Microsoft Xbox at 20: Looking back at the original review from 2001

It was 20 years ago, on November 15, 2001, that the original Xbox game console went on sale in the United States. The launch was a gamble for Microsoft, a company then (and arguably now) better known for software dominance than cutting-edge hardware.

Sony, Nintendo and Sega were the main living room console players at the time, led by PlayStation 2, which was released a year earlier in 2000. Since then, we have seen several generations of Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo consoles compete for our attention and entertainment crowns . The competition continues and we have just passed a one-year birthday for both PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.

Of these platforms, I see Microsoft’s Xbox as the one that has blurred the line between gaming machine and entertainment device the most. Even after 20 years, the latest Xbox Series X and Series S versions are still working on their primary directive to become a Trojan horse to place a multimedia PC in your living room.

To put the original Xbox console in context, I went back to the text of our original CNET review, published in late 2001. That review was written by a former CNET editor Darren Gladstone, which I have at least known since the early 2000s. Darren has been associated with the gaming industry ever since and has worked for companies such as 2K Games and Telltale Games. I asked him to revisit and comment on his original review with 20 years of hindsight.

To facilitate reading, I have copied and reformatted the original review below, with Darren’s new comment inserted throughout.


Microsoft Xbox Review

Originally published November 14, 2001

Like

  • Best specifications under the bonnet
  • Built-in broadband adapter
  • 8 GB hard drive for music and saved game storage
  • High resolution screen support.

Dislike

  • Large and voluminous
  • Separate set required to unlock DVD playback capacity
  • No progressive scan DVD playback.

Bottom line: Xbox is the most versatile console and complements a home theater system perfectly.

Microsoft’s Xbox is a Trojan horse. The company has conquered the desk and now seems keen to sneak a PC into your living room. Yes, this black abundance of a system looks and works just like a video game machine – and a state-of-the-art. But with built-in high-speed network support, an 8GB hard drive, DVD playback capabilities, and screen support for HDTVs, the Xbox does more than just play games.

Darren Gladstone, 2021: It was like this big playful device sitting there daring you not to put it in your home entertainment center. It was like a design with a fishtail-on-a-car, just big, fat and brass. It required attention, and rightly so. The “duke” controller [the nickname for the oversized first-gen Xbox gamepad] was love-it-or-hate-it. It was such a disgusting big controller and had this giant X in the middle that did absolutely nothing. OK, I understand that, it looks cool. But it’s like having a horn on the steering wheel that actually does not work. I look back on it with joy and laugh more than anything else because it’s so ridiculous. It was just so over-the-top, it was a little emblematic for the whole Xbox.

Not bad performance

With a front-loaded disc tray, two buttons and four controller ports that adorn the face, the monstrous case will look like home among your other home theater components. Inside this eight-pound box you’ll find the power of a PC (a 733 MHz Intel processor; 64 MB of RAM; and a custom Nvidia graphics card, NV2A) and the heart of a video game console. Still, as good as all the processing power is, what really matters is the results on the screen.

Video enthusiasts will appreciate that the Xbox not only works with standard 4: 3 TVs, but also with HDTVs. If you have an HD-ready set, you can set the Xbox to output 480p, 720p and 1,080i signals in either normal or widescreen (16: 9) format to your games. The Xbox is capable of producing 1,080i images, but the games themselves, such as Halo and Dead or Alive 3, have not yet been optimized for the high level. Still, the images are sharp and sharp. A great addition to this visual horsepower is the fact that the Xbox supports 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and delivers 256 simultaneous voice channels – previously unheard of in a gaming system. All of this provides some of the richest, most realistic experiences we have yet to see in video games.

They did not have a wealth of great games. There was Halo, which Microsoft pulled away from Bungie, which was to make it for the PC, and locked it into the Xbox. I remember I made a cover story on the original Halo when it was supposed to be a PC game back then.

It was this rivalry that was set in motion [between Xbox and PS2]. But I think Microsoft will be remembered for generations because this was such a brave first step. Everyone asked what the hell did this company that makes PC software and word processing software know about games? And people forgot the fact that they had an entire gaming department making PC games forever.

But to get the most out of the system, spend some extra money on optional accessories. The Xbox comes with composite video cables and RCA audio outputs like all other game consoles. But for improved audio and video performance, skip the $ 15 Advanced AV Pack, which features an S-Video connector and optical digital audio connectors. The $ 20 High Definition AV Pack offers component video connectors (Y, Pb, Pr) plus the optical digital audio connectors. And what about DVD playback? Well, unlike the PS2, which plays DVDs right out of the box, you have to pay an additional $ 30 for the DVD Movie Playback Kit. (Note for video files: Even with the extra set, Xbox will not broadcast your movies in 480p, so stick with the progressive-scan DVD player.)

There is the fact that they had multimedia sets where there were component and composite cables in different boxes, knowing that you would probably upgrade over time when you finally got a proper HDTV. These were well-thought-out decisions. One person might think they are just making nickel for you, but I thought that was actually a very smart way at the time to say if you do not need this particular component for your system, then do not buy the. But when you’re ready for it, you can do it.

xbox-1

Darren’s original 2001 Xbox console in 2021.

Darren Gladstone

PC perks in the living room

While Microsoft makes you pay to unlock some features, it does include some PC-like ones that are not found in competing systems. First, there is a built-in Ethernet adapter for multi-player broadband gaming, whether you use a cable modem, DSL or an office LAN. For an additional $ 50, you can purchase Microsoft’s Xbox Live Starter Kit, which allows you to play games online (broadband connection required) for free for one year. Several, but not all, titles are Xbox Live-enabled.

Back then, not everyone had broadband. You may need to go to your office to get broadband. So that was one of the things that made them think about the future. Yes, there were online gaming services before, Compuserve or something like that, and Dreamcast had a 56k modem. First, Xbox Live was free – it was like they said, “Your first taste is free. Just try it and see what you think.” And then they started adding features and finally said if you want to play multiplayer, this is what you need. And at the time, they justified it by making it a more robust experience. They realized that the future lies in owning the network that supports everything.

The console also comes with a built-in 8GB hard drive, so you do not have to buy expensive memory cards to save your gaming progress. (Priority memory cards are available for sharing files with friends.) The hard disk also opens some other options. First, games load quickly because they can cache levels on the fast hard drive instead of having to read all the game information from the disk. Another fringe benefit is the ability to drop audio CDs in the device and copy songs to the drive. You can then use the console to play your music instead of fumbling for your CDs. Too bad you can not install entire game discs.

What it was doing at the time was much of what we would now think of as “of course!” things like an internal hard drive. I remember loading audio CDs on it so I had my own soundtrack. But I also remember calling Microsoft. Why could I not just load the games from the disk to the hard drive so that it would load faster? Looking back, it’s not sexy, but the internal hard drive was so important.

Price is no longer an issue when it comes to the Xbox. Now $ 199 sells the Xbox for the same price as the PlayStation 2 and costs about $ 50 more than the GameCube. Clearly, the Xbox has a lot of power under the hood and has some unique features (a hard drive, an Ethernet adapter, 720p and 1080i support for HDTVs) that are lacking from competing systems. Does that make it a better choice than PS2? While the PS2 currently has a wealth of great games, as well as such PS2-exclusive titles as Grand Theft Auto Vice City, most top games are released on the Xbox at the same time, and the console has its own excellent Xbox-only titles such as Mech Attack. Overall, the Xbox offers superior graphics and is the best choice for those who demand the best audio and video performance from a system and have the A / V components, including a surround sound package, to complement it.

I feel like the original Xbox really pulled the Babe Ruth – pointed at the fence and took a turn. You have to respect that because they fulfilled many of the promises. It’s at that point now that there’s a battle for dominance in your home entertainment system between Apple and Sony and Microsoft, and who else has a set-top box they want in your living room. It’s interesting to see already when Microsoft planted the seeds for it without actually calling it an “entertainment system”.


Darren’s 2001 review correctly predicts the importance of both online gaming platforms and of combining multimedia entertainment and gaming in the same device. In my 2020 review of Xbox Series X, I followed the same thread: “If anything, Microsoft’s Xbox Series X is a reductive development that fine-tunes and perfects what worked so well in the Xbox One line. If PlayStation 5 is a game-to-heart machine, then, bending its classic gamepad capability at the expense of everything else, the Xbox Series X is a more well-rounded console-like ecosystem that relies on multimedia, community, cloud gaming, and continuity across platforms. “

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