How Xbox Works

By: Kevin Bonsor
Microsoft unveiled the Xbox's final industrial design at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show.
Photo courtesy Microsoft

­ The game consoles that are available today are never enough for video gamers; their attention is always focused on what the next great thing will be. In 2000, it was the PlayStation 2. The game console wars heated up as Nintendo unveiled its latest console, called GameCube. But the big news was that the computer software giant Microsoft entered the multi-billion dollar game console market with the Xbox.

The console is a black box with a large "X" imprinted into the top. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has said that the Xbox has more power than any console currently on the market.


Microsoft says that its marketing for the Xbox has been the largest effort ever for one of its products. In fact, the Xbox's marketing budget is the largest for any game console in history, easily surpassing Sega's $100 million campaign in 1998.

On paper, the Xbox has more brute power and speed than any game console on the market. In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll take a look at this machine and see how it compares to the competition.


Inside the X

The final design of the standard Xbox game pad, as shown off at the 2001 CES
Photo courtesy Microsoft

In March 2000, rumors that Microsoft was developing a game console were confirmed when Gates took the wraps off the Xbox demo unit. In January 2001, the demo model, a big chrome "X" with a green-glowing light in the middle, was replaced by a more traditional black box. As analysts predicted, the only part of the demo model to make it into the final design is the glowing green light on top of the box. The sidewinder controller pad used with the demo unit was also altered for the final Xbox design.

A lot has been made of the Xbox's design, but it takes more than a cool look to sell gamers on a product. Just like a book, it's what's inside the cover that really matters. One advantage that Microsoft has enjoyed is that it has been able to sit back and watch what other game console manufacturers have done. In doing so, Microsoft's designers have examined what has worked and what has failed in recent game consoles.


On the inside, the Xbox is fairly similar to a PC. But Microsoft maintains that it is not a PC for your living room. There's no mouse or keyboard to go with it. The Xbox does boast:

  • A modified 733-megahertz (MHz) Intel Pentium III processor with a maximum bus transfer rate of 6.4 gigabytes per second (GBps). The Xbox possesses the fastest processing speeds for a game console to date. For comparison, the PlayStation 2 has a 300-MHz processor and a maximum bus transfer rate of 3.2 GBps. The Nintendo GameCube has a 485-MHz processor and a 2.6-GB maximum bus transfer rate. See this page for a comparison of the Xbox, GameCube and PS2.
  • A custom 250-MHz 3-D graphics processor from Nvidia that can process more than 1 trillion operations per second and produce up to 125 million polygons per second. Polygons are the building blocks of 3-D graphic images. Increasing the number polygons results in sharper, more detailed images. The graphics processor also supports high resolutions of up to 1920x1080 pixels. For comparison, the PlayStation 2 has a 150-MHz graphics processor and produces 70 million polygons per second. The GameCube has a 162-MHz graphics processor and produces 12 million polygons per second. It should be pointed out that the PlayStation 2 and Xbox figures are theoretical top speeds -- it's unlikely that your system will reach that limit. Nintendo's figure is considered a more realistic number for its console.
  • A custom 3-D audio processor that supports 256 audio channels and Dolby AC3 encoding
  • An 8-GB built-in hard drive (Having a built-in hard drive allows games to start up faster.)
  • 64 MB of unified memory, which game developers can allocate to the central processing unit and graphics processing unit as needed (This arguably makes the Xbox more flexible for game designers.)
  • A media communications processor (MCP), also from Nvidia, that enables broadband connectivity, and a 10/100-Mbps (megabits per second) built-in Ethernet that allows you to use your cable modem or DSL to play games online. As of November 15, 2002, the Xbox online gaming service is active. It requires a broadband connection and a $49.95 subscription to Xbox Live. Click here to learn more.

Other Xbox features include:

  • 5X DVD drive with movie playback (functional with addition of movie playback kit)
  • 8-MB removable memory card
  • Four custom game controller ports (one controller sold with the unit)
  • HDTV support
  • Expansion port

See How Video Game Systems Work for a detailed comparison of the features of the Xbox, PS2 and GameCube.


The Games

Screenshot of Project Gotham Racing for Xbox
Photo courtesy Microsoft

Game superiority ultimately decides who wins the battle in the video game console industry. You could design a machine with 10 times more power and speed than the Xbox, but, if the games stink, you can forget about selling it. Having better games is what vaulted Sony over Nintendo in the late 1990s.

Like the PS2, the Xbox uses proprietary 4.7-GB DVD games. Microsoft has signed deals with more than 150 video game makers who have committed themselves to developing games for Microsoft's Xbox game console. These game developers include id Software, maker of the popular Quake series, and Eidos Interactive, which makes the Tomb Raider games featuring Lara Croft. Other Xbox game manufacturers include Bandai, Capcom, Hudson, Soft, Konami, Midway Home Entertainment, Namco, Sierra Studios, THQ and Ubi Soft. Microsoft, itself a PC game publisher, is producing about 30 percent of Xbox's games.


Screenshot of NFL Fever for Xbox
Photo courtesy Microsoft

One of the most impressive qualities of the Xbox is its realistic environments. For example, characters cast shadows on each other, making for some pretty realistic scenes.

The momentum of the PS2 might be too much for the Xbox to overcome -- but then again, in 1995, no one thought that Sony would surpass Nintendo in popularity.

For more information on Xbox, other game consoles and related topics, check out the links on the next page.