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Video games: New hardware heats up console battle

November 20, 2006

PlayStation 3 (Sony)

Reinforcements have arrived in the battle for console supremacy, with Sony and Nintendo launching their latest hardware to compete with the Xbox 360 that Microsoft launched in 2005. Even so, all but the most devoted enthusiasts must struggle with the question of which one to buy as the big three players in the video game console market fire their latest salvos in the hotly contested rivalry for gamers' attention and money.

Prices for the new consoles have soared to the point where they cost more than some full-fledged desktop computers, so many would-be buyers face the prospect of making a long-term investment in game platforms that have yet to prove their worthiness.

Pricing for the new consoles varies widely thanks to big differences in functions and multiple models being offered by Sony and Microsoft.

PlayStation 3 (Sony)

Sony's PlayStation 3, launched in North America Nov. 17, starts at $549.99 for the base model, which has a 20 gigabyte hard drive to store content, while its premium model with a 60GB drive comes in at just under a sticker-shock inducing $659.99. The pricing announcement at Sony's E3 press conference at its Culver City studios in May was met with stunned silence and a few shocked gasps from hundreds of journalists attending.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 launched last year on Nov. 22 at $399.99 for a basic "core" system, and $499.99 for a premium version that featured "extras" such as a 20 GB hard drive, wireless controller, an HD-AV cable to connect the unit to a high-definition TV, and a remote control. But the HD-DVD drive, launched Nov. 10, will cost consumers an additional $199.99, bringing the console system into the same price range as Sony's next-generation offerings.

Wii (Nintendo)

In contrast to the high-definition consoles, Nintendo's Wii is priced at $279.95, part of the company's strategy to remain as accessible as possible to the widest range of consumers. The reason for the wide variance in prices becomes apparent after examining the features and technologies each of the consoles employ.

The new breed

One of the elements attracting gamers to the latest consoles is that the advanced hardware can amplify the visual experience beyond what was previously possible. Sony and Microsoft's offerings are both powerful machines that feature high-resolution graphics capabilities and are designed to take advantage of the growing popularity of high-definition television screens. Both consoles also contain chips co-developed with IBM, giving the machines processing capabilities more powerful than what the supercomputers of a decade earlier could deliver. Sony in particular has been touting the advantages of the Cell chip, the development of which was also aided by Toshiba.

Wii (Nintendo)

In contrast, Nintendo Co. Ltd. has chosen not to follow the route of its rivals, concentrating instead on making its latest console more affordable. Nintendo is employing current - instead of cutting-edge - technology for the Wii's brain and graphics engine. The so-called Hollywood graphics chip by Markham, Ont.-based ATI Technologies, Inc., is the core of the machine's visuals. The world's No. 2 chipmaker, AMD, Inc., bought ATI in October.

Too early for high-definition?

The Japanese video games company could have gone head-to-head with its diversified competitors on computing power and graphics in this console cycle, the director and general manager of Nintendo's entertainment analysis and development division said in May, but it chose not to for several reasons.

"If we wanted to do it, we could have done so easily," Shigeru Miyamoto said, speaking through a translator at a private briefing at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) industry conference and trade show in Los Angeles. "But games are not just about graphics."

Miyamoto, the brain behind video game hits such as Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda, noted that most people in North America do not own a high-definition (HD) television set to display cutting-edge visuals.

"We felt that this time the emphasis should be on the player," Miyamoto said, adding that was the reason Nintendo's new console uses an innovative motion-sensitive control device. "In five years it will be a given that Nintendo will produce a HD system," he said. "Right now it's just too early."

DVD war

Wii (Nintendo)

Nintendo's assessment clearly diverges from Sony and Microsoft's, which are both making a play for control of consumers' living rooms. Both companies are offering high-definition DVD playback on their consoles as well as the ability to play music.

Sony has included its new Blu-ray disc player in the PS3 and Microsoft sells an add-on DVD drive based on the competing HD disc standard, making for a latter-day movie format war akin to the Beta-VHS video tape battle of the 1980s.

Although a Nintendo executive had previously suggested that the Wii would play movie DVDs for models that ship in Japan, that function was not be available when the console had its worldwide launched in North America on Nov. 19.

Aside from the emphasis on graphics and movies, the biggest difference in the consoles is the way in which players will interact with them.

Nintendo has generated widespread buzz in the industry and among gamers with its wireless motion-sensitive controller, which is styled like a television remote control connected by a cable to a module similar to a computer mouse. People can use the remote to point and shoot, or swing it like a baseball bat or sword to see their physical actions duplicated in a game. Similarly, they can use the mouse or "nunchuk" to steer their character around onscreen.

Sony, meanwhile, announced its own motion-sensitive controller at its E3 press conference at its Culver City, Calif. studios in May. The wireless Sixaxis controller is styled like the PlayStation 2's DualShock gamepad, but lacks the vibration force feedback native to the PS2's control.

Xbox 360 (Microsoft)

The Xbox 360's wireless controllers lack motion sensing, a decision made by design, a senior Microsoft executive told CBC News Online in an interview at E3. "We had a motion-sensitive control eight years ago," Peter Moore, corporate vice-president of the interactive entertainment business in Microsoft's entertainment devices division said. "It was called the SideWinder Freestyle Pro."

Moore said that the controller for games played on personal computers sold well, but not enough for Microsoft, so the company discontinued it and decided not to offer a similar device for its video game consoles.

Xbox 360 (Microsoft)

All three consoles are capable of connecting online through their own internet-based gaming networks, but only Microsoft's Xbox Live subscription-based network is operating. Sony's PS3 is capable of going online out of the box, enabling users to browse the Web or visit Sony's online store where they can download and buy demonstration software and audio and video content. Nintendo launched with a limited version of its Wii Connect24 network, offering news and weather updates.

Scarce supply

But even those willing to rush out and spend the cash for a cutting-edge console launching this year may find it nearly impossible to get their hands on one, analysts say.

Sony said it would have just 400,000 PS3s available for launch in North America, and a global total of 1.1 million by the end of the year. The company had previously said it would have some four million units available for the holiday season but was saddled with production problems chiefly related to producing the blue laser diode used for the machine's Blu-ray DVD player. The anticipated supply problem earlier this year triggered a surprise surge in video game sales, with titles for the PlayStation 2 seeing big gains.

Nintendo said it expected to have one million Wiis in North America at launch and four million worldwide this holiday season.

Microsoft said it didn't expect to have supply problems through the lucrative holiday shopping season, which could bode well for the company as it faces new high-powered rivals, according to some market watchers. Microsoft, which has already sold some six million of its next-generation consoles, aims to increase that figure to 10 million by the end of its fiscal year in June. "I think enough consumers have made up their minds that they're not getting a PlayStation 3 this year," Michael Pachter, the managing director of research at Wedbush Morgan Securities, told CBC News Online.

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