Last week at the Avalon nightclub in Los Angeles, MTV taped "The Next-Generation Xbox Revealed," the special television event that marked the first official naming and unveiling of Microsoft's next-generation console.
Of course, the device's name--the Xbox 360--had been one of the worst-kept secrets on the planet for over a month. But the Xbox 360's unveiling aired tonight, and it was the end of the embargo for press outlets who had signed nondisclosure agreements. It allowed for the official confirmation of the 360's existence--something Microsoft barely alluded to until earlier this year, despite the fact work began on the console within months of the original Xbox's launch.
Microsoft also released the first official pictures of the Xbox 360--one of which was already widely circulated last month. Elegant compared to the current-gen Xbox, the console's exterior was cocreated 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 color, its appearance will also be customizable, courtesy of a detachable faceplate. The console's dashboard will also be customizable, 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.
Today also marked the release of the Xbox 360's technical specifications. As had been long-rumored, 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 optimized for. "Unlike the [GameCube] WaveBird [controller] for example, where the design point was wired and then they made a wireless version, we started with wireless and made the compromises in the wired versions," Allard told GameSpot. "With the rechargeable battery option, it will actually come with a cable. So if your battery low light comes up, you can plug the cable back in and continue gaming while you're trickle charging." Said cable would be USB, according to Allard, who did not say if the rechargeable battery option would cost extra. The standard controller will take two AA batteries.
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. "It's lighter and smaller than the Xbox 1 controller," said Allard who confirmed rumors that Microsoft "moved the black and white buttons up to the shoulders." Each controller will have a jack compatible with any standard cellular phone headset that gamers can use as an Xbox Live headset. "Any standard cell phone headset may be used," said Allard "Plug it in. Boom! You're on [Xbox] Live. You're talking to your friends."
Speaking of Xbox Live, the unit will be "optimized 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 that's a pack of gum size," according to Allard.
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 20 gigabytes--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. "Let's say you're a Live guy and you've downloaded a whole bunch of premium content, ripped a whole bunch of music," said Allard. "You can bring it over and we can enjoy it at my house."
Besides its own multimedia capabilities, the 360 will be able to link up to a Microsoft Media Center PC for further functionality. "If you have a Media Center on your home network, you can stream music, you can stream photos, or you could stream high def sports and high-def movies from your media centre over your Xbox 360," said Allard.
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 flavors: 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 (see below).
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, as Allard outlined in his GDC keynote, 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 from retailers like GameStop.
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 $299 and $399--and some predict will be $360. Nor did Microsoft address whether or not there will be more than one version of the Xbox 360 on store shelves at launch. "We won't talk about the specific dates or price points at E3," chief Xbox officer Robbie Bach told GameSpot. "It's a little early to do that."
Microsoft also danced around the subject of backward compatibility--for the time being. "The obvious point that comes up that's always interesting to talk about is backward compatibility and it's something we will talk about at E3," said Bach. "We haven't been public with what's happening there for a lot of different reasons and that will end on Monday night. That's one of the few things I am bound by my own NDA not to discuss."
However, Bach did make one thing abundantly clear--the Xbox 360 will arrive by Christmas 2005 in all territories. "The last thing I'll say is just to confirm we will be launching the next generation in North America and Europe and Japan this holiday season," he said.
GameSpot will have more information on the Xbox 360 when Microsoft holds its press conference next Monday night at E3 in Los Angeles. However, for a thorough rundown on what is known about the console, check out GameSpot's special