Xbox 2 raises its head

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COMMENTARY: When Microsoft first set aim at Sony and announced its move into the gaming console realm with Xbox, much was made of the underlying hardware and its affinity with the PC.

Xbox used a hybridised Intel Celeron Processor, slightly modified NVIDIA GeForce3 graphics chip and NVIDIA designed core logic that became a motherboard chipset called nForce.

The strange side effect was that it pushed interest in console hardware to new levels. The same enthusiasts who were obsessed with PC components suddenly saw glimpses into the future coming through the Xbox hardware, and then wondered why the PlayStation2 and GameCube were so different.

Current generation consoles are now midway through their lifespan, with the next generation expected to arrive in late 2005/early 2006. So it is reasonable to expect that work is well underway designing hardware for the systems.

While Sony and IBM have been touting the revolutionary Cell computing architecture that is destined for PlayStation 3 for almost a year now it has only been in the last few days that a rounded Xbox 2 picture has emerged.

In August Canadian graphics company ATI announced that it had entered into an agreement with Microsoft to develop the graphics hardware for Xbox 2. ATI is NVIDIA's strongest competitor in the PC graphics market and so this was seen as a big win for ATI and its technology.

Yesterday IBM announced that its CPUs would power Xbox 2, usurping the obvious contenders Intel and AMD for the deal. This announcement also solidified IBM's position as one of the few companies that provides technology to all three major players in the console industry. IBM's chips power the GameCube and it is Sony's major research partner in the CPU development for PlayStation 3.

But the surprise announcement overnight was that Taiwanese chipset manufacturer SiS had scored the deal to make the core logic for Xbox2. SiS is a high volume; low cost manufacturer and its chipsets are not usually associated with gaming platforms.

Until now the industry buzz was that ATI would take over a similar role to NVIDIA and supply the core logic as well. NVIDIA was quite cunning in its involvement with the original Xbox -- it used Xbox developer feedback to hone performance of its GeForce4 line of graphics chips, and the work done for the core logic has become the foundation for a very successful entry into the PC chipset market. In fact, during his recent Computex Keynote, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Sen Huang stated that the digital media functionality of its nForce chipsets would be a major focus for the company from now on.

ATI has recently launched its first serious foray into the motherboard chipset market with a product called the RADEON 9100 IGP, so the assumption would be that ATI would use the Xbox experience to pump up the currently poor digital media functionality of the chipset, and try to ape NVIDIA's success.

The most likely reason for this is that the relationship between NVIDIA and Microsoft soured when breakthroughs by the surprisingly large Xbox hacking community necessitated changing security codes. This wouldn't have been a problem except the codes were hardwired into the core logic that NVIDIA had made for Xbox. This meant that NVIDIA essentially had to swallow its stockpile and start fabricating redesigned chips, which set the two companies at each others throat for a while.

It is not a path any company would like to walk down, so unlike the original Xbox it appears Microsoft is going directly to the specialists in each area for its hardware, even if it means Microsoft coding an OS for IBM's CPU architecture for the first time since DOS.

We won't know the final specifications until Microsoft actually announces the next Xbox product, but with companies like ATI, IBM and SiS onboard we can be assured that it will again revolutionise how we perceive the humble gaming console.

John Gillooly is Atomic's technical editor. More information about Atomic can be found at: http://www.atomicmpc.com.au/

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