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Microsoft is expected to announce its next-generation Xbox, codenamed Durango, starting at 10 a.m. Pacific time Tuesday. The company’s first new home console in eight years will define its presence in video games and entertainment for years to come.
The new Xbox will reveal Microsoft’s bet on the future of entertainment and its strategy for using its strength in games to bring in other types of entertainment into the living room and to new kinds of devices such as its Surface tablets. Microsoft has kept a tight lid on the console, which players have nicknamed the Xbox 720. (We’ll be liveblogging the event here).
Microsoft sold an estimated 77 million Xbox 360 game consoles during the current generation of hardware. Sony sold about the same, while Nintendo has sold 99 million Wiis. But Microsoft has dominated the charts of consoles sold and game sales for the past couple of years, and companies like Electronic Arts are betting heavily that it will be a leader in the next generation alongside Sony’s PlayStation 4.
So far, we know that the successor will have an accelerated processing unit (APU) chip from Advanced Micro Devices. AMD, which also makes the APU for the PS4, is expected to make a semi-custom chip for Microsoft, using eight processing cores, or computing brains, based on Jaguar micro-architecture designs. The chip will combine graphics and processing on the same sliver of silicon, and it represents a shift away from IBM’s three-core Power chips that were used in the previous Xbox 360 game console, which Microsoft launched in 2005.
Microsoft and Sony will likely distinguish itself based on the number of cores they will have in each chip. Sony has eight Jaguar cores in its chip, and it also has a special kind of graphics memory that will speed the transfer of data within the chip. Durango reportedly has an eight-core 64-bit APU running at 1.6GHz, with 8GBs of DDR3 main memory and a large hard disk. Microsoft’s machine is expected to have similar capabilities on the semiconductor level, but its games may not run as fast as Sony’s in part because Microsoft is expected to dedicate some of its performance to running Kinect 2.
Kinect 2 is expected to be a more accurate version of the Kinect motion-sensing system that Microsoft launched in 2010. That system enabled players to magically control their games with gestures, rather than controllers, using body movements. But it wasn’t particularly accurate, and you had to stand in a sweet spot about 10 feet away from the console. With more processing power dedicated to the motion-sensing tasks, Microsoft will be able to make Kinect 2 more accurate and cover a wider area. Kinect 2 is expected to ship as standard on the new box, with better accuracy, improved voice recognition, a better camera, and dedicated hardware processing. If the latter is true, it will make the box more expensive to make. But the tax on processing power may not be as big.
Microsoft is also expected to show a number of exclusive games running on the system. The company will likely have a new version of Halo this year, but it may hold mention of that until E3. Electronic Arts, meanwhile, is expected to show off a game from Respawn Entertainment. That game is being created by a team led by Vince Zampella, one of the founders of the Infinity Ward game studio (owned by Activision) that made first-person military shooter franchise Call of Duty into arguably the biggest franchise in video games. Activision has also signaled that it plans to show more of its Call of Duty: Ghosts game at the Microsoft event.
The questions we want answered
When is the launch date, and what is the price?
Microsoft may hold this back until the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show press conference on June 10, as it may wait until Sony says something. We don’t know the price. The Xbox 360 console launched at $399 and $299, depending on the amount of hard drive storage. Folks are betting it will debut in November.
Just how good will the graphics be? High-definition graphics running at 1080p resolution are very good today, and it’s not clear how well the human eye will detect much better graphics, especially when the viewer is 10 feet away watching the images on a normal-sized (40-inch) flat-screen TV. Will the next Xbox be good enough to run 4K graphics? That’s twice as much resolution, but it will require a better TV that currently costs a lot of money.
What does the box look like? How big will it be? So far, no reliable images of the machine have leaked, but Xbox evangelist Larry Hryb, also known as Major Nelson, has tweeted that Microsoft will reveal the box tomorrow.
Will it require an always-on (persistent) Internet connection? Rumors persist that Microsoft will require an Internet connection for players to use their system and play games. Microsoft may or may not include this feature, which has prompted a strong negative reaction from consumers.
Will it disable used games? This is another controversial rumor. Electronic Arts said last week that it planned to discontinue its Online Pass program, where it charged $10 for people to activate features in used games (in which the original owner had already redeemed the online code). Rumor is that it did so because Microsoft and Sony will be able to disable used games at the platform level.
Will it have an optical disk drive? Blu-ray has won out over the DVD and HD-DVD formats, but it adds cost to the system. On top of that, digital downloads have become much more popular.
Does it replace your cable set-top box? Microsoft has been steadily improving the nongame entertainment features on Xbox Live, and it is expected to do more of the same with music, movies and other entertainment.
Be sure to follow our liveblog tomorrow at the live Xbox launch at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Microsoft will also livestream the event on Xbox.com.