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Xbox 360

Half the fun of a next-generation console comes from the furious rumormongering that precedes its arrival, and the Microsoft Xbox 360 has been no exception. But with the Xbox 360's release date now only three months away, it's time to revisit the platform and see which rumored features have been confirmed, which have been shot down, and which remain firmly in the realm of speculation.

Confirmed: what we know
Pricing and bundling: On August 17, Microsoft confirmed that its next-generation console will launch in two flavors: a $299 edition that comes with one wired controller, a detachable faceplate, and standard A/V cables; and a souped-up $399 version that ships with a 20GB hard drive, a wireless controller, a wireless headset, a limited-edition wireless Media Center remote, and HD-capable component A/V cables. Both SKUs will include a basic Xbox Live Silver membership.

Hardware: In addition to an IBM PowerPC-based CPU running at 3.2GHz and 0.5GB of RAM, the 360 sports a customized ATI graphics processor capable of advanced antialiasing and shader effects. What that technical jargon means, in practice, is that the new Xbox will have the processing power to deliver true 720p and 1080i wide-screen HDTV images for all of its games (by contrast, most games for the original Xbox maxed out at a DVD-level 480p). Multichannel surround sound is also standard, and the 360 natively supports up to four wireless controllers to cut down on cable clutter.

DVD vs. Blu-ray: The Xbox 360's optical drive is a standard DVD model. While using tried-and-true DVD technology may keep costs down, it also limits the games to just 8.5GB of space--that's pretty tight for high-def cut-scenes. By contrast, the PlayStation 3 will use a next-generation Blu-ray drive, which means more space for games (at least 25GB per disc) and compatibility with one of the competing high-def movie formats vying to replace DVD. Rumors persist that the 360 will get an HD-DVD drive at some point, but with Microsoft on an aggressive four-year console upgrade schedule, we're likely to see the third iteration of the Xbox (November 2009?) before we see a "360.1" with HD-DVD.

Appearance: The new Xbox is notably smaller and more curvaceous than its brutish predecessor. The front panel is dominated by an oversize power button, but the look and feel can be customized with a variety of interchangeable faceplates. Furthermore, the Xbox 360 can be mounted vertically or horizontally, la the PlayStation 2.

What's going to be better: Xbox 360 or PS3?
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Multiplayer: The success of the current generation of Xbox Live has led Microsoft to expand and enhance the next generation of the broadband online service. It will now be available in Silver and Gold tiers, with the former offering limited functionality to all Xbox 360 users and the latter continuing the premium services Xbox Live users currently enjoy. But the big step up is the Xbox Live Marketplace, which will serve as an online launch platform for downloading value-added content, such as new demos, levels, maps, and skins. Don't expect giveaways, however; Microsoft and third-party publishers will be looking to monetize Xbox Live beyond the flat yearly fee.

Launch titles: During the Xbox Summit that took place in Japan at the end of July, Microsoft announced what appears to be a final list of launch titles, which the folks at dutifully translated. It's still unclear which games will be launching in which country, however, and some titles appear quite loosely translated, to say the least.

Peripherals and accessories: Assuming the 360 is priced to move, expect Microsoft to make up for lost profits on the console itself with a procession of must-have accessories. In addition to video connectivity upgrades (see bundling details below), the company has confirmed that several first-party accessories are on the road map: a wireless network adapter, a memory card, an EyeToy-style video camera, and (of course) additional wired and wireless controllers and Xbox Live headsets.

Nongaming capabilities: The Xbox 360's built-in ability to serve as a Media Center Extender will let users stream digital video, audio, and photos from networked PCs running Windows XP Media Center Edition. Microsoft is also promising the "ability to stream media from portable music devices, digital cameras, and Windows XP-based PCs." Last but not least, the 360 will double as a CD/DVD player.

Rumor and speculation: what we don't know
Availability: Microsoft recently reaffirmed a holiday 2005 release date for the Xbox 360, with the console scheduled to hit North America, Europe, and Japan sometime in the fourth quarter. Specific dates are still up in the air, but don't be surprised if it's around November 15--the fourth anniversary of the original Xbox hitting stores.

Backward compatibility: Microsoft pledged that the 360 would be compatible with top-selling Xbox games. That caveat--and the lack of subsequent official information from Microsoft--has led to considerable speculation as to what titles will and won't work on the 360. The problem is trying to get software designed for the Intel/Nvidia architecture of the original Xbox to run on the IBM/ATI hardware of the 360. The rumor mill indicates that Microsoft is making good progress in ironing out the legal and technical details related to backward compatibility. Let's hope it's true; no one wants to keep their old Xbox in the A/V rack just to play Halo.

Bells and whistles: One of the latest Xbox 360 rumors is that the console's controllers will accept QWERTY-style keyboard attachments. The evidence behind this conjecture amounts to some camera phone-quality pictures of overseas technical presentations, so you'll want to take this news with a grain of salt.

The bottom line
The Xbox 360 is by far the most fleshed-out of the next-generation consoles. We know how much it'll cost, when it'll be available, and what games will be playable at launch; unfortunately, since we still know so little about its next-generation competitors, it's hard to definitively weigh in on which machine will reign supreme. That said, screenshots from Xbox 360 titles such as Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter look absolutely stunning, leading us to believe that the Xbox 360 will likely be a worthwhile investment, if an expensive one.

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