Well, it looks like Microsoft has finally revealed to the world the biggest piece of the Xbox 360 puzzle, the pricing structure. Leaving the issue of release date aside for another day, MS boldly stepped to the fore and announced, in a loud clear voice for all to hear, that fragmenting and confusing the market was just what the doctor ordered.
The Xbox 360 will come in two varieties, a $300 and $400 version. The $300 model is just the bare-bones machine, while the $400 version is looking like the "real" Xbox 360. There are a large number of differences between the two, even in terms of similar items, so here's a full rundown of what goes where:
Xbox 360 Core System
Xbox 360 Console- functionally identical in both versions.
Xbox 360 Controller- The wired version. We've dealt with wires for years, and I personally find them more reliable than wireless. It's all down to a matter of opinion, though.
Xbox 360 Faceplate- How nice, now the front of the console won't look like it's unfinished. Seeing as they sell them seperately, it's probably for the best that they mention there's one included as well.
Xbox 360 Standard AV Cable- It's just the usual yellow/red/white RCA jacks, with the s-video cables being sold seperately at a $30 MSRP. There's no word yet on whether or not the old Xbox video cables will work, although Sony and Nintendo both seem happy with a standardized format from one generation to the next.
Xbox Live Silver Membership- Utter basic Xbox Live. It's free to all, but you get what you pay for. Live Silver allows downloadable demos, access to Live Arcade (where an upgraded Mutant Storm and its sequel, Mutant Storm 2, will be available), and downloadable content from the Xbox Live Marketplace, home of the microtransaction. These are all ideas integral to the non-retail game buying aspect of the Xbox 360, so having them free as part of the 360 itself makes sense. As an added bonus, however, Live Silver members will be able to chat online or leave text and voice messages to each other. Anyone wanting to do actual online gaming will have to shell out for Xbox Live Gold, though.
Xbox 360 Console- Identical to the Core System, except the "premium" unit has shiny metallic detailing.
Xbox 360 Controller- Wireless all the way.
Xbox 360 Faceplate- Identical as the Core System, both are coated in basic white color.
Xbox 360 HD-AV Cable- This is where the real differences start, but only for those who've shelled out the cash for a hi-def tv. For those of us who are just fine with our old 27" standard tv, there's also a basic, all purpose yellow component ouput included on the cable.
Xbox Live Silver Membership- Again, identical as the Core System.
Xbox 360 Headset- Plugs right into the controller, and works just fine with either the wired one or the wireless.
Limited time offer- Media Remote. Early adopters get a remote good for DVDs and CDs. Those with WinXP Media Center on their computer can even use it for that.
Xbox 360 Hard Drive- And here's where all our troubles began...
For as long as there has been an Xbox, its defining feature hasn't been the pretty graphics, it's been the hard drive. Whether it's been used as just a very large memory card, a music storage device, or even swapped out for an 80GB with all sorts of bells and whistles, the hard drive is what sets the Xbox apart from the other consoles. Even used for large saves, it means that tons of personalized data can be stored for each game, so that not just character progression but huge amounts of information about the effect the player had on the game can be easily stored. Games like Knights of the Old Republic didn't have save files of over 8MB apiece just because of sloppy coding, but rather because the hardware allowed the players' actions to have long-term effects because the system could remember them. And now Microsoft is telling game designers that it's just not that important.
From a consumer standpoint, this will (not might, will) be confusing. Choice is a wonderful thing for the informed consumer, but most people just want to be able to go into the store, get their stuff, and go home. Having to research a prduct before purchase is, to put it bluntly, a big fat pain in the ass, and it's even less fun when the choice is presented on the retail floor. I am informed about the Xbox 360, and I already know which model I'm going for. It's safe to assume anyone reading this is informed as well (or at least should be by now), and if we were the only ones Microsoft had to deal with then the world would be a simpler place. We aren't the only ones, and it's never been that simple.
In addition to the giant step backwards in console design that the lack of the hard drive as standard represents, Microsoft's willingness to fragment its userbase into the haves and have-nots is mystifying. Will developers go the extra step to program for a device that an unknown number of users may have? Will the PC (and Mac and Linux and...) remain the only platform(s) to take advantage of this decades old innovation in technology? Will the WalMart crowd spring for the much better deal, despite the $100 extra it costs today? We'll have our answers to these questions and more in about two years. Stay tuned.