It was a plum assignment, one I'd dreamed about since my teenage days at the local arcade: test the latest game systems -- the all-new Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube, plus Sony's year-old PlayStation 2 -- and, in the end, pick the best.
I'm already a PlayStation 2 ($299) junkie, so I didn't need a lot of saddle time with the deuce. I went right to GameCube ($199), which Nintendo hopes will erase memories of its disappointing 64 console. The purple GameCube looks more like a lunchbox than a serious game platform, further emphasizing Nintendo's focus on hooking players young. I tested a handful of new titles, with the one standout being Star Wars: Rogue Leader--Rogue Squadron II, a Nintendo exclusive. It's the only GameCube game I played more than once.
Microsoft's Xbox ($299) attempts to one-up the competitors in every way. It has a faster graphics processor, more memory, and a hard drive. Some Xbox games, like NHL Hitz 2002 and 4x4 EVO 2, don't seem worthy of such a powerful platform, but most are keepers. Project Gotham Racing is hands-down the most realistic driving simulation I've played. Halo is a maddeningly addictive first-person shooter. And the graphics alone in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x and Transworld Surf made them worth trying.
The true test came when I played the same game, the Madden 2002 football game, on each system. Looking at three TVs side by side shed some serious light: Xbox's graphics frankly blow the others away, with crisp colors, sharp edges, and amazing detail. In addition, thanks to the hard drive, games load faster. Xbox's controllers seemed big at first, but once I got used to them, it was difficult going back to the others.
The bottom line: If you're looking for a new system, Xbox is easily the best choice. Kids will flock to the GameCube for Nintendo's exclusive titles, but we see no reason to buy a PlayStation 2 unless you need 100 games on the quick. Frankly, though, the lack of Xbox games doesn't worry us -- if you build a better box, they will come. And that's exactly what Microsoft has done.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.