Escaping Xbox fees

Microsoft's Xbox Live Starter Kit, which includes a year of online multiplayer service and some trialware games, sells for around $US50, but you can get most of this for free if you know where to look.

Microsoft recently released the long-awaited internet gaming service for its technically rad Xbox hardware. The Xbox Live Starter Kit, which includes a year of online multiplayer service and some trialware games, sells for around $US50, but you can get most of this for free if you know where to look.

The Xbox game console is based on the Windows 2000 kernel, restricted to running only entertainment. This makes the machine a poor guide to Windows' future but an excellent view into Microsoft's hardware directions.

Since 1999, Americans have spent more on video games each year than on movie tickets, so we're talking big bucks. Microsoft has no particular advantage on this battle field. The Sony PlayStation 2, with a head start, has sold 40 million units worldwide, according to research firm In-Stat/MDR. The Xbox, in one year, has shipped a 10th of that, the same as Nintendo's GameCube.

Faced with competition, Microsoft has innovated both on features and price. Xbox can render graphics at least four times faster than Sony's PS2.

"Xbox gives you true high-definition," says Steve Jenkins, who operates a gaming site with 415,000 subscribers. PS2 devices output lower-res component video.

Microsoft slashed Xbox prices, now about $US199, early on to boost sales. Solomon Smith Barney estimates the company loses about $US120 per set.

For the price, the CPU delivers stunning images that beggar description. Fortunately for Microsoft, Xbox's graphical quality is being demonstrated by a new game, Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball. To see it for yourself, download a free, digitised three-minute video from here.

All in all, Xbox is a fast, cheap unit that tweakers find irresistible. Open source advocates have already developed a way to make Xbox run Linux. Add a keyboard and mouse, and you've got your own server.

This requires a $US30 system chip to be inserted into the case. Unfortunately, a machine that's been operated on can't log into Xbox Live, which uses the internet to test for any modifications.

That's raised interest in alternatives to Microsoft's pricy game network. It turns out you can network multiple Xboxes for free. You simply set up your own gateway using Linux. Don't have a Linux machine? No problem. A Linux distribution, plus the gateway program, fits onto a diskette you can boot a PC from (see here). This involves no modification to any Xboxes.

For those who just want to duke it out -- right now -- GameSpy.com provides a free online service. Or for a low lifetime fee of $US20, you can be matched with innumerable players, sans ads. CEO Mark Surfas says 150,000 Xbox owners have already played (he didn't say how many have paid).

Graciously, Sony supports PS2 experimentation. Microsoft should take heed. Hardware visionaries need tweakers. This game isn't over yet.

Send tips to contributing editor, Livingston. He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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