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E3 Roundup: Sony PlayStation 3

At an Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) preshow press conference in Los Angeles on Monday, Sony threw down a challenge to Microsoft: Put up or shut up. According to company officials, Sony's upcoming PlayStation 3 video game console is at least twice as powerful as Microsoft's Xbox 360. And although the PlayStation 3 won't ship until about six months after the Xbox 360 ships, Sony is confident that the new system has what it takes to maintain the company's lead in the video game market.

There's a lot at stake for Sony. The company has sold 33 million PlayStation 2 consoles in the United States, and a whopping 191 million PlayStation 2 game titles worldwide, but it's recently begun losing some ground to the Xbox, which has sold 13.2 million units in the United States. The Xbox, already bolstered by its successful Xbox Live online game service, also recently drew new interest as Microsoft began leaking details about its upcoming successor, the Xbox 360. And with a 6-month lead on the next-generation consoles, some analysts believe Microsoft will overtake Sony or at least battle it to a draw.

Monday night, Sony executives made credible claims to refute those opinions. The PlayStation 3 will be driven by a 3.2GHz Cell processor that allegedly processes data twice as fast as the 3.2GHz PowerPC processor that the Xbox 360 uses. Its NVIDIA-based graphics processor will output at the highest possible HDTV resolution, known as 1080p—a capability the Xbox 360 lacks. (I should note, however, that the PlayStation 3, unlike the Xbox 360, won't require developers to write games in high definition. Therefore, the PlayStation 3 will likely have more games more quickly than the Xbox 360, albeit of lower graphical quality.)

Like the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 will utilize wireless controllers, although the PlayStation 3 controllers use Bluetooth technology. The controllers are sharp looking and boomerang shaped, quite a departure from past PlayStation controllers.

The PlayStation 3's Blu-Ray optical drive will support PlayStation 3 games and Blu-Ray movies, of course, but also DVD movies and optical formats such as CD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD-ROM, DVD-R, and DVD+R. The PlayStation 3 will include a removable 2.5" 20GB hard disk and feature MemoryStick Duo, Secure Digital (SD), and CompactFlash (CF) slots, as well as six USB 2.0 ports. It will sport 256MB of RAM, half that of the Xbox 360. On the other hand, the PlayStation 3's graphics processor will include 512MB of dedicated RAM and will be more powerful than two PC-based GeForce 6800 Ultra video cards. Folks, that's over $1000 worth of graphical power.

The PlayStation 3's biggest asset, however, can't be expressed numerically: The console will be fully backward-compatible with all PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 games, an important feature that will prove popular with the masses of existing PlayStation 2 owners.

Like the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 will be marketed as more than just a video game machine. The unit will sport video-chat functionality via an optional HD video camera that works over IP, and the unit will play digital photo slideshows, music, and videos. Sony says it's working on an online service to compete with Xbox Live, making the PlayStation 3 an "always on, always connected" device.

That last bit is interesting, because it's emblematic of Sony's approach with the PlayStation 3. On an almost point-by-point basis, the company seems concerned to match or exceed what Microsoft is doing with the Xbox 360. From the wireless controllers, removable hard disks, native HD support, online service, and more, it's pretty clear that Microsoft has Sony running scared. It's a little early to declare a winner, but I find it interesting that Sony is so concerned with a competitor it's currently outselling three to one.

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