Gizmondo solidly built; its games solidly bad

Monday, October 24, 2005

The handheld video game market is already crowded.

DALLAS -- There's one surefire way for a video game system to fail with consumers: a lack of decent games.

It seems obvious, right? Yet somehow, along comes Gizmondo.

This latest entrant in the already crowded handheld game market, which became available Saturday in the United States, will initially have 14 games to choose from -- most all of them uniformly terrible.

The $229 device, which looks like a black and silver taco and is attractive and truly unique in its feature set, has been available for months already in Britain.

But how can it possibly survive against such heavyweights as Sony and Nintendo?

Gizmondo is solidly built and comfortable to hold with a 2.8-inch, 65,000-color screen that's crisp and bright.

Its innards are an interesting mix: a built-in global positioning satellite receiver, a VGA digital camera, GPRS cellular wireless networking for text and multimedia messaging (oddly, there's no voice capability) and a 400-megahertz ARM processor running on a customized version of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system.

Gizmondo games I tested, priced between $20 and $40, ranged from a visually attractive but impossible futuristic racer called "Trailblazer" to the ugly, unbearable "Stuntcar Extreme."

"Pocket Ping Pong 2005" was another fiasco involving beachside bikini babes and table tennis from a first-person perspective.

The GPS offers some neat potential for truly mobile games.

The only such game promised, "Colors," is vaguely described on Gizmondo's Web site as a type of gang warfare game for "the mobile communication era that utilizes every aspect of the Gizmondo functionality." No release date so far.

Other games, such as the snowboarding title "SSX 3" offered by big-name publisher Electronic Arts Inc., have already seen far better times on other -- and presumably competing -- systems.

At least there's more to Gizmondo than games.

Gizmondo uses Windows Media Player 9 to play digital music and supports the MPEG-4 video standard to watch movies and other unencrypted videos.

A supplied demo memory chip (a slot in the Gizmondo accepts SD and MMC formats) included a trailer for the recent action flick "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."

Playback stuttered throughout and the graphics were too small and blurry to sit through a feature-length film.

I was perturbed with the sound. It pumps out great stereo with a set of headphones, but the unit's single external speaker is inexplicably placed below the control buttons -- right where my thumb conveniently rests, blocking the sound.

You can't take advantage of nifty location-based GPS features without plopping down extra cash for the required mapping software ($169 for regional coverage, $249 for the entire continental United States). A complete system bundle will go for $399.

I tested the cheaper "Smart Adds" Gizmondo.

Consumers who buy the "Smart Adds" version save roughly $170 by filling out an online survey and agreeing to have three commercials, each between 15 to 30 seconds long, sent wirelessly to their device each day.

The ads, consisting of short videos, can't be skipped but will not interfere with games or movies, company officials say. Should an ad arrive in the middle of a game, you will be forced to watch it once you quit before you can move on to another function.

An even more worrisome development was last month's announcement that a new Wi-Fi-enabled, 4-inch-wide-screen model is in the works. Taunting me with a better system on the horizon will only stop me from buying a current-generation unit.

If it ever comes to fruition, the Gizmondo 2 or whatever they call it potentially could offer something over the $300 PlayStation Portable from Sony Corp. or the $130 Nintendo DS from Nintendo Co.

For now, consumers already have a tough choice between the PSP's wide screen beauty, the inventive gameplay of Nintendo Co.'s touch screen Nintendo DS and the massive library for the older Game Boy Advance series.

Beyond certain technophiles who require a regular diet of new gadgets, I don't see Gizmondo being much of a player.

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