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Xbox 2 set to go multiprocessor; hard drive may not be built-in

A senior source at Microsoft has revealed that its next-generation console is set to use multiple PowerPC processors in parallel - while the hard drive may not be shipped as standard, being supplied as an optional extra instead.

A senior source at Microsoft has revealed that its next-generation console is set to use multiple PowerPC processors in parallel - while the hard drive may not be shipped as standard, being supplied as an optional extra instead.

This information confirms reports received from developers over the past weeks, with the first solid facts about the Xbox 2 slipping out after Microsoft briefed a number of its key development partners on the current state of the system.

Our sources indicate that the console will use "four or more" of the IBM PowerPC processors, an architecture which will force game developers to significantly rethink the way that games are programmed in order to take full advantage of it.

It seems likely now that all three next generation consoles will utilise multiple powerful processors - with Sony's PS3 expected to use up to eight of its new Cell microprocessors, the Xbox 2 now known to be a multi-processor architecture, and Nintendo's "N5" (about which, admittedly, little is known) also likely to follow down the multiple PowerPC route, as Nintendo also has a deal with IBM and will almost certainly end up using very similar chips to Microsoft.

The real surprise in this leaked information, however, is that rumours which circulated last week claiming that the Xbox 2 was not guaranteed to have a hard drive installed as standard are, in fact, completely true.

Although all aspects of the specification are subject to change at this early stage (bear in mind that at this point in the lifespan of the original Xbox, almost none of the specifications as announced made it into the final product unchanged), our source confirmed that developers have been told "not to bank on" having a hard drive as a standard component of the system.

Although a final decision on whether to cull the hard drive from the specification is thought to be still under discussion, Microsoft is known to be toying with the idea of supplying the hard drive as an add-on peripheral (not as part of an "Xbox 2 Live" kit, as some sites reported last week, since such a thing won't exist - the console will be sold fully online-enabled), while using extremely high capacity flash memory cards for data storage.

If the company does go ahead with a basic specification that doesn't include a hard drive, it's likely to be seen as a backwards step by developers and consumers alike - especially since it's widely assumed that the PlayStation 3 will include an internal hard drive, and may even incorporate digital video recording functionality similar to the recently released PSX.

Crucially, the removal of the hard drive will also make the provision of backwards compatibility with Xbox games even harder - already a major difficulty for the system, since the architecture is so radically different to its older sibling. Many games use the Xbox hard drive as a kind of "scratch disc" to improve load times and overall performance, which means that it may not be possible to play a significant number of Xbox titles on Xbox 2 without first investing in the hard drive peripheral - if at all.

The decision to remove the hard disc is thought to be based at least partially on the cost of the component, which has added significantly to the overall cost of manufacturing the Xbox - a console which has made major losses on each unit sold since its original launch. It's also unlikely that it has escaped Microsoft's notice that both Nintendo and Sony make significant profits from the sale of memory cards for their consoles.

In terms of other specifications, much is still up in the air. It's thought that a firm decision has not yet been reached regarding the amount of RAM the system will have, while the graphics chipset, which is being supplied by ATI, is expected to be "nothing revolutionary" according to our source, but a significant leap in power over existing PC graphics cards.

Although it's already briefed key development partners on the new architecture, Microsoft is waiting until the Game Developers Conference in San Jose at the end of March to raise the curtains on Xbox 2 in front of the development community as a whole. A special Microsoft conference event is thought to be pencilled in alongside the GDC event itself.

However, comments from other sources close to Microsoft in the last few days have suggested that what the company actually reveals at GDC will depend largely on Sony, with the giant software company thought to be prepared to change the Xbox 2 specification in order to avoid losing ground to the PlayStation 3. It's likely, then, that if Sony does not reveal more of its next-generation hand before GDC (and the company has played its cards remarkably close to its chest so far, with only broad details of the Cell processor being mentioned to date), Microsoft may choose to reveal only broad outlines of Xbox 2 in San Jose - leaving final decisions on matters such as the hard drive and the RAM capacity of the system until after Sony has announced equivalent details of the PS3.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.