||Xbox 360: Back to the Drawing Board
December 22, 2005
Summary: Alan's back with more thoughts on his impressions of his Xbox 360 so far. In today's edition he gives his opinon on 11 mistakes that Microsoft made. Does the Xbox 360 live up to all the hype surrounding it? Is the overheating really that bad? Find out inside!
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Mistake #1: Overheating CPU or GPU
Anyone could have seen this one coming. With today's high performance GPUs and multi-core CPUs drawing more and more power, thermal management has become a critical element of modern systems. In the Xbox 360, either the GPU or the CPU is to blame for most of the overheating problems. As our esteemed colleague and FiringSquad alum, Tuan Nguyen showed, the bulk of the Xbox 360's heatsinks are focused on cooling the IBM PowerPC CPU. This either means that the PowerPC runs too hot and needs all that cooling, or that the GPU is not being cooled well enough. Although there were initial rumors of the power supply overheating, we can find no evidence to support this claim other than the repeated story of "holding the power supply up by a string." It's either the CPU or the GPU’s fault. After making a modification to my console to boost the flow of air to the exhaust fans, the system has been exceptionally stable even in an enclosed environment such as my entertainment center.
There are several approaches that Microsoft could have taken to solve these problems. Obviously, a higher level of quality control was necessary. These system crashes are prevalent and I have yet to encounter a single Xbox 360 owner living in a temperate climate who has not experienced at least one system crash. Although Microsoft could have improved cooling through the use of better thermal paste, the fundamental problem is the inadequate flow of the two exhaust fans. In an effort to keep the system quiet, Microsoft is overly aggressive with running the fans slowly. The best approach for Xbox 360 stability is placing a small exhaust fan to augment the existing solution. An enterprising entrepreneur could probably make a small fortune selling an added exhaust fan for the Xbox 360 powered by the rear USB port. The Xbox 360 just needs a little extra boost – that's all.
With time, improvements in yield and manufacturing advances should produce cooler running PowerPC CPUs, minimizing the likelihood of crashing. In Microsoft's position, I would have run the fans at a more aggressive rate – again the difference is minimal, the fans just need an extra 20% boost or so.
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There is so much that's right about Xbox Live that it becomes painfully obvious where Microsoft dropped the ball with online support. It is as if the person with the vision for Xbox Live won the lottery and quit his job before the entire solution was complete.
Since Xbox Live provides a comprehensive gaming environment where voice chat, instant messaging, and gamer achievements all come together with downloadable trailers and demos, I'm certain that more than 75% of Xbox 360 will take advantage of the non-multiplayer-gaming elements of Xbox Live.
Mistake #2: No MSN Music
I'm as much of a fan of DRM as everyone else (which is to say I don't like it), but with Microsoft already charging gamers for Xbox Live Gold support, it would have been possible for Microsoft to offer discount service "bundles" allowing you to buy unlimited subscriptions to the MSN Music library at rates less than you would have to pay for Napster or Rhapsody. Gamers would have had an opportunity to get music cheaper and add one extra weapon in the console battle against Sony.
This was a no-brainer. Think about it, buy music using your Xbox 360 and Xbox Live and transfer it to your "Plays for Sure" Windows Media Player. Integrating MSN Music with the Xbox 360 would have helped Microsoft compete with Apple.
The technical infrastructure is there.
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Mistake #3: No HDMI support
There are some possibilities. Perhaps the outputs from the Xbox 360 can be re-programmed using different firmware? This is somewhat wishful thinking. For all we know, Microsoft may decide to pawn off an analog-to-digital converter as the HDMI cable. Perhaps in that not too distant future when HDMI becomes the norm, a special cable will convert the analog component video out to HDMI.
There's a problem though. No HDMI support means no copy protected high-definition content.
Coming back to the Xbox Live as iTunes competitors, it would not have been difficult for Microsoft to release high-definition movies or TV shows using the Xbox Live infrastructure. The hardware is HD capable and the networking infrastructure is capable of handling large files -- game demos are already topping 1GB. Without HDMI or DVI/HDCP support, Microsoft may find it impossible to convince Hollywood studios to allow users to download high-def, full-length movies for playback on an analog source.
Of course, the advantages of HDMI support in games should not be minimized. Anyone with a 19" LCD monitor can attest to the difference in image quality between a VGA connection and a DVI connection.
I would have enjoyed Movielink.com pricing with the advantage of high-def and 5.1 content. The chances of that still happening are pretty slim.
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Mistake #4: 20GB is too small
Even if by some great fortune Microsoft saw the light and began to integrate MSN Music and somehow could offer high-definition movies, the next hurdle for Microsoft to overcome are problems with the HDD.
Now, I understand very well that Microsoft's decision to go with a 2.5" HDD was aesthetic and that budget constraints led to the relatively small size of the HDD. The problem is that while it's possible to read from a USB 2.0 external HDD, Microsoft does not provide a mechanism for downloading content directly to these external drives. I can understand keeping game demos and other code on the controlled Microsoft HDD, but media and trailers could safely have been stored on an external drive.
It's as if Microsoft really wanted the Xbox 360 to be the media hub, but then decided that they didn't want to cut into the Windows XP Media Center Edition market. Big mistake. MCE2005 is a one-time sale to system builders. The Xbox 360 would have been a way to get the console into more homes (opening up the market for titles like Yourself Fitness) and if they had thought about the MSN Music and movie download idea, the long terms gains would have been substantial.
Had Microsoft opted for a USB 2.0 connection, which would have provided more than enough bandwidth for the slower 2.5" HDD, it would have been possible to "piggyback" the 20GB drive on top of the upgraded drive.
Microsoft could have done a lot more with Xbox Live if not for these small oversights (which have far reaching consequences). The Xbox 360 is unlikely to be a Trojan horse to the Living Room. I'm not going to even touch up on the oversight of the Xbox 360 not recognizing NTFS formatted external drives…
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Mistake #5: Microtransaction Security
The problem with Xbox Live is that it relies on a single sign-on whether you're logging onto Xbox Live just to play online games, to chat with friends, or to keep track of your achievements and if you're choosing to make a purchase on Xbox Live Marketplace. This doesn't make security sense.
Maybe I'm not hardcore enough of a gamer, but I don't mind letting other people log into my Xbox 360 as myself and play online, adding losses to the record. I'm also lazy – I don't want to have to enter a password every time I boot the Xbox 360 and want to login into Xbox Live.
The problem is that if I had my credit card linked to my Xbox 360, it would be possible to purchase "Microsoft Points" without any extra verification. That is to say that if I purchased something on Xbox Live using a linked credit card, anyone with physical access to my Xbox 360 could generate charges to my account.
The problem is not that I have friends or family that would be stupid enough to play a "prank" where hundreds of dollars of points are billed to my credit card when they're playing on my Xbox 360. The problem is going to arise when Xbox 360's make their way onto the used market. If you've forgotten to clear the HDD, someone unknowingly could start to rack up huge bills. What happens if your Xbox 360 is stolen?
Password protecting the Xbox Live account would prevent these problems, but it in turn would cause significant inconvenience on the day to day basis. The easy solution for Microsoft would be to provide a "password required to make purchases" option. Microsoft must be hoping to prey on the impulse buyer.
Bottom line? If you've linked your credit card to your Xbox 360 and your Xbox 360 gets stolen, notify your credit card company right away. Otherwise, make your marketplace point purchases by buying prepaid cards at your favorite retailer.
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Mistake #6: No Web Browser
What's frustrating is that Internet Explorer is still a very good web browser despite well publicized security flaws (not that Firefox is without flaws either), and it's "non-standards based" HTML rendering. For all the flak that IE6 gets, it still handles Macromedia Flash with much better deft than Firefox. Outside of IE, Microsoft's WebTV/MSN-TV division also has a good browser that produces "pleasant" rendering of HTML for standard definition TVs. We all know about the MSN cash rebates when you sign up for a year -- instead of giving people a cash rebate for subscribing to MSN, imagine if it was a free Xbox 360? Delivering more systems into the hands of non-traditional gamers is a good thing.
I don't buy any claims that opening the Xbox 360 to the general Internet would have put Microsoft at any risk for lawsuits given the wide range of content available on the 'net. There's nothing restricting the content of the Xbox Live Voice Chat.
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Mistake #7: No WMV-HD DVD Playback
From a technical perspective, the Xbox 360 is fully capable of this feature. The Xbox 360 handles high-definition video both in MPEG-2 format (via the Media Center Extender) as well as the WMV format (as shown by all those downloadable trailers). With the always online paradigm, any issues of DRM could easily have been put into place.
Mistake #8: No MPEG-4 AVI playback (i.e. XviD, etc)
Rumor has it that Microsoft's engineers were interested in supporting MPEG-4 AVIs in particular, as it has risen in popularity thanks to the PlayStation Portable and iPod with Video. While it does encroach into Windows Media Video territory, if Microsoft implemented MPEG-4 AVI playback into the Xbox 360, they would capture the market of Xbox-1 enthusiasts who ran the Linux-based Media Center software immediately. Of course, in doing so, the market for mod chips would shrink and Microsoft would be able to get a wider user base for the Xbox 360. Over the lifetime of the Xbox 360, people who bought the Xbox 360 solely for use as a media center will likely still buy the occasional software title, helping Microsoft profit in the long run. At the very least, when the Xbox 360 is hacked, I hope Microsoft will consider releasing official MPEG-4 support to discourage people from going that route.
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Mistake #9: No System-Wide Video Calibration
We all know about the King Kong Xbox 360 game being "too dark" on standard definition TVs and the disappointing part is that I'm sure it'll happen again sometime in the near future. We are in a point of TV transition. I'm not talking about the difference between standard definition and high definition TVs either. Among HDTVs, there are those who own Conventional CRTs, front and rear projectors using CRT, LCD, LCOS or DLP, as well as LCD and Plasma flat panel displays. Since each of these technologies have slightly different gamma curves and black levels, it can be tough for developers to have a predictable target. Games like Perfect Dark Zero have presets called "LCD", "Plasma", etc. which alter the gamma curve, but a lot of these seem counter-intuitive.
The best solution would be an integrated gamma application for the Xbox 360. Microsoft could use an Adobe Gamma like application to help users calibrate their TVs "by eye" and generating a custom LUT for the color correction. As my LCD Monitor Round-ups have shown, the improvement from calibrate-by-eye software is still very noticeable. Implementing such a feature would have been a true "next-generation" solution.
There are easier solutions. Cranky Pants Games simply offered a standard reference set of test patterns. This could be implemented like the THX Optimode feature on DVDs. With tools like this, at least gamers would know how much they'd have to change it.
This may seem like an esoteric detail, but when you think about it, it's stupid not to consider variations in TVs. These software developers are spending millions of dollars on the development of games and have hired countless 2D and 3D artists and lighting artists. The top-tier PC developers take the time to calibrate their monitors with a colorimeter and all GPU manufacturers have a system for altering the gamma in games.
Isn't it reasonable to ask console developers to care enough about gamers to have one person put in a few extra hours of development time to ensure that their customers see what they're supposed to see? It's as if these developers don't care what gamers see on their TVs. Why do so many developers hate gamers? Because I can tell you that Cranky Pants Games doesn't hate gamers. They like gamers. They put in a video calibration tool in their $20 Evil Dead game. Maybe they even LIKE-THEM-like them.
(If you're curious about the reason for these over-the-top shout-outs for Cranky Pants Games, you'll have to search through the FiringSquad News/Siteseeing Archives).
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Mistake #10: Poor DVD Playback Quality
What adds salt to the wound is that ATI's algorithms are actually fairly good as can be seen with Catalyst 5.13. If Microsoft implemented these algorithms in the Xbox 360, it would probably end up being one of the best $400 DVD players on the market, despite the lack of DVI or HDMI connectivity.
We were unable to get sufficient information on the Xbox 360's GPU to make a determination if the full X1K AVIVO technology could be brought to the unit. Given the shader performance though, it should be possible to incorporate many of the most important features such as 3:2 cadence detection and possibly the diagonal filtering as well.
The main challenge is that the GPU is a Microsoft product designed by ATI. This means that ATI will not produce updated video drivers for the Xbox 360 GPU unless Microsoft commissions them to do so. Given all the other mistakes of the Xbox 360 I've discussed so far, it's unlikely to happen. Let's not forget that Microsoft completely ignored the need for high-quality music CD playback too.
Mistake #11: No pressure sensitive face buttons
I recently updated my Xbox 360 game collection with Project Gotham Racing 3 and the lack of pressure sensitive buttons generates a big problem here. Now, I love my Gran Turismo 4 and Enthusia with the Logitech Driving Force Pro, and I’ve really enjoyed playing Ridge Racer 6 and Need for Speed: Most Wanted on the Xbox 360. The problem with PGR3 is that the control scheme doesn’t work very well. Using the face buttons to shift doesn’t feel right. Ideally, moving the shifting to the right trigger (as is done in NFS:MW) would work much better. Using the shoulder buttons is problematic as well because you can’t easily do your “toe-heel-shift” equivalents in the game. The use of pressure sensitive buttons works very well in games like GT4 and I can’t help but to wonder if Microsoft made a big mistake by omitting pressure sensitive face buttons since this is a decision that will stick with the system for its entire life.
I’ll detail more issues with the control in PGR3 in a future article.
While this article is focusing on all the problems of the Xbox 360, I'm still having a blast with the system. After adding an additional cooling fan to my unit, it's been perfect, even in an enclosed space. In a way, it is because Microsoft did so well everything else such as Gamer Cards, voice chat, and downloading demos from the Xbox Live Marketplace that these mistakes seem so much more glaring. I know Microsoft can't keep up with demand yet, but hopefully they'll be able to spend some time addressing these mistakes to make the Xbox 360 even better than it currently is.
The Xbox360 and Xbox Live are still superb products and technologies. They're better than anything that has ever been offered to consumers before. But you don't want to compete against a second-tier standard. Just because you're better than your nearest competitor doesn't mean that you've got a good product. Microsoft needs to compete against themselves and go the extra mile. The enemy of “good” is “better.”