Inside the Xbox 360

Microsoft Corp. on Thursday took the wraps off its next-generation Xbox video game console during a special event broadcast on MTV. What’s it mean for Mac gamers? Consoles are setting the pace for video and computer game development, and the Xbox 360 is the first in a new series of next-generation video game systems we’ll be hearing more about in the next week. The MTV broadcast was long on hype but short on actual information about the new system, so here are some details.

The public unveiling of the new Xbox 360 trumps announcements expected next week from Microsoft rivals Sony and Nintendo — both companies are expected to provide information about their new systems at next week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, Calif. Microsoft is expected to have the new system on store shelves in time for Christmas.

The Xbox 360 is clad in a sleek white and chrome design that can rest horizontally or vertically. Equipped with wireless gamepads, the new Xbox is a far cry from the clunky plastic hell and tangled mess of wires that was the original Xbox. It’s about one quarter to a third smaller than the existing unit, so it takes up less space in your home entertainment rack and your carrying bag (if you haul your Xbox to gaming parties).

The Nuts and Bolts

The Xbox 360 features 512MB GDDR3 RAM, eight times as much as its predecessor. More RAM equals sharper visuals, cleaner textures, and more detailed game environments. The Xbox 360 will be able to render massive environments loaded with an eye-popping level of detail. This is good news especially for gamers who prefer to do their gaming on High Definition TVs — Microsoft notes the new console will be able to support all standard and HDTV modes, with multiple levels of anti-aliasing — a technique which softens the sharp edges of polygons to create a more natural look.

Looking further into the guts of the box, the Xbox 360 features a 500MHz graphics chip developed by ATI, the same company that makes graphics hardware for leading PC manufacturers including Apple. The chip features 48 pixel shader pipelines — enough to produce dazzling special effects that we haven’t yet seen on consoles or PCs.

Another startling similarity with Apple’s Macintosh systems: At the core of the Xbox 360 is a set of three symmetrical IBM PowerPC processor cores, each running at 3.2GHz. The chips are custom-designed, but they’re clocked faster than the fastest Mac. The Xbox 360 significantly outpaces the single 733MHz Intel processor that graces its predecessor. That brute-force CPU power will come in handy as Xbox game developers boost polygon counts in characters and create even more realistic looking environments for their games.

Good news for home entertainment buffs that double up their video game system as the home DVD player too: Xbox 360 works out of the box as a DVD player; you don’t have to buy any extra hardware to get it to work like you do with the current model. Progressive scan is now supported for smoother and sharper DVD playback. And the console touts a 20GB integrated hard disk drive that’s detachable and upgradable if necessary.

The Xbox 360 will also act as a bridge between PCs running Windows XP and Windows XP Media Center Edition and home entertainment systems, streaming audio and video content from those computers and portable devices. The detachable hard drive can be loaded up with ripped music, as well.

As far as we know, Xbox 360 games will ship on standard and dual-layer DVDs, unlike Sony’s PS3, which will use high-density Blu-Ray DVDs. Recent speculation suggests that Xbox 360 may be outfitted with HD DVD instead, but Microsoft won’t comment.

Online gameplay is central to the new Xbox, and there’s an Xbox Live-enabled toggle button placed dead-center on the controller. The new console also features built-in Ethernet and support for the IEEE 802.11a, b and g variants of Wi-Fi wireless networking (802.11g is what Apple uses in its AirPort Extreme cards).

Microsoft hasn’t made many changes from the Controller S that’s standard issue on the Xbox now; the wireless controllers are about the same size. Players will also have the option of using the Xbox 360’s USB port. And as an added bonus, PC players will be able to use the Xbox 360 controllers, too.

The Future is Soon

There are still some unanswered questions, the biggest being, does the Xbox 360 support backward compatibility? Microsoft has been quiet on the subject, and that’s not a good sign. We’ll hopefully know for sure at E3.

So why wouldn’t the Xbox 360 be able to play original Xbox games? Legal squabbles or time shortages could be the issue, but the biggest barrier may end up being purely technical: the differences in the proprietary rendering technology used on nVidia’s Xbox graphical techniques and rival ATi’s Xbox 360 graphics techniques are different enough to potentially cause problems.

From a technological standpoint, the Xbox 360 is best described as absurdly powerful. Sony and Nintendo have a bitterly long row to hoe if they plan on one-upping this technological titan. But in the end, all the technology in the world won’t save you if you don’t have great games to back you up; Microsoft’s biggest challenge will be roping in top-tier publishers (such as Rockstar and BioWare) and providing amazing Xbox 360-only games. It’s already at a good start, considering Microsoft’s recent deals to work with Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and Tetsuya Mizuguchi.

Bringing it back to Mac

Conspiracy theorists look at Xbox 360’s hardware specs and start champing at the bit: The common lineage of processors and graphics chips makes the Xbox 360 tantalizingly Mac-like in some respects. But there are a lot of fundamental differences between the Xbox 360 and the Mac — the core operating system, the basic architecture and more — that create a very wide divide between the two systems.

We don’t expect that the new iron inside the Xbox 360 is going to make it any easier for Mac developers to create conversions of games, but this system is giving us an early idea of what to expect from the next crop of video game hardware. The bar has been raised very high indeed.

Steve Fox of PC World.com contributed information used in this report.

For more Mac game news, reviews and information, visit the Macworld Game Room.

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