Microsoft is calling the Xbox 360, which comes out tomorrow, the most powerful video game system in the world. Sharp graphics and photo-realistic games can show the rustling of blades of grass or emotions on a character's face. But there's something else about the Xbox that makes it stand out.
It comes in pink.
Faceplates for the sleek new system also come in faux woodgrain, silver, aluminum and other colors that Microsoft hopes will be at home in a living room. The 360 represents a major step in Microsoft's bid to transfer its dominance from the computer room to the den.
The new Xbox can play DVDs and CDs. It can wirelessly connect to a home computer, take music files, photos and video from the computer and play them on the TV. Digital music players, such as iPods, can be plugged directly into the Xbox. And it comes with a headset so users can chat with other Xbox owners around the world, for free, through an Internet connection.
Playing only video games is no longer enough for the next generation of game systems, including the Sony Playstation 3 and Nintendo Revolution, both due out next year. They aim to serve as the hub of a family's home entertainment center, as well.
"That's the holy grail for consoles - to get out of the backroom and out of the teenager's bedroom and into a place where the whole family has access to it," said Brian D. Crecente, editor of the video game site kotaku.com. "Getting it out there and putting it in a place where it's now a part of the entertainment center - that's a huge step forward."
Making the Xbox presentable was the first step in getting it into living rooms. The original Xbox, released in 2001, featured a black and boxy industrial design. The new Xbox is curvy and stylish and comes in an ivory shade called "chill" that can be updated with faceplates, like on a cell phone.
Once the Xbox is in the living room, Microsoft expects even nongamers to take advantage of its multimedia capabilities. With a 20-gigabyte hard drive, the Xbox can store digital music files and digital photos. Music CDs can be burned directly onto the Xbox's hard drive.
"We see Xbox 360 as the hub of your entertainment experience," said Carlos de Leon, Xbox product manager at Microsoft. While many people now store music and photos on their computers, de Leon said that's not the ideal place to enjoy that kind of entertainment.
"The better place is in the living room, and Xbox 360 allows you to do that," he said. "Think about photos. You can take those great slideshows you've created on your PC, transfer them over to your television and sit down with family and friends to watch it. That makes the Xbox 360 not just for the hardcore gamer but for the entire family."
The basic Xbox will retail for $300, while a premium edition will sell for $400. The more expensive model comes with the hard drive, a headset and a wireless controller. It also allows for the voice chats with other Xbox users and comes with a remote control that can access other computers in the home.
With some retailers saying they have already sold out of their initial shipment of Xboxes through pre-orders, the premium edition of the system is going for more than $600 on eBay. Best Buy is opening some of its stores nationwide at midnight, and all stores will open early tomorrow, at 9 a.m., for the launch. Wal-Mart stores normally open 24 hours will put the Xbox on shelves at midnight.
While the Xbox 360 will initially be hard to come by, and prices high, discounts are expected by next spring, when Sony introduces its Playstation 3. The Playstation 2 is the most successful current video game system, with more than 40 million units sold.
And, unlike Microsoft, Sony long has had a place in the American living room with its TVs and DVD players. The company is battling Microsoft to be the leader in integrating all those parts of a home entertainment center.
The stakes are high: The winner will control how people access the Internet, watch TV, purchase and listen to music, and rent and watch films. The aim is to have a single machine that regulates all those functions.
"It's a huge battle to be at the center of the networked digital home," said Jonathan Taplin, a communications professor at the University of Southern California and former television executive. He thinks Microsoft, with the Xbox 360, is well positioned to make a play for the living room.
"It's the ultimate offering for the digital living room," he said. "It's one box that can do all these things, and it's not that expensive. If they follow it with a lot of great games, so the gamers continue to stay interested, then it should do pretty well."
Some of these multimedia functions already exist in the current generation of video game systems. The original Xbox and the Sony Playstation 2 both play DVDs and CDs. About two-thirds of owners use the DVD function and about one-third use the CD function, estimates Michael Goodman, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston.