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Microsoft's Next Box to Usher in 'Hi Def Era'

by March 10, 2005

Microsoft gave attendees of the Game Developer's Conference (GDC) a peek at the specs of its upcoming Xbox replacement code named "Xenon". There are still several unknowns about the upcoming system, including what the system will look like, what it will be called, and exactly when it's to be released. However, the announcements of specs make the second coming of Xbox look like a sure bet for late this year according industry analysts . Read more about the GDC presentation here .

All specs are subject to change but Microsoft promises further updates in May at the E3 video game convention in Los Angeles. Read more about the Xenon's specifications Gamespy's inside review of the Next Box.

Power: Under the hood are three (count 'em three ) IBM PowerPC cores, each rated at 3Ghz and capable of two instruction sets per cycle. Each core also has 64K of L1 cache and share 1M of L2 cache. Add to that 256M of system memory and you have one powerful machine by any standards, or as Xbox chief architect and Microsoft VP J Allard said during a presentation at the conference. "This system is a monster. It's going to deliver over a teraflop of computing power."

It should be noted that ratings of PowerPC cores and system memory are not comparable to anything on the PC market. The strength of console units has always been that games developers can write software intended for the console's APIs (routines and protocols built into the console's hardware) compared to the PC which has a whole operating system with a lot of more overhead and compatibility issues with many manufacturer's APIs.

Video: A specialty ATI 500Mz processor that supports Shader 3.0 currently handles graphics on Xenon's beta. ATI promises the final processor will be more powerful than anything used in PCs today. By all accounts from the pros in the graphics gaming business this unit is going to present quality graphics beyond anything yet seen on console or PC. Dynamic lighting and anti-aliasing are yesterday's features; get ready for highly detailed dynamic shading and mind-blowing textures. New post effects on rendered objects will create realistic motion blur and even heat distortion.

Memory Units: Xenon will use memory cards designed for user data available from 64M to 1G.

Optical Drive : Xenon will use optical drive storage from a 12X speed DVD Rom drive like Xbox but games will be written on dual density DVDs. It would have been nice to see Microsoft put its muscle behind either Blu-Ray or HD DVD. But the inclusion of either new optical format at this time would have added too much unnecessary cost.

Camera: A camera will be connected to the Xenon via USB 2.0 capable of 1.2Megapixel still images.

Hard Drive: A hard drive will not be included except as an optional add on. Casual users might not need the drive but for power gamers it will be a must. Available sizes are yet undetermined by Microsoft, but games will use up to 2Gig of the drive for cache and the rest for personal data storage.

Community: All games developed for Xenon will be required to take advantage of multiplayer gaming on the Xbox Live service (Will it still be called Xbox Live?) Microsoft wants to create a whole online marketplace where developers can sell updates and provide content either free or for a small fee.

Good news for Home Theater. Game developers will have several requirements for games made for Xenon. They'll be required to make games in high definition video, at least 720p or 1280x720 pixels, include anti-aliasing (which smoothes out pixilated diagonal lines) and 16:9 aspect ratios must be enabled. 5.1 Surround soundtracks will be required and the vendor must include the in-game ability to use custom soundtracks (either MP3 or WMA format.) MP3 storage on Xenon is a good reason for the optional hard drive, if you've ever played a game with a redundant soundtrack and wanted to add your own MP3s (ahem… Need For Speed Underground2.)

It's good to see Microsoft take a hard line on video requirements and online gaming. This is part of what J. Allard calls ushering in the "Hi Def Era". Gamers with HDTV won't have to look for games that take advantage of their display's abilities, it furthers the advancement of digital television. For owners of a large HDTV any new game presented in 480P is a disappointment, it's inexcusable that Xbox's premier game Halo2 is presented in this low definition format.

DVD Playback: The player will be able to encode your CDs in MP3 or WMA format in up to 320Kbps CBR or VBR stereo on Xenon's Music Player Service. Xenon Motion Video (XMV) for DVD playback is based on Windows Media Player 9 and uses the codec for HD-DVD aimed at running 720P at 30 frames per second in 5.1 Surround. DVD playback is almost certain to require the use of an option hard drive and probably another extra purchase as well. For home theater gamers waiting to see how the hi-def optical format war pans out, Xenon is a sure bet.

Special Thanks to  Home Theater Focus

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About the author:

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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