Microsoft X-Box

    When the Sony PlayStation 2 was released, it rocked the very foundations of how a lot of less tech-savvy people thought of leisure time. Presenting a relatively inexpensive and uncomplicated option for making the jump into the world of DVD-Video, and offering a built-in games machine at the same time, it seemed like the marketing move of the century. However, it was only a matter of time before other companies released similarly-specified machines in order to compete. Microsoft have entered the fray with the X-Box, a machine that offers the superior visual entertainment of DVD-Video with games programmed in the Microsoft style (some might call this a failing, however).

    At a recently-discounted retail value of $349, the X-Box is clearly intended to compete directly with the PS2 and the Nintendo Gamecube by offering a similar audio-visual experience with the discounts that the multi-billion dollar Microsoft behemoth can offer. However, the real question we are concerned with in this review is whether it can play DVD-Video software well.

    The answer to that question is that while there are some minor operational hassles with this unit, the X-Box can play DVD-Video software better than a lot of players I have seen for twice the price.

What's In The Box

    The following items come as standard in the Microsoft X-Box package:

    The Microsoft X-Box has a very distinctive design, being very narrow and tall in comparison to almost all of the DVD players I have seen to date. It will fit in the typical shelf of an AV cabinet quite easily, but its height may become an issue to some users. Unlike most games consoles, the X-Box opens and takes discs in from the front, a similar design to the PlayStation 2, so the usual issue of "will this machine fit in my shelves when I have the lid open?" doesn't apply here. It is also worth noting that the X-Box cannot be mounted vertically like the PlayStation 2, which is actually a very good thing (more on this in a moment).

    However, some features that those of us who are concerned with DVD-Video playback would include as standard are nowhere to be seen on the X-Box's box (pardon the pun). The remote control and DVD playback dongle is sold separately (the X-Box cannot play DVD-Video "out of the box"), as is a suitable S-Video cable.

Front Panel

    The Microsoft X-Box's Front Panel is very spartan in nature, with some interesting omissions that may discourage some users. It uses a very non-standard layout for its minimal features.

    The disc tray is located at the upper left corner of the front panel, in the same row as the Microsoft logo. As previously mentioned, this player cannot be mounted vertically, so there is no lip on the disc tray to hold your discs in place. This is actually a good thing, as there is nothing to catch your discs on when they are spinning or being removed, and thus much less chance of scratching them through normal usage.

    On the bottom row, in left-to-right order, are two slots for input devices, an Eject button which is above the Power On/Off button, and two more slots for input devices. One of these input devices is taken up by the DVD dongle, which also acts as a remote sensor, which is a minor annoyance in my view. However, what I find more alarming is the ease with which one can hit the Power On/Off button while intending to hit the Eject button, and vice versa. There is also no way that the X-Box can be meaningfully operated without an external control device, be it a remote control or a games controller.

Rear Panel

    From left to right, this very spartan Rear Panel features:

    While this arrangement of connections is very space-efficient, the lack of standard connectors for audio and visual cables will turn out, at least for DVD-Video users, to be quite an annoyance, as it is very difficult to make the staff in a games shop understand why composite is a connection of last resort with our beloved format.

    Some users will also need to be aware that the noise emitted from the fan is sufficiently loud enough, or so I found, to drown out any television that is set to a listenable level. Thankfully, this problem doesn't apply to actual home theatre setups, which the X-Box is designed to take full advantage of. Anyone who intends to plug this unit directly into the television, however, should be advised that fan noise will border on becoming an issue.

    It is also worth noting that the manual vaguely references an ability to connect the X-Box to a television via a SCART connector. Whether this means it is capable of RGB output, I'm not sure, but it is fairly reasonable to assume that S-Video is not the only option for those wanting to avoid composite artefacts.

Remote Control

    The Microsoft X-Box does not ship with a remote control as standard, which will be a bit of an annoyance to those of us who are considering this unit for use as a DVD player. However, as is the case with the PlayStation 2, remote controls for the X-Box are available from both the manufacturer and from third parties. For the purposes of this review, I will discuss the remote control that is manufactured by Microsoft.

    The first thing that has to be understood about this remote control, at least in the case of those wanting to use it for DVD playback, is that a remote sensor must be attached to one of the input ports on the front of this unit in order for the remote control to function. As I understand it, this is a standard feature in all of the "games machines that can do DVD-Video", but it is somewhat odd to say the least.

    Another oddity of the remote control is that it has significantly less functions than remote controls I have seen bundled with any other DVD player to date, even the rather minimalist remote control for the Grundig GDV-100D. Instead of being on the remote control, such functions as repeat modes, angles, as well as audio and subtitle selection, are handled via a GUI that could be considered part of the On Screen Display function. There are some slight annoyances about this design, with the On Screen Display function having to be turned off before the positioning of the Zoom function can be adjusted. I will comment a bit more about the On-Screen Display in due course, however.

Manual

    The manual is a total of twenty pages long, all of it in English. It contains all of the obligatory health and safety warnings that come as standard with games machines, but it is not quite so helpful in getting to know all of the ins and outs of DVD playback. It is clearly designed with the novice games machine user in mind, although it does have a very good layout and a good use of English. Unfortunately, it is patently unhelpful in getting to understand the On-Screen Display or other such DVD-specific functions.

Set-Up Menu

    The Set-Up menu for the X-Box is very graphical and attractive to look at. Although, in typical Microsoft tradition, the layout can be somewhat confusing to navigate at first, the menu system is actually very easy to get around once the user has made the necessary adjustments to Microsoft's way of laying things out.

    There are no options for reconfiguring what the player does with DTS, Dolby Digital, or MPEG bitstreams, merely an option to turn DTS or Dolby Digital bitstreams off. This player will not handle MPEG in any way, shape, or form, which will be quite to the consternation of those who own a lot of early Roadshow titles or other such titles with MPEG soundtracks. Still, everything that is needed exists in the X-Box's Set-Up menu, with very little that the basic user is likely to get confused by. There is even an option to turn off the automatic Power Off feature, which will come in handy if you leave the player unattended for up to six hours while doing important things such as writing this review, like I did.

Video Playback

    After making some minimal adjustments to my display unit, I tested the Microsoft X-Box's playback capabilities using an S-Video cable (which has to be purchased separately), with the player set to output a 16x9 image. We were not able to determine the MPEG decoder chip which the X-Box uses, but if the video performance is anything to go by, it is one of very good quality.

    The quality of images that the Microsoft X-Box outputs is very nice, and equal to the best in most of the price ranges I have seen. In fact, the only player that I would describe as outputting a superior image to the X-Box is the Denon DVD-1600, which, at nearly four times the price, is generally well out of the price range of those thinking of purchasing this unit. Smooth, fine details are perfectly resolved by this player, with a degree of sharpness that is normally associated with players that cost at least twice as much. There is also significantly less aliasing in the image that is output from an X-Box, making this one of the most pleasant players I have looked at in some time.

    This player is marked as a Region 4 player, and it will not play back anything from Region 1, regardless of whether it is protected by RCE or not. This may be a big issue to DVD-Video users, too, as DVD-based games machines are notoriously difficult to modify in order to play back all Regions.

    The Fast Forward and Fast Reverse functions support speeds of 2X, 4X, 8X, 16X, and 32X, with a degree of smoothness that is rarely seen in a player of this price range.

    One major gripe that has been voiced by reviewers and general users of the format for a long, long time is the pause caused by players changing from one layer of a disc to another. However, after playing several titles with exceedingly obvious layer changes, I am happy to report that the X-Box handles layer changes on RSDL discs without so much as a hiccup. I suspect that this is because Microsoft elected to equip this machine with a small read-ahead buffer (or use system RAM for buffering), a simple feature that eliminates pauses at a relatively low cost. Even the Region 4 Special Edition of RoboCop, which is notorious for having four pauses in it that resemble layer changes played smoothly, with only a slight clipping of RoboCop/Murphy saying "thank you" at the end of one scene just before additional footage has been reinstated giving away the lousy authoring method used to incorporate this footage.

On Screen Display

    The On-Screen display can be accessed using one of two buttons on the remote control. I will talk about the Info function first, as this is the simpler of the two buttons used in this instance.

    The Info button, when pressed, displays the Title that is currently being played back, the Chapter that the player is reading, and the time code. The font used for this display is very unattractive and obtrusive, as is the font used to display the state of Forwarding and Reversing functions, but the placement of this text makes up for the font. The only serious drawback here is that there is no Time Remaining display.

    When the Display button is pressed, the X-Box displays another Graphical User Interface that is extremely attractive and easy to look at. Options such as the audio and subtitle languages, angles, repeat A-B function, and the player setup, are accessed through this interface. In all honesty, I think the last of those options should have been left out, as selecting it stops DVD playback dead in its tracks.

    The X-Box is very good at displaying the names of subtitle and audio languages, although there are still one or two, such as Hindi, where the X-Box simply comes up with a big blank in place of the language name. However, the X-Box will display full language names for more subtitle and audio streams than almost any other player. It even handled most of the twenty or so subtitle streams to be found on the recent Friday The 13th discs.

Standards Conversions

    The X-Box does not convert any standards for DVD playback. It will, however, play Region 4 NTSC material in its native format.

CDR & Video CD

    The X-Box will not have a bar of CD-Rs or Video CDs. This will probably be an issue to some consumers who like to make CD-R copies of their favourite albums for backup purposes, like myself. However, cutting out this function was probably a good move, as important things like quality control will not be bogged down by them.

Audio Playback

    I tested the X-Box's audio output capabilities using a special output cable with an optical output on it, and an optical cable. As far as I am aware, the X-Box will not support a coaxial digital output in any form. This is one downside to using games machines for DVD-Video playback - connecting the cables necessary to get the full DVD experience is often more complex than is actually warranted.

    I did not detect any noticeable audio sync problems when using the X-Box.

    The X-Box can either be set to output DTS audio or to completely ignore it, which is not a great deal of choices, but it does come in handy if you own a receiver that is only capable of decoding Dolby Digital, and want to prevent anyone from trying to play a DTS signal through it. As previously mentioned, the X-Box is not capable of handling MPEG audio streams in any manner, be it conversion or raw output.

Disc Compatibility Tests

    One specific problem I encountered with the X-Box was that my copy of Mad Max 2 showed severe image breakup and playback stutter, about twenty chapters into the film. After puzzling over it a bit, and playing back the same title on my reference player, the Toshiba SD-2109, I believe that this problem arose from the X-Box being more sensitive about reading discs with fingerprint marks than is normally the case with other players.

Specific Tests
Disc

What Is Tested

Results

The Matrix R4
Follow The White Rabbit

Tests active subtitle feature, seamless branching, ability to load hybrid DVD/DVD-ROM and audio sync.

Pulp Fiction R4
Audio Sync

Opening scene tests audio sync.

Terminator: SE R4
Menu Load

Tests ability to load complex menu

Independence Day R4 Seamless Branching

Tests ability to handle seamless branching (Chapter 3)

Hollow Man R1
RCE

Tests ability to handle RCE protected DVDs in Auto multizone mode (if applicable).

N/A

User Convenience Features

Screen Saver

Zoom

Gameplay

    Just to be completely exhaustive, I also tested some of the games titles that are available for the Microsoft X-Box. In particular, Dead Or Alive 3 was of great interest to me because I had played the previous episode in the franchise on the Sega Dreamcast. Granted, it is one of those simple "keep hitting the buttons in order to win" games, but that is all part of its charm. Halo: Combat Evolved was an even more pleasant surprise, being everything that has been missing from the usual Doom-clone cookie cutter games of the past decade.

    The first pleasant surprise with games for the Microsoft X-Box is that they are designed with 16:9 display units in mind, and this shows in cut-scenes or the general scenery of a game. Indeed, the graphics of these games are such that they almost take on a film-like appearance and the sound is in full Dolby Digital 5.1, making for the most immersive and powerful gaming experience I have ever seen in a home console or otherwise (and believe me, I have seen a lot of the "otherwise"). If you own a good plasma display unit, then this machine will easily replace your PC for gaming purposes.

    As to whether this machine can compete with the stables of Sony and Nintendo, well, that's a tricky question to answer. In all my experiences, I have found that the games machine that wins out is rarely the one with the best graphics, sound, or gameplay, but rather the one with the widest range of available games. Since Sony already have a head start with a machine that is capable of playing over a year's worth of DVD-based titles, and is also backwards-compatible with games of their previous machine (a range that possibly numbers in the thousands), I think Microsoft have a big job ahead of them in terms of converting the competition's users. Myself, I say that if they bring out a game based on the film adaptation of Resident Evil, they're in with a chance.

Overall

The Good Points
The Bad Points

Features At A Glance

Video Component Output RGB Output ?
Audio DTS Output MP3 Playback
Plays CDRs
Conversion None
Inbuilt Decoder None

In Closing

    The Microsoft X-Box is clearly not only intended to compete with DVD-based games machines such as the PlayStation 2 and the GameCube, it is also meant to provide a cheap, attractive option for less tech-savvy users to upgrade into DVD-Video with a minimum of fuss and expense. Not only is it quite successful in meeting that design goal, it is also quite successful in having enough to keep all but the most discerning of videophiles happy. It is definitely not a case of "games machine first, DVD-Video player second", unlike its primary competition. At a price of $349, and with the ability to do things that owners of players worth twice as much are wishing for, there are only small quibbles with this machine that stop me from unconditionally recommending it.

Ratings (out of 5)

Performance
Build Quality Unable to assess
In Operation
Compatibility
Value For Money

Technical Specifications (Manufacturer Supplied)

Product Type: Games console and DVD-Video player
Region: Zone 4 (Australia/New Zealand & South America)
Signal System: PAL/NTSC
Serial Number Of Unit Tested: 3018126 20303
MPEG Decoder: Unable to determine
Audio Frequency Response: Not stated
Signal to Noise Ratio: Not stated
Dynamic Range: Not stated
Total Harmonic Distortion: Not stated
Dimensions: 300 (w) x 180 (d) x 80 (h)
Weight: 4kg
Price: $349
Distributor: Microsoft
1 Epping Road
North Ryde  NSW  2045
Telephone: 13 2058
Facsimile:  
Email:  

Dean McIntosh
June 24, 2002