iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






Microsoft X-Box: first look

September 5, 2000

Video game console which contains the processor from Intel, graphics chip from nVidia, Ethernet and USB ports, DVD-ROM driver and hard disk, works under the control of operating system from Microsoft and is oriented on DirectX simply could not remain without our notice.

X-Box as a lens has collected in itself some tendencies of the last years. Firstly it is increase of sales games for video game consls at fall of sales games for PC that is threat to a position Microsoft. Secondly the size of the games market for products Sony, Nintendo and Sega is already more than 17 billion of dollars and it is very attractive. Then the tendency of transformation video game console into a digital nervous centre of each promises rather large perspectives in future. Taking into account all this Microsoft is going to consider the capture of new, enormous on size market to be quite serious.

One more factor inspiring defined reliance in success of new inception is 16 months of operation hardware group Microsoft which activity is always perfect and planned for the development and progression of the platform costs billions of dollars will hardly be in vain. On the contrary it can become perhaps the largest failure of Microsoft.

However declared on March, 10 at Game Developers Conference X-Box should be waited for a long while. The release of video game console is promised only for Christmas of 2001 so that during a year and a half marketing department Microsoft will promote the new product with the help of the huge advertising budget. The position of Microsoft is favourable enough: the sale Sony PlayStation 2 outside Japan starts earlier, at the end of 2000, and Microsoft can quietly maintain that X-Box will be technologically more perfect and up to the release Sony PlayStation 3 planned in 2002 there is enough much time.

By the way the fact that X-Box technologically exceeds PS2 is declared by Microsoft from the very beginning of the official life X-Box. During demonstrating on GDC Gates showed the remake of technological demo PlayStation 2 added to the original demo a number of new details demanding a significant increase in productivity. And it was made not on final variant X-Box. Simply there are no all components which it will be collected of. In particular one of main moments is that instead of not released specialised variant NV25 it was used NV15 rather considerably yielding in productivity.

Speaking about components let's pass through their list:

The processor

x86 is known for a rather long time and that is clear because Microsoft is oriented on this architecture from the moment of birth. Then the clock rate - 600 MHz was specified. This rate looks rather small for the end of 2001 but we shall speak about it later. Practically up to the moment of the declaration video game console Microsoft was choosing between Intel and AMD and at last just before the declaration the choice was made for the benefit of Intel. AMD simply could not agree with offered price and decided to refuse the order which is too expensive for it.

As for the processor the situation is complicated enough. On the basis of the known facts it is possible to assume that it will be the processor on basis kernel Pentium III or Coppermine operating on frequency higher than 600 MHz (exact words said by Gates). It could be new Celeron (Coppermine-128K) and most likely the new processor made just for X-Box as nVidia graphics chip will be created for X-Box. The fact that Microsoft names the cache L1 128 Kbytes and L2 - 64 Kbytes as the parameters of the processor X-Box also speaks for the benefit of this version. Modern processors Intel don't have such parameters. In this case Intel can probably acceptable for games of the end of 2001 productivity on 600 MHz. Especially if a rather significant part of calculations will be taken by the graphics chip of a system.


Though in the prototype demonstrated on GDC NV15 was used, the hip for real X-Box will differ from it on two generations. As it is expected it will be a specialised variant NV25 differing from the one supposed to be used in videocards for PC. 300 MHz chip under the statement of Microsoft should put out up to 150 million triangles with the hardware calculated lighting. In the case of using also and geometrical transformations this index is reduced up to 45 mil.triangle per second. It means that the average scene in the game calculated on X-Box can easily consist hundreds thousands polygons exceeding by quality of a picture modern games in many times. However the same will be fair and for PC but on one half-year later and more expensive.

Confirming said above it is possible to note the fact that one of technological shows on the prototype X-Box (with NV15!) used 550 thousand polygons (not at the same time in a frame), one hardware light source and about 51 megabytes of textures. It was stated that it is only about a quarter of the possibilities real X-Box.

One more fundamental index of the chip productivity is the rate of a lead-out the scene considering the full screen anti-aliasing and overlap of two textures on a pixel is 4,8 Mpixel per second! (In general the graphics chip X-Box will be capable to overlap up to 4 textures on a pixel for one clock period.) It is possible only to state that the rate of a lead-out the scene quite accord to the rate of generation triangles and the scenes consisting of hundreds thousand of triangles will be led out on maximum possible 50 or 60 frame per second (depending on what TV- set the video game console is on-line to).

The chip will support compression of textures with aspect ratio 8:1 though it is not connected with cross-licensing nVidia - S3: X-Box as we remember is oriented to DirectX games, so the compression of textures will be carried out by the methods DirectX. We shan't see Quake4 or the next product of id Software on X-Box until mister rmak can forget about his dislike to DirectX. We will learn something additional about the possibilities of the chip this summer when DirectX 8 appears. Graphics heart X-Box will be hardware optimised exactly for it. It is necessary to mention something else from this section. X-Box won't have the defect of modern video game console - the necessity of having various versions under the various standards of a telesignal. RAMDAC of the chip nVidia can easily be set up either under 60 Hz NTSC or under 50 Hz PAL/SECAM. In general as for the fundamental parameter RAMDAC - maximum permission, it is quite enough for usage video game console with HDTV TV sets - 1920 x 1080.

It is necessary to consider memory while speaking about graphics chip.


Today it is supposed that memory size in X-Box will be only 64 Mbytes and will be in common possession of both processor and graphics chip. Easier speaking the model of uniform memory- architecture UMA will be used and this is not the best decision in the aspect of productivity. Why is it so? Because when the graphics chip is stimulated to work with slow cheap memory used by modern PC as operating, it is silly to wait acceptable results.

In a case with X-Box the situation is completely different: both processor and graphics chip can have the access to uniform memory fitting by high-speed parameters for both of them. 64 Mbytes DDR SDRAM in X-Box will have the clock rate 200 MHz. Besides probably there will be two bus of memory as conducting rate the bus of memory given by Microsoft is 6.4 Gbyte/per second.

However even taking into account this rate and also the fact that as much as possible facilitated variant Windows 2000 will be the operating system used in X-Box it is problematically that the given size will be enough for normal work of the system. Most likely the decision to use 64 Mbytes instead of 128 Mbytes was accepted not an easy way and was caused by the required price of video game console. On the other hand total storage capacity for PlayStation2 is only 38 Mbytes and for video only 4 Mbytes are given.

Hard disk

8 Gbyte of the hard disk is quite enough for any needs taking into account that the games will remain on the DVD-ROM the disk. Thus the hard disk will be used:

  • For service needs of games (storage of the information varying during the game - tracks of outrigger booms on walls, and t. Item);
  • As a buffer - for data reset from the disk before the beginning of the game;
  • For keeping files with record of results;
  • For keeping demo versions of games.

8 Gbyte should be enough. The operating system will be rather and rather compact taking into account the fact that thank to rather closed architecture X-Box, unexpected situations are not expected and X-box won't face many situations taking place on PC today.


It is difficult to tell something besides that 4X the DVD-ROM the disk drive will be built - in the system and due to the support S/P DIF output it will be possible to connect Dolby Digital tone system to X-Box and to use it as a video and audio-record player. But probably in this case the external AC-3 decoder will be needed.


Concerning this part of possibilities X-Box it is known very little - audio chip developed by nVidia is rather unknown. It is known however that revolution shouldn't be waited for here (64 sound channels and so on), though the number of interesting moments are present. In particular the new chip will not be oriented on A3D (as against PS2 oriented on A3D 3.0) or EAX but it will be oriented on I3DL2 (which as a matter of fact is EAX 2.0). It is besides possibilities DirectSound3D from DirectX 8 certainly. It is expected that the chip will be able to fulfil hardware decoding of AC-3 sound.


The situation is no more clear than with sound. On the one hand the system will have one USB port and four ports for manipulator which will be "electric compatible with USB " but more simple in use. To tell the truth I can't imagine something more simple in use than USB the port. On the other hand it is not clear yet what it will be possible to connect to USB port. In particular it is interesting to know whether the ideology of the home device which X-Box is assumes the connection for example keyboard. As for manipulators very experienced Microsoft promises to surprise us when it presents the reasons on this question.

The communications

Built - in 10/100 Mbit/per second Ethernet port will probably provide possibility of network game, though here much depends on the developers of games. There are two possible variants: classical for PC when each video game console is on-line to the TV-set and for video game console when some of them are on-line to each other and the image is output on the same screen. Which of them will be used by the developers or will they invent something original? It is useless to guess.

Obviously one of most popular applications of Ethernet port will be the connection to it cable or xDSL modems. At least in the countries where the communications are advanced. For the rest of the world however there will be a possibility of connection to USB port of a usual modem.

Microsoft is going to present all this in the market in autumn of 2001. The alleged price of video game console is not too high (the price on them is often below the cost price as money will be returned by the license deductions from the manufacturers of games) but not more than $300.

Thus PC with the same productivity will cost in some times more expensive. It certainly does not mean that PC will be displaced from homes. There are also no doubts that Microsoft will succeed in distributing X-Box in many houses where PC is already present. Eventually both of these platforms perfectly add one another just as the availability in the house PC with CD-ROM disk drive by no means does not eliminate availability musical centre there. And if there is a choice to have a card on NV25 of cost $300 or X-Box at the same price then why not to prefer X-Box?

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