It only took Microsoft Corp. two tries to get it right in the video game console business.
The new Xbox 360, available Tuesday, is a stylish, powerful improvement over the previous model that largely fulfills the company's promise of making a next-generation game system that can serve as an entertainment hub.
There are two flavors of Xbox 360, but I can only recommend the pricier $399.99 version. It includes a remote control, a headset enabling you to chat with buddies in online multiplayer games, a comfortable wireless controller, and most importantly, a 20-gigabyte detachable hard drive.
For $100 less you could buy the basic "Core System" sans a hard drive, but it's not a very good value.
Not only do you lose out on the disk storage, you get a controller that's tethered to the system. There's no remote, headset or other accessories that would easily top $100 if purchased separately.
Regardless, you'll have to buy the games separately - neither system includes any beyond a few demos and the simple board and puzzle games you can download via a robust, much-improved Xbox Live multiplayer gaming network.
For a system that so seamlessly melds the worlds of online and off-line gaming, Wi-Fi should have been included; instead it's an extra accessory.
The 360 is a pleasing visual contrast to its decidedly garish, hulking predecessor.
Instead of a black behemoth with lime-green accents, the 360 is a slim off-white and can either stand on its side like a personal computer tower or be stacked horizontally with the rest of your audio-visual gear.
This time around, Microsoft went with an external power supply, and for good reason: it is a giant gray brick nearly as large as the console itself. Good thing I was able to tuck it out of view behind the television.
At the console's heart is a 3.2 gigahertz IBM-designed PowerPC microprocessor with three cores - or tiny computing engines - that run simultaneously. The unit has 512 megabytes of memory, eight times more than the original Xbox, as well as a custom graphics chip.
The machine's power was evident the moment I turned it on, and the graphics are the best looking I've seen on any platform.
"Project Gotham Racing 3" captures the blurred sensation of barreling down race tracks with fluid photorealism. It's like watching a real race on television but you're actually controlling the outcome.
Other games I tested were equally stunning, notably the World War II first-person shooter "Call of Duty 2," where you can actually see Russian soldiers exhaling as they battle Nazis on frozen battlefields. In "NBA2K6," rivulets of trickling digital sweat have never been so perfectly rendered in a video game.
Of the 18 games available at launch, none of them really stands out as a marquee title, and many are available for older-generation systems.
I wish Microsoft had paired the new unit with a must-have title. "Halo 3" would seem a no-brainer.
I was able to play older-generation games like "Halo 2" without a hitch using software emulation. I was unable to transfer my saved games, though, so I hard to start all over.
Some old Xbox favorites such as the fighting game "Ninja Gaiden" didn't work at all, even though it's on a list of compatible titles at www.xbox.com.
My advice? Don't get rid of your old Xbox just yet.
Xbox 360 uses a simple, easy-to-navigate interface called Dashboard to switch between games, online play and other functions. It's far superior to what's out there on other consoles.
Four tabs on the screen's sides each manage a different function:
One handles your Xbox Live account, another is for setting parental controls, sound and video options and a third is for non-game media.
The fourth tab manages games and is also where you can play and buy Xbox Live Arcade games, which tend to be casual games like "Bejeweled" or retro hits like "Joust."
(A no-frills "silver" service is free, while "gold" memberships cost $69.99 for 12 months, $39.99 for three months).
Transferring my old Xbox Live account to the 360 was simple but disconcerting. For security reasons, Microsoft barred me from using the online service on my old Xbox after had I upgraded.
The media tab offers the most tantalizing peek at how the 360 goes beyond video games. After downloading and installing a special software patch on my home computer, I was able to wirelessly access MP3 music files on my PC and play them on the 360. I couldn't stream the hundreds of AAC-encoded songs I've downloaded from Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes service, though.
I pulled up some vacation photos in much the same way. The device also supports movies if you have a computer with the Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system (I don't).
You could even rip music CDs directly onto the 360, but with only 20 gigabytes of storage (nearly half of that already consumed with pre-loaded demos, film clips and other freebies) you'll probably run out of space fast.
Though it's more than double the price of older consoles, there's a lot of value in the Xbox 360. In fact, it reminds me more of a PC than a video game console, just a whole lot cheaper.
Case in point: I recently spent $350 just for a video card for my PC. Think about it: for $50 more, I could have bought an entire game system that's nearly as powerful.
Microsoft has done more than beat rivals to market with a powerful, flexible video game machine.
With Xbox 360, the company that helped turn personal computers into household devices has created a machine that may someday replace them.
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