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E3 2005: Console Domination

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At the E3 conference, Tim Stevens discovered that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are all raising the console gaming bar to new heights. While the price of admission will surely go up for this generation of hardware, he says, it should be one heck of a ride.
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It's been interesting to watch the power shift over the past ten years. Since 1995, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) has been the annual barometer of what's hot in gaming. Starting out as a primarily PC-oriented gig, the show has slowly shifted to the console side of gaming. The latest game consoles are branching out to new avenues of functionality, but are still designed for gaming first... and everything else second.

It's this focus of design that has enabled previous generations of consoles to perform impressive feats with relatively limited hardware. The next generation of consoles are perhaps the first to truly blow away current PCs, providing incredible power in slender, quiet, and reasonably affordable boxes. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are all raising the bar to new heights, and while the price of admission will surely go up for this generation of hardware, it should be one heck of a ride.

Microsoft's Xbox 360

The successor to the popular (but not quite popular enough) Xbox, 360 is how Microsoft is showing how committed it is to the console gaming market. When the Xbox was initially plagued with lackluster sales, critics were quick to predict Microsoft's withdrawal from the console market, saying the company would desert its loyal converts to protect its bottom line. But, Microsoft said all along they were in this for the long haul, and they've proven it: first by continuing to support the Xbox (resulting in some impressive sales figures to close out last year), and now by creating its successor.

Called 360 because Xbox2 would sound insufficient next to the Playstation 3, this new box is packing a lot of power. On the processing side, the 360 sports a PowerPC-based CPU with three cores running at 3.2 GHz, each endowed with two hardware threads. This equates to theoretical performance of one teraflop, or one trillion floating point operations per second.

Graphics hardware will be provided by ATI (thanks to Microsoft breaking ties with NVIDIA after a costly legal dispute between the two companies over Xbox royalties). Similar in design to that found on ATI's current top-rated PC video cards, but streamlined and optimized for the 360, the GPU in the console will be more powerful than any currently available PC video card. Quite an impressive feat, considering the entire console is expected to retail for around $350, less than the price of a current high-end video card alone!

Microsoft will use this graphics power to move the console into what they're calling the HDTV era. The Xbox was the first console to truly support HD resolutions in certain games, and the 360 will require all games to support at least 720p. As of now, it seems that HD signals will be sent to your display via component video cables or via VGA; no DVI or HDMI just yet. For those not familiar with HDTV terminology: suffice it to say that all 360 games will support wide-screen displays at high resolutions, and will look just fine on standard definition TVs, too.

Combining this triple-core CPU with the fastest hardware ATI has to offer should result in some impressive performance, enough for Microsoft to call the 360 the "world's most powerful gaming platform." However, if you purely go by hardware specs, Sony believes that there is one higher....

Sony's Playstation 3

Sony officially announced its Playstation 3 console just hours before Microsoft unveiled the Xbox 360 to the gaming media at their pre-E3 event, taking some of the wind out of Microsoft's sails (and possibly their sales, too).

At its heart is a single PowerPC core running at 3.2 GHz. As you'll recall from above, the Xbox 360 has a triple-core processor running at the same speed. So, why is Sony rating the PS3 at a massive two teraflops, twice that of Microsoft's box? That's because this isn't just any CPU.

This is the new Cell processor, co-developed by Sony, Toshiba, and IBM, containing eight "Synergistic Processing Elements." These SPEs are somewhat akin to separate cores, effectively operating like eight individual processors with an extremely fast bus to communicate across, but lacking the cache and certain other features of a standard CPU.

According to Sony, the PS3 effectively has a seven-core CPU (the eighth is reserved for higher purposes) running at 3.2 GHz, resulting in their claim of two gigaflops to the 360's one. But, other than some fancy looking tech-demos (admittedly far fancier than Microsoft's), and a lot of specs, we have no real-world way to compare the two systems. However, after the amazingly hyped Playstation 2 launch, we know Sony is prone to hyperbole. And, given the architectural complexity the Cell brings to the table, it's questionable whether many developers will be able to fully exploit that performance. So, neither console is expected to dominate the other in terms of performance.

On the video side, NVIDIA has created a custom graphics chipset for the PS3 called RSX. Based on their successor to the current king of the hill 6800 Ultra on the PC, the PS3's GPU posts some impressive specs. However, where Sony is claiming a clear victory in number crunching, the 360's ATI graphics processor appears to have a slight edge in this department. Like the 360, the PS3 will feature high definition gaming, with Sony upping the ante somewhat by pledging support for 1080p displays and by optimistically including dual HDMI outputs. This means you can potentially hook up two of Sony's $15,000 Qualia 006 HD displays for the ultimate expression of extravagance.

One area that the PS3 undoubtedly has a lead over the 360 is in its ability to function as a media hub. Able to read compact flash and memory stick media, play high quality audio on SACDs and also high definition video on Blu-ray discs, the PS3 makes the Xbox 360's DVD-player functionality look a little slim. Microsoft is promising that the 360 will be able to communicate with a number of devices, including Sony's PSP, and surely will be able to display media served from a Windows Media Center PC, but that all remains to be seen.

Nintendo's Revolution

As Sony and Microsoft fired salvos back and forth with tech specs and fancy demos before E3, Nintendo took a rather more laid-back approach. Nintendo isn't promising a media hub for your house, amazing graphics, or even DVD playback out of the box. All Nintendo cares about delivering is great games, and that's something we can absolutely guarantee.

Like the other next-gen consoles, Revolution will be backward compatible. But, where the 360 will play Xbox games and the PS3 will play Playstation and Playstation2 titles, Nintendo's taking it a bit further. Revolution will not only accept full-sized DVD disks for new games along with smaller GameCube-sized disks, it will also be able to emulate the N64, SNES, and NES.

Titles will be downloaded from the internet and stored on the Revolution's 512 Megs of internal flash memory or onto external SD memory cards. We don't know just how much Nintendo will charge for these games, or exactly what kind of restrictions will be placed on them, but we do know that nothing says extravagance like playing the original Super Mario Bros. on cutting edge hardware.

Regarding the technical specs of the system, all we know is that the CPU will be from IBM and the graphics processor will be from ATI. Speculation is that the Revolution will be the lightest of the three in terms of performance, but Nintendo doesn't seem too worried, choosing to focus on what's purported to be a very innovative controller design. Plus, with prices for the 360 expected to be well into the $300 range, and the Playstation 3 to cost upwards of $450, a lower-cost Revolution could be successful for that reason alone.

Nintendo's Game Boy Micro

Nintendo didn't just have one piece of hardware to display at this year's E3; they also loosed a new gadget for every Nintendo fan to covet. Smaller than most cell phones, the Game Boy Micro is just four inches wide, two inches tall, and less than an inch thick, weighing in at a paltry 2.8 ounces. Despite being about half the size, it plays all the games your SP will.

With a cool chrome look (customizable via removable faceplates), the Micro is definitely the best looking of all the previous Nintendo portables. Its two inch screen is about a third smaller than that of the Game Boy Advance SP, meaning the Micro won't be ideal for lengthy play sessions at home. But, for quick trips on the subway or those plane rides where baggage space is tight, the Micro will be perfect. And, with a headphone port plus the ability to play music and videos stored on SD cards, it might just take the place of your MP3 player.

You Couldn't Ask for Anything More

In terms of big news, this year's E3 was by far the biggest of all time. Sure, we all knew the announcements were coming, but that didn't make it any less interesting to watch the fireworks. Sony and Microsoft are really gunning to "win" the battle for console hardware supremacy, while it appears Nintendo is happy to hang on to its ardently loyal fan base by simply doing its own thing on the home front, and by making its small arms even smaller for the road.

The Xbox 360 is expected to launch this November. The PS3 and Revolution aren't due until next spring, while the Micro is due this fall. The Micro will surely be a hit; the rest... well you'll just have to wait and see.

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