Microsoft's Xbox is a Trojan horse. The company has conquered the desktop and now seems intent on sneaking a PC into your living room. Yes, this black behemoth of a system looks and acts just like a video game machine -- and a state-of-the-art one at that. But with built-in support for high-speed networking, an 8GB hard drive, and DVD playback capabilities, the Xbox does more than just play games.
With a front-loading disc tray, two buttons, and four controller ports adorning the face, the monstrous case will look right at home among your other home-theatre components. Inside this 4kg box you'll find the power of a PC (a 733MHz Intel processor; 64MB of RAM; and a custom Nvidia graphics board, the NV2A) and the heart of a video game console. Still, as nice as all that processing power is, what really matters is the onscreen result.
Video enthusiasts will appreciate that the Xbox works not only with standard 4:3 TVs but with 16:9 sets and in 60Hz as well. This means that you can view all your games in the same way as our American counterparts, at full speed with images that are crisp and sharp. A nice complement to this visual horsepower is the fact that the Xbox supports 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and can deliver 256 simultaneous voice channels -- previously unheard of in a game system. All of this adds up to some of the richest, most realistic experiences we've yet to see in video games.
However, to get the most out of the system, you will have to spend some extra cash on optional accessories. The Xbox is supplied with composite video cables and RCA audio outputs like every other game console -- but it'd be pretty offensive to use them considering the power of the console inside. So for improved audio and video performance, you'll have to spring for the £20 Advanced SCART, which has an RGB connector as well as optical digital audio jacks (although you'll have to buy an optical cable separately for another £5). Unlike the PS2, which plays DVDs right out of the box, you'll also need to shell out an additional £20 for the DVD Movie Playback Kit. It's clear that, although you don't need a memory card to be able to save games, Microsoft has still figured out ways to make its money back on peripherals.
While Microsoft makes you pay to unlock some features, it does include some PC-like ones that can't be found in competing systems. First, there's a built-in Ethernet adaptor for broadband multiplayer gaming, regardless of whether you're using a cable modem, DSL, or an office LAN. For an extra £40, you can purchase Microsoft's Xbox Live Starter Kit, which allows you to play games online (broadband connection required) for a year. Several, but not all, titles are Xbox Live-enabled, and even some that don't allow you to play online have extra content that can be downloaded.
The console also comes with a built-in 8GB hard drive, so you don't need to buy expensive memory cards to save your game progress. (Proprietary memory cards are available to share files with friends.) That hard drive also opens up some other possibilities. For starters, games load quickly because they can cache levels on the speedy hard drive rather than having to read all of the game's information from the disc. Another fringe benefit is the ability to drop audio CDs into the unit and copy songs to the drive. You can then use the console to play your music rather than fumbling for your CDs. It's a shame you can't install whole game discs.
Price is no longer an issue when it comes to the Xbox. Now £100, the Xbox sells for the same price as the PlayStation 2 and costs about £30 more than the GameCube. Clearly, the Xbox has a lot of power under the bonnet and sports some unique features (namely a hard drive and an Ethernet adaptor) that are missing from competing systems. Does that make it a better choice than the PS2? While the PS2 currently has a plethora of great games, as well as such PS2-exclusive series such as Metal Gear Solid and Gran Turismo, most top games are being released on Xbox simultaneously, and the console has its own excellent Xbox-only titles such as Halo 2. Overall, the Xbox offers superior graphics and is the best choice for those who demand the best audio and video performance from a system and have the A/V components, including a surround-sound package, to complement it.
Additional editing by Guy Cocker and Tom Espiner