First off, you should know that I work with computers and write software for a living. I am very much a Microsoft platform developer and believe very strongly in the Microsoft vision. I joke with friends that I drank the kool-aid long ago and rely on that little company in Redmond to put food on my family’s table. OK. Enough about that.
As a self-professed geek (before it was “cool” to be a geek), I love all things technology related. I’ve built over 100 x86 beige boxes, run a Windows 2003 domain at home and constantly struggle to keep the temperature in my office/server room/guest room below 75 degrees. I love games, but as of the last 5 years or so, hardly have time to play any (I work for a living). I have 60+ GB of MP3s and about 10 GB of digital photos (6 GB or so since my daughter was born).
OK, so maybe I’m just an average 30 something year old living in this consumer driven economy, but the idea of being able to play games again in my living room was overshadowed considerably by the concept of having an all in one media center where I could stream my MP3 collection, play slideshows of my adorable daughter and play the occasional game. The XBOX 360 promised to converge all of these ideas into one sleek little box and I, along with many others fell in love before I even got my hands on it.
In anticipation for this new marvel of technology, I built a modest media server running Windows XP Media Center edition long before I convinced my wife to let me buy this $500 thing of wonder.
So on Saturday, I somehow convinced by wife to let me buy an XBOX 360! I called Best Buy, Office Depot, and 2 Target stores before I could find one in stock and was surprised that I even found one since even Amazon is seemingly unable to secure any decent amount of inventory (did I mention I’ve had on XBOX 360 on my wishlist since 11/2005?).
Let me stop right there. Its been 4 months since release, and it is still hard to find one of these things. Is consumer demand really this high or is there something else going on? Microsoft admitted early this year that they were having a problem with production and maybe this is all there is to it, but I still find it unbelievable that this inventory shortage has not been addressed. But that is neither here nor there…
So, I paid my $440 ($399 plus tax), plus the following must have accessories:
Extra wireless controller $40
Remote control $30
$#&! Wireless Bridge $99
Grand total (pre-tax): $568
Now the XBOX 360 is a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s a PC, and a modest one at that. For the most part, it looks and acts like a PC. Optical Drive- check. Harddrive – check. Ethernet port- check. USB 2.0 port- well kinda. Here’s where I start to get a little annoyed. This is a computer. It has a USB 2.0 drive. My 802.11b DLINK network adapter should work right? Wrong. Only Microsoft’s XBOX Wireless Adapter ($99) works with the USB port. Don’t want to buy the official adapter? Throw down $99 for the re-branded DLINK wireless bridge. Yep, that’s right. DLINK designed and manufactured the original XBOX wireless bridge. Same exact hardware, chassis and everything. Now, I am sure that other wireless bridges work as well, but why do you have to use a bridge when there’s a perfectly capable USB 2.0 port. Yes, I understand economics, and I understand going as low on the ISO stack as possible to avoid having to support umpteen vendor’s adapters, but come on, I just dropped about $500, man. STRIKE 1.
Unpack the unit, man am I excited. Whoah! Those reviewers aren’t lying. This power supply is obnoxiously HUGE. But, it is quiet and can be hidden behind my entertainment center although it sure isn’t helping out the heat situation.
OK, the power supply is a little ridiculous and I for $400 you’d think they could have engineered something a little sexier, but remember, this thing is supposed to ROCK!
Wait! I need a at least one game. $60 a pop for a game I’ve never played? No way. So off to Blockbuster I go. I rented a handful of games: Mortal Kombat, BatMan Begins, Battlefield 1942. These are big titles, sure to work on the 360 right? Wrong. After downloading the original XBOX emulator (pretty painless I must admit) BatMan did work, so 33% isn’t great but not terrible either. Nevertheless, STRIKE 2.
Oh yeah, Blockbuster had a pretty lousy selection of XBOX 360 titles. Not their fault, there’s only about a dozen or so games out so far. Off to Hollywood video where I manage to pick up NBA 2K6 and Perfect Dark Zero. 5 days of nirvana awaits…
Still with me? Good.
Now, I’ve got some games and I’m all set up, but I don’t know what I want to do first. Play a game or setup my 360 so that it can talk to my MCE PC? I’ll play a quick game of Perfect Dark Zero. Hmmm. OK. This is fun. Great soundtrack, but nothing that I haven’t seen for the last 2 or so years on my multi-purpose Athlon PC. Actually, to be quite honest, the game reminds me a lot of the typical first person shooter ala Quake 3+. But I digress.
Man, the fan in this thing is loud. Its not terrible, but its audible enough that my wife- who had no problem waiting 20 minutes for her email to download on her 486 PC when I met her 7 years ago- even commented on how noisy it was. That one hurt, but she’s right. This thing is too noisy for the price tag. STRIKE 3.
OK. Don’t be so cynical. This thing ROCKS, remember? I know. I’ll setup my XBOX in media extender mode and start streaming MP3s. For about 2 hours (trust me this is an eternity in baby time) I walked back and forth from console to PC trying to get the stupid MCE PC to see the console. Sometimes it would tease me, saying it was connected, only to go back to the console to see a message indicating that another user has disconnected the session. What? I am now pretty annoyed and wondering if this thing is worth the $400 sans accessories. I think about packing it all in, literally. As a geek, I remind myself that this is part of the joy and pain of geekdom, so I optimistically drive on.
At some point, after about 6 hours of cumulative wasted time, the stars align and the geek gods grant me a blessing. My MCE PC can finally talk to my XBOX! What’s this? I’m connected, but now I get an entirely different message indicating that Fast User Switching must be enabled. Fast User Switching? Oh yeah, I remember that setting. Fast User Switching is cool if your part of the whole Fischer Price/AOL PC user demographic. I set my parents up with it and they love it. Dad keeps his email private and mom’s spam and adware doesn’t infect dad’s profile. Again, this is cool, but does it have to be mandatory? After about 4 hours, I learn that to use XBOX 360 as an extender the host PC cannot be a member of a domain! Yes you heard me. Not only is this ridiculous, but it is not documented well. I wasted about 4 hours walking back and forth between my console and PC until I figured this out. Yep. You guessed it- STRIKE 4.
Now, under most situations, I’d throw in the towel at this point, and I strongly considered it, but decided to sleep on it. I woke up the next morning and remembered, “Hey, I’ve got a 360!”. But, I had to go to work, so I did, and when I got home I was ready to have another go, this time with an open mind.
So, I put in Perfect Dark Zero and played for about 5 minutes and then, out of no where the console froze. I kind you not. What? You’ve got to be kidding me! I hit the reset button. Nope. No soft reset would bring the dashboard back up. This thing is crashed, big time. Hard booy. For those still keeping track, that’s STRIKE 5, considerably past stiking out.
If you’ve made it this far, you know that my 360 experience has not been all that spectacular. It is a great concept, but for $400, its just not there yet. Speculation on Microsoft rushing to market aside, I think that streaming boxes are very cool, and adding a high end gaming system to the mix is a recipe for potential success, but I just don’t think that Microsoft has gotten it quite right yet.
I imagine that at the very least, we will see the price drop about $50 by Christmas 2006 and another $50 by summer of 2007, placing it in close competition with the Sony PS3. By that time, I truly hope that Microsoft addresses the following issues, in order of priority:
· Ease configuration with MCE (the current situation truly is “plug and pray”)
· Support USB 2.0 802.11x adapters from other vendors ($99 is just stupid).
· Address probable heating issues that are likely the cause of lockups/crashes
· Improve fan noise significantly
· Do not mandate that the MCE PC not be a member of a domain. Come on, there are power users here that aren’t content with workgroups.
· Do whatever it takes to release at least one killer app. Game, program, whatever. Increase sales and bring down costs.
· Set a realistic price point on games. $60 is a bit much when I can buy a comparable if not exact title for PC for up to $20 less.
I will keep a keen eye on the above factors and will probably re-visit this purchase decision in about 6 months. Until then, my next project will be either a ultra compact and quiet form-factor PC for the living room or a closer look at the 3rd party MCE extender market.
It is quite possible that you will enjoy the XBOX 360. Some will say its the most powerful gaming console on the planet, and for a solid state device, I would agree, but I must remind you again, that my 1800 MHZ single-core Anthlon Thoroughbred core PC with 1 GB of 2700 DDR RAM and NVIDIA GFORCE TI 4200 still blows it away (and BTW I am loooong overdue for an upgrade- dual core baby!!). Regardless of how you look at it, when it comes to streaming media, make sure you realize that you are buying this product as an early adopter. If that is acceptable to you, and the games are worth playing, then buy the warranty ($60) and hold Microsoft's feet to the fire if you experience crashes and lockups. If you try it and don't like it, do what I did- return it for a refund.