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PLAYSTATION 3

PS3
PLAYSTATION 3:

The Questions: Price, Date, and… Online?

We know the basics about what hardware the PlayStation 3 uses and who’s working on it, but some of the more important questions remain unanswered. Questions about price and release date have reached fever pitch in recent weeks, and everyone still wonders how the machine will compare to the competition, particularly the already-released Xbox 360. Here’s what we can gather about some of the less-certain questions regarding the PS3.

Just How Powerful Is It?

While Sony has missed no opportunity to tout the potential of the Cell processor and RSX GPU, it still remains unclear just how powerful the PS3 will be, and how it will compare to the Xbox 360 (much less Nintendo’s even more mysterious Revolution). Sony claims the machine is 35 times more powerful than the PlayStation 2, and has implied that the machine may be capable of nearly twice the performance of the Xbox 360.

Conversely, many developers, including esteemed Metal Gear series creator Hideo Kojima, have commented that the difference in power between the PS3 and Xbox 360 is negligible. More recently, Sony Online Entertainment artist Josh Robinson was fired after comments in a blog stated “I’ve also talked with people on the technical side of the Xbox 360. The consistent comment I am hearing from people on my end is, ‘the Xbox 360 is better,’ […] They are saying that it is capable of just doing more.”

While the hard facts are still tough to nail down, the general consensus is that the PlayStation 3 is the most powerful of the three next-generation systems, although probably not by as much of a margin as Sony would like us to think. The arguments for the technical strengths of the PS3 go into CPU floating-point capabilities and the difficulties surrounding programming for parallel architectures, but the long and short of it is that whether or not the advantages of the PS3 are apparent will depend on developers’ ability to utilize the PlayStation 3’s unique architecture

All Right… How Much?

Right now, one of the biggest missing pieces in the PlayStation 3 puzzle is the price tag. In a January article, CNN Money suggested that their analysis pointed to a $499 price tag, which was reached by observing the projected costs of the hardware. In addition, the $499 price tag seemed to mesh with the opinions from a sampling of anonymous developers, who expect it to cost between $399 and $700. And while consoles generally don’t stray above the $299 mark (even the Xbox 360 came in a Core version that was only $299), just about everyone seems to agree that this is probably too optimistic. Even Sony Computer Entertainment president Ken Kutaragi has been quoted as saying “It’ll be expensive […] I’m aware that with all these technologies, the PS3 can’t be offered at a price that’s targeted towards households.”

Speculation about the price has kicked into overdrive recently, thanks to a report from analysts at Merrill Lynch that claim the PlayStation 3 could cost upwards of $800-900, and while consoles are often sold at a loss, if this is true Sony would be taking a tremendously huge hit to the pocketbook to sell PS3 systems for $400-500.

Okay, So When?

As previously mentioned, Sony has long maintained that the PlayStation 3 will be released in Spring ’06, and this is a target date they still claim to be aiming for, most likely for the console’s Japanese release. According to some, the U.S. release seems to be on track for Fall ’06, possibly even as early as September. However, these already suspect claims were thrown even more into doubt recently when analysts at Merrill Lynch claimed the PS3 may not be released until 2007, which have now been joined by recent PC Magazine reports raising questions about Sony’s ability to meet its schedule when the PS3’s final specs have yet to solidify, and these doubts have been echoed by other publications, such as Forbes.com, and The Washington Post, who observe that the uncertainty over the release date could even hurt game companies. This could also turn around and bite gamers, as a rush to meet a reasonable release date may see system shortages (although that’s really nothing new, is it?).

In any case, Sony’s increasingly unrealistic target release date is starting to make people lose confidence in Sony’s ability to have a successful launch for the PlayStation 3, and their refusal to address concerns with anything more than a blunt “we’re still on track for a Spring release” isn’t doing much to relieve people’s worries.

What About Online Functionality?

The big question revolving around Sony’s PS3 online strategy is just what they’ll do to compete with Microsoft’s very successful Xbox Live service. In the eyes of many gamers, Sony dropped the ball when it came to the PS2’s online functionality, and with the wildly successful implementation of Xbox Live features in the Xbox 360, it seems certain that Sony is watching this very closely.

It’s known that the PS3 will have a far more comprehensive online functionality than the PS2, including a yet-unnamed online service akin to Xbox Live, albeit apparently still continuing the PS2’s legacy as an “open platform” (with publishers maintaining their own servers), rather than Microsoft’s more hands-on approach. What remains a mystery are the juicy details: Will Sony charge users for a subscription? What should gamers expect to pay? Will players be able to download games a la Xbox Live Arcade (recent rumors say yes)? Even information developers have received seems to be a bit uneven.

Whatever the case may be, Sony is definitely doing its homework – in fact, it’s been headhunting people from Microsoft’s Xbox Live team. Mike Kavallierou, a director for Sony’s networking team, comes from Microsoft and spent two and a half years working on Xbox Live.

What’s With the HDD?

While the PlayStation 2 did receive an add-on hard drive, it was supported by very few titles and was prohibitively expensive, and many saw it as a failure. Not to be discouraged, Sony is redoubling their efforts and has made it clear that the hard drive will play a much larger role on the PS3. However, while Sony’s drive to correct past mistakes is clear, just what form the hard drive will come in is still unknown.

It’s still unknown whether the hard drive will be included with the system, and size estimates range anywhere from 20GB to 200GB. Ken Kutaragi has specifically made mention of 80GB and 120GB sizes, but nothing has been finalized just yet. Recently, questions have been raised as to whether Sony would follow Microsoft’s lead and release two versions of the PS3- one with a HDD and one without. However, Sony VP Phil Harrison has said he believes it is unlikely this will happen, although there is still the possibility that people will have the opportunity to upgrade their PS3s later.

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