Join Date: Aug 2006
Back from the Longhorn Lab: Reporting on the Xbox 360
Last week I spent a day on Microsoft's campus, getting a great deal of information about Windows Vista, the next version of Windows (formerly known as Longhorn). While much of the event was under NDA, and most of what I learned about Vista I can't talk about, the last session of the day happened to be about the Xbox 360 and it's media capabilities, and was not under NDA. So here's what I learned...
There's a software update for Windows Media Center Edition 2005 PCs coming out fairly soon, code-named "Emerald". The official name is "Roll Up 2 for Media Center Edition 2005", and it will primarily add two features: support for the Xbox 360, and support for moving from 13 up to 33 countries in terms of guide support for TV. There were rumours about Emerald incorporating support for HDTV tuners/cable cards, but that doesn't seem to be the case based on what I was told. It also seems to be only for MCE 2005 PCs, so anyone stuck with MCE 2004 is out of luck - including HP notebook owners like myself. Lucky for me I have another PC with MCE 2005 on it. ;-)
I got some hands-on time with the Xbox 360, and the presenter answered some questions about it. The Xbox 360 will, in some countries, come with a "shorty" remote - it controls the DVD playback, navigation of the blades, and it can be used to turn the Xbox off and on (perfect for those of us using the Xbox as a media box). There will be a "tall" remote that contains more buttons and will be sold at retail. The Xbox 360 will have built-in 10/100 Ethernet, but no wireless - there's a small adaptor that will be sold as an accessory, and supports 802.11 b/g/a.
The big deal for me was the built-in Media Center Extender software - with the current generation Xbox, you need to put in a special CD to have the Xbox connect to your MCE 2005 computer, and the end-user experience was pretty horrible because it was essentially a special remote desktop client running. This meant you didn't get any of the smooth transitions, there was a lag with every button press, and it generally wasn't great. It was impressive as a proof of concept, but I for one wanted more and the Xbox 360 delivers: because it has a full client built in, you get a first-class experience when using the Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender. Rapid response to buttons and selection movement, fast responses to changing screens, and direct TV viewing (including HD content) are all supported. The one thing the Media Center Extender interface doesn't do is visualizations for music - which kind of sucks given the Xbox is going to be connected to the big-screen TV in most homes. :?
The Xbox 360 was playing a high-definition WMV file off an MCE computer located elsewhere on the Microsoft campus, and I was impressed - the video started quickly, was responsive to commands from the Xbox wireless controller (yes, you can control your media with the remote). The demo was for Ghost Recon 3, and the graphics were jaw-dropping. What's most interesting here is that these first-gen games are largely single-threaded. Game developers have received Beta development kits within just the last few weeks that contain the actual tri-core CPU and dual-core GPU that the final hardware will have. Up until this point, they have been coding the launch titles to run on the dual-CPU Apple G5 development kits, using off the shelf ATI GPUs that are significantly slower than the custom GPU being developed for the Xbox 360.
A common question I've seen in our forums is how the Xbox deals with media. There's a 20GB hard drive on board that can be used for ripping CDs - there's a CD ripping client (I didn't see it though) that will connect to the 'Net and download track names - my assumption is that it will only rip to WMA and at a certain bit rate. The Xbox 360 will also have the ability to play photos and videos (WMV only I think) from external devices, so you can hook up your Zen Micro and play music off of it, and someone mentioned you could connect a USB thumb drive with videos and it would work. I don't know if you'll be able to copy over videos and photos from external sources - the Xbox 360 seems to be largely focused on being a conduit for content coming from another computer. On the plus side, however, you'll be able to install the Windows Media Connect software on any PC you have in the home, and the Xbox 360 will be able to access it. Those of you with Windows Media Connect will already know how this works - let's just hope it's reliable.
That's about all I know right now, but needless to say it made me want an Xbox 360 even more!
UPDATE: A few people have emailed me saying that the Xbox has visualizations, which I wasn't disputing: my "no visualizations" comment was strictly for the Xbox functioning as a Media Center Extender, meaning when you're connected remotely to your MCE 2005 machine and listen to music, you won't be able to use the visualizations off the MCE 2005 machine...which isn't a loss because they're really lame anyway. The Xbox itself has some wicked visualizations - a helpful person pointed me to this article. Can you imagine seeing this on your big screen TV? The real question is, if you're listening to music from the extender UI, is there a way to flip over to the local Xbox visualizations? Or will you only be able to use the killer Xbox visualizations for local music on the hard drive or a USB-connected player?