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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Apple’s intent?

For UK technophiles, today is a red-letter day with the launch of two new pieces of hardware. The iPad 2, the follow-up to the now iconic tablet, will go on sale in Apple Stores around the country, while gamers will be eager to get their hands on Nintendo’s 3DS, a new version of the manufacturer’s big-selling handheld console.

Although similar to the first iPad, Apple’s new machine boasts greatly improved processing speed and a much slimmer casing, as well as two cameras for video conferencing. It will be available in 16, 32 and 64GB variants, as well as Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi and 3G. The price for a basic version of the iPad 2 (16GB and Wi-Fi) is £399, the same as the current iPad, with the most expensive version (64GB, Wi-Fi and 3G) priced at £659.

Nintendo’s new machine represents a far greater leap from its predecessor, with the 3DS offering three-dimensional visuals without the need for 3D glasses. This means the on-screen action now has genuine depth, alongside a raft of new features, including a 3D camera for taking pictures, Wi-Fi connectivity and the promise of 3D content via broadcasters such as Sky and Eurosport.

Nintendo recommended a retail price of £229, however, retailers keen to cash in on the inevitable demand have slowly pushed the price down since January, with Morrisons currently offering the machine on pre-order for £187.

DS consoles have sold in excess of 140million units worldwide since its first incarnation back in 2004, making it the second most popular most popular gaming console ever launched just behind Sony’s PlayStation 2 (150million). Apple too has done some business with the first iPad shifting more than 15million units worldwide since it launched in April last year. However, both manufacturers have faced uncertainty leading up to the launch due to a proliferation of rival tablets for Apple and the popularity of game-capable smart phones for Nintendo.

According to Matt Hill, Deputy Editor of T3 Magazine, smart phones represent a serious threat to the 3DS, especially as games on the phones are so much cheaper than the £20 to £30 consumers will have to pay for a 3DS title. “Compare the 3DS launch title Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition, which retails at £30, with Super Street Fighter IV on the iPhone and iPod Touch, which retails at £5.99. The former is a much better gaming experience, but is it 400 per cent better?”

A glasses-free 3D experience is the console’s big selling point but other manufacturers are not far behind with LG due to launch the similarly auto stereoscopic 3D-enabled Optimus mobile handset next month. Nintendo are quick to point out that pre-order sales for the 3DS have trumped those for any previous launch, suggesting to them that the competition from phones is negligible.

According to James Honeywell, a marketing Manager for Nintendo, smart phones are very different products from the 3DS.

“The strength that we have is the quality of the software. You can’t get the kind of software we’re offering on any other device. That’s what drove consumers to buy the original DS.”

He does, however, admit that pre-orders have exceeded all expectations “The numbers have been very surprising. We will have sold around 120,000 3DS units in theUKbefore it even launches.”

For perspective, the Wii sold 60,000 on pre-order while the DSi (the 3DS’s forerunner) sold 80,000. The price war between retailers is one possible explanation for the pre-order bonanza. As Honeywell states: “we expected some movement in the price, but no the steady decrease from the initial announcement in January. Ultimately it’s great for the consumer.” Yet there’s also the huge inherent appeal of a new piece of technology, especially one so targeted at the young.

The iPad 2 is a slightly different proposition. Though it does offer gaming, alongside myriad other uses, it is a machine targeted an older demographic, which is reflected in the price. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a similar “shiny” appeal as the 3DS, but those who bought the first iPad might not be as willing to part with another £400 for a bit more speed.

For Hill this remains the problem for the iPad 2: “The dual-core processor is much quicker and it’s aesthetically a much nicer machine, but that’s about it. So it depends how much consumers really need to have the newest, most beautiful gadget around.”

Some commentators have suggested that Apple is launching on the same day as the 3DS to show their intent within the gaming market, but for Hill this doesn’t make sense. “It’s a coincidence, nothing more”. Honeywell disagrees. “It’s near to the end of the financial year. It’s a good time to launch a product.”

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