A Day on the Xbox Circuit

After a long wait, Microsoft's Xbox game console went on sale today amid a background of fanfare and uncertainty. Xbox is the first console to include a hard drive, and features a formidable array of hardware placing it in a respectable position among its well established competitors. Today, BetaNews hit the streets to gauge the public's reaction to gaming's freshmen brand.

Several delays led to speculation that Xbox was an unstable platform not ready for primetime. Faulty demos and rumors of hardware issues combined with delays raised questions about the console's overall quality. However, a community formed around Xbox and later demos ran without bother.

Xbox is the most powerful gaming system to date with a custom made 233 MHz graphics processor customer made by Nvidia, 733 MHz Intel CPU, 64 megabytes of DDR RAM, and 256 audio channels. Much like Sony's PlayStation, it is ready for online gaming with a high speed Ethernet port. Peer to peer gaming services were not available at launch.

BetaNews visited 5 Pennsylvania retailers to observe the reception customers would give Xbox, and even purchased our own unit on the spot – without preordering. Many games available at launch were developed by Microsoft, and in our estimation were the most commonly available titles. Like many consoles, Xbox is sold under cost and relies on strong sales of games and accessories to make up the difference. Microsoft is expected to lose between 1 to 2 billion US dollars subsidizing manufacturing of the $300 USD Xbox.

A Walmart located in the Northeastern part of the state had a single unit left for sale by mid-day and that BetaNews obtained as our test unit. To our surprise no DVD kits were on the shelves until later on in the day. Electronics Boutique claimed that the add-on was not available nationally due to manufacturing difficulties, although its PR firm was unaware that there was any deficiency in store supplies.

Edelman Public Relations Worldwide -- the media handlers for Xbox -- were also unfamiliar with the EB's claim. However, BetaNews viewed a memo that had been issued by company management alerting its branches of the problem. It cannot be determined whether or not the shortage was regional or national in its scope. Despite the DVD kit snafu, a host of games and hardware and were available.

Blockbuster, Electronics Boutique, KB Toys, and K-Mart did not have units on site, and only accepted pickups from customers who had ordered in advance. Sales appeared to be lukewarm although all reserved products had been sold at individual retailers. A Electronics Boutique manager told BetaNews that of those customers who reserved their console, only two had showed up to seal the deal by late afternoon.

Our Xbox came in packaging that alluded to a device as large as a VCR. It cannot stand vertically like PlayStations, and despite its sleek design, it is cumbersome and bulky. Game play was excellent especially in Halo - an action adventure game sponsored by Microsoft itself. Load time was noticeably faster than on PlayStation.

One nuisance that we have encountered is that it is necessary to shell out an additional $20 dollars to purchase an AV cable capable of hooking up to our surround sound speakers and receiver. Unlike the PlayStation, Xbox lacks an audio out receptor.

Developers, Developers, Developers...

Sony Corporation has built its strength in a library of games assembled during the past year since it introduced the PlayStation 2, which are expected to dominate holiday sales. When the Playstation was released, a mere 9 titles were ready for purchase. In contrast, Xbox has the broadest selection of games ready at any launch to date.

According to J Allard, manager of Xbox Platform at Microsoft games and game developers were in mind during the design phases of Xbox. The PlayStation also retails for $300 USD.

"Xbox was not invented by Microsoft in a vacuum," said Allard. "We went to the game-development community and asked, 'What would you like to see in a video-game system if there were no limitations?' We did the same with gamers. Xbox is a realization of this effort. It's the system everyone has dreamed of. Xbox gives unbelievable power and freedom to game designers, allowing the designers to deliver unprecedented experience to gamers this holiday."

This weekend, Nintendo's next generation GameCube -- which features less powerful hardware than Xbox on paper -- will also make its debut. GameCube is priced $100 USD lower than its competitors, and is built around Nintendo's well regarded ability to produce hit games.

In the end developers have three powerful systems to choose from, and only time will tell which system gains a competitive advantage through ease of programming, access to hardware functions, and most importantly -- popularity.

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