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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 08:58 GMT
Xbox 360 put to the test
By Alfred Hermida
Technology editor, BBC News website

Men playing Xbox 360 console
Keen gamers have been itching to get their hands on the Xbox 360
The Xbox 360 is one of the most eagerly-awaited consumer electronics debuts of 2005.

Gamers in the UK have been salivating about getting their hands on the first next generation console, with its promise of processing prowess and startling graphics.

Though some may be frustrated by a predicted shortage of machines when it goes on sale in the UK on Friday, others are sure to rack up hours of thumb action in front of the TV.

Microsoft's great white hope does not disappoint, but it is left wanting by the lack of a truly great game that shines on the new machine.

The Xbox 360 marks Microsoft's bid to become the world's leader in console gaming.

The original Xbox is just four years old and still the most powerful console of the current generation, with some great games.

But Microsoft wants to steal a march on its rival Sony and Nintendo which are also working on new machines, and set the ground rules for the next generation battle.

Power at a price

With the 360, Microsoft has turned its back on the big, black box which bombed in Japan.

Instead, the console is all about a sleek, candy-white design which has echoes of Apple's iconic iPod.

Xbox 360
Three IBM PowerPC-based 3.2 GHz cores
One teraflop overall system floating-point performance
ATI graphics chip with 10MB of embedded DRAM
512MB of 700MHz GDDR3 RAM memory
Detachable 20GB hard drive
Built-in Ethernet port
Games supported at 16:9, 720p and 1080i, anti-aliasing
Streams media from portable music devices, digital cameras and Windows XP PCs
Supports up to four wireless controllers

The machine itself is not much smaller than the original Xbox, but it makes for a far more discreet presence in the living room.

If anything, the design is a touch bland and inoffensive, avoiding the bold statement of the original Xbox.

Inside is enough power to rival most consumer high-end PCs, though getting involved in a contest about gigahertz or gigabytes is pointless.

The power of any console largely depends on the machine's architecture, as well as the ability of game developers to wring the maximum out of the system.

There can be no doubt that with three custom IBM 3.2GHz core processors and a custom ATI graphics processor running at 500MHz, the Xbox 360 represents a significant leap forward from the original Xbox.

The price of such power is a very noisy console, with fans whirring manically to keep the temperature down.

The noise is barely noticeable when playing a game with the volume set to loud, but stands out at other times.

Media central

Microsoft is pitching the 360 as more than just a games console. It can also serve as a digital media hub.

The machine will recognise devices such as iPods and Sony's PlayStation Portable, and play back MP3 music files.

But it does not recognise songs bought from Apple's iTunes online store due to a dispute between the two sides over formats.

Instead the console is designed to encourage gamers to stay within the Microsoft universe.

The box can be used to stream music or photos from a Windows PC over a home network, but not from a Mac .

And Microsoft has crippled the video playback functions of the 360, so it will only run video coming from a Windows Media Center PC.

While the 360 makes for a halfway decent media hub, it is not the machine that fulfils all of the needs of the digital junkie.

Online community

As part of its drive to bring gamers into the world of Microsoft, the software giant is opening up its online gaming service to everyone.

Xbox Live screen
Gamers will be able to connect to Xbox Live for free
Xbox Live is a core part of the 360 offering. The console can automatically detect internet settings, removing much of the pain of hooking up the machine to the net.

Microsoft is aiming to tempt everyone with broadband to Xbox Live by connecting them for free with a Silver account. This allows access to its online store, called Marketplace, where gamers can buy arcade games or download preview videos.

It lays the foundations for a digital distribution system where games may no longer exist as shiny discs but as downloads.

Gamers wishing to play against each other over the internet must fork out for a Gold account. Transferring an existing Xbox Live account is clear-cut and should only take minutes.

By using the Xbox 360 to keep track of games played and being able to compare statistics with friends online, Microsoft is looking to create a community of gamers committed to its machine.

Game on

At the end of the day, a console lives and dies by the games available for it. There is much which will appeal to the dedicated gamer in Microsoft's launch line-up, with a good selection of shooting, racing and sports titles.

Some of these like Project Gotham Racing 3 and Perfect Dark Zero stand out as top-notch games. Graphically, they look gorgeous, especially in high-definition, and the sound is first-class.

Perfect Dark Zero screenshot
Perfect Dark Zero is one of the stand-out games for the console
But the big Achilles' heel in the launch line-up is that there is nothing that hardcore gamers have not seen before.

And casual gamers may find little to convince them to part with the best part of 300 for the console, let along 45 for the games.

Missing is a killer game for the Xbox 360 that provides a compelling reason to hunt down the machine.

Grand Theft Auto did it for the PlayStation 2, and Halo worked its magic for the original Xbox.

The game that will define what next generation gaming is all about has yet to come.

With the release of the Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Revolution next year, Microsoft will be hoping for the must-have game that will set the Xbox 360 apart.

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