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Playstation 3

Even by the considerable standards of past next-generation consoles, the Sony PlayStation 3 has been subject to almost ludicrous levels of prerelease hype and hyperbole. Credit for much of the frenzy goes to Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA) president Ken Kutaragi, whose incendiary sound bites have kept Internet technology sites busy since the console was unveiled during a prerenderific press conference at this year's E3 show. Here, we'll take a look at the few details we know for sure about this undeniably powerful console, as well as the scads of rumors that have yet to be confirmed.

Confirmed: what we know
Specs: The PlayStation 3 will be the first commercial device powered by the ballyhooed Cell processor, a 3.2GHz chip that Sony developed with help from IBM and Toshiba. But it's not the Cell's clock speed that has Kutaragi billing his console as an "entertainment supercomputer"--it's the chip's seven synergistic processing elements (SPEs), which work in parallel to churn out a staggering 218 gigaflops, or 218 billion floating point operations per second. In practice, that should make the PS3 especially adept at such processor-intensive activities as upconverting video and emulating past PlayStation games. Which leads us to...

Backward compatibility: This was one of the first PlayStation 3 features to be confirmed, when the ever-loquacious Ken Kutaragi promised it way back in 2003. So whether this is something that Sony planned all along or a feature it scrambled to implement once Kutaragi bragged about it, the result is the same: you'll be able to play your PlayStation and PlayStation 2 games, right out of the box, on the PlayStation 3. On the minus side, the PS3's backward compatibility will not extend to hardware, so you won't be able to access your saved games unless someone figures out a way to transfer data from a PS2 memory card to the PS3's Memory Stick Duo.

Graphics hardware: Remember how the Cell processor turns 218 billion flops? Well, the PlayStation 3's graphical processing unit (GPU) will crank out 1.8 trillion of them. Dubbed the RSX (short for reality synthesizer), this GPU has a 550MHz clock and pushes its billions of pixels through dual HDMI ports, which output a high-definition signal at up to 1080p. At E3, Jen-Hsun Huang from Nvidia--which designed the RSX for Sony--claimed that the RSX was as powerful as two Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra cards, which is perhaps one reason that speculation on the PS3's price tag has reached, at last count, the stratosphere.

Hard drive: One of the latest details to be confirmed for the PS3 was that the console's hard drive will be an optional accessory instead of an out-of-the-box feature; Ken Kutaragi cleverly spun the omission in Sony's favor by rationalizing that "no matter how much [space] we put in it, it won't be enough." When the hard drive does arrive, it'll carry a Linux-based operating system, which we imagine will coordinate the console's nongaming capabilities.

Blu-ray: Surprise! Sony's next-generation console will use the company's own Blu-ray discs to store high-definition content for games. That means PS3 owners will be getting a "free" Blu-ray player so that they can enjoy movies in full high-definition once they become available. The PS3 will also play standard CDs and DVDs, though it won't accept competing HD-DVD discs. While the Blu-ray format gives the PS3 a leg up on the Microsoft's Xbox 360 (which will store its games on standard DVDs), the future-friendly decision will be yet another excuse to drive up its price.

Peripherals: Like the Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Revolution, the PS3 supports multiple wireless controllers. Sony gets props for supporting up to seven simultaneous gamepads, as well as for using the Bluetooth wireless standard. By comparison, Microsoft's console supports only four controllers and uses proprietary wireless transmission, while Nintendo's controllers still lack a final design.

Rumor and speculation: what we don't know
Price: A cutting-edge processor, a GPU twice as powerful as anything you can get in a gaming PC, and next-generation media storage--what's wrong with this picture? Nothing, until you realize that somebody has to pay for it. Not to trot out Kutaragi again, but this is one area where he's been particularly vocal, even for him. Suffice it to say, when the president of SCEA says that consumers will "want to work more hours" to buy a PlayStation 3, the console's going to be expensive. The only question is how much, and speculation has run from a little less than $400 to past the $500 mark. Also, fancy graphics mean long development cycles, and as development costs increase, so do the costs of games; we wouldn't be surprised to see many PS3 titles exceeding $60 at launch, not to mention the HDTV you'll need to fully harness the console's high-def capabilities. When all's said and done, we could be looking at the first console in history with its own structured financing program.

Release date: This is another big question mark. While Sony is officially sticking to the spring 2006 launch date it announced at E3, some analysts have speculated that under certain conditions, the console could remain behind glass until 2007. Nobody wants to see that kind of delay, although perhaps by then our currency will have inflated to the point that the console somehow becomes more affordable.

Controller design: Like the Nintendo Revolution, the PS3 still lacks a finalized controller design. The boomerang-shaped controller that debuted at E3 was greeted with near-universal rancor, leading Sony higher-ups to hastily decree that the E3 design was just a prototype. Either way, the PS3's gamepad will have a tough act to follow, since the PS2's Dual Shock II was widely considered the best of its generation.

Online multiplayer: While there's no question that the PS3 will support some form of online multiplayer mode, no specific plans have been confirmed. We think it likely that Sony will offer a central, Xbox Live-style server that gives gamers their own persistent online identities, but we're not ruling out a less centralized system. After all, the Sony PSP requires game developers to set up their own distinct servers for online play.

The bottom line
Last time around, the original Xbox came out later than the PS2 and, thus, wielded a significant hardware advantage. But with the next generation of gaming consoles, Sony appears to have the technological edge. Microsoft has already announced its strategy for undercutting the PlayStation 3 at launch: Halo 3, the latest sequel in its staggeringly popular franchise, will arrive in stores the same day as Sony's console. But based on the console's impressive specs and Sony's strong tradition of support from developers, we see no reason to doubt that the company's new model will affirm its place at number one when the PS3 launches with its own set of mind-blowing titles. And though the PS3's price may cripple our nation's economy for years to come, in the end, true gaming enthusiasts will simply have to own one.

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