A Walk Through The Xbox 360 Evaluation Lab [3DO, WebTV, IBM, ATI joined up to make Xbox 360]



Tuesday, August 16, 2005
A Walk Through The Xbox 360 Evaluation Lab At Microsoft's Mountain View,
Calif. Campus
Dean Takahashi, 12:01 AM in Dean Takahashi, Gaming

(This story is a companion to a shorter piece we're putting in the

Leslie Leland was kind enough to walk me through the product evaluation and
reliability labs for the Xbox 360 at Microsoft's Mountain View, Calif.,
campus earlier this month. She's one of the hardware engineers who makes
sure that the box will work when it arrives under Christmas trees this fall.

On the tour, I got to see some working prototypes, as well as many with
their guts torn out. Behind doors with coded keypads, Microsoft is literally
baking some of these machines to see if they can live up to tough quality
standards before they begin shipping this fall. Here and there, engineers
say that they're the first to begin playing next-generation games.

If you don't know the history of the Xbox, Mountain View is worth
explaining. Microsoft acquired its position in the heart of Silicon Valley
when it bought WebTV Networks for $425 million in 1997. That was a very
expensive boondoggle.

But there were a cluster of video game veterans from 3DO within WebTV. Folks
like Tim Bucher, Dave Riola, and Nick Baker.

They stayed on and tried to pitch Redmond on a WebTV-like video game
console. They lost out to the team from Redmond that proposed the Xbox, and
had to content themselves in 2001 with designing UltimateTV, a digital video
recorder that didn't resonate that well with consumers. The Xbox went on to
sell more than 20 million units, and much of the WebTV team was absorbed
into the Xbox division.

Some departed, but the remaining team at Mountain View soldiered on, and in
many ways, WebTV has gotten its revenge by playing a major role with Xbox
360. "You could say we came in as the relief pitchers," said Leland.

Leland, who used to work at Apple, is a hardware engineer who has been with
Microsoft since the acquisition of Web TV. She's part of the hardware group
that has developed considerable expertise in video technology and helped
contribute to the system design.

She has to make sure that the consoles coming off the production lines work
properly. We sat in her office for a while and talked about old projects,
like the "QT" project aimed at cutting costs out of the original Xbox.

She showed me some old motherboards. Every year, the guts of the Xbox were
ripped out and replaced with cheaper, more efficient components. But
consumers never noticed because the outside of the box stayed the same.
Leland slaved away on motherboard redesigns known as "Xblade," "Barcelona"
and "Tuscany," but no one ever heard about them.

As Microsoft began the Xbox 360 project in late 2002, it started putting
together a worldwide team. (It's interesting to note that Sony announced the
Cell project with IBM and Toshiba, before Microsoft's planning began, and it
won't ship until after Microsoft ships).

J Allard, corporate vice president of the Xbox platform, convened a small
team in Redmond to work on the product concept. During 2003, the team
figured out that it wanted to launch before Sony this time, which meant that
the box had to be ready in the fall of 2005.

After scouring a number of vendors, it hired IBM, which put more than 400
chip designers to work at several of its sites to design the microprocessor
for the Xbox 360. ATI Technologies signed on in August, 2003, to create the
graphics chip. Allard said that IBM had been ahead in terms of thinking
about multiple processing cores on a single chip. ATI, which put 300 people
to work on its chip, had a clever idea to couple the graphics chip with its
own dedicated memory. It was not a derivative of a PC graphics chip, said
Rick Bergman, an ATI executive.

Todd Holmdahl, the corporate vice president in charge of the hardware,
decided to exploit a manufacturing scheme that had been executed by Nintendo
with the GameCube. Instead of having the chip makers make and sell chips to
Microsoft, he just got them to perform the chip designs.

Both IBM and ATI agreed to let Microsoft own the designs so that it could
control the cost reduction schedule and get the chips made in any factory.
This is dubbed "customer-owned tooling," which literally means that the
system maker, in this case Microsoft, owns the rights to the "mask set," or
the part of the tools that define the design in silicon.

Under this scenario, Microsoft pays an engineering fee that is lucrative for
both ATI and IBM, but it doesn't have to pay high margins to ATI or IBM for
making the chips, and it can go directly to a chip contract manufacturer.
The goal is to cut costs and to control its destiny. After all, Microsoft
remembers it lost $125 on each of the first Xbox machines sold, and it got
into a dispute with Nvidia over chip pricing to boot.

As the silicon vendors started working on the inside, others paid attention
to the outside of the box. A lot of newcomers joined in to define the
console, which of course had to be smaller than the version that the
Japanese rejected. Microsoft invited a bunch of industrial designers to
create "gestures" for the console's look.

It narrowed down the choices to a couple of firms. Astro Studios in San
Francisco and Hers Experimental Design Laboratory teamed up to create the
industrial design under the direction of Jonathan Hayes, design director at
Microsoft. They went back and forth on the look of the box, coming up with
sketches over and over again until a concave style emerged as the winner.
Flextronics lent its support on how to design in components that could be
manufactured easily.

"Flextronics knows the inside out really well," Leland said. "The mark of
success is that the outsiders push the insiders to do their best and visa

Larry Yang, another former WebTV engineer, led a group of 100 engineers on
various Xbox chip projects at Mountain View. Yang worked at Sun Microsystems
for a decade, helping to architect its Sparc microprocessors. He tripled the
size of the team beyond its WebTV roots, adding considerable firepower from
other hardware and chip companies in Silicon Valley. The team included chip
architects, designers, verification experts, physical layout experts,
operations people, supply chain managers and logistics planners.

Robbie Bach, the chief Xbox officer, even came down for a visit once to make
sure all the WebTV folks stayed aboard and helped with the 360. He knew that
they had a lot of options in the valley. One of the chips they designed was
a TV encoder that would support the TV-side of the system.

Altogether, they were a part of a team of 1,000 working for hardware chief
and corporate vice president Todd Holmdahl. If you count the people at the
three big factories of Flextronics, Wistron and Celestica, there are more
than 10,000 people at work making sure that the Xbox 360 arrives on time in

When Leland signed on to help, she thought, "Holy shit! We just finished the
first one. We gotta cost reduce it. And then make the new one."

On the older Xbox, Leland had to help deal with issues like cable problems
in Australia, the huge controller that was so big the Japanese didn't like
it, disk-scratching problems that also turned off Japanese customers. (She
explained to me why my own Xbox was starting to go on the fritz, failing to
recognize some of the newfangled DVDs that have a lot more features on them
than the old ones.)

The Xbox 360 project has run a lot more smoothly than the last one.
Simulation technology has advanced and helped make sure that the hardware
would work right out of the gate. That's where a lot of the big bugs were
found, even before anything was etched in hardware, Leland said. Last time
around, Nvidia ran late on the graphics chip, Flextronics had start-up
problems in the factory, and Microsoft had to postpone its launches in Japan
and Europe. That gave Sony an insurmountable lead.

But this time, the critical hardware is done. IBM "taped out," or finished
its chip design, on Dec. 8, 2004. ATI finished its graphics chip in

Within 48 hours, IBM's chip was running rudimentary game code. Yang's team
also finished its own design of a TV encoder chip on time. Silicon
Integrated Systems did the support chips, also on time. All told, there are
more than 400 million transistors on the chips in the box and a kilometer of
wiring in the top three chips. Now all of these teams still have to make
sure that they debug their working prototypes, but everything is looking

This is why Microsoft has been able to ship several thousands software
development kits with prototype hardware to game developers. Sony recently
said that it had only delivered around 450 kits to developers for the
PlayStation 3, which debuts as early as next spring. Microsoft's prototypes
don't seem to be running at full speed, but Microsoft says the final chips
are on schedule.

We walked around the lab to a guy who was roasting his Xbox 360. He was
testing the processor by heating it up to 70 degrees Celsius.

"We've gotten to a zero bug count," Leland said. "We have thousands of bugs
in the database." Leland said that the Xbox 360 hardware will be made with
lead-free solder, a big deal because of environmental concerns. In Europe,
all electronics have to meet lead-free requirements by July, 2006. Leland's
team had to make sure that the hardware complied with the regulations.

For the 360, Leland ran a production evaluation team in Mountain View,
looking at testing the Xbox 360 hardware, running reliability tests, and
running manufacturing tests too. Her people had to make sure that the box
complies with Federal Communications Commission regulations on wireless

So one of her people spends a lot of time zapping electrical pulses into
tortured prototypes. She has had to travel to China, where the factories
are, to help set up testing labs, including a room where people just play
Xbox 360 games like "Perfect Dark Zero" all day long. (Flextronics and
Wistron are existing partners from the first iteration of Xbox, while the
relationship between Celestica and Microsoft is newly formed. All three
plants are located in the Pearl River Delta region in Southern China.)
Leland is constantly on the phone or sending instant messages to people all
over the world. "It's what we call high tide," Leland said. "We're just
getting over it. Our high tide started a year ago."

She walked by a table with a bunch of wiring and some more decapitated Xbox
360s and said they test them to see if they can withstand surges that come
from lightening strikes. There is something called an "ESD gun" on the
table. I think to myself, if lightening strikes my house, I don't think I
will keep playing my game. She also said they have to test for dealing with
voltage changes and brown-outs.

A guy named Rich Lee showed me a gigantic chamber where he can simulate all
sorts of environmental conditions. There is room for 120 Xbox 360s on the
racks in this room, which can be heated or cooled as needed. I step in and
feel the warm air blast me. The Xbox 360s stay in the pressure cooker for up
to 72 hours at a time. There are about 1,100 components on the motherboard.
A lot of stuff can go wrong.

But Leland says that the teams are already at work on the plans for year two
and year three. "To get the Christmas, we have to ramp production. We do a
summer hand-off to the factories, and on to distribution and retail."

We leave the test labs and end up eating a sandwich in the back lobby.
Leland is obviously having the time of her life. "Everywhere we go, when
people here we are working on the Xbox 360, we get mobbed. It's very

I finished by talking to Yang and Holmdahl on the phone. It's clear they
want to get millions of consoles out before Sony ships its first one. To
make that happen, they have to be paranoid about getting the whole supply
chain synchronized. The grand scheme all assumes that Microsoft will have
the games that gamers want to play.

"It all comes down to supply," he said. "All it takes is a shortage of one
part to limit your supply."

AnonomissX aka ~Melodie~

Me wants an XBox 360
technolust.....drool....must game...HALO....more....HALO....

/me stands up and gets herself together

~Melodie~ Aka AnonomissX


Highlander wrote:
<snip OT crap>

Cross-posting troll. Clueless, clueless idiot....PLONK!


jack said:
Highlander wrote:
<snip OT crap>

Cross-posting troll. Clueless, clueless idiot....PLONK!

That's all this "highlander" idiot does, is massively cross-post this
kind of stuff, with an occasional name-change to avoid kill-filters.


AnonomissX aka ~Melodie~ said:
Me wants an XBox 360
technolust.....drool....must game...HALO....more....HALO....

isn't it funny how lust is an anagram of slut!
I'm not trying to be rude or insulting btw, it's just that I skimmed your
post and thought I read "technoslut" :)

AnonomissX aka ~Melodie~

LOL Guys :D
~Melodie Aka AnonomissX

carl0s said:
isn't it funny how lust is an anagram of slut!
I'm not trying to be rude or insulting btw, it's just that I skimmed your
post and thought I read "technoslut" :)

Paul Ding

isn't it funny how lust is an anagram of slut!

It's not necessarily a accident. The origins of the word "slut" are
not clear, but the word may be a cross between the words slattern and
lust, since the word slut connotates not only one who lusts, but also
one who is untidy and filthy.
I'm not trying to be rude or insulting btw, it's just that I skimmed your
post and thought I read "technoslut" :)

Melodie has a reputation here of being playful, but not of behaving in
a disreputable manner.

Insults usually don't work unless there's at least a little bit of
truth to them - which is why Graphite usually sticks to "senior
technologist" in trying to insult me. He is wet behind the ears, so
I'm relatively senior, and he rarely knows what he's talking about, so
I'm a technologist compared to him.

When he really goes around the bend, he hasn't the ability to act as
an adult, so he reverts to kindergarten behavior, crying "Liar, Liar"
at anything he doesn't want to hear, and anyone he perceives as a


isn't it funny how lust is an anagram of slut!

I'm not trying to be rude or insulting btw, it's just that I skimmed your
post and thought I read "technoslut" :)

That says more about you than her. Note that I rather like her attitude,
what I've seen of it (from whatever group she cross-posts from).


keith said:

Perhaps not for you. Miserable day, eh?
That says more about you than her. Note that I rather like her attitude,
what I've seen of it (from whatever group she cross-posts from).

It doesn't say anything about anybody, hence me clarifying that I wasn't
making a personal comment, rather an observation of the written word. I
suggest you wind your neck in and shut yer gob.


carl0s said:
Perhaps not for you. Miserable day, eh?

It doesn't say anything about anybody, hence me clarifying that I wasn't
making a personal comment, rather an observation of the written word. I
suggest you wind your neck in and shut yer gob.

I love it when the poindexter gloves come off.

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