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CALL IT: One in the Hand

Darren Gladstone and William O’Neal

Nokia has a different attitude since the original N-Gage launched—and flopped—last year. All the hype that promised N-Gage would be the next step in the convergence of consumer electronics isn’t dead. Despite many lumps, the cell-phone giant isn’t giving up on gaming.

“Nokia is a great design company,” says Nokia spokesperson Steven Knuff. “We just didn’t get it right [with N-Gage].” But a firsthand look at the device’s next iteration, the N-Gage QD, shows that the cell-phone maker may finally be on the right track: Gone is the sidetalking (www.sidetalking.com), gone is the heft of a Batarang, and gone is the need to yank out the battery in order to change games.

Due out in early summer at a price “considerably less than [N-Gage’s],” the QD is a slimmer, trimmer gaming machine. The gamepad feels more comfortable, the screen is brighter, and there’s an external slot that allows for easy access to SD cards (which, when plugged in, instantly start games). Nokia couldn’t reveal some details, such as the unit’s battery life, at press time, but the new phone will apparently be offered by more major carriers in the States than its predecessor.

Of course, the hardware is only part of the equation—it needs good games to back it up. We’ve learned that Activision is making portable versions of Call of Duty and Spider-Man 2, while Sega is working on—get this—an MMORPG called Pocket Kingdom. If none of this works to win over the gaming crowd, Nokia already has plans to release another N-Gage early in 2005, according to Knuff. We’ll make the call on how the QD pans out as soon as we get reviewable units.

Beating PSP to the punch

A lot of anticipation has built up around Sony’s upcoming release of the PlayStation Portable (PSP), but now that it’s been delayed until sometime in 2005, we hear that another company is attempting to beat Sony at its own game.

A wireless-device operating system called MXI promises the ability to enable “existing full-fledged Windows, Linux, Java-based desktop, and mobile-software 32-bit games normally played on consoles and full graphical versions of websites to look and feel exactly the same on a handheld device as they do on a PC.” That’s one hell of a claim Radixs CEO R. Chandrasekar is making, but it certainly teases us with an interesting possibility: playing basic Windows and PS1 games on a mobile device. Chandrasekar insists that it’s not only possible, but that plans are already in place with major cell-phone carriers in the United States. The service could start as early as June 2004.

Radixs says the MXI operating system will work without limits on the size of data transfers, making it ideal for transferring music, video, and games between the server (the cell carriers) and the client (your cute little handhelds). So, here’s how it could conceivably work: You want to play Madden on your handheld. First, you order the game and download it from a software library. It streams only the bits of the game that you need on the fly and bang—you’re ready to play. The OS is even carrier agnostic, so if your buddy on another network has an MXI-enabled device, you can still play against him. Not too shabby.

What kind of games will be available? Chandrasekar says no extra coding is required for PS1 games to work on MXI devices and that Radixs is already in talks with EA and Ubisoft, so you could have a wide array of games to choose from at launch time. However, we have to raise other questions. To wit: Sony is notoriously overprotective of its IP—you may recall it sued Bleem and Connectix into submission a few years back. Could Radixs suffer the same fate? And exactly what sort of PC games should we expect on these devices?

Carrier and device-maker details remain very hush-hush; Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless declined to comment as to whether they would offer MXI-supported devices. Still, we can say that you can expect multimedia plans to start at about $30 a month. In-office oddsmakers say that if everything goes according to plan, we can expect notable devices from Samsung and Sanyo—these companies have taken some of the most daring design chances with cellular phones so far.

PC industry big guns, take note

Never ones to miss out on an opportunity, graphics chipmakers Nvidia and ATI are also getting in on the cell-phone business by offering updated 3D graphics solutions for mobile devices. ATI’s Imageon architecture will be used alongside Qualcomm’s BREW technology to provide an improved 3D-gaming experience to Verizon Wireless customers.

Nvidia has recently announced that its upcoming GoForce line of media processors will dramatically improve the mobile experience in PDAs and cell phones by offering longer battery life and improved image quality. Having already inked deals with Dell, HP, Palm, Sony, and Toshiba, GoForce-enabled products will boast megapixel camera support, digital-zoom capabilities, and MPEG-4 support. Proper handheld 3D gaming from Nvidia, though, is still a little ways off. GoForce 3D technology is in development, but don’t expect to see phones utilizing it until early 2005. This isn’t even mentioning the rumors as we go to press that Intel has other plans in the works. Let’s just say the next couple years will be interesting ones for mobile gaming.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Computer Gaming World.





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