La dolce vita

After months of speculation, intrigue and rumour, Sony finally revealed its Next Generation Portable last week, the PSP follow-up. Only it’s no longer called the NGP, it’s the PlayStation Vita. Vita means life in Latin…and a long and healthy one is exactly what Sony execs are hoping for with regard to this hugely-impressive piece of kit.

It’s been a rough couple of months at Sony HQ thanks to the hacking which compromised the bank details of more than 75million PlayStation Network users. Honestly, it wasn’t me. Now the company is looking to bounce back with a handheld that boasts similar power to its larger and more established cousin.

First, let’s run through the good. It’s got a five-inch OLED touch screen, wi-fi , Bluetooth and 3G, Sixaxis controls and front and rear-facing cameras. The publishers are all on board making titles for the launch and beyond, while the price has been set at £229 for the wi-fi model and around £269 for wi-fi and 3G. That’s excellent value considering the specification. No launch date has been set but my mole inside Sony suggests a Christmas release.

I spent a bit of time “Vita-inhand” at E3 and can report it feels similar to the original PSP, only with a massive screen and a pair of touchpads on the back. There are also a couple of analogue sticks as well as a D-Pad. It was only a glimpse and further hands-on will be required to test out the full functionality, especially the social networking side. However, almost everyone in attendance agreed it looked a very, very strong proposition. The problem now facing Sony is this: will anyone buy it?

Smart phones and tablets have eaten away at the handheld market to such an extent that commentators are questioning whether they have a future. You need only look to Japanese rival Nintendo to see that all’s not well with the handheld market. The 3DS launched in March to great global fanfare. The technology was impressive, the games were there and the price, around £210, wasn’t too bad. Yet no one has bought it. Sales figures have not been released but there are mutterings the machine is in trouble.

Last week I had a beer with an employee of one of the third party publishers who released a launch title for the 3DS. He confirmed the handheld is simply not moving off the shelves. That doesn’t mean the Vita will similarly struggle but the novelty of owning a handheld seems to have been eroded by the phone/tablet invasion, so much so that Sony must be worried.

We wait and see. It’s not all bad news for Nintendo, though. Last week they unveiled the Wii 2, now officially known as the Wii U. I didn’t manage to get my hands on one as the queue ran to several hours and was made up of over-excited American teens, each one sporting a pair of large trousers and a lobotomised grin. I just couldn’t face it. What I can report is that the Wii U is a more powerful version of the original Wii and comes with an iPad-sized controller that includes a screen.

It’s utterly new, allowing you to play with or without a TV set, as well as using both the controller and TV in tandem. They had some very basic games on show but the possibilities for the new controller are massive thanks to its six-inch touch screen, camera, microphone, speakers, gyroscope and accelerometer.

It’ll be months before the full capacity of the Wii U is unveiled and longer still before it hits the shops – 2012 is the latest word on the console’s release. Still, it could prove as revolutionary as the original Wii, changing not only the industry but the way we all play games.

This first appeared in The Daily Star SundayThe original article can be found here.

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Mitt, Michele and the pizza to go…

The race for the 2012 Republican nomination got underway last night as the big hitters of the GOP took part in a CCN-organised debate in New Hampshire. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann provided the sparring, giving snapshot answers on questions ranging from the economy to abortion to Libya. As is the form in the US, actual debate proved rare, with the emphasis on providing pithy, coherent sentences and, more importantly, avoiding mistakes. Past campaigns have fallen foul of the faux pas. As such, each candidate took their place at the podium hostage to a potential knock-out blunder.

Fortunately, the broadcast ended without gaffe, slip-up or bungle. The winners and losers, however, were clear. Former Massachusetts governor and early frontrunner Mitt Romney consolidated his position with a presidential performance that had as much to do with his own assurance as it had with his opponents’ failure to land a glove. Going after the frontrunner offers the lesser-known candidates a chance to improve their profile. Instead, there was deference, most strikingly from Tim Pawlenty. The Minnesota Governor had attacked Romney on the Sunday talk shows over his “socialised” healthcare system in Massachusetts, drawing a parallel between that and the much-despised Obamacare. The chair offered Pawlenty the chance to confront Romney to his face. Romney glared, Pawlenty demurred. Similarly, Rick Santorum, a strong pro-life candidate, failed to take the Mormon candidate to task over his past dalliance with the pro-choice agenda. The former Pennsylvania senator remained a peripheral figure throughout much of the evening.

The unexpected beneficiary of the debate was Newt Gingrich. The portly former speaker looked like Elvis circa ‘77 and, on the back of a mass resignation by his campaign staff this weekend it appeared the thrice-married family values candidate was simply there to make up the numbers. On the contrary, he provided a performance of bluster and charisma, as well as offering a surprisingly nuanced argument when it came to immigration.

The one unsavoury moment for Gingritch came courtesy of Herman Cain. When asked to defend his recent assertion that he wouldn’t hire a Muslim to work in his administration, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO delivered a slice of verbal confusion that concluded with potential Muslim applicants being subjected to an interview to prove their allegiance to old Glory. Having watched Herman descend slowly into a hole, Gingritch duly followed with a rant that seemingly justified loyalty tests for US citizens. A whiff of Joe McCarthy, or at least that of his drink-sodden corpse, wafted through the auditorium. It was not a conversation that reached out to the moderate arm of the party, let alone any wavering Democrats. Cain, who in a previous debate hosted by Fox News had emerged the unlikely victor, looked anything but presidential. When asked for political analysis on Libya, he turned to his family for inspiration. “To paraphrase my grandmother… it’s a mess.” Not exactly Robert Fisk. The Georgia businessman did look assured on one question – whether he preferred “deep crust or thin?”

Ron Paul trotted out his usual isolationist rhetoric and even parodied himself with a few quips about The Federal Reserve, his default topic. He’s a game old goose, the congressman who enjoys huge popular support throughout the college campuses. His idealism, particularly in regards to the constitution, was in contrast with the more prosaic offerings from the other candidates. He is always enjoyable to watch and one of the most interesting players on the American political stage, but as always his brand of Libertarianism provided nothing more than a sideshow, and the Texas congressman will no doubt remain a fringe figure within US conservatism.

Another character on the periphery, Michele Bachmann, does appear to have come out of the debate with increased standing, offering up several forceful points that would have no doubt appealed to the grassroots and her Tea Party faithful. She’s got a chequered past, pronouncing views on evolution 100-years out of date, as well as helping to fan the “death panel” propaganda during the Obamacare debate. Her thoughts on homosexuality are a matter of record. However, there’s no denying that she has a large and growing fan-base, while the event offered her the chance to present a coherent, albeit hard-right message, while standing alongside some of the big players within the Republican establishment. Comparisons with Sarah Palin are inevitable, but the gulf between the two is clear. Bachmann isn’t Palin-light – they share many views – but the Minnesota congresswoman is far better prepared and far more articulate, delivering a consistent narrative, the type that Palin found it so hard to enunciate during the 2008 campaign. Whereas Palin took refuge in naked provincialism and borderline racism, Bachmann managed to deliver her brand of ultra-conservatism without looking completely insane. There seems little point in the former Governor of Alaska throwing her black Cole Haan boots into the ring for 2012 while Bachmann’s in the running, though as one CNN pundit astutely pointed out, “Palin may yet play kingmaker”.

Each candidate managed to throw a few punches Obama’s way particularly with regards to the economy and rising unemployment. However, if the President was watching the debate, he would have done so sitting comfortably on Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite the frosty economic climate currently chilling the US, his lease on the White House looks secure for some years yet. The problem for the GOP remains winning Tea Party support alongside the more moderate Republicans. Could a Romney/Bachmann ticket unite the party’s increasingly disparate ranks? It seems like an unlikely marriage, but with US politics, just about anything is possible.

This first appeared in The IndependentThe original article can be found here.