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So you're looking for a handheld gaming console, something small and sleek with decent battery life and good games… but what do you go for? There's more choice out there than you probably realise, especially with some of the new ‘gaming' phones coming onto the market.
So to help you avoid making a potentially expensive mistake, we're going to give you a quick run-down of who does what, what it does, how well it does it and any extra bells and whistles you might see on it… Sounds confusing? Nah, by the time you've finished reading this you'll know your PSP from your DS and be able to spot a QD from a hundred paces!
A fair few years ago there was a brief flurry of action in the handheld market with Atari and Sega slugging out for supremacy. But the blight of all handhelds, battery life, saw both their efforts drinking juice like a man lost in the Sahara and with no high power lithium batteries available at a reasonable price, the consoles themselves were roughly the size and weight of a housebrick…
Then, from nowhere, came the Nintendo GameBoy which totally dominated the market so completely as to make all other consoles both obsolete and hopelessly outclassed. Sure, it only had the two colours (green and black) and crappy sound but what it did have was ruggedness, simplicity and superbly playable games. It could even be said that a Russian doctor's time waster of a game, Tetris, made the GameBoy the success it still is today.
But technology moves on and though the GameBoy underwent several revisions, (the GameBoy Colour, GameBoy Advance, GameBoy SP and GameBoy Micro), the console would eventually be superseded by technically superior consoles. Better screens, longer battery lives and other technologies have seen handhelds become smaller, more powerful and more feature rich than before so while the GameBoy is still a good handheld, it's is outclassed by the latest consoles
The market, while by no means being saturated, still offers a large array of features such as WiFi game sharing, WiFi internet access and multiplayer, media file playback, chat rooms, picture viewing, GPS navigation and phone calls to list just a few! Sadly, no single handheld covers all of these in one hit, so making a buying choice is going to be tricky…
So the handheld market can be divided into four main players, some bigger than others but all worth looking at and each offering something different from the others that make their console stand out.
Sony PlayStation Portable
Right then, let's kick off with the big one, the PlayStation Portable, more popularly known as the PSP. This bit of gaming genius covers pretty much all the gaming bases and has easily the largest screen on offer from any handheld currently on the market.
The Sony PSP has to be one of the top contenders for handheld gaming, even if you ignore all its other features. It purportedly has the same processing and graphics power as the original PlayStation home games console, but squeezes all of that into a console just 17cm long and 7cm wide. With a high quality screen of just over 9cm by 5cm it shows off games to their fullest potential, giving you a near widescreen style gaming experience. Though only recently released in the UK , the PSP has been on the market globally for nearly a year and as such already has a large collection of games easily available covering every genre.
In addition to gaming, the PSP has a wealth of other features that make it an attractive proposition. First, using proprietary technology called UMD, (Universal Media Disk), Sony have been able to squeeze full length movies onto the disks, allowing you to enjoy your favourite films wherever you are. The PSP also has a slot for a Sony MemoryStick, and with third party software you can re-encode movies from your PC onto the MemoryStick for playback later too.
The MemoryStick will also hold your pictures, either taken with a Sony camera straight onto the MemoryStick or downloaded from your PC as well as music too. Even the basic PSP pack comes complete with earphones and inline remote, so your PSP can be your MP3 player as well, though the size of the MemoryStick (even separately bought, larger sizes) does severely limit the size of your collection compared to a dedicated MP3 player.
In the latest versions of the PSP, the firmware (the software that controls the PSP itself), has been updated to allow you to hook up to local WiFi hotspots for full internet access. ‘Click browsing' the web on a PSP is easy though even the fastest pages will load quite slowly as the PSP's limited screen width is not supported by just about every page on the web. Sony have built a PSP friendly site though, which is the default homepage and easily navigable.
The PSP is the console for the gamer who fancies a bit of the action that a PlayStation used to provide. If you think along those lines, you've got a good idea of how the gaming in a PSP will be. Movie playback is excellent with the low resolution of the screen having no detrimental effects on image quality at all and it sure helps to while away the hours on a boring plane flight or train journey. Once ‘run in' the battery life of roughly 4-6 hours should just about cover most trips too.
The Nintendo DS
Nintendo's console was out in the UK way before the PSP and has enjoyed huge success, particularly with the younger gamer. At nearly £100 cheaper than the PSP, it's a more attractive console price-wise but offers less in the way of features. The build quality of the DS, whilst be no means poor, does contrast sharply with the PSP and suggests the DS is more of a ‘toy' item, aimed at the younger gamer.
Certainly, features of the DS squarely place it in the ‘playground toy' area with its WiFi connection being set-up to find other nearby units and create chat rooms for players to pass messages. But this feature has now been expanded so that the WiFi can be used for multiplayer gaming not only with local machine, but through a WiFi hotspot with other players over the internet too.
Unique amongst the current generation of handhelds is the DS's twin screen layout and clamshell design. Whilst the top screen is just a standard colour LCD, the bottom screen is what makes the DS unique. The bottom screen is touch sensitive, allowing you to use a stylus to write messages in the chatrooms freehand or use an onscreen keyboard, or use the screen for various functions within games.
Nintendo have a history of breaking new ground with their consoles and controllers and the DS is just the latest in a long line of innovative products. What we've yet to see though is developers making real use of that touchscreen. A few headline games when the DS was released focused on the touchscreen but since then few games have made good use of it. Nintendogs, released in November, has to be the ‘killer app' for the DS at this time, with superb graphics and full utilisation of all the DS's features including the touchscreen and microphone.
The DS enjoys a massive back catalogue games thanks to its backward compatibility with GameBoy Advance cartridges though of course these only play as GBA games and don't take advantage of any of the DS's features. Comparing the PSP's graphical processing power with the DS shows the PSP as winning easily. The DS just doesn't seem to be able to duplicate complex 3D scenery nearly as well as the PSP can but while this might be a problem to some, it just means developers need to work a bit harder when coding for the DS. Evidence of what the DS is able to do can be seen in the Metroid: Hunter demo that comes with all new DS consoles. On the strength of the demo alone, Metroid: Hunter could be reason enough to get a DS…
The Gizmondo is a Windows CE based handheld that first appeared in the UK back in March 2005. As handhelds go, it's as feature-packed as the PSP and would, at first glance, appear to be a bit of a bargain. After all, it does MMS, SMS, takes photos, supports MPEG 4 and MP3 playback through Windows Media Player 9 and even does GPS navigation!
But what good is a games console if there's nothing much worth playing and that's where the Gizmondo, at this point in time, falls down. Sure, the GPS navigation feature is very handy and there's even a version of the Gizmondo for sale that focuses just on this, but as a gaming handheld, the Gizmondo comes u short in the software stakes.
The basic idea of the Gizmondo is sound enough and looking at feature sets and technical specs make it appear to be a bit of a bargain, but the actual gaming side of things falls short of what the unit can do. For example, Colors, a turf war ‘gangsta stylee' shooter is a great concept in being able to take on other players and win ‘real life' territory calculated through the units GPS ability… but delays in getting the game out and the handhelds relatively poor uptake by consumers means you'll rarely get a game against anyone other than the AI.
With the price of dedicated GPS systems falling all the time, (a Tom-Tom system can be bought for roughly GBP£150 more), the appeal of the Gizmondo is really only o those who fancy a bit of everything but don't want to pay out for it. As a cheap way to get a bit of gaming, some movie and MP3 playback and some GPS whilst being able to text your mates, the Gizmondo is worth a look. But as we've all already got a mobile phone capable of MMS, SMS and pictures, your money is better spent on the better supported Nintendo DS or the more powerful PSP.
The Nokia N-Gage QD
In contrast to the Gizmondo, which was a handheld with some mobile phone abilities, the Nokia N-Gage QD is a phone with gaming abilities. Looking very similar in shape to the GameBoy Advance, but a bit smaller, the QD overcomes the original N-Gage flaw of having to take the battery to change the game but having a small slot for the memory card based game to pop in.
Games support for the QD is not too bad, but you'll find yourself having to pop into places like Carphone Warehouse to get them and they usually have a limited selection on offer. The QD should only be considered if you REALLY don't want to be carrying around a gaming console and a phone. But for the sake of not having to carry two bits of kits about, you'd be turning your back on some much better gaming than the QD alone can provide.
The 3D gaming phones
Coming to the UK very soon are a new generation of phones with little bits of silicon inside them designed with the nothing but powering games in mind. Unlike the QD, these will look like your ordinary flip phone or open up lengthways like the DS, and will be aimed at the gamer who wants a phone to do as much as possible.
These phones aren't in the market to compete with the dedicated handheld consoles, but to compete in the phone market for your money. Many of these phones are now as powerful as the Amiga and Atari home computers of the 1980's, if not more so, and are capable of playing fair games of Quake or Doom. These new generation phones are intended for the gamer who wants something to have a crack on should he not have his PSP or DS to hand and they'll soon start to offer multiplayer gaming either over Bluetooth or via GPRS as well as a wealth of other features set to further blur the ground between a handheld console and a mobile phone… but as usual, it's probably worth hanging on to see what happens before you make any buying decisions.