Rumors have been circulating for the past couple weeks that Microsoft was going to announce the new “Xbox 720” at E3 this year for release around the holiday season. It’s an understandable rumor considering Nintendo’s Wii U is set to be released later this year (although they are thinking of changing the name), but Microsoft has now come out and said that they are not releasing a new console this year. I wish they would have just come out and stated that their new console will not be named the “Xbox 720” because that’s probably the dumbest name ever.

So with that out of the way I wanted to talk a little bit about what I think the next Xbox will have, in terms of hardware. Our friends over at Berserk Hippo recently wrote an article indicating that they don’t think the new Xbox will have an optical drive and everything will be downloadable media, or somehow obtained via memory stick (or direct download) at retail outlets… I’m going to have to disagree. I think we actually touched upon this in one of their podcats, but I think it makes for a good discussion.

I don’t think, at this point, any console is ready to go “broadband only” and ditch the optical drive completely, especially with the fact that optical drives are extremely cheap. There are rumors that the next Xbox will have a Blu-Ray drive in it which makes them a little more expensive, but at this point even Blu-Ray drives are fairly cheap. The other argument I have has to do with the availability of high-speed internet. Now, I’m not just referring to the fact that high-speed internet isn’t available everywhere, but it’s also not affordable to everyone. Granted, you could use the argument that if someone couldn’t afford the $20/month for a low tier high-speed internet package, they probably shouldn’t be buying $300-500 gaming systems, but regardless of that fact, some people just can’t justify a monthly payment for internet. I know in this day and age it seems almost socially unacceptable to not be on the internet, but that doesn’t change the fact that not everyone can afford it for whatever reason.

Going along with the high-speed internet argument is the fact that with Microsoft supposedly moving to a Blu-Ray drive that expands their storage capacity per disk from 4.7GB/9GB all the way up to 25GB/50GB (single and dual-layered). Which means that games could eventually be 50GB in size, which would be an immense undertaking in terms of downloading. Even with a quick internet connection it’s going to take hours to download a 50GB game. And I know not every game will be that large, and most of them will still be around the 4-9GB range, but even still, that’s a large amount of data. And I don’t say that in terms of storage space. Hippo had a pretty good point in that storage space is pretty cheap these days so there’s no reason why Microsoft couldn’t throw a 2-3 terrabyte drive in the next Xbox if they wanted to, or just make the console compatible with external drives (of any kind) and be done with it. It would cost you less than $100 for 2 TB of storage space on an external if you needed more room for games, and hopefully, if they go the all digital route, the games would be less than $60 due to the fact that there would no longer be distribution costs (packaging, etc).

Digital storage aside, most broadband internet companies these days have a limit as to how much data you can transfer in a month, and this is where I see the problem. Between all of the HD video streaming and online gaming, cloud storage and data transfers you do a normal basis, the addition of having to download an extremely large game could be a problem for some people. Now this probably won’t affect the normal, everyday person that enjoys games and streaming movies, but for power users that buy a ton of games, it’s going to be an issue. Personally I come pretty close to the comcast cap of 250GB on a regular basis, but there have definitely been months where I only use like 50GB of transfer. Coupled with the fact that I only purchase may 3-5 video games a year, this probably won’t be a huge issue for me, but there are people out there that purchase 3-5 games a month… I know I’m getting into the 1% here, but I still don’t know that Microsoft wants to alienate their power users by dropping the optical drive. And don’t forget the fact that it seems like Microsoft is moving towards the Xbox being a total entertainment console, which means we’re going to see more TV-type programming, of even ipTV itself, coming through your Xbox, that’s going to eat up bandwidth as well.

Maybe it’s just me and maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see, at this point, how Microsoft can do away with physical media and go all digital. Not to mention, if they want the Xbox to be the center of your entertainment hub, they’re definitely going to want you to be playing Blu-Ray discs on the Xbox rather than the PS3… so that’s something to think about as well. I do think that eventually, much to my disliking, physical media will disappear and everything will be digitally distributed, but with the current internet speeds and availability, I don’t think that time is quite yet.

Since I spent most of this article talking about the digital distribution, I’ll just quickly comment on the rest of the specs. Rumors have already been flying saying that the next Xbox will be 6x faster than the Xb0x 360, which makes sense considering all of the advancements since the 360 came out. There’s also rumors that the Kinect will some how be built in to the device, which I think is possible, to a degree. There is still going to have to be some sort of sensor bar that goes on top of your TV/Entertainment center, but the processing power that is currently encased in the Kinect will be moved to the actual console itself making for a much smaller/compact sensor bar akin to the Wii. Other than the Blu-Ray drive and a larger hard drive (and hopefully no overheating issues), I don’t think we’ll see much more, but really what more do we need.

[image courtesy of Xboxfreedom.com]

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