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Microsoft's Xbox 360 takes the stage

New console is actually a sophisticated, powerful PC cleverly disguised as a gaming system

Xbox 360, the successor to Microsoft's popular Xbox gaming console, is to get the rock-star treatment tonight at a gaudy launch event broadcast on MTV.

Though the newest incarnation of the Xbox franchise won't be available until Christmas, "MTV Presents: The Next-Generation Xbox Revealed" (hosted by Frodo himself, The Lord of the Rings' Elijah Woods) should whet gamers' appetites from here to Middle Earth.

It will also preempt competitor Sony, which plans to announce its own next-generation gaming system, the PlayStation 3, on 16 May.

Unlike the chunky first-generation Xbox, the 360 is sleek and concave, with optional face plates and a glowing green on/off button. More significant, though, is what's inside the box: a sophisticated, powerful PC cleverly disguised as a gaming system.

Microsoft has intimated that the Xbox 360 could form the centerpiece of a digital, connected home, maybe even supplanting the Media Center PC. System specs bear out that contention.

Powered by a custom-made IBM PowerPC-based three-core chip running at 3.2GHz, and supported by 512MB of GDDR3 RAM, the new Xbox should have enough oomph to keep up with even the zippiest current-day PC. Graphics performance should be stunning as well, powered by an ATI GPU running at 500 MHz, with 10MB of embedded DRAM.

The unit will ship with a 12x dual-layer DVD-ROM drive, three USB 2.0 ports, two memory unit slots, and support for four wireless game controllers. It supports progressive-scan DVD movies and a slew of DVD and CD formats.

Savvy users will be able to stream media from portable devices or Windows XP PCs, as well as rip music to the Xbox's detachable (and upgradable) 20GB hard drive. For networking, the Xbox 360 includes a built-in ethernet port and support for 802.11a, b, and g flavours of Wi-Fi.

When the new machine ships, the package will include free access to Microsoft’s Xbox Live online service for downloads, chat and the like. Xbox Live "Gold" subscribers (fee not yet announced) will enjoy enhanced options for online game matchmaking and a greater ability to provide feedback on opponents.

Speaking of opponents, Sony hopes to slow Microsoft's momentum with the PlayStation 3, though famously close-to-the-vest Sony execs have not confirmed ship dates as of yet. Potentially even more powerful than the Xbox 360, the PS3 will support the new high-capacity Blu-ray discs. Both units will have enthusiastic support from game makers, who are readying a wide variety of titles for both platforms.


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