The most important button on the original Xbox was not the power button: it was the button to eject the disc tray.
Conceptually, this does not make sense. Of course the power button should be the most important button – it turns on (and off) the whole console. But that attitude is steeped in our understanding of modern devices, where our games and apps are far more self-contained than they were during the original Xbox’s heyday.
The console’s design reflects the eject button’s priority. The disc eject button is bigger, higher up, 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 towards that button because it meant that you had bought a game and were ready to play or that you wanted to swap out discs to play something else.
A powered on Xbox with a broken disc tray was a useless thing; an Xbox with an open tray was one primed and 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 feature power buttons the same size as their disc tray buttons; the Nintendo GameCube does, too, emphasizing its lid eject button with an extra physical dimple that the other power and reset buttons lacked. But the original Xbox wins out in its glorification of the eject button by making it the single biggest and flashiest button on the entire console.
The Xbox’s successors, though, also tell a story of how discs became less and less a critical part of video games over the years. Take the original Xbox 360, for instance. The tray eject button is still prominent, located on the side of the drive itself, but it’s no longer in the spotlight. The power button has eclipsed it, now huge and festooned with LED lights that could indicate connected controllers (or critical hardware failures).
That shift in focus away from the disc drive coincided with an increase in functionality for the console itself. The Xbox 360 could function without a game inserted; it had a hard drive that you could download games to and internet connectivity to buy and rent movies and TV shows. It’s a trend that continues over the course of the 360’s history. The subsequent 360 Slim and 360 E iterations would continue to shrink down the disc eject button while simultaneously putting more emphasis on the power button, adding chrome details to further highlight it.
The Xbox One generation would go a step further. For the first time, buying games entirely digitally was a feasible prospect with the new console, and the scale between the console’s lit-up, Xbox logo-shaped power icon and the tiny capacitive disc eject button reflect that. The Xbox One S would take the trend to the ultimate expression: the Digital version of that console simply lacked a disc drive (and its corresponding button).
Which brings us to the modern generation of Xbox consoles. The Xbox Series S dispenses with discs entirely – all games purchased and played have to be done through Microsoft’s store. But even the Xbox Series X shows a fundamental shift in how we interact with consoles. The power button is as big as ever, but the eject button has been reduced to a speck next to the drive itself. And even the discs are largely vestigial. Modern games all run on the console’s internal drive today. Buying a game on a disc just means avoiding an initial download so the base game files can be copied off the Blu-ray instead, and usually, that just precedes a lengthy download of patches and updates from the internet.
The history of the disc eject button is a story of the video game ecosystem in miniature: a shrinking detail across four generations of consoles that reflects a much bigger shift in the way we buy and play games today.