The Cutting Edge Page 5

Make no mistake: this is a full-featured DVD player - about the only things missing are bookmarks and a remote eject button. Also, since the Xbox has plenty of memory, it would be fun if you could save movie images as snapshots - just like you can do on a computer. Guess we can't have everything.

Though the Xbox delivers a progressive-scan signal for videogames that support a 480p display, for DVD movies you get only 480i (interlaced). Nonetheless, I found DVD image quality to be more than decent. Considering that the main reason for buying an Xbox is to play games, opting for DVD movie compatibility is like paying extra for icing on your cake.

But the Xbox does even more than play games and movies. It's a music jukebox, too. In fact, it's the most affordable CD player/ripper/hard-disk player you can buy. While the least-expensive digital music server we tested for "May We Serve You?" is a 20-gigabyte (GB) Onkyo model for $800, the 8-GB drive inside a $299 Xbox can store more than 100 hours of music.

There are a couple of tradeoffs, though. First, you can't choose how much compression you want to use. Incorporating a stripped-down version of Microsoft's Windows Media Audio codec, the Xbox squeezes every track selection at 128 kilobits per second (kbps). The playback quality from the hard drive was almost as good as from a CD - at least for rock. The other tradeoff (for now) is that you have to laboriously enter titles using the game controller and onscreen keyboard. (That could change later this year when Microsoft activates broadband Internet support via the built-in Ethernet port.) Then again, this is a game system first and foremost - the jukebox stuff is gravy.

One thing Xbox does that no music server can is let you substitute your favorite band for the canned music on some games. I ripped the 4 minute, 31 second title track from Poe's Hello (Modern Records) in 1 minute, 20 seconds and then chose it as my musical soundtrack for the Project Gotham game. All of the game's sound effects still came through loud and clear.

Interestingly, when I came back a few minutes after leaving the Xbox in its music-player mode with nothing playing, the image had muted so that it was barely visible. This auto-dim function helps prevent screen burn-in. It's a great idea, but when it comes to games, Microsoft says that this kind of utility is left to the discretion of each game developer. Considering how blindingly bright many game scenes are and how expensive TVs can be, auto-dimming when any game is left idling for long would be a nice touch. At least it would minimize the risk of burn-in.

When you use Xbox to play CDs or ripped tunes, "visualizations" that mimic the beat of the music appear on a portion of the screen. You can't choose the geometric abstraction, but if you have the DVD remote, pressing its info button causes the light show to fill the entire TV screen.

Xbox is a first-rate gaming system that also does well with DVDs and music - and from a software company, no less. With a fully accessorized Xbox, you're in for some tasty home entertainment.