Summary: The stock Xbox has a 733 Intel CPU with 128KB L2. Alan tests an Xbox with a 1.48GHz Tualatin CPU with 256KB L2. Enough said.
Early on in the Xbox’s development, many Xbox skeptics questioned Microsoft’s decision to build the system around a standard x86 system running a Coppermine Pentium III with reduced L2 cache. Two years of experience has proved that Microsoft chose wisely. Like Sony before them with the original PlayStation, Microsoft has established itself as one of the leaders in gaming technology.
Although the appeal of consoles is the fixed and regular platform, it is common for developers to push the limits of a system to bring gamers the most exotic graphics. Often, this results in the “slowdown” during gameplay. In most cases, the slowdown is an acceptable sacrifice for the overall experience. As a PC-based platform however, the Xbox is fertile ground for hardware optimization and improvements. One Taiwanese company, Friendtech, has recognized this opportunity for Xbox hardware modifications and has come up with a 1.48GHz Xbox.
Friendtech is a company known primarily for CPU upgrades in the style of Intel’s classic “Overdrive Processor.” They historically sold CPU upgrade adapters that regulate voltage of a CPU, allowing you to run a Socket 478 P4 in a Socket 423 motherboard, or Socket 370 Tualatin in a Slot-1 motherboard. Their latest product, the DreamX console, is a modified Xbox that replaces the Xbox’s 733MHz CPU with a 1.48 GHz Tualatin Celeron and increases the unified DDR-RAM to 128MB. The idea is that software that pushes the limits of standard Xbox CPU will be able to run more effortlessly on this new DreamX system.
SIDEBAR: Friendtech DreamX
The DreamX-1480 that was sent to us is based around a standard NTSC-J Xbox with a few notable differences. Immediately noticeable is the colorful red Xbox skin that signifies that this is not your normal system. The bundled AV cable is an S-Video AV cable with optical output. If you recall from my Console Picture Guide, upgrading the composite AV cable is the single most important upgrade for any gaming system. Lastly, there is a “Media Key” external BIOS.
Fundamentally, the DreamX is a hardware upgrade – it’s an Xbox with a faster CPU and more RAM. The system is fully capable of running in this configuration as a standard Xbox (in our case a Japanese region one) with a few compatibility issues.
The first issue is the lack of Xbox Live. With a non-standard CPU, the DreamX is flagged by Xbox Live’s anti-cheat technology. The only workaround is to use XBConnect, tunneling software that runs through your desktop PC. XBConnect allows you to play Xbox LAN (System Link) games over the ‘net. It’s almost the same as VPN software. As far as the Xbox is concerned, the game is being played on an unusually laggy LAN. While this is effective for Xbox games supporting LAN plan, you lose the downloadable missions from some of the more featured Xbox Live games and the entire anti-cheat structure which has made console online gaming a strong companion to PC online gaming.
SIDEBAR: The Xbox was the first "broadband-only" console.
In order to maintain proper timing in a game, PC developers use a software timer. This can be done by determining the time required to complete a number of fixed calculations, by synchronizing game time with system time, or by relying on the fixed and accurate timer of the sound card. This prevents games from running “too fast.” If you were to run Quake on x86 compatible CPUs a decade from now, the game should play perfectly. Many games programmed for the PC-XT will run too fast on today's systems. Games programmed with this consideration for future compatibility should run superbly on the DreamX-1480. For these games, adding a faster CPU to the Xbox has the predicted results as adding a faster CPU to a PC. Games run as you expect, but in cases where the CPU was a limiting factor toward the ideal framerate, the performance is improved.
On a console, however, developers do not have to worry about different CPU speeds. The Xbox was always supposed to run with a fixed 733Mhz CPU. Therefore, games that do not take into consideration the future will be problematic for the DreamX-1480. When running at 1.48GHz, these games run at twice the speed that they should. The analogy is if you were forced to play Quake as if it were running in “timedemo 1” mode.
On a slower CPU it's OK, but it'll be too fast to play if your hardware is "too powerful." This speed may in fact be advantageous to a turn-based strategy game that’s too slow to be begin with, but input and navigation would also be twice as fast.
To correct this, the DreamX-1480 has a switch on the front panel allowing you to drop the speed to a normal 740 MHz. This switch can be used “on the fly” without having to turn off your Xbox or restart a game.
As the CPU is multiplier locked, the DreamX's turbo switch works by issuing the STP-CLK command to the CPU to force the CPU to run idle every other command. Ideally, any game expecting 733MHz should run appropriately at 740MHz. However, this isn't always the case. Even when adding this forced delay, the Tualatin has 256KB L2 cache CPU rather than the 128KB L2. AMD fans know that the difference between the Athlon64 3000+ and 3200+ is just 512KB versus 1MB of L2 cache. The difference between 128KB and 256KB is even more significant of an upgrade – 128KB is simply too small.
A second issue with the 1.48 GHz CPU is that DVD MPEG-2 playback on the Xbox is also dependent on the 733 MHz clock speed for playback. Under 1.48GHz conditions, most, but not all in-game movies will pause every 3-5 second seconds, and then run again. The turbo switch makes no difference. Note that even games that run appropriately at the faster speeds will have trouble playing movies in MPEG-2. For DVDs, there can be significant lip-sync errors in which the audio and video is separated by seconds. For DVD movies, Friendtech's workaround is to use 3rd party software XBMP which allows you to specify your own video/audio sync delays. This brings us to the next point of the DreamX, the Media Key “modchip.”
The Media Key featured with the DreamX is an external BIOS that allows you to circumvent Microsoft’s signed code. As part of the license agreement to purchase the DreamX, you cannot use the modchip to run pirated software of movies. This hack is needed for two tasks.
First is allowing you to use XBMP, a 3rd party media player for the Xbox which allows you to play DVDs on the faster CPU (by allowing you to manually re-sync audio/video), as well as MP3s, MPEG-4 AVI, and JPEG’s. This is part of DreamX’s marketing as it allows you to convert a standard Xbox into a stand-alone media center. In comparison, Microsoft’s official media software for the Xbox, which has not yet been released, is dependent on a Windows XP Media Center PC.
The XBMP interface is similar to Windows XP Media Center Edition. This is a good thing. Fonts are large and easy to read, and navigation is well thought out. When playing movies, the controls are a virtual mirror of the Windows Media Player Corporate skin. While this is great when it comes to usability, it does cast doubt on the shadiness of XBMP. It is clear that it is an unlicensed DVD player that does not pay its royalties to the DVD forum, but that is something I've not yet understood. Technically, it seems that unlicensed DVD players should be illegal because they do not honor intellectual property. On the other hand, those $50 unlicensed DVD players are sold by large retail chains such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and even upscale retailer Macy's… so who knows.
Despite XBMP's strong showing for MP3 and AVI playback, it wasn't up to par when it came to DVDs. Some movies, such as Finding Nemo, refused to play.
An additional selling point of the 128MB of RAM and faster CPU is the appeal of using the Xbox as a Linux or MAME system. These software will take advantage of the extra computing power, and with companies such as Capcom releasing legal ROMs (bundled with the PC HotRod Joystick for example), MAME on Xbox is clearly an enticing thought.
Recognizing the 1.48GHz CPU issues, Friendtech also offers a $379 DreamX-733. This is a standard Xbox with 128MB of RAM and the external Media Key. With a standard CPU, this unit is appropriately Xbox Live compatible. In theory, a cleverly written game could take advantage of the extra RAM, but we haven’t found any game in our testing that shows any benefit from the 128MB of RAM. The DreamX-733 is marketed as the system for someone wanting an Xbox that also serves as a Media Center.
Friendtech markets the pricey $499 DreamX-1480 primarily as an Xbox-LAN game server. We would agree with this advantage of the unit. When playing Xbox System Link games, a single Xbox must provide both the network gaming overhead while also leaving enough CPU power for gamers on that local system. With the additional CPU power, Xbox LAN gaming with games such as Halo is superb. Some of you may ask if it’s better to play Halo LAN on the PC. While that is a valid question, the real importance of the faster CPU is seen when it comes to things like playing Halo 2 on a LAN. Some of the best multiplayer games are Xbox exclusive, or likely will not make its way to the PC until a significant amount of time.
In single player gaming, we did find noticeable improvements in games with slowdown. MotoGP 2 was one of the first games we tried on the upgraded Xbox – the difference was incredible. At stock speeds, Moto GP 2 only approaches 30 fps. While the game is not choppy, it doesn't offer the direct hand-to-game connection feel. Running at 1.48GHz increases the frame rate significantly. Even in split screen mode, the game has the responsiveness of a 60fps game. Importantly, the lap times are unaffected by the CPU speed. In other words, Moto GP 2 on the DreamX performs ideally – the only difference is the faster framerate.
We then turned to Halo, and again were pleased. In levels such as The Maw where you are ambushed by those flying aliens, the DreamX is able to maintain a solid framerate. The improvement is even more noticeable when playing 2 player co-op in which there is a significant increase in geometric load. Of course, Halo also pushes the graphics chip to the limit and so we still noticed the occasional slowdown during heavy overdraw. Nevertheless, once you play Halo on the 1.48GHz CPU, you don't want to go back to the stock speeds.
We then moved onto NFL Street. With PS2-like graphics, the additional CPU performance offered no discernable performance boost. So far the DreamX was doing well, offering improved gameplay with Moto GP 2 and Halo, and providing appropriate compatibility with NFL Street. We were excited because the CPU improvement was consistent with the CPU scaling performance we saw with the GeForce 4 on Intel platforms (http://www.firingsquad.com/hardware/gf4intelscaling/default.asp).
Could the DreamX be a true FiringSquad Editor's Choice product? Well, as you know, most of the time someone asks a rhetorical question, the answer is no.
Unfortunately, our trials with FIFA 2004, Spawn: Armageddon, Splinter Cell, and Robotech all showed excessive gameplay speed. In these cases, slowing down the CPU provided no haven. When we tried kill.switch, we were incredibly frustrated with the choppy video playback – the system appeared to crash while playing video suggesting that it is a more serious bug. FIFA 2004 is the most interesting of the group. For the other games, slowing down the CPU offered minimal reduction in speed. With FIFA 2004, slowing down the CPU made the framerate choppy, however the game was still running twice as fast as it should (a 2 minute half became one minute). We were also surprised about this given that FIFA 2004 is also a PC game.
SIDEBAR: FIFA '98 was one of my favorite soccer games.
At $500 ($400 refurb), the DreamX-1480 is an enthusiast piece of hardware that isn’t ready for the mass-market due to numerous idiosyncrasies of video playback and some games. Although the Xbox and PS2 are being used less and less for DVD playback overall, this is still an important feature for budget or space conscious users. However, we did find the improvement in gameplay to be notable in Halo and Moto GP. Some of the best Xbox games are coming out this year, and it’s very possible that Halo 2 will offer a better gameplay experience than any other FPS shooter including Half-Life 2 and Doom 3. If we assume that Halo 2 runs appropriately on the 1.48GHz CPU, the DreamX could offer the best Halo 2 experience possible.
Due to compatibility issues, however, there is no way the DreamX could be your only Xbox unit – it'd have to be a second system. In that regard, the DreamX-1480 is a luxury item like the Neo Geo consoles of the past. People would spend $600 on a system and then $100-200 for a game. There was no question that the Neo Geo was a poor value, however the die-hard enthusiasts didn't care. Likewise, the DreamX offers an ideal platform for the games that run correctly. Just as FiringSquad wouldn't recommend the Neo Geo over the Super Nintendo and Genesis of the era, we're not going to recommend the DreamX over the regular Xbox or PS2. It's only a secondary unit.
One area where we find the DreamX-1480 a more enticing purchase is for any Internet cafés or gaming centers that feature Xbox gaming. The upgraded performance should be noticeable to all clients, and we would anticipate that system link games require more rigorous timing mechanisms making more likely to support the faster CPU. Time will tell.
Although the Media Key was intended as an additional feature, I found the DVD playback unreliable. Since the DreamX-1480 must be considered a secondary unit, I would have preferred to see a lower cost unit that simply replaced the Xbox's CPU with the faster one, meaning only 64MB of RAM and no Media Key. Alternatively, I wonder if a less aggressive CPU upgrade (i.e. 1GHz) would have resulted in fewer compatibility issues, but a noticeable improvement in performance. One hope for the future is that Friendtech will be able to incorporate a Speedstep capable mobile Pentium III that will allow changing of the CPU multiplier, offering true clockspeed control.
Lastly, it wouldn’t fair if we completely ignored the potential for mod-chip misuse. The Media Key also allows opens up the potential for pirating Xbox games as allows you to run 3rd party BIOSes, all of which seem to be designed toward piracy. Friendtech has taken steps with the Media Key to discourage illegal use. The external mod chip adds cost to the overall design, but is essential for the license agreement. The problem is that the people who are going to break the law by pirating Xbox games, are also the ones who will break the license agreement with Friendtech. Those who honor the agreement are also those who aren’t likely to pirate.
At FiringSquad, we ask that you not pirate. If you're a software pirate, we know you've heard the appeal before, but this is different. The ability for companies to push the envelope while maintaining maximum functionality is contingent on your honesty. The perfect high-speed Xbox would have a Speedstep capable CPU, and this would require a custom BIOS.
SIDEBAR: Which Xbox games do you find running a little sluggish? Or are you satisfied with the processor and memory in your current Xbox? Speak!
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