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X hits the spot?

Xbox logo

Bollocks to the hype and media critique concerning the wisdom and arrogance of Microsoft, the corporate leviathan daring to set foot into the console domain where the Japanese reign supreme. Bollocks to it all, cos I found myself feverishly staring at a special delivery. I was a ten-year old again; opening the wrapping of my first console, back then it was an Atari Home Entertainment System, but today it's an X-Box. Its familiar shape rose out from all the cardboard and polystyrene - a black brick of a thing with appealing circular silver buttons on the front and a garish lime-green blob on the top.

The X-box

Hmm, hopefully Microsoft will bring out some other designs in the future, but then, as its stackable I don't have to tolerate the naff lime-green blob if I don't want to. The colour, apparently, is supposed to conjure up images of 'magic and outer space', personally I reckon the head designer went on a lager and mint choc-chip ice cream binge, which has haunted him every since, but regardless here's the spec.

The X-box

First though, I'd like to dispel a few well-publicised gripes. Heavy? Come on, all this crap about its weight in the press. Personally, having lugged it around a few times recently, I can't say it's been an issue. A carrier would be useful, but it shouldn't be a problem unless you're the nephew of Mr Muscle. Although I'll detail the joypad or 'controller' below, again, personally I found the joypad easy to handle. I have small hands and big feet - make of that what you will ladies - and I didn't feel it was a strain at all to hold or use.

The X-box
Pay attention, here comes the science bit...

The X-box utilises PC hardware, which has been designed with a total gaming bias. The processor alone cost 200 million dollars to develop, so treating it like a normal system build would entirely miss the potential and power of this machine.

The processor is a version of the Intel Pentium III processor running at 733mhz. Nvidia is the mastermind behind most of the remaining components and has, in fact, created a spin off from its dealings with the X-Box called the Nforce. I will try to explain why this is no simple integrated graphics processor, but if you want an in depth study I suggest you get your hands on details of the Nforce.

Nvidia's X-Box Graphics Processing Unit (XGPU), running at 233mhz, is both a memory controller and graphics processor. The memory controller, as you would expect, dictates access to the 8GB hard drive, DVD drive and the main stick of unified memory ('Unified' meaning that the game itself, not the processor allocates the amount of memory given to data, sound and graphics), which is 64MB DDR - Double Data Ram, about 100% faster than standard PC RAM I believe. Importantly, the XGPU has direct access to the main memory, so it doesn't interrupt the processor, making calculations much quicker (Microsoft quote 116.5 million polygons per second, in comparison with 66 million per second on the PS2).

The XGPU has a number of built-in graphics features that aid calculations on the fly. These include anti-aliasing (for removing what they call in the trade 'jaggies'- the nasty jagged lines created by trying to making straight lines with pixels), vertex shading and pixel shading programs.
The other main processor is the Media Communications Processor (MCP), which as well as dealing with audio, also directs data streams from the joypads, internet, hard drive, DVD, CPU and so on.
All of the processors are connected together by the main memory channel, which according to Microsoft can ferry 6.4GB of data per second. So err, it's quite quick really.

The hard drive is an inspired addition to the X-Box, although an essential piece of hardware for the PC, it truly lifts the capabilities of a console. The 8GB hard drive, although small by PC standards, is ample even if you do decide to rip your music onto your box to listen to while killing small jabbering aliens. The hard drive also means that game levels can be shifted to it, limiting loading times to mere seconds. It also allows a game to effectively have a memory of what you have previously achieved, by using up slices of the drive as virtual memory. This will really come into its own with stat-laden RTS or management simulation games, which is why Codemasters are promoting their latest version of Championship Manager on this platform.

Unfortunately, the Ethernet port on the back of my X-Box sits vacant and will no doubt remain that way until there are enough people with X-boxes for a 16-way Halo plasma-pounding. The potential is there for broadband access and, of course, there are already people running games through Gamespy software. The official network is currently chalked up for activation in September, although this will be in America. Europeans will either have to find a way to hack into it or wait until Christmas. Since PS2 has announced the launch of its new broadband unit (a press release, dated 7th March 2002, has also announced its online service will go live in August), this should hopefully prompt a boot up the right backside to get the online arena up and running much quicker.

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