Open the Xbox Live Starter Kit, and you'll find the two main components: a headset and a software disc. Unlike with the PS2 Online kit, you won't need a network adapter; an Ethernet port is already installed in the back of your Xbox. However, it's worth reiterating that you'll need some sort of broadband service to fire up Live; it doesn't support a dial-up connection as PS2 Online and GameCube online do.
To get going, just run an Ethernet cable from the Xbox to your broadband modem (cable or DSL) or router. In our case, we tried both options; first, we went directly to our cable modem, then connected the Xbox to Microsoft's MN-500 wireless base station.
Both hookups worked flawlessly; our Xbox automatically configured the online settings, once it detected our Time Warner EarthLink cable service. Microsoft is supporting most of the major broadband ISPs (see the full list), and if you subscribe to one of them, you won't have to manually input any settings. Note: Currently, AOL Broadband is not supported. However, AOL does plan to offer Xbox support in the near future for an additional $4.95 monthly fee.
One part of the setup that's a little tedious is inputting all of your account info, including your mailing address, phone number, and credit card info. Since there's currently no keyboard available for the Xbox, you'll have use the onscreen virtual one. As part of the setup, you'll be asked to establish a screen name, or gamertag, which will appear to other Xbox Live players. Another person can play with you on the same Xbox, but he or she will appear as your gamertag's guest.
Once you've set up your account, getting an online game going is a straightforward affair. Insert a Live-enabled game, toggle down to Play Live in the game mode menu system, and enter the Live "lobby," where you can look for opponents or create your own game for others to join. You can opt to filter opponents (OptiMatch) based on skill level and other parameters. Also, you'll be able to tell who has a good connection and who doesn't. The interface is essentially the same for every game, which we found to be a plus.
The included Communicator is similar to the single earpiece headset you use with a cordless phone. It snaps into the top of any Xbox controller and can be adjusted to fit either ear. Conveniently, there's a built-in volume control and a mute button.
One of the nice things about Xbox Live compared to PS2 Online is that once you set up a gamertag, it works with any Live-enabled game you use; you don't have to register your gamertag each time you load a game.
Also, the voice feature works with all Live games, not just some titles. At first, it's a little weird to be talking to a random stranger (the conversation usually starts with, "Where are you based?"), but you get used to it pretty quickly. Worried that your opponents won't take you seriously because you're 13 and sound like you're 10? You can disguise your voice with a number of preset masks, a couple of which will make you sound like a criminal making a ransom demand. It's pretty amusing to test out all the masks, but be forewarned that some can be a little irritating and will make your opponents want to kick your butt even more vigorously.
As with PS2 Online, it's simple to set up a buddy list to easily find your friends. You do this through the start-up screen on the Xbox, where you'll find a new menu option for tweaking your Live settings. Also, depending on the game, a variety of statistics (win-loss record) and player rankings are available for viewing.
Lastly, Microsoft plans on making good use of the Xbox's built-in hard drive, providing downloadable content that either enhances or expands existing games. For example, roster updates or additional levels can be downloaded. Most of the content will be free, but some, of course, may require an additional fee.
Auditioning the service, we played Sega's MotoGP, NFL 2K3, NBA 2K3, and Unreal Championship, using EarthLink cable and came away impressed with the gameplay. At times, we experienced a little choppiness or lag, and every once in a while, we'd get knocked out of a game in the middle due to divergence. This was either a blessing or incredibly annoying, depending on whether we were winning or losing (if you're knocked off, the game doesn't count against your record). For the most part, however, frame rates were solid, and the game played almost as smoothly as it did offline. We can't vouch for all ISPs or tell you whether a DSL or a cable connection is better, but our cable connection did just fine--even during prime hours in the early evening.
The number of players has an impact in certain games and not others. (Here's a complete list of Live-enabled games.) For instance, we raced against 14 other opponents in MotoGP, and the action was quite smooth all the way through the race. But games such as Unreal Championship do much better with fewer players. Voice quality was also mostly good, but you will encounter some clipped speech from time to time and will have to ask your opponent or opponents to repeat themselves.
In the end, we couldn't find much to complain about; early indications are Microsoft has delivered a solid, nicely designed online service that Xbox users have no excuse not to try out for a year. Naturally, how many users will continue to play after their free year is up depends on how much Microsoft eventually charges for its service. Ideally, it'll come up with some sort of yearly pricing plan that keeps costs fairly reasonable, say, about $6 to $8 per month.