Personal-computing technology seems as if it has been nearly static for the past few years. But the Xbox 360 displays the great progress in processing power and graphics that has occurred in the four years since the original version shipped. The first Xbox was a bare-bones PC with a Pentium chip and a cheap but powerful nVIDIA graphics adapter. The 360 uses an entirely new design built around a custom IBM processor that crams three Power PC processors onto a single chip, plus a custom graphics processor from ATI.
The results are striking. The Xbox 360 ($299 for the basic model, $399 for premium) generates high-definition video. It's at its best with the bewildering but beautifully drawn role-playing fantasy Kameo: Elements of Power ($50 from Microsoft Game Studios), where it approaches cinematic 3-D animation. Call of Duty 2 ($60 from Activision ()), a shoot-'em-up in the guise of a history lesson, offers highly detailed backgrounds and realistic smoke effects as you fight your way through major battles of World War II. Soldiers are more crudely rendered, but they emit delicate spurts of blood when hit. (They also shout a lot, but never swear.)
About 20 game titles for the Xbox 360 were available at release or are due shortly; all are priced at $50 or $60. Many, but not all, original Xbox games will run on the new console if equipped with an optional hard drive, but they look clunky compared with games written for the 360.UNLIKE THE ORIGINAL BLACK-AND-GREEN Xbox, the 360 is almost handsome. Its off-white-and-silver housing is about the size of a VCR and can be used either vertically or horizontally. If it doesn't exactly fit in with your home-entertainment system, it won't stand out like a sore thumb, either. The premium edition comes with a wireless controller (as well as a 20-gigabyte hard drive for storing saved games, a headset, and a TV-style remote control) so you won't have that ugly, easy-to-trip-over controller cable strung across your living room floor.
It is important to Microsoft that the new Xbox integrate well into the living room or family room because it is the vanguard of the company's latest charge into digital entertainment. In addition to playing games, the Xbox 360 serves as a DVD player and, when networked to a Windows Media Center PC, can display photos or play music stored on the PC and even show live or recorded TV.
The heart of Microsoft's vision is a PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition, which can dispatch music, photos, live or recorded TV, or other videos to different devices on your home network. The new Xbox fits right in, pulling TV signals from your PC, for example, and showing them on any screen. It's simple to set up, and you can get it connected in less than five minutes. Although video quality suffers a bit from the compression required for moving it on the network, it's not bad, even over wireless -- provided you have a strong signal.
There are some shortcomings: The Xbox makes a racket -- especially its cooling fan. This is O.K. during game play but not when you're watching TV or listening to music. Worse, there are some basic flaws in Microsoft's grand vision. Media Center has very limited ability to handle high-definition programming. And if you have the Xbox sitting there next to your HD display and cable or satellite set-top box, you don't need the expensive Media Center setup.
Microsoft may be overreaching in its ambitions for the new Xbox, but it's really about the games: The company expects to sell 3 million or so of them in the next month.For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm By Stephen H. Wildstrom