Sony NGP Touch Screen

What does it do?

The more pertinent question might be, “what doesn’t it do?” Sony has erred on the side of extravagance here, loading its device with so many knobs, buttons, bells and whistles that it could attain that slippery ideal of being all things to all people. Whether reality matches Sony’s ambitions is another matter entirely, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by the NGP’s specifications.

The device is powered by a quad-core processor based on the ARM Cortex A9, and a quad-core Imagination Technologies PowerVR graphics processor. For a handheld that’s a staggering amount of power, and coupled with the five-inch, 16 million colour OLED screen Sony claims that, visually, cutting-edge NGP games will boast fidelity on a par with the PlayStation 3.

Not that the NGP is all about output, of course. Indeed, it will have more input options than any comparable device, with a multi-touch screen on the front, a three-axis accelerometer, a three-axis gyroscope, twin analogue sticks, a built-in microphone, and both rear and front-facing cameras. Most intriguing of all is the multi-touch panel on the back of the device, which Sony claims will allow users to interact with games in three dimensions even though the display is only 2D.

The list goes on. The now defunct UMD format that turned out to be the PSP’s biggest weakness is gone, replaced with flash memory cards that will be big enough for a game with room to store any additional content. Built-in GPS and an electronic compass will support a new service called “I-Near”, which allows users within a certain range of each other to access a range of community features, while Wi-Fi, 3G and Bluetooth functionality will expand that community on a wider scale through a service called “Live Area”.  

Sony NGP rear touch pads

How much will it cost?

Ah, yes, the great unknown. Sony hasn’t even released a ball-park figure for the NGP’s price-point, but it doesn’t take an electronics whizz to figure out that all that tech won’t come cheap. The real question is who swallows the cost: Sony, or the consumer?

When the PlayStation 3 launched it was estimated that Sony was losing $250 on every unit sold, and even now the console costs more to make than it does to buy. I’m not sure the company is in a position to release more hardware that has such a negative impact on its profit-loss account, so it’s fair to assume that the NGP will be a serious investment for anyone interested in purchasing one.

Ultimately, it’s a zero-sum game: if the consumer gets an attractive price-point Sony takes a hit, and vice versa.

Sony NGP Uncharted demo

Who is it for?

Sony almost certainly has an answer for this question, but the NGP’s biggest problem seems to be its all-encompassing nature. Over the last five years the overwhelming trend in the handheld space has been toward simplifying output and emphasising input: the DS introduced touch-screen control, the iPhone had an accelerometer, and both were enormous success stories. The PSP, on the other hand, went for audio-visual fidelity, and ended up a very distant third.

Now, the NGP has an accelerometer, a touch-screen and more besides, but Sony is once again placing graphics high on its list of priorities, and that will drive up the price. The idea of playing PlayStation 3 quality games on a handheld is intriguing, certainly, but it’s hardly a mass market proposition. The inclusion of a second analogue stick is telling, as this was the single most requested feature for the PSP among core gamers – the sort of people that play games like Uncharted, which was used to demonstrate the device at its Tokyo launch event.

The problem is that core gamers don’t necessarily want to play games like Uncharted on a train, while casual gamers might end up balking at the high-price of making that possible. I’m a core gamer. I have an iPhone in my pocket and a PlayStation 3 at home, and I’ve never once dreamed of a device that could serve both masters. Without an extremely competitive price-point, the NGP could suffer for its lack of focus.

Sony NGP front

What the hell is PlayStation Suite?

Amidst the clamour surrounding the hardware, the announcement of PlayStation Suite somehow got lost. Shame, because it is arguably a far more exciting prospect for both Sony and the average consumer.

At its core, PlayStation Suite will be the first time Sony has made PlayStation content available on an open platform. It will be available to owners of the NGP or any Android mobile device, and with Android growing in popularity all the time the potential market is huge. This means PS one era games on your phone, with Sony providing full support to developers interested in converting their games for the service. Content will be sold through a dedicated store on the Android OS, and the partnership will also make Android games available for the NGP.

In theory, this means you could play Angry Birds on the NGP, Final Fantasy VII on an Android phone, and vice versa. For me, the thinking behind the NGP is questionable, but I have no reservations about PlayStation Suite. The simple fact is that, in the world of videogames, Sony’s most valuable asset is the PlayStation brand, and this initiative uses it in the best possible way.