Many hardcore video game players laughed at the prospect of a Microsoft games console, making derisive remarks about bugs and patches. But even the most fervent anti-Microsoft gamer will have to admit that the Xbox is a pretty impressive gaming platform.
It's been a long time since a US company has challenged the might of Japan in the games console arena, and let's face it, the Atari Jaguar never really had the teeth to bite into its Japanese rivals' market share.
But Microsoft was always going to be a force to be reckoned with, and has a history of 'embrace and extend' which sees it monstering into markets. Anyone remember when Netscape was the only browser in town?
Ugly on the outside, but what's in the box?
The first thing that strikes you about the Xbox is its styling. It's a big box, a big box with an embossed X on the top - presumably to mark the spot. In fact it would be fair to call it an ugly big box, much the same sort of criticism that Mac users have hurled at PC users for years really. But as any computer or games junky will tell you, it's what's inside the box that counts.
Microsoft has spent a lot of time trying to convince the public that the Xbox will not just be a stripped down PC, but the components inside catch the software giant out telling porkies. The processor is a 733MHz Intel, while graphics are handled by a 233MHz nVidia graphics processing unit (GPU).
Add the DVD drive, 8Gb hard disk and Ethernet port to the list and you've almost got a PC. But without a doubt the Xbox adds up to more than the sum of its parts and should not be judged as a list of components.
It's probably the graphics chip that most game players will be interested in since nVidia has been leading the way with PC graphics cards for some time. Microsoft was well aware that it was buying a fair degree of kudos from nVidia as well as a first rate graphics system.
The actual chip is a derivative of the GeForce3 architecture, which is pretty cutting edge at the moment, but anyone familiar with the nVidia development programme will know that it will be a couple of generations behind in a year or so.
Serious graphics for serious gaming
The GPU in the Xbox has one big advantage over its PC counterparts: direct access. Anyone who plays games on their PC will have fallen victim to driver problems. At one point nVidia was releasing drivers almost every week for its chipsets to ensure compatibility with the latest software.
The Xbox, however, doesn't use a driver model. Not only does this do away with having to download and install the latest drivers, it also makes the whole process of accessing the GPU smoother and faster.
Amazingly, all those fantastic graphics features that you've seen in nVidia demos but never in actual games are implemented and beautifully rendered in the first generation of Xbox titles.
The water effects that you're treated to are nothing short of stunning and, when you throw in spectral fogging and ambient lighting, you start to understand why nVidia was so enthusiastic about these features.
Obviously the Xbox is having to work with less pixels since a TV sports a much lower resolution than a monitor, but you honestly don't even notice the resolution, the visuals in games like Halo and Dead or Alive 3 really are that good.
Surprisingly there's no dedicated graphics memory. Instead the Xbox uses Unified Memory Architecture and shares the 64Mb of system memory across all tasks. What's even more surprising is that this doesn't seem to affect performance.
Hearing is believing
Complementing the cutting edge graphics is the best sound ever heard from a console. The sound chip comes courtesy of nVidia as well in the shape of its Media Communications Processor (MCP) which has already been seen on PC motherboards. This chip also provides the 10/100 Ethernet capability.
The MCP can pump out up to 256 channels of sound, but the real aural delight comes in the form of real-time Dolby Digital sound effects. This really does mark the next level of video games. If you've already got a Dolby Digital home cinema set up you can connect the Xbox to it via an optical digital cable.
The sound effects when playing a game like Halo are nothing short of staggering. A realistic 3D sound stage is created around you and voices, footsteps and gunfire can be heard from all directions making an already immersive game almost lifelike.
Unfortunately the Dolby Digital sound is also cause for criticism. Whereas Sony placed an optical digital port on the PlayStation 2 console, Microsoft has opted to forgo the port, forcing you to buy an AV add on cable to make use of digital audio.
Tight wad Microsoft exposed
Adding to the money grabbing image is the inability to play DVD movies out of the box. Unlike the PlayStation 2, the Xbox can't be used as a DVD player with the standard controller. If you want to play movies you have to buy the optional DVD remote control.
All this wouldn't be quite so bad if the machine was cheap in the first place but, at $299 in the US and a predicted £299 in the UK, the added cost of these two extras will have an effect on prospective buyers.
Another point worth mentioning is that the Xbox is very power hungry and can suck up to 100w of juice. This meant that we had to go to an electrical specialist to find a transformer for our US import model. Obviously this won't be necessary for the official UK Xbox, but you might want to give it a plug socket of its own.
Losing control of the controller
The official controller is a bit of a mixed bag. It's massive compared to a PlayStation 2 controller, but only slightly larger than the Dreamcast unit. There are two analog sticks, a directional pad, eight buttons and two analog triggers.
Playing a first person shooter game like Halo is a joy on the Xbox controller, but fire up a fighting game like Dead or Alive 3 and you'll be longing for your PlayStation 2 pad. Microsoft has already changed the design for the Japanese Xbox launch, so there will probably be more than one model available eventually.
However, the best move Microsoft made was buying out small software developer Bungie and making the game it was working on an Xbox exclusive. If you love games, Halo is reason enough to own this machine and even helps you forget about the 'optional' extras that you have to buy to get the most out of the system.