After two years of hype, Microsoft's hotly anticipated Xbox games console has finally been launched today in the US. UK gamers are going to have to wait until next to get their mitts on the Xbox, however.

The console marks the software company's first foray into the games market, and with only an estimated 300,000 units of the US$299 consoles available, initial shipments are expected to sell out quickly.

Microsoft has been talking up Xbox for nearly two years, originally unveiling it at a game developers conference in March 2000. Company officials have offered several peeks at the console and heavily promoted it to developers. The console beats rival Nintendo's GameCube to the market by mere days, and also competes with Sony's PlayStation2, the current king of the consoles.

Indeed, the Xbox is a worthy competitor to the PlayStation2, with a specs list that wouldn't look out of place in a low-price PC. A 733MHz Intel Pentium III processor acts as the brains of the Xbox, and is supported by a cutting-edge 250MHz Nvidia graphics chip and 64MB of 200MHz DDR (double data rate) RAM.

Games play through the system's five-speed DVD-ROM drive, and you can save them to the 10GB internal hard drive or to proprietary 8MB memory cards that fit into the controllers. Sound is enabled by a custom Nvidia chip that can handle 64 3D voices simultaneously, and can output audio encoded in Dolby sound to your stereo's surround system for better effect.

A built-in 100Mbps (megabits per second) ethernet port lets you network Xboxes together for competition play and will allow online gaming when Microsoft adds broadband support, promised in summer 2002.

But while its specs suggest it's a PC, don't expect PC-type boot times and crashes with the Xbox. Just hit the power button and after a brief splash screen, it's ready to go. You won't have to install games, either – they play off the disc just as they do on other consoles.