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Multimedia arms race

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Handheld consoles compete for multimedia dominance

Nintendo's DS handheld console is set, in coming months, to get a raft of add-ons and software updates to boost its multimedia functionality. So is Sony's PSP. Have neither console company learned the lesson of both the failure of the Gizmondo and the success of the iPod? It's not how much your handheld can do, but how well it can do it. From Nintendo, the DS is set to get web browsing via the Opera browser, as a cartridge you plug into the DS's game cartridge slot, and also a TV tuner add-on. Other companies are planning hard drives to give the DS some of the functionality of the PSP or iPod.

In the US, Nintendo's wildly successful DS Wi-Fi connectivity service is set to see owners downloading game demos and other content in-store automatically and for upcoming Metroid Prime: Hunters, the handheld gets voice over IP chat. In competition, the PSP, clearly the multimedia leader of the two, is set to get email to add to the location-free TV service, web browsing, podcasting, music and movie playing it already has. And on top, a GPS location-service add-on. Throw in a camera add-on and the PSP could rival the Gizmondo for functionality. Yet this multimedia arms race misses the point. A point Nintendo, generally, has been getting better than Sony. It's a games console – it will live or die on its games. While the PSP is home to mostly cut-down PS2 games that look and play shabbily compared to the originals, the DS has been wildly successful with a mix of the innovative (Nintendogs) and the smart cross-over (Mario Kart DS). And in the coming months, the DS schedule really kicks into overdrive, delivering interesting, unusual and fun games to play. Look out for Animal Crossing: Wild World, Metroid Prime: Hunters, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Trauma Centre: Under The Knife, Electroplankton and Prof Kawashima's Brain Training: How Old Is Your Brain? Consumers aren't going to be seduced by a Swiss Army knife all-in-one gizmo that started life as a games console. With Microsoft's Xbox 360 looking ever-stronger online and Nintendo's DS dominating the handheld space by dint of games over multimedia gizmos, Sony's suddenly playing catch-up.

PS3 launch date and HUB

Key Sony execs had seemed to be hinting the PS3 would follow the same line the PS2 did online. In other words – no centralised service, publishers allowed to do their own thing, no annual fee to go online. Considering the runaway success and almost universal critical approval of Xbox Live, particularly the new improved Xbox 360 version, this seemed like Sony's Achilles heel. Now, news leaked in the form of a survey of PS2 online users and from unnamed sources to US games magazine Next Generation, indicates Sony is thinking of an Xbox Live rival after all. According to Next Generation, the Sony PS3 online service will be called the HUB. The annual subscription service will feature "chat, downloadable demos, independent games and online play". So far, so PS3 Live. And the problem is that Microsoft has put a lot of expertise and resources into its Live offering. If Sony wants to get it right, it has a lot of catching up to do. But it does have one advantage over Microsoft. Sony is apparently planning for the HUB to work with its PSP handheld console also. The PSP is already set to get email, on top of the web browsing, podcasting software already available on this multimedia device. With full internet access, and the potential to connect PSP owners with their PS3 at home, or PSP and PS3 gamers somehow, Sony may have an ace up its sleeve. Next Generation also uses the same unnamed sources to give a launch date for the PS3 – September 16 in Japan, September 21 in the US. No word on Europe.

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