X-Box Promises Glittering Graphics

SAN JOSE, CALIF. (03/10/2000) - Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates took a few shots at Sony Corp. and wowed the crowd of game developers and enthusiasts here Friday, as he unveiled Microsoft Corp.'s X-Box game console, which won't ship for more than a year.

Microsoft tried to make Sony's PlayStation 2 seem like old news even before its fall U.S. debut. The rival system shipped in Japan this week.

Microsoft's device won't be ready until the third quarter of 2001, but the first public display of the silver, X-shaped prototype showed impressive power at rendering video playback; Microsoft gave no game-playing demonstration. From butterflies in a beautiful Japanese garden to a buxom Lara Croft-esque warrior and her trained battle droid doing martial-arts moves, each animated scene highlighted the X-Box's capability to render shadows and realistic movement.

The demo drew "wows" from the game-savvy crowd.

After one demonstration, Gates remarked, "Not bad for a calculator." It was an obvious dig at Nobuyuki Idei, Sony president and chief executive officer, who implied that PCs are "dinosaurs" during the prerelease hype for the PlayStation.

Neither would Gates reveal the X-Box's price tag, saying only it would be priced "like a gaming console." The Sega Dreamcast made its U.S. debut at US$199, and the Sony PlayStation, $299. The PlayStation 2 is shipping in Japan at $370.

Microsoft's final demo displayed a popular boxing character as he appears in a current game, and how he'll appear in an X-Box version. The demonstration showed the machine's graphics power, and highlighted one of the important alliances Microsoft has already formed in the gaming world.

Serious Hardware

In addition to Microsoft's impressive list of game developer allies, Gates revealed some details about the box's notable hardware set. They include some firsts for any game console.

Its processor will be Intel Pentium III technology and will run at 600MHz. The graphics processor will be co-designed by graphics card vendor NVidia Corp. and runs at 300MHz. The X-Box will have 64MB of high-speed DDR memory. It will have a 4X DVD player that can play back DVD movies, four game controller ports, USB ports, and an Ethernet port (for broadband support); a modem will be optional.

Most notable: X-Box will include a built-in 8GB hard drive.

No other game console offers a hard drive, and it will enable fast access to large amounts of data, Gates says. It will also let you download trial versions of games from the Internet, a function available only to PC gamers now.

While Gates emphasizes the X-Box is a gaming platform, he also commented only loosely on the fact that X-Box is, basically, a PC. Because it runs on a Windows 2000 kernel with DirectX, developers will be able to create a game as one piece of software for the bulk of their development. They will need to make only minor modifications to port the program to each platform, the X-Box and PC. However, you can't run existing PC games on the X-Box.

Game developers like Zac Southard, a programmer for Alpha Squadron, see a lot of potential with X-Box for PC gaming.

"There are so many games developed for Windows, it'd be great if it's easy to port a game (to X-Box)," Southard says.

Graphics board developer 3dfx Interactive Inc. doesn't make the graphics hardware for the X-Box, but the company considers the X-Box a breakthrough for PC gaming. It's not simply a new console, representatives say.

"The more (X-Box) is identical to Windows, the better for the PC platform," says Peter Wicher, director of product marketing at 3dfx Interactive. "We could now have an abundance of new content."

NVidia codeveloped the graphics chip, and executives say they're excited by Microsoft's understanding of consumers.

"They're software guys, and they do more than anyone else to enable mass-market multimedia," says Michael Hara, Nvidia's vice president of corporate marketing.

Hurry Up and Wait

Still, after the flash of the demonstrations wore off, some expressed doubt that Microsoft can really deliver a quality hardware device with a stable platform. And others note that graphics for a low-resolution television are very different from that of the PC.

"Microsoft brings a lot of money and muscle to gaming," Wicher says. "We'll see how well it does this time with hardware."

Microsoft says developer information will be posted on an X-Box Web site soon.

In April the company will release a beta version of DirectX 8, which game developers will use to prepare software for the new platform. But the company didn't say how soon anyone outside of Microsoft could take the controls of an X-Box, even in a prototype version.

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