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News feature: Your lounge is ours

Now Sega's gone let the console wars begin

The battle for control of your living room has begun. Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony are competing to be the central game console in your home, each touting the most promising and innovative kit ever. After games comes total domination of your home entertainment.

Pumped with the latest technology, the new breed of video game machines can do more than just play the hottest 3D games. Both Microsoft's upcoming Xbox and Sony's PlayStation2, for instance, can double as DVD players for watching movies. Either can also be an internet appliance for playing games online, browsing the web, and sending email and instant messages.

All three companies laid out their combat plans at E3, the gaming industry's largest conference, last week. To kick off the event, Microsoft revealed some Xbox secrets, announcing the console's November US release date and its $299 price tag, which will no doubt equate to £299 here.

Nintendo intends to make a pre-emptive strike against Microsoft by shipping its forthcoming GameCube three days before Sony. But Nintendo didn't disclose the price of the GameCube.

Sony outlined its tactics to expand the PlayStation2, which has been available since late 2000. It plans a handful of upcoming hardware add-ons, including a networking connector for online access and a remote control for running DVD movies. In the pipes from Japan is also a Linux operating system and hard drive for the Playstation2, which would make it possible to turn the machine into an interesting pseudo-PC for less than £500.

Amid the high-tech marketing mumbo jumbo at E3 (such as 'experiencing the experience') and a few seemingly endless, bass-soaked demos of new and future games, one thing becomes clear: these systems won't replace your PC.

But each of the three leading consoles fills a niche that could suit you. Here's a quick overview.

Microsoft hasn't been an underdog in years. But with Nintendo and Sony firmly entrenched in the minds and hearts of most video game players, Microsoft's Xbox faces an uphill battle.

On its side is an outstanding hardware set-up - at least on paper. The Xbox has a 733MHz processor, a built-in hard drive, a long list of developers writing games for it, specially designed NVidia graphics chip, 64MB of memory, a built-in hard drive, and integrated network/broadband port.

It's been five years since Nintendo introduced its flagship game console, the Nintendo 64. At E3, the company announced plans to ship its next video game system, the GameCube. The GameCube's technical specs are somewhere between that of the Xbox and the PlayStation2, which means it should pack plenty of power.

But wait. It won't play DVD movies like the other two machines, which is a major drawback if you're interested in a complete home entertainment centre with a single purchase. Also, it doesn't have a hard drive option. Nintendo has outlined its networking capabilities, but the Xbox is broadband-ready, and Sony offers add-on networking for the PlayStation2.

Despite those drawbacks, the GameCube is sure to be a hit with a large portion of the video gaming community. Why? Nintendo has a solid record of producing fun-filled, cartoony games that appeal to the young (and young at heart). Nintendo's smash cast of game characters includes Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong, Zelda, and Pokemon. N64 cartridges can't play on the GameCube, however.

Sony is the undisputed reigning champion in the video game console market. Between the original PlayStation (now called PlayStation 1) and the PlayStation2, it commands an overwhelming market lead. Its product flew off shelves during the last holiday season, and people continue to buy the console as fast as Sony can make it.

Despite the company's success, Sony executives started their E3 presentation on Wednesday on a somewhat defensive, almost bitter note. They focused on explaining various ways in which the company didn't botch its PlayStation2 launch last year, on how it isn't difficult to create games for the system, that it's untrue that Sony's manufacturing isn't up to speed. The company was forced to cut dramatically the number of systems it shipped at launch, and many people still can't find a PlayStation2 to buy.

Despite the awkwardly defensive opening, Sony is showing some impressive new games in development, as well as some new hardware that will make the PlayStation2 more powerful and more desktop PC-like.

Chief among the hardware enhancements is a network adapter scheduled to ship in November (coincidental, that, as this is the month of GameCube and Xbox). The product, which Sony expects to sell for about £30, will include both a 56K modem and a broadband/network connector. Sony will also offer a 40GB hard drive in November, but pricing is not yet set.

Also this winter, Sony plans to release an LCD screen, keyboard, and mouse for use with the PlayStation2. Prices are not yet set. A preview image of the keyboard/LCD combo makes the PlayStation2 package look an awful lot like a PC.

With experts comparing the computing power of these consoles to that of high-powered workstations, and Sony rolling out hardware that makes the PlayStation2 look and feel more like a PC, some may be inclined to consider their next console purchase a PC replacement. Don't.

"These machines are only going to augment your PC, " says Peter Glaskowsky, analyst with MicroDesign Resources. They won't have the power or flexibility to actually replace your good old desktop or notebook PC anytime soon, he notes. It's a fine way to get computing power into the same room as your sofa and television, he suggests.

"Something like this has a valid excuse for being in the living room," he says. It's more natural to have a game console - which also plays DVD and happens to connect to the internet - next to your TV than a PC, he says.


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