Next Next Gen

By my accounting I bought my original Xbox 360 about three years and a few months ago. At the time I thought it was a pretty dubious purchase, but what can you do if you have an irrational urge to experience a particular video game at a particular time. Well, as my experience with the current consoles shows, you should beat yourself with a bat until you come to your senses.

Back then the Xbox 360 and the PS3 were called the “next generation” of consoles. I think it’s now pretty clear that they were little more the beta test period for the actual next generation of hardware.

Almost two years after my purchase, that first Xbox failed with the round red lights of doom. I played a few sessions of Microsoft’s torture the customer needing service minigame, and eventually got a replacement Xbox. The upside of this Xbox was that it worked. The downside was that they made it work by wiring the fans in “run full on all the time” mode. Here is how loud the box was: if I turned it on and let it sit idle for 15 minutes the fans would spin up to full. In that state, the fans were so loud that you didn’t really notice if the DVD drive spun up too.

To try and escape this din, I would play games on the first generation PS3 that I had also picked up at the time. I got the last version that could still play PS2 games. The hardware seemed well put together. And even though it ran hot, the fan did not have that jet engine nature that made the Xbox so intolerable. In an interesting incidence of temporally symmetric failure, my PS3 failed last week, just about two years after I bought it. The PS3 failure was much more subtle, as most of the machine worked fine. It was only when the poor thing actually needed the Blu-Ray drive to perform its intended function that the whole system would freeze with a useless blank screen and no indication of what might be wrong.

So, three years since the start of the “next generation” what we have learned is that the game console people have completely lost their way. They built hardware platforms that were so inherently flawed that a large fraction of the machines will fail catastrophically after just a couple of years of light duty. Of course, peterb told me this would happen a couple of years ago. He correctly observed (twice!) that the “big” consoles were aggressively designed to capture a “high resolution” gaming experience at the expense of the reliability of the hardware. They have effectively given me the two aspects of the PC gaming experience that have caused me to mostly avoid the PC gaming experience: useless high resolution graphics, and hardware that I have to worry about instead of just turning on. Way to go.

My conclusion is that I should have sat out for a while, which goes against my dork nature, but would have made me happier and less poor in the long run. Having made that mistake already, I guess I should have just chalked it up to experience and given up on the consoles altogether. Unfortunately, I need at least one of them, especially if I want to shoot things this winter.

Therefore, I went out and got my third Xbox. In many ways, this is the box that Microsoft should have shipped in the first place. It does not require an external power suppy the size of a small planet. It does not require an electrician’s certification to connect said power supply to the console. Finally, it is gloriously quiet. Even with the DVD drive running and actively copying data it generates no more noise or heat than the Nintendo Wii that sits above it on the shelf. Clearly, three years after launching the console, Microsoft has finally figured out how to build it.

Or have they. One of the biggest new features of the “Elite” model that I bought is the HDMI port in the back. And yet the console comes with no cable. In addition, near the end of the first decade of the 21st century, you still have to pay Microsoft $100 to get wireless networking in their game console. For $100 you can buy a wi-fi adapter that has a whole DVD player connected to it for free (on the other hand, although the PS3 comes with wi-fi but the TCP/IP stack is so bad you’d never want to use it).

However, the biggest failure in the new Xbox is undoubtedly the controllers. Oh they work fine (except for the shitty d-pad). Unfortunately, the new black one that came packed with my “Elite” console had no usable batteries. I pulled the battery pack off and tried with all my might to jam a couple of AA batteries in there, but the holes were too small. If I were smart I would turn around and return the console to Best Buy, concluding that Microsoft still can’t be trusted. But I’m getting a little bit too much enjoyment out of being able to actually hear the sound effects in my video games instead of the console’s fan.

Still, this battery thing is worrying. For example, I took the failure of the battery pack as a subtle hint from Microsoft that what they really want me to do is buy the rechargeable battery pack. This thing is a complete piece of crap compared to the PS3 controllers. First, for some reason it weighs as much as an entire PS3 controller by itself, but I gather that the battery life is not much better. In addition, the PS3 controller can recharge in a couple of hours off of a USB port. I’ve had an Xbox controller parked next to my laptop for about the last 7 and a half hours, and it’s still not full. And the battery is hot.

So in summary, they finally have a motherboard that does not need a 500W stand fan to keep cool, but Microsoft still can’t build a decent battery pack.

Oh well, two steps forward. One step back. Maybe by year six they’ll have figured this out. Maybe I’ll be smart enough to wait and see next time. Sadly, I have my doubts.