The rule of thumbs

There's a new contender to rival Nintendo and Sony in the hand-held arena. Rebecca Armstrong reports on the battle to win the hearts - and thumbs - of Britain's gamers

War has been declared on the thumbs of tech-savvy consumers. 2005 may be the year of the rooster, but it's also the year of something a lot more technologically advanced - the hand-held games console. The games industry in the UK is the third biggest in the world, worth more than £2bn a year. The games market is dominated by Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, and a new release from any of them is enough to make the most cynical computer-gamer rush out to get their hands on the latest product.

War has been declared on the thumbs of tech-savvy consumers. 2005 may be the year of the rooster, but it's also the year of something a lot more technologically advanced - the hand-held games console. The games industry in the UK is the third biggest in the world, worth more than £2bn a year. The games market is dominated by Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, and a new release from any of them is enough to make the most cynical computer-gamer rush out to get their hands on the latest product.

While Microsoft has bowed out of the hand-held war, Sony and Nintendo are going head to head against each other and an unknown from the UK, Gizmondo. Each of these companies has created new, hand-held games consoles to hit the shops this year.

So why is the industry so obsessed with hand-helds? Johnny Minkley, the editor of MCV, the games industry trade magazine, says: "It's because this year is a transition period - everyone is waiting for next generation hardware [new consoles like the PlayStation 3]. There's a growing market for hand-helds because people have to wait until the end of the year for new consoles."

Nintendo has always led the market in hand-helds with the GameBoy, a product that has sold more than 150 million in the past 15 years. But its position is not as secure as it once was. Nintendo has launched the first of 2005's hand-helds, the Dual Screen (DS), a clam-shell device that arrived in the UK earlier this month. While the technology behind the GameBoy has remained similar since its launch in 1989, the DS is a showcase for innovation. As its name suggests, the DS consists of two screens, one of which shows the game which can be controlled either by buttons or by touching the second screen. Games can be controlled by blowing on the touch-sensitive screen, or shouting into an integrated microphone. The DS can send and receive messages and pictures, plus it has wireless communication with other DS units within a 10-metre radius, allowing up to 15 players to compete using one copy of a game. At £99, with games costing £30, it's the cheapest of this year's hand-helds and its battery life (10 hours between charges) is the best.

The DS is Nintendo's attempt to stay at the top of the portable gaming market, despite the imminent launch of the highly anticipated Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP). David Yarnton, Nintendo's UK managing director, seems unfazed. "The Nintendo DS is unique," he says. "No other console can match it. We believe that that the current activity in the hand-held sector will grow the market as a whole." The sales figures seem to back up Yarnton's confidence. Within two days of its release in the UK, 87,000 DSs had been sold. In terms of games, the DS launched with a line-up of 15, including the hugely popular Super Mario and Metroid Prime titles. With another 130 games in production, Nintendo looks likely to hold its own, despite complaints from some that the DS is chunky and unattractive.

The next attempt to win the nation's thumbs comes from a newcomer. The Gizmondo is developed and created by Tiger Telematics, a British company set up in the late Nineties. Described by one reviewer as an "ugly potato", the Gizmondo doesn't have the PSP's sleek good looks, but is more streamlined in design than the DS. While Nintendo are content to make gaming their main concern, the people behind Gizmondo have decided that convergence is their watchword. As well as playing games on its 2.8in LCD screen, the Gizmondo handles MP3 music and MPeg 4 movie files, and comes complete with a digital camera, Global Positioning software, and GPRS and Bluetooth connectivity for e-mail, downloads and wireless multi- player gaming. SD cards are used to store and transfer data, and there's a USB connection.

Jamie Robertson, Gizmondo's commercial director, says that while the Gizmondo has six key features, the one that they'll be concentrating on in the next few months is gaming. "What we want to do first of all is hit the market in terms of the trend-setters, early adopters and innovators, and the easiest way to do that is in the gaming category." But many games industry insiders feel that the Gizmondo, as a new name in the hardware arena, needs to get things very right to be able to stand a chance in a tough market.

Adam Vaughn, the managing editor of technology magazine Stuff, says: "Because they're British, a lot of the team really want them to do well, and on paper [the Gizmondo] sounds amazing, but the sad thing is it doesn't live up to that sort of promise in reality." Despite being positioned as a games console, there is a distinct lack of launch titles. "They were only going to have two games on sale this weekend, which is rubbish compared with the DS," Vaughn says. Robertson feels that comparison with the Japanese giants is unfair. "My biggest frustration is that you have Sony and Nintendo, and everyone's pitching you up against them," he says. "We're a British company, we have a fantastic product, so I'd like to see less scepticism in the gaming market about new players." At £229, the Gizmondo is the most expensive hand-held, and games are priced at £9.99, £19.99, and £29.99. The battery life depends on what function you use - it lasts about four hours between charges when gaming and three hours when watching movie playback.

Sony's PSP is the console that is most likely to win the hearts, and hands, of Britain's gamers. It is yet to be released in the UK, despite being voted Stuff magazine's gadget of the year. It was due to be launched by the end of March, but it was announced last week that the PSP will be delayed. Even with a distant release date, the PSP is being billed by Sony as the Walkman of the 21st century. So why does the PSP seem set to storm the barricades? For a start, it's nearly as powerful as its big brother, the PlayStation 2, and it boasts a 4.3in wide screen that displays full colour. It has USB 2.0, and 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless LAN, enabling gamers to connect to the internet and play online via a wireless network. Like the DS, up to 15 players in one area can compete. It's sleek, the controls are familiar to PlayStation owners and it has the backing of more than 100 games publishers and developers, drawn to Sony's resources and proven track record. The price is yet to be confirmed, but will be between £130 and £200, with games costing about £40 and battery life should come in at six hours between charges.

Phil Harrison, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's vice-president of development, says that the reason for the PSP becoming the gaming holy grail is simple. "PSP will have the same impact on mobile entertainment as the PlayStation had on television-based gaming," he says. "It will make something that was specialist and niche legitimate and global."

So, all that is left to do is to is choose your weapon and let battle commence.

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