NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
After months of teases, hints and leaks, Microsoft has finally --officially -- unveiled its next generation video game machine.
The Xbox 360 will go on sale during the 2005 holiday season in North America, Europe and Japan, offering high-definition graphics, multimedia functionality and a dramatically different online plan. Despite a rumored November launch date, though, Microsoft declined to give a specific launch date or price -- and added it would not reveal those at next week's E3 video game trade show, either.
The 360 will pack a powerful technological punch, with an advanced IBM Power-PC processor and next generation ATI graphics chip. The machine will once again feature a hard drive for users to store saved games, music and more. This time, the drive will be 20GB (versus the current 8GB drive on the Xbox). It will also be detachable, allowing users to take their data to friends' houses, and upgradable.
The system will support both wired and wireless controllers -- and comes wi-fi ready, allowing users to connect wirelessly to the Internet. (A traditional Ethernet port is also built-in.)
As previously announced, all Xbox 360 games will be formatted for high definition televisions, with a 16:9 widescreen format, 720p or 1080i resolutions and multichannel surround sound. Games will play on standard televisions as well.
While the focus of the Xbox 360 is undeniably games, the system will encompass many multi-media functions as well. The machine will double as a progressive scan DVD player. Users will also be able to rip their CDs directly to the machine's hard drive.
But the real multimedia functionality ties in with the 360's wireless capabilities. The machine will automatically connect and stream digital media -- including video and digital pictures -- stored on any PC running Windows XP.
"I think people want to say it's the Trojan horse or the hub of the home," said J Allard, Microsoft corporate vice president and chief XNA architect. "It's not. Xbox 360 is a digital amplifier. You're not going to put all of your music on 360, you're going to do it on your PC. What I do think is you want to enjoy your music in your home theater and we want to enable that through this device."
The multimedia functions of Xbox 360 can be accessed via the game controller or a remote control, which will be sold separately.
As expected, broadband online connections will play a significant role in the future of Xbox. (Once again, users with dial-up Internet access will not be able to utilize the system's online capabilitites.)
Xbox 360 will offer a multi-tiered system for its Live component. One of those tiers will be free.
Members of the free tier, dubbed Xbox Live Silver, will have access to the system's online community function, allowing them to chat with other players and freely download game demos. They will not be able to play games with others except during occasional 'free preview' opportunities (much like those that cable movie channels sometimes offer).
Xbox Live Gold members will pay an as-yet undetermined annual or monthly fee to play with or against others. Current Xbox Live members, who currently pay $50 per year, will be able to keep their online nicknames.
"If we get half or two-thirds of all the Xbox 360s out there connected to the Internet, that would be a good thing," said Allard.
Microsoft (Research) will also showcase the Xbox 360's personalization features in the weeks following launch. Users can create their own background "skin" for the system interface as well as customize the look of the hardware. Faceplates for the Xbox 360 will be interchangeable, allowing all forms of user customization.
"We'll be showing five or six (faceplates) at E3," said Allard. "We'll have 10 or so at launch. And that number will be in the hundreds within a year or so."
Microsoft has sold 20 million Xboxes since the console's introduction in 2001. The machine has outsold Nintendo's GameCube console and has seen its momentum grow dramatically as it gets more mature. Despite its successes, the Xbox is merely an also-ran when compared to sales of Sony's (Research) PlayStation 2, which launched a year earlier and has sold nearly 87 million units.
By being first to market in the next generation, Microsoft hopes to reverse its market position with Sony and take a leadership role in the industry.
Take a sneak peek at new Xbox games here.