Fast innovation lets PC catch up with consoles

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With the new Sony PlayStation 3 in short supply, there may be only one option left for parents seeking the latest in video game performance for their children this Christmas: buy them a PC.

The plain old computer may seem unfashionable and slow beside the sleek black PS3, the most powerful games console ever made, but its image is being transformed by the latest technology and designs.

At the same time, next-generation consoles are also undergoing an image change as they gain the power to perform extra functions such as surfing the web.

For consumers, perceptions that the PC and the console perform very different functions will soon be challenged, and their buying decisions could become a matter of either/or, rather than feeling they need both machines.

The new era of competition between the console and the PC began last month.

As the PS3 and Nintendo’s Wii were launched, chipmakers Intel and AMD introduced processors with four cores or “brains” for PCs aimed at “extreme gamers”.

At the same time, Nvidia, the graphics chipmaker, launched two processors it claimed would “transform the PC into the definitive gaming platform”.

Normally, games consoles lead PCs in performance when they are launched and are then overtaken towards the middle of the five-year cycle between generations.

But a faster rhythm of innovation in the PC industry means that this time round computers are starting on an equal footing with the latest consoles.

The PlayStation 3 still beats PCs in raw processing power, with nine brains inside its revolutionary Cell processor. But next year will see the advent of eight-core processors in gaming PCs, which already have superior storage and memory capabilities.

Game developers have yet to fully exploit the power of the new machines. Only three PS3 games – NBA ’07, a basketball game, Marvel Ultimate Alliance and the driving challenge Ridge Racer 7 – have been launched that boast its “full HD [high-definition]” capabilities. So far there are no games that yet take advantage of PC quad-core processors.

“We are at a point right now where there is a surplus of computer performance,” says Jon Peddie, a multi-media semiconductor analyst. But he says developers are fast catching up and learning to take advantage of the new consoles’ processing power.

“In Europe, there are 50 games under development that do take advantage of multi-processing.”

Meanwhile, Intel, AMD and Nvidia are emphasising that extreme PCs allow users to do far more than gaming.

Pat Moorhead, AMD’s vice-president of advanced marketing, says: “We are calling it megatasking, we see [the gaming] enthusiast running four or five different things at once that really hit the system hard.”

This could mean playing a game on one screen, while burning a DVD, downloading a high-definition movie and conducting an internet phone call on another.

Though such gamers represent only a specialist corner of the computer market, their usage is seen as an indicator of future mainstream trends.

Randy Stude, director of Intel’s gaming programme, says: “Enthusiast gamers are only around 8 per cent of the PC market but they are classic ‘sneezers’ – they like to infect others with their ideas.”

But while the specifications of consoles and PCs may be increasingly comparable, prices currently are not.

Extreme gamers can pay up to $10,000 (€7,600, £5,100) for exotically painted machines supplied by specialist assemblers such as Alienware, Falcon Northwest and Voodoo.

At $599, the premium version of the PS3 may seem a bargain in comparison, particularly as it features the new Blu-ray drive, enabling games in the highest definition and greatest complexity owing to its discs’ larger storage capacity.

Sony has also included a web browser in the PS3 and added built-in wireless networking, which enables easy internet connectivity. With a keyboard accessory, gamers could use it much like a PC in accessing web-based applications.

The PS3’s 60-gigabyte hard drive, along with connectivity that allows extra drives to be plugged in, also gives it the storage capacity to hold and play music and videos and show photos.

Even the less sophisticated Nintendo Wii, which retails in the US at $250, includes wireless internet hardware, features a web browser and handles photo display.

With demand far outstripping supply, availability of both consoles is limited this Christmas, so the PC may be the only next-generation choice left for some consumers.

But in 2007 consumers will have to weigh up what the Wii and PS3 consoles can offer.

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