The latest console war begins on Friday with the launch in the US of Sony’s Play-
Station 3, Sony’s answer to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 system, and Nintendo’s Wii machine, which will be launched in the US on Sunday.

Sony is betting big on the PS3. It is not just the most powerful (and expensive) video games console on the market, it is also designed to be much more than a gaming system.

The console is built around two key components – a new 3.2 gigahertz ‘Cell’ microprocessor designed by Toshiba and a Blu-ray high definition DVD disc player that enables users to enjoy both high-definition games and movies.

While most purchasers will probably choose the PS3 because of its shockingly real games graphics (all the way to sweat on the brow of basketball players) some will buy it because it represents the cheapest way to obtain a Blu-ray player.

At launch in the US (the European launch has been delayed until March because of Blu-ray laser component shortages) the PS3 comes in two versions. The basic model costs $500 and comes with an upgradable 20GB hard drive, wired Ethernet socket, Blu-ray drive, four USB 2.0 ports, and a HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) port.

The premium version costs $600 but it features a larger 60GB hard drive and adds built-in 802.11b/g wireless networking support, plus memory card readers slots for SD (secure digital), Compact Flash and Memory Stick cards.

With its sleek black case, the PS3 passes the living room “spouse test”, and the redesigned Sixaxis controller supplied with the system uses Bluetooth wireless technology so there are no cables draped across the floor.

The controller also features a motion-sensing system that “knows” when you turn or tilt the device and reacts accordingly. This makes playing a game such as NBA Live 07 – one of more than 20 PS3 games available at launch – much more fun.

My premium PS3 review unit arrived earlier this week, in time for me
to plug it into a 46-inch Sharp Aquos high-definition LCD television in my living room and take it for a spin.

When setting up, new owners may need to tweak their wired or wireless home network settings to accommodate the PS3, which needs an internet connection to check for software updates (and potentially to play online games). Once connected, the console automatically prompted me to select 1080p, the best setting for the HD TV.

Families and friends can set up multiple users on the PS3, complete with photos of individual users.

When you first insert a game in the Blu-ray drive, the system churns away as files are loaded on to the hard drive to speed up performance. Given the relative dearth of PS3-specific games at launch, the PS3 is fortunately compatible with most PlayStation and PS2 games as well as CDs and standard DVDs.

Games look spectacularly real on the PS3 – at a recent trade show in New York several passers by mistook NBA 07 for a real basketball match. However, I was most impressed with the performance of the PS3 as a Blu-ray film player. I watched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and was stunned by the image and audio quality.

Games enthusiasts may balk at the relatively high cost and complexity of the PS3, preferring instead the simplicity of Nintendo’s more modestly priced Wii.

What is certain is that the battle between Microsoft and Sony – and between HD DVD and Blu-ray high-definition DVD formats – is joined.

Children befriend the ugly Wii

The Nintendo Wii looked like an ugly white duckling next to the sleek black swan of Sony’s PlayStation 3 on our living room floor, where my children and their friends aged between eight and 14 sat, eager to put the latest video games consoles to the test, writes Chris Nuttall.

The Wii had as much charisma as an internet router and all the charm of an external CD-rom drive, which is what it most resembled. And yet the diminutive Wii represents out-of-the-box pure fun next to the PS3.

We were initially wowed by the sleek looks of the PS3 and its touch-sensitive controls but were less impressed by the immediate software update that needed to be installed and the hot air being blown out from the side of the machine as its revolutionary Cell processor warmed up.

In contrast, the Wii needed little more than to be plugged into the mains and the television to get it up and running. It comes with a disk containing games that take advantage of its motion-sensing controller, such as tennis and baseball.

By swinging the controller, you imitate a tennis stroke and – hopefully – connect with the ball. I took time to adjust but my children and friends soon got the hang of it. They particularly liked Excite Truck, a truck racing game where the controller could be held like a steering wheel.

In contrast, the PS3 sat idle for most of the time. We did play a battling ninja game and were impressed by the graphics, even though we only had standard connections to our non-high definition TV.

The graphics on the Wii were unimpressive by comparison, and the stick men we controlled in the sports games looked even more primitive than early Super Mario.

Both consoles had wireless connectivity to the internet, although this was only a feature in the premium $600 version of the PS3, again emphasising the value of the $250 Wii.

Overall, the Wii was the winner for the sheer game-playing enjoyment it provided for all the family through the controller.

However, the PS3 could well be a console that consumers grow into, as they acquire high-definition TVs, learn to set up wireless networks and value the sophisticated online services being offered by Sony.

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