectX APIs (application program interface), which are standard APIs for creating and managing graphics for the Windows operating system. Another key feature that Microsoft has been quiet on is capabilities built into the Xbox that will tie the computing device into the company's broad Internet plans called .Net. The company's single sign-on authentication system called Passport is one of the initial .Net technologies Microsoft will build into the device in order to manage such things as billing services, said Ed Fries, Microsoft's vice president of game publishing, in an interview Tuesday. "Microsoft has a lot of technology we can use," Fries said, of the company's set of Web services. "These are things that we already have available to us, and we'll take what we want to use." The online gaming market in the U.S. is predicted to be worth $2.3 billion by 2005 as the number of titles supporting online gaming increases and the penetration of broadband grows, according to research published Thursday by Gartner. The company predicts households with online console games will be spending around $157 per year in 2005. Microsoft plans to launch the Xbox in Japan on February 22, 2002, and in Europe on March 14, 2002.