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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Here Come the Hot Gaming Consoles!

Xbox 360 rocks. Microsoft's newly minted, next-generation game console is packed with a fire-breathing processor, an outlandish graphics processing unit, and high-definition TV outputs for blasting pixels onto huge HDTV screens. It even looks sweet, with a curvaceous, Apple-esque design that both soothes and entices. There can be no doubt: This month Xbox 360 will incite store riots and lure grown men into acts of depravity, just to have one by the end of 2005.

Or will it? Sony's PlayStation 3 may rock even more--once it comes out next year. It's got the processor, graphics, HDTV support, and Zen-inspired chassis design. All that, and it's going to come equipped with a high-definition-capable Blu-ray optical drive that will let the console read super-dense discs packing more than 25GB of data (no, that is not a misprint). If you want a next-generation console, it sure as heck ought to handle next-generation media--and PlayStation 3 does just that.

So what's a gamer (or the parent of a gamer) to do? With the holidays looming large, folks have a decision to make. Do they snap up an Xbox now and wrap it in colorful paper, despite the fact that it historically has been the less-popular game console? Or do they give the gift of sweaters this season and wait several months to see what the reigning champ of game boxes has to offer?

Fact is, there are no easy answers. The decision may come down to budget, or patience, or the love of a particular game not available on another system. Every gamer is different. But let's detail what we know today about next-generation game consoles.

No Clear Winner

For all the heady high technology, neither platform is a slam-dunk, says Anand Lal Shimpi, editor in chief and founder of the popular AnandTech hardware technology site. The issue, he says, boils down to titles--or the lack of them.

"I think honestly the biggest weakness Microsoft has is their launch lineup--they've got a few hard hitters, but they don't seem to have a [blockbuster like] Halo this time around," Shimpi explains.

One advantage Microsoft definitely has is time. The Xbox 360 goes on sale November 22, while the Sony PS3 will not be available until March 2006 or perhaps even later. That six-month lead will help Microsoft jump out ahead of rival Sony in 2006, according to Anthony Gikas, senior research analyst at market research firm Piper Jaffray.

In predicting how you, the consumer, will sort out the "buy now or later?" question, Gikas expects 6 million Xbox 360 consoles to ship in 2006, against just 1 million PS3 units. In 2008, however, the tide will have turned, with 8.5 million PS3 units selling compared to 6 million Xbox 360 consoles. At the end of the six-year generation window (at which time we'll be salivating over what might be coming next in game consoles), Gikas expects the Xbox 360 will grab 35 percent to 40 percent of the console market, less than the 45 percent to 50 percent he thinks PS3 should command.

The good news is that the two platforms--Xbox 360 and PS3--should be wildly popular, ensuring a steady flow of new titles for years to come.

As an aside, the Nintendo Revolution console, by contrast, remains largely shrouded in mystery. Most industry watchers expect it will settle in as a niche player in the console arena. What we think we know about Revolution is that it should support older Nintendo titles, offer wireless connectivity, and include a controller that looks like a TV remote. Unlike Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo has told folks the new system won't support HDTV.

And Then There Were Two

What sets the Xbox 360 and PS3 apart from each other? Not as much as you might think. While Sony uses the much-talked-about Cell processor in the PS3, the underlying architecture is actually based on the same PowerPC chip foundation built into the Xbox 360. Still, the innovative design of the Cell processor should offer Sony a technical lead, since the CPU is split into focused subprocessing units that let it tackle many tasks in tandem. By some estimates, the PS3 will be capable of twice the floating-point operations of the Xbox 360.

But Shimpi says title designers are struggling with the new platform. "I have heard nothing but bad things about the Cell processor when it comes to game developers," Shimpi warns. "You can call game developers lazy, unwilling to change, or whatever, but the fact of the matter is that they are building the next generation of games, and I have yet to hear a single one embrace the architecture and say, 'Yes! This is exactly what we've wanted.'"

So how do these two heavyweights stack up? A quick rundown of the strengths and weaknesses is revealing. Quick caveat: Neither of these is actually for sale right now, so things could change.



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