Parts of this writeup are somewhat subjective. I speak as a life-long video games enthusiast, and have reservations about whether the benefits the Xbox platform brings to users and developers outweigh the long-term costs that Microsoft have made no secret of wishing to impose upon the industry. I have seen far more lovingly-crafted vessels steered onto the rocks by companies that did not understand the current climate of the games market. The greatest fear is that Microsoft have the resources to decouple the fortunes of their machine from commercial realities, thereby artificially influencing the creative and commercial decisions made by third parties, to Microsoft's gain and all other parties' expense. As 1984's crash showed, the fortunes of the games industry can be a fragile thing, and it is not necessarily wise to believe that things will simply work themselves out over time. As it stands Microsoft thankfully do not have a decisive voice in the industry, and are undergoing the new and alien experience of actually having to compete against powerful rivals.

Never mind that, what is it?

The Microsoft Xbox is a games console (technically, a legacy-free PC with added security lockouts 1 ) created by Microsoft to compete with the Sony Playstation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube. It was launched in November 2001 in North America and early 2002 in other territories. Here are the pertinent technical specs:

  • DVD Drive
  • 8GB Seagate hard-drive (some models have a 10GB drive, formatted to 8GB)
  • 733Mhz Intel Celeron CPU
  • 250Mhz NVIDIA GPU (effectively a GeForce 3 chip with an extra shader pipeline)
  • 64-channel sound (provided by NVIDIA MCP chip)
  • 100Mbps ethernet port
  • 4 controller ports (USB with proprietary connector)
  • Cut-down Windows 2000 kernel
The machine has gone through a couple of hardware revisions in different territories, switching to a different (and presumably cheaper) DVD drive and altering the internal layout to thwart the first generation of mod chips. It is widely believed that Microsoft subsidise the cost of the Xbox hardware to retailers to the extent that they lose around $100 on every machine sold. (There is some debate as to whether the other consoles are currently sold at a loss, but I personally doubt this. The hardware vendors are unlikely to be very forthcoming on this issue as the perception that they are offering the best possible value for money is obviously favourable to them.)

In territories outside of the Far East, the Xbox comes with a huge controller that is awkward if not actually unusable to many gamers. (My hands are not small, but I am literally physically incapable of reaching the directional pad and the left trigger at the same time. And the less said about the face buttons, the better.) If you find the Western Xbox controller to be more comfortable than virtually any other modern controller peripheral, you should go and see a doctor because there's quite possibly something wrong with your hands. The Controller S (a variant of the smaller, more comfortable controller that shipped with the Japanese Xbox) is a much more promising device, and it seems that Microsoft are slowly phasing out the original controller in favour of this one.

The Xbox cannot play DVD movies out of the box. To allow this the user is required to purchase a small 'dongle' which comes with a handy remote control. This arrangement means that Microsoft do not have to pay royalties to the DVD cartel on every Xbox console sold (the royalty is subsequently taken from the sales of the remotes).

Although it seems a strong possibility that Microsoft will cave in to pressure to release a keyboard peripheral for use with the game Phantasy Star Online, they are strongly opposed to releasing or licensing any general-purpose keyboard, mouse or any non-game software product that would encroach on the domain of the Microsoft Windows desktop. It is unlikely that there will ever be an officially-sanctioned web browser or email package for the machine, although there are rumours of a (DRM-heavy) media player package in the works.

As is the case with its two main rivals, the Xbox cannot play online multiplayer games out of the box, requiring the user to purchase a peripheral (the Xbox Live Starter Kit) to enable this functionality. Unlike its rivals however it requires a subscription to be payed to allow the user to access its closed online gaming network. This system has been invested in heavily by Microsoft and is regarded by them as the feature that best sets their machine apart from the competition. This artificially limited and needlessly expensive system is discussed in detail in my writeup for Xbox Live.

Understandably (considering the massive expenses they have incurred entering the market) Microsoft are vehemently opposed to allowing users to run any software on the Xbox for which they do not receive some royalty. Currently the only way to run unlicensed code on the machine is to install a mod chip. On the grounds that mod chips also allow pirated Xbox games to be run, Microsoft have gone after any retailers who sell these devices, in some cases succeeding in blocking their sale. Modified Xboxes are also banned from using the Xbox Live online gaming service (supposedly on grounds of security).

It is currently thought to be statistically improbable that anyone will be able to break the encryption that allows code to be run on an unmodified Xbox. In a (somewhat optimistic) attempt to break this deadlock, the Xbox Linux project (who have succeeded in porting Linux to the modified Xbox, unsurprisingly considering that the machine is basically a PC) have formally applied to join Microsoft's third party licensing program, but have not received a reply. Barring someone finding an as-yet unknown weakness in the Xbox's security mechanisms, I think that the only way that unsigned code will ever be run would be if some third party software company made a case for being unfairly refused a license that would stand up in court.

Microsoft do not have any interest (bar a little insincere lip service and a thick chequebook) in video games as a creative medium. The Xbox project was driven by a number of factors (the level of importance of each one being debatable):

1. To have a controlled channel from which licensing fees could be extracted from third party publishers, something that is not offered by the Windows PC as a games platform, but is standard practice within the console space. To this end, Microsoft have gone to extreme lengths in trying to ensure that no unauthorised code can be run on an unmodified Xbox. The 'lockdown' even extends to online gaming on the machine (see Xbox Live).

2. To actively take business away from Sony, with the onus of making the system profitable in itself being relaxed to this end. The antipathy between Sony and Microsoft on a number of fronts is well documented. Microsoft see Sony as a threat in the 'war for the living room', especially in Japan where the Playstation 2 seems a much more appropriate candidate for an entertainment hub than the PC. A small yet telling sign of Microsoft's mentality was the code-naming of the Xbox project 'Project Midway', after the pivotal battle in the war in the Pacific.

3. To fuel growth now that the desktop PC market is reaching saturation, and continuing antitrust litigation (not to mention growing corporate unrest at the greedy new licensing programs introduced for PC software) is threatening to jeopardise some aspects of their established business model. (See also Tablet PC.)

Whereas previous contenders in the console hardware market (yes, even Sony) have had a traditional expertise in the field (with it being either actually or closely related to their core business) and a desire to grow the customer base (which led them to actively pursue innovation to appeal to untapped markets), Microsoft have simply waded in with a machine slapped together from off-the-shelf components in a few months and attempted to grab a share of this new gaming customer base. One thing that the Xbox has categorically failed to do that the original Sony Playstation succeeded brilliantly at is introducing gaming to a new demographic.

As of this writing (March 2003), the Xbox lags behind the Nintendo Gamecube (itself dogged by consumer apathy) in terms of global sales 2 . The machine has been a complete flop in Japan, managing only 350,000 hardware sales and one million software sales (yes, that's total sales for all the games on the machine) by January 2003 3 . Interestingly, the Xbox is selling well in Korea (thanks to the national obsession with online gaming). In Europe and the US the Xbox is (depending on who you ask) just ahead or behind of the Gamecube, Microsoft having slashed the price and offered ever-larger bundles of software with the machine. (In the UK over Christmas the bundle included an Xbox console, the old style controller, Jet Set Radio Future, Sega GT 2002, Splinter Cell and Halo for around £180. This offer seems to no longer be running.)

It is the lack of success in Japan that is Microsoft's biggest headache. Although Western developers are now a more prominent force in the console sector than at any time in the past, the giant Japanese games companies (Konami, Capcom, Sega, Square Enix, etc.) command the majority of globally commercially viable product output. Without a healthy user base in Japan, the big titles in key genres will go elsewhere (any major RPG remains absent from the Xbox release schedules). Personally I have no problem with Microsoft pumping money into the video games sector, but would not be terribly upset to see them remain trailing in third place.




I find myself in an unaccustomed position - I am willingly buying a Microsoft product on expectation that it will be the best of its kind.

Reasons why the Xbox has a fighting chance in the video game market:

  1. Microsoft has more money than it could ever spend. They can throw as much money at the Xbox as Sony or Nintendo can for their offerings. This means that Xbox doesn't have to make money immediately or even at all.
  2. The Xbox hardware is more or less a stripped-down, tweaked-out PC (a 10 gig HD, a DVD drive, 64 meg RAM, a PIII 733 MHz processor, an nVIDIA graphics card). It will run a modified Windows 2000 kernel and support DirectX. This hardware is very familiar to game developers and the transition from PC to Xbox will be almost painless for them. (Don't forget that programming games for consoles is much easier than for PCs -- with only one hardware setup, you can get it EXACTLY right.)
  3. The Xbox's RAM is a contiguous block of memory. By this I mean that it is not separated into different blocks for different functions as the PS2 does. Developers are able to allocate memory as needed depending on the needs of the game. This alone is making developers weep for joy.
  4. The Xbox HD will allow games to cache frequently used or extremely complex data. As everyone knows, reading data from a HD is much faster than reading off a disk (though still much slower than reading from core). This means much lower load times.
  5. Microsoft's record with hardware actually compares favorably to other companies. Their Sidewinder game pads and joysticks are highly thought of and their mice are pretty much everywhere. Since it never breaks, we don't hear about it, and that's a good thing for a piece of hardware.

Reasons why Xbox buyers are taking a risk:

  1. History shows that the video game market can only support two consoles. When the GameCube ships two weeks after the Xbox, there will be three offerings. One of these will fail. Microsoft is the new kid on the block and has to live down the reputation from Windows, so it has to have a flawless launch and a constant stream of good games to survive.
  2. Sony and Nintendo will probably ignore each other and attack the Xbox, correctly fearing Microsoft's immense marketing power. The GameCube is already underselling the Xbox and Sony will surely cut the PS2 down to $199 before the Xbox releases. Microsoft must justify the high price of its console.
  3. Although Microsoft has sworn up and down that Xbox will not be a Internet appliance or a PC, they still have to convince people of this. They don't want to ship a keyboard or mouse, but online gaming will suck without a keyboard.

Being a free software zealot, I hate Microsoft's attempts to dominate the OS market through mass proliferation of crappy software. I'd rather smash my head repeatedly into a stucco wall than use one of their OSes. But I don't mind paying for games or hardware, since they're toys and not life-essential software.

The Microsoft Xbox is, for better or worse, a lightning rod for debate among gamers. Microsoft needs no introduction, and their reputation for bad business has combined with the incessant analysis of any new trend, game, or piece of hardware to create a debate not seen in a long time.

A note: It is spelled and capitalized "Xbox." Not xbox or XBOX or xBOX or X-Box or any variation.

The Xbox itself is a largish black box, about the size of a VCR; large for a game console (which made it the butt of many jokes). The top of the case is a stylized black on black X, with a neon green circular Xbox logo in the center. The front of the case has a CD tray, the power button, and four controller connectors. On the back are a handful of (covered) undocumented ports, as well as a ethernet connector (more on that below). All of this is fairly standard, but more important is what's inside.

Two things really define the innards of the Xbox: off the shelf PC components, and a hard drive. A great deal of the Xbox's innards are standard computer components: the CPU is a 733 MHz Pentium III, nearly identical to the one you would find in a PC. (The GPU, however, is a 233 MHz custom design from nVidia, likely based on the GeForce 3 chipset.) The 64 megs of RAM are commodity parts, and even the hard drive is a standard 8 gig Seagate model.

The hard drive, a much ballyhooed feature of the Xbox, turns out to be of more use to pirates than gamers. (Many mod chips allow players to copy games to the hard drive and play them from there, without the game in the drive.) Its primary use is for storing game saves, saving players the trouble of buying memory cards. Many games (mostly early ones) installed onto the hard drive in the style of a PC game; later games simply used a portion of the drive as a disk cache, shortening load times (the alternative would be loading directly from the much-slower DVD-ROM drive,) It can be used to store mp3s ripped from music CDs (or CD-RWs; the Xbox seems to stubbornly not recognize CD-Rs), which can in turn be played by the Xbox's internal mp3 player or in place of the soundtracks in some Xbox games.

While "broadband online play" and "DVD movie support" are prominently displayed on the package, they both come with caveats. DVD movie playback requires the purchase of a $30 enabler kit, which includes a DVD remote. Many gamers were not amused. As far as online play goes, the Xbox one-ups the Dreamcast hardware-wise by including an eternet port, which would (theoretically) allow for broadband online play right out of the box (assuming you have a cable or DSL modem laying around and broadband internet access, but you have that, right?). Unfortunately, this support didn't materialize until about a year after the Xbox's release, with Xbox Live.

The Xbox Live service costs $50 a year (or $5.99 a month, for those who prefer to renew monthly instead of annually.) This money buys a fairly unremarkable online game matching service, comparable to services such as Gamespy's, with the addition of downloadable content for some games and voice chat and instant messaging linked to Microsoft's MSN Instant Messaging service. (Some games have downloads that cost an additional fee; these fees are generally nominal.) The pricing, however, has drawn a great deal of backlash, as Sony initially offered the PS2's broadband adapter for the same price as a year of Xbox Live, rendering the "advantage" of the included broadband moot. (Later, the broadband adapter would be included with all PS2s sold, again reigniting this debate.) Moreover, many gamers are unhappy with the lack of alternatives to Live (barring tunneling hacks for Halo or other LAN-capable games) and extra fees for some downloadable content.

For more info on Xbox Live, take a look at MechAssault (its killer app, and one of the first three games to recieve downloadable content), Unreal Championship and Splinter Cell (the other two of the first three games to get d/l content), GamerTag (the universal Xbox Live ID), and fondue's excellent w/u and withering (if now dated) criticism in Xbox Live.

The initial Xbox controller was very large, and something of a joke. It was as large as the much-criticized Dreamcast controller, although the cord extended from the top of the controller. The case was black, with neon green logo and writing in the "jewel" in the center. The buttons are oval (Y is yellow, X is blue, B is red, A is green, and the white and black buttons are unlabeled), the upper left and lower right circles are analog sticks (with a button under each, activated by tapping the stick, as with the Dualshock analog controller), the lower left circle is a D-pad, the select and start buttons are in the middle of the controller, and there are analog pressure-sensative triggers (labeled L and R) under each of the udders. The top of the controller has two ports for memory cards, rarely used due to the Xbox's hard drive.

A special feature of the controller is the connector for hooking them to the console itself. They have a pressure release switch, so yanking on a controller accidentally will disconnect the controller, rather than pulling down the console. While this prompted more jokes about the Xbox's massive size (the manual even says to keep small children and animals out from under where the console could fall), it is a handy feature for heated multiplayer matches.

(The ASCII art is representative with a monospaced font with equal height and width; designs will be vertically stretched in most monospace fonts.)

    _____                 _____
  /       \-------------/       \
 /   ___      _______      <O>   \
|  // | \\   /       \       <•>  |
| || ( ) || /  \\ //  \  (Y)      |
|  \\_|_//  |   >X<   |      (A)  |
|           |  // \\  |  (X)      |
|           \ X B O X /      (B)  |
|      ___   \_______/   ___      |
|    // | \\           // | \\    |
|   ||--+--||         || -O- ||   |
|    \\_|_//           \\_|_//    |
|        /   <•>   <•>   \        |
|       /\   Microsoft   /\       |
|      /   \___________/   \      |
 \    /                     \    /
  \__/                       \__/

Due to the cumbersomeness of the Xbox controller, the Japanese controller quickly became a popular import item, due to its smaller size and compatibility with the US Xboxes. They became so popular, in fact, that many mainstream game retailers, like Electronics Boutique and Gamestop started carrying them. Microsoft eventually got a clue, and began distributing the Xbox Controller S. The Japanese and Controller S models were slimmer and smaller, with start and select buttons above the left control stick and white and black buttons below the XYAB buttons. The Japanese model had a neon green "jewel" (with the logo and "XBOX" in bas relief), shorter cords, and slightly lighter springs on the triggers, but was otherwise identical to the Controller S.

Despite some fan outcry, Microsoft has intentionally eschewed certain peripherals. There will not be a conventional analog/narrowband modem, as Microsoft's goal is to have lag-free, consistantly fast gameplay on Xbox Live. There won't be an authorized keyboard or mouse, (although Xbox controller port to USB adapters exist) for unspecified reasons. (Speculation ranges from expense to limited use to a lack of desire to compete with traditional PCs.) Microsoft will not release a lightgun, preferring to leave that to third parties; Mad Catz released a lightgun for House of the Dead III, the only Xbox lightgun title to date.

I only know about the US launch. Anyone interested in noding the European or Japanese launches in more detail than I have here is freely invited to; I'd be happy to point them to any helpful sources.

The Xbox was rumored as early as 1999, amidst a swarm of rumors about the upcoming PlayStation 2 and Nintendo's next offering, then code-named "Dolphin". It's now known that Microsoft was in talks with developers and nVidia as early as October, although at this time the hardware and even OS the console would use were still up in the air. (Groups within Microsoft were lobbying alternately for modified versions of the WebTV or Windows CE kernals; a crucial conflict between these kernals and the special extended version of DirectX being developed by a Microsoft team collaborating with nVidia would lead to the development of a new kernal based loosely on the Windos 2000 kernal.) Bill Gates himself approved the preliminary plans for the Xbox, officially beginning the project, on December 21, 1999.

On March 9, 2000, Bill Gates confirmed the rumors, saying that, yes, Microsoft was going to be entering competition against Nintendo, Sony, and Sega by releasing the Xbox, a new gaming console using off-the-shelf PC components. The next day, Gates made the same announcement at the Game Developers' Conference, also confirming a Japanese launch.

Needless to say, predictions were rather dire. Many see Microsoft is seen as the great Satan of personal computing, and blamed them for any number of real or imagined problems with computer gaming as a whole.

After about a year of aimless speculation, a minor scandal with touched-up "screenshots," and no real news, Microsoft unveiled a prototype Xbox at the Consumer Electronics Show (another sign of MS's inexperience; typically, big releases in the US are done at E3), and announced the official release dates for the system. The launch titles showed some of Microsoft's inexperience in console gaming: Munch's Oddysee was a "big-name" system exclusive from a series no gamers really cared about (a sequel which didn't resemble the previous games in any way), and many of the hyped launch titles, like Mad Dash Racing and Fuzion Frenzy were games in genres that are traditionally awful. One of the biggest mistakes was the pricey exclusive licensing of a special edition of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, which was came out at almost the same time as Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 for the PlayStation 2.

The Xbox did eventually come out on November 15, 2001, and would have been totally ignored in its first Christmas season, if it weren't for Microsoft's single good move early on. Microsoft had acquired a small game studio named Bungie Software. Bungie's long-awaited first-person shooter Halo was pretty much the exclusive game to have that first season. While Halo's quality was a subject of much debate ("it's god/it's crap" flamewars continue to this day), and Microsoft couldn't yet compete with the library of the PlayStation 2, there was at least a single game to hold up against the success of the (in some circles disappointing) Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid 2. The release of Grand Theft Auto III overshadowed Halo's success, but Halo kept the Xbox from being buried that first holiday season.

Through the first three quarters of 2002, the Xbox competed debatably well, while the GameCube picked up a handful of hits early and late in the year, and the PS2 chugged on competitively. Microsoft scored a coup on the competitors in May, slashing prices preemptively, both closing the gap on the cheaper GameCube and getting an advantage on the dominating PlayStation 2. Both Nintendo and Sony responded within a month, but in that time MS sold approximately ten thousand units.

Things picked up again in the holiday season; Nintendo had a range of big-name titles, including their major franchises, and Sony had Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a pair of excellent platformers, and the breakout online hit SOCOM: Navy Seals, but Microsoft had Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, Splinter Cell, and the surprise hit and Xbox Live launch title, MechAssault. Microsoft still ended up a close third behind Nintendo for both aggregate sales and consoles sold, but the Christmas of 2002 was good to Microsoft nonetheless.

Now the present. Microsoft is talking about a successor for 2005, and has a number of titles on the horizon. While there have been many major Xbox disappointments, like New Legends, Blinx: the Time Sweeper, and others, the next year has the potential to be a very good year for Microsoft and the Xbox.

This future, however, is not so rosy outside of the US. Both the European and Japanese releases landed with a thud, and the system is struggling in Europe and is all but dead in Japan. It remains to be seen if the US market can sustain developer interest in the console.

At the moment, there are no Xbox emulators. While there are a very paltry few homebrew Xbox games, as well as at least one functional SNES emulator, as well as the ubiquitous MAME, that will run on the Xbox, an Xbox has to be modified before it will boot any unofficial software, and chipped or modded Xboxes cannot log onto Xbox Live. Efforts are ongoing to defeat this (some of them resulting in fairly malicious damage, like stealing system IDs), but at the moment Microsoft is exerting their considerable pressure to squelch modding and emulation efforts.

And, no, there isn't a Linux build for the Xbox. Sorry. Never underestimate the persistance of OSS coders. There is now a Linux build for the Xbox, available at Bear in mind, this requires a mod-chipped Xbox, so Linux and Xbox Live cannoy coexist on Xbox Live.


Appedix A - Statistics

Taken from GameFAQs and Comments and inanities are in italics, and are my own.

  • CPU: Intel Pentium III 733-MHz processor technology with streaming SIMD extensions
  • Graphics processor: 233-MHz, custom-designed X-Chip, developed by Microsoft and Nvidia
  • Total memory: 64MB of RAM (unified memory architecture)
  • Kernal: Stripped-down version of Windows 2000 - Thanks to fondue for this info.
  • Memory bandwidth: 6.4GB/second - This is a non-spec, as it can be measured several different ways.
  • Polygon performance: 150M/sec - This is just blank triangles. Microsoft has not published stats for performance with textures, effects, etc. enabled.
  • Particle performance: 150M/sec - Likewise.
  • Simultaneous textures: 4 - It was approximately one month before developers figured out how to increase this.
  • Pixel fill rate, no textures: 4.8 G/sec (anti-aliased)
  • Pixel fill rate, one texture: 4.8 G/sec (anti-aliased)
  • Pixel fill rate, two textures: 4.8 G/sec (anti-aliased)
  • Compressed textures: Yes (6:1)
  • Full screen anti-alias: Yes - Hardware-enabled. Notably missing on the PlayStation 2, but present in modern video cards and the GameCube.
  • Storage medium: 2X to 5X DVD, 8GB hard disk
  • I/O: Four game controller ports, Ethernet (10/100)
  • Audio channels: 256, AC3 encoded game audio
  • 3D audio support: Yes
  • Midi/DLS2 support: Yes
  • Broadband enabled: Yes - Well, sort of. There's an ethernet port on the back, and utilities exist to tunnel a LAN game over the internet, but to play games over the internet you really do need Xbox Live.
  • Modem enabled: No
  • DVD movie playback: Yes - Only with the purchase of a $30 DVD playback kit. More below.
    Gamepad included: Yes - Duh. Thank you,
  • Maximum resolution: 1920x1080
  • Maximum resolution (2x32bpp frame buffers + Z): 1920x1080
  • HDTV support: Yes
  • Region coding: Yes - Again, sort of. Microsoft allows for DVD region coding in the spec, but, unlike Sony, doesn't require it. Most game companies added region coding anyway, MS included.

Appendix B - Timeline

Taken from, although it seems to be gone now. Additional info culled from Gamespy and GameFAQs.

  • October 1999: First developers signed off
  • December 21, 1999: Xbox general specs officially signed off by Bill Gates and sent to developers
  • February 2000: New secret third party developers meeting held in Seattle
  • March 6, 2000: Microsoft goes with nVidia for the Xbox graphics engine
  • March 9, 2000: Bill Gates officially announces the "XBox" on CNBC
  • March 10, 2000: Bill Gates announces "Xbox" at the GDC and in Japan
  • May 15, 2000: The Xbox processor speed increases to 733MHz
  • November 7, 2000: Microsoft chooses Seagate as hard drive manufacturer
  • January 6, 2001: Xbox is unveiled at CES
  • October 2001: Preview units begin to arrive in stores
  • November 15, 2001: Official North American launch, at $300
  • February 22, 2002: Official Japanese launch
  • March 14, 2002: Official European launch
  • May 2002: Console price reduced to $200
  • August 15 - November 2, 2002: Microsoft offers cashback on DVD add-on kit
  • October 2002: Xbox Live launches
  • November 2002: Microsoft reduces price to $150 and starts packing Sega GT 2002 and Jet Set Radio Future in with the system
  • Winter 2003: Microsoft stops selling the Sega GT pack and starts selling a package featuring Xbox Live, including a 2-month Xbox Live trial and a special pack-in game combining Star Wars: the Clone Wars, Tetris Worlds, and a Live-only demo of MechAssault.
  • May 2004: Microsoft launches the Halo Special Edition of the Xbox for $179.99, including a translucent green Xbox, a green Xbox Controller S with Halo on the "jewel", and a copy of Halo including preview videos of Halo 2.

Appendix C - Launch Titles

US launch titles

Japan launch titles

Europe launch titles
(Not all titles launched in all countries.)

Sources: GameFAQs, Gamespy, Microsoft's official Xbox site at,

Hardware revisions of the Xbox

Microsoft has released several revisions of the Xbox, taking advantage of more mature manufacturing processes to cut costs. As a side-effect, newer Xboxes are quieter and more reliable. While Microsoft refuses to comment on the existence of different versions, let alone give them codenames, the Xbox modifying community has imaginatively dubbed them versions 1.0-1.5 . There are also a few special editions of the Xbox, for collectors and developers.

Summary of changes
  • 1.0
    • Initial version
  • 1.1 - August 2002
    • Bios encryption key changed
    • Updated north bridge chip - north bridge fan removed.
    • USB interface migrated from daughtercard to motherboard
  • 1.2 - December 2002
    • D0 point moved - existing pogo pin mod chips no longer work.
    • Power connector changed from AT-style to ATX-style
    • Onboard bios chip shrunk from 1Mb to 256Kb.
  • 1.3 - March 2003
    • LPC bus hobbled - many LPC mod chips no longer work
    • 1.3 is identical to 1.2 in every way apart from the LPC bus. The trace carrying the LFRAME signal appears to have been removed from the board entirely. LPC flash roms expect LFRAME to be pulled low before every read or write operation. If the signal is absent, the LPC flash rom will do absolutely nothing. Existing BIOSes will still work on the 1.3, but many modchips will not. It is possible to reconnect the signal by scraping through the top of the package of the BGA north-bridge, and soldering to the via that connects the ball to the package, but this operation is definately not for the faint-hearted, being an even smaller target than the vias on the motherboard.
  • 1.4 - August 2003
    • New north-bridge/video chipset - all previous hacked BIOSes no longer work.
    • 1.4 has a new version of the video chip, incompatible with the earlier version. BIOSes for the earlier versions (and hacked BIOSes based on these) do not recognise this new chip, and fail to boot. Any modchip designed for the 1.3 will work on the 1.4, provided it has a compatible BIOS onboard.
  • 1.5 - September 2003
    • LPC bus further hobbled - many LPC modchips no longer work
    • 1.5 is very similar to 1.4 - it has the same updated video chip, and same new BIOS, but the LPC header has had (In addition to LFRAME) the power and ground pins disconnected. Any LPC modchip that depends on the LPC header for power will no longer work, unless it is supplied with power from another part of the motherboard (The USB ports work quite well for this purpose).
  • 1.6 - May 2004
    • Major motherboard redesign
    • The most sweeping revision since 1.1, the Xbox 1.6 has the following changes:
      • Empty SDRAM spaces gone
      • On-board BIOS EEPROM removed!
      • Custom chip "Xyclops" provides LPC flash BIOS
      • Audio encoder chip removed. Probably integrated into larger 'XCaliber' video encoder.
      • Power supply changed - standby power is now 5v instead of 3.3v.
    • The 'Xyclops' chip is an LPC BIOS, much like current modchips. The LPC header is still available, and with a little soldering, can be restored to working condition. The Xyclops bios has to be deactivated, ironically by disconnecting its LFRAME signal. An unexpected consequence of this move to LPC BIOS is that all the LPC signals are available from test points on the motherboard, and (with the right BIOS) the old cheapmod is now usable again!.
    • Rather than a move against modability, this revision appears to be aimed at cutting the Xbox motherboard's size and cost. Large tracts of the motherboard on the front edge are unpopulated, leading me to believe that this motherboard is practice for a smaller 'PSone-style' Xbox. The move from 3.3 to 5 volt standby power seems to be a cost-cutting measure, as this brings the Xbox in line with standard ATX power supplies.
Special versions of the Xbox
  • Debug version: Available to licensed XDK clients, and magazines (to playtest prerelease games). Has a transparent green case, 128 Mb of RAM, and a BIOS that allows remote debugging, and supports USB keyboards and mice.
  • Development version: Available only to licensed XDK clients. Has a clear transparent case, 128 Mb of RAM, the debug BIOS, a SCSI port, serial port, and LPC header. The SCSI port is used in conjunction with a PCI card in the development machine to emulate DVD images without burning blanks. The serial and LPC ports are not used by the BIOS, but can be used by developers for debugging, or testing new hardware.
  • Limited edition green version: A retail Xbox with a transparent green case and transparent green pads. No difference in hardware.
  • Limited edition crystal version: A retail Xbox with a clear transparent case and clear transparent pads. No difference in hardware.
Debug/Development Xboxes can run only debug binaries, not retail games, but can be reflashed to emulate a retail Xbox and back again using a CD supplied with the XDK. Retail Xboxes can be reflashed with the development BIOS, but without doing some surface-mount soldering, they only have 64 Mb of RAM.

DVD drives

The Xbox has been confirmed to use three different brands of DVD drive, identifiable by their DVD tray.

Samsung, Philips, Thomson

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The Samsung drive reads just about any kind of media, including CDRs, CDRWs, and writable DVDs. The Thompson drive reads some brands of CDRWs. The Philips drive reads only pressed CDs and DVDs. This is relevant even if you don't modify your Xbox, as the Thompson and Philips drives are usually incapable of ripping music on CDR to the Xbox's hard drive.

I feel that I must defend the honour of the Xbox controller. If the writeups above (and the writers of penny arcade1) are to be believed, I "should go and see a doctor because there's quite possibly something wrong with [my] hands". I have neither gigantism or acromegaly; I am of average height for a 'western' male. I have no problem reaching any of the controls, including the 'start' and 'back' buttons. At no point do I have to change my grip on the controller, nor remove my index finger from the trigger. I can only assume that people who have problems with the controllers have abnormally small hands, or are holding the controller incorrectly. (I've seen some seriously odd ways of holding a Sony dual shock controller).

To hold an Xbox controller correctly, grasp the sides of the pad with the center of each palm. The slide joint of each thumb should be just below the lower d-pads, and the head line of the palm should be on top of the groove in the sides of the pad. Curl your middle, ring, and little fingers around the prongs of the pad. Place your index fingers on the triggers. You should now be able to reach the left analogue stick, the 'back' and 'start' buttons, and the six analogue buttons with the tips of your thumbs, and the digital pad and right analogue stick with the middle joint of your thumbs.

Not that I totally discount the possibility that I am a grotesquely deformed freak with enormous thumbs.

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