Sony spills PlayStation 3's guts

On a cloudy Los Angeles film studio lot, long-awaited details of new gaming console follow news of Microsoft's rival Xbox 360. Photos: PlayStation 3 unmasked

LOS ANGELES--In a glitzy ceremony held at Sony's film studios here on Monday, the company released eagerly anticipated details of its upcoming PlayStation 3 and said the console would reach shelves in spring 2006.

Boasting a new chip touted as powerful enough to rival most processors used in personal computers on the market today, the new console is designed to be a huge step forward from today's gaming consoles, as well as a key element of a broader networked home-entertainment system.

At the indoor event--which smelled of Red Bull--executives including Sony Computer Entertainment President Ken Kutaragi took a vibrantly lit stage to demonstrate the high-definition graphics power of the new machine, which will come in white, silver and black. (Click here to listen to reporter Rick Shim's audio report from E3.)

According to the company, the new console will have wireless controllers, a detachable 2.5-inch hard drive, slots for CompactFlash and Sony's Memory Stick media and a built-in Wi-Fi connection that can connect to the Playstation Portable.

"The network is going to be a core part of the PS3," Masa Chatani, Chief Technology Officer of Sony Computer Entertainment.

The system will include USB 2.0 and gigabit Ethernet connections, and will support games made for previous generations of PlayStation systems, executives said. It will include support for up to seven controllers at once, providing much-expanded possibilities for multiplayer games. The core processor will run at 3.2GHz, rather than the previously reported 4GHz.

The company provided no information on expected price.

As outlined, the features provide a powerful rival to Microsoft's Xbox 360, which was unveiled last week in a closely watched MTV special.

The Sony release serves both as the unofficial kickoff for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the year's biggest video game show, and for a much longer campaign of rivalry between Microsoft and Sony as each seeks to dominate the next generation of home video game consoles.

Microsoft's original release of the Xbox , in November 2001, more than a year after Sony's PlayStation 2, did manage to win the company a second-place market share in the business, edging out Nintendo. According to Jupiter Research, Sony led in the United States with 43 percent of the games console market, followed by Microsoft with 19 percent, and Nintendo's GameCube with 14 percent.

But this time around, the stakes are higher.

Gaming is surely the heart of both products' appeal. But each company, by providing DVD and CD playback, hard drives and networking capabilities, is hoping that its console will form the core of customers' home entertainment systems.

That broader home entertainment market is expected to be a central battlefield for both companies during the next five years, the typical life cycle of a game console. Microsoft is hoping to make its Windows system, running on a Windows Media Center PC, the centerpiece of home networks, while Sony is betting on its PCs and consumer electronics devices.

At the core of Sony's new game machine is a speedy new chip developed by IBM and Toshiba, called the Cell. The chip is expected to be used in graphics design workstations, as well as in the game system.

With a radical new design that includes nine separate processors, with one controlling "brain" that will divvy up tasks among its eight peers, the Cell has been touted by developers as a middle ground between the traditionally separate graphics processors and central processors, with advantages over both.

Despite this very different format, which will allow programmers to draw on some of the lessons of grid computing, Sony has said developers will be able to use many of the tools they're familiar with to build games for the new system.

"With Playstation 3, it looks as if it might be time for interactive entertainment to become, finally, the world's dominant artistic medium," Sam Houser, president of Rockstar Games, said in a statement.

Sony's announcement comes four days after Microsoft's high-profile unveiling of the new Xbox 360 on MTV last week.

That system will also beat the PlayStation 3 to market, with Microsoft executives promising that it will reach store shelves in time for the December shopping season. Pricing for the Xbox has not yet been released, but the company gave a detailed look last week at the product's specifications, including a three-processor core, a separate 500MHz graphics processor and a 20GB hard drive.

Rick Shim reported from Los Angeles, and John Borland reported from San Francisco.

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