Microsoft today previewed its first games console, the X-Box, but said the device won't hit the market for at least 18 months.
The Microsoft-branded box is a major departure for the software giant and a tacit admission that console makers like Sony who make both hardware and software have left the PC far behind as a gaming platform.
Microsoft demonstrated a prototype of the box, which will compete with Sony's Playstation 2, in London this morning, ahead of its official launch in the US later today. Microsoft expects to release X-Box in the US and Europe in autumn 2001. No prices are available yet.
Cameras were not allowed at the preview, but vnunet.com has produced an artist's impression of the X-Box concept model, shown above.
The X-Box will be contain a 600Mhz Intel Pentium processor and a dedicated 300Mhz custom designed graphics co-processor designed by nVidia. The chip is capable of a maximum of 300 million polygons per second: this compares to the 66 million polygons per second maximum of the Playstation 2.
Jay Allard, general manager for the X-Box, said that while the machine would be based on PC technologies, including Windows NT, it would be "entirely focused as a single purpose, dedicated games machine" rather than as a general purpose family entertainment device.
X-Box contains a built-in 8Gb hard drive, which Allard said would add significantly to the game experience. "For the first time, games will feature long term memory. Bullet holes will remain in walls for ever, rather than rooms being re-set to pristine condition each time you revisit," he said.
He said the fast I/O of the hard drive could for example support features like convincing realtime commentary for sports titles.
Also included in the specification will be a DVD drive (including support for DVD movie playback), built-in ethernet for networked gaming, a USB port and support for 3D audio. A connector for a modem or broadband DSL-type device for internet access will also be provided.
Microsoft's executives acknowledged that the company is a late entrant into the fiercely competitive games console market. Allard said PC games developers would be able to write to the existing Direct-X APIs to create X-Box games, although consumers will not be able to play PC games on X-Box consoles or vice versa.
Microsoft may have given Sony, which already owns 70 per cent of the world's gaming market, a headstart of over a year to establish the PlayStation 2, but the Windows giant plans to use its sheer financial clout to establish X-Box.
"We are serious about games. A whole new division dedicated to the X-Box has been formed within Microsoft, and when we launch X-Box, the huge marketing support devoted to it will make the launch of Windows 95 look pale in comparison," said John O'Rourke, the worldwide marketing head of Microsoft's games division.
Industry analyst Datamonitor said that while Microsoft?s sheer size, marketing clout and brand recognition will inevitably make it a serious competitor in the console market, it was unlikely to dislodge Sony from its position as a market leader in the near term.
"The real impact of the X-Box will be felt by Nintendo and Sega, currently battling for second place. Although the console market is thriving, the arrival of a fourth player of the calibre of Microsoft will speed up the exit of at least one console manufacturer," Datamonitor said in its response to the X-Box launch.
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