The eject button kept all the power on the original Xbox

Tech

The most important button on the original Xbox wasn’t the power button: it was the button to eject the disc tray.

Conceptually this doesn’t make sense. Of course, the power button should be the most important button — it turns the whole console on (and off). But that attitude is imbued with our understanding of modern devices, where our games and apps are much more self-contained than they were during the heyday of the original Xbox.

The console design reflects the priority of the eject button. The disc eject button is larger, taller and surrounded by an LED ring in the console’s iconic green glow, drawing even more attention to it.

The reasoning here is simple: the original Xbox (like its contemporaries and predecessors) was useless without discs for games, DVDs, and CDs. Without the disc tray button, your Xbox was never more than a hulking hunk of green and black plastic. So Microsoft wanted to direct you to that button because it meant you either bought a game and were ready to play or you wanted to trade discs to play something else.

A turned on Xbox with a broken disc tray was useless; an Xbox with an open drawer was one ready to launch you into your next video game adventure. Is it any wonder that Microsoft prioritized the disc eject button in its design?

It’s a legacy that exists elsewhere in the console universe. The original Playstation and PlayStation 2 both have power buttons that are the same size as the buttons in the disc tray; the Nintendo GameCube also highlights the lid’s eject button with an additional physical dimple that the other power and reset buttons were missing. But the original Xbox wins in its glorification of the eject button by making it the biggest and flashiest button on the entire console.

However, the successors to the Xbox also tell how discs became less and less of a crucial part of video games over the years. Take the original Xbox 360, for example. The tray eject button is still prominent, on the side of the drive itself, but no longer in the spotlight. The power button has overshadowed it, now huge and adorned with LED lights that could indicate connected controllers (or critical hardware failures).

That shift in focus away from the disk drive has coincided with an increase in functionality for the console itself. The Xbox 360 could work without a game in it; it had a hard drive where you could download games and an internet connection to buy and rent movies and TV shows. It’s a trend that continues throughout the history of the 360. Subsequent 360 Slim and 360 E iterations would continue to shrink the disc eject button while putting more emphasis on the power button and adding chrome details to further emphasize it.

The Xbox One generation would go one step further. For the first time, buying games completely digitally was a feasible prospect with the new console, and the scale between the console’s illuminated, Xbox logo-shaped power icon and the small capacitive disc eject button reflects that. The Xbox One S would take the trend toward the ultimate expression: the digital version of that console simply lacked a disc drive (and its button).

Which brings us to the modern generation of Xbox consoles. The Xbox Series S waives discs – all games purchased and played must be done through the Microsoft store. But even the Xbox Series X is showing a fundamental shift in the way we interact with consoles. The power button is the same size as ever, but the eject button has been reduced to a dot next to the drive itself. And even the drives are largely rudimentary. Modern games today all run on the console’s internal drive. If you buy a game on disc, all you need to do is avoid an initial download so that the base game files can be copied from the Blu-ray instead, and usually that just precedes a lengthy download of patches and updates from the web.

The history of the disc eject button is a story of the video game ecosystem in miniature: a diminishing detail across four generations of consoles that reflects a much larger shift in the way we buy and play games today.

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