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It's difficult to avoid comparisons to the Sony PSP (which might be why Gizmondo Europe was so reluctant to send out review units), so we may as well get it out of the way: the Gizmondo doesn't come close to touching the PSP. It won't even challenge our increasingly neglected Nintendo DS for second place.
In hardware terms, it looks three years too late, sitting next to the Game Boy Advance as something you'd be embarrassed to get out in public. On software terms, it's sorely lacking a 'must-have' title, and the games are highly derivative (although support from EA is imminent). The PSP and DS are offering games that rival the home consoles, whereas Gizmondo currently offers many games that originated on the Internet.
Despite all this, the Gizmondo has a certain homegrown British charm and is one of the few handheld consoles that can lay realistic claim to being portable. It has some promising features that need software support to gain consumer interest, but in the meantime the Gizmondo looks likely to remain a curate's egg for the gadget fan and an urban myth for everyone else.
The two shoulder buttons may protrude like Shrek's ears, but they feel more comfortable than the unresponsive, clicky ones on the PSP. The Gizmondo also feels a lot more durable, with its rubbery black casing absorbing all the shocks of backpack carriage without taking damage. In a nice touch, the whole screen is indented and therefore less prone to scratching.
Most handheld consoles of late have not been very portable, but the Gizmondo slips into your pocket with ease. It also means that the screen is about half the size of the PSP's, and isn't in a widescreen format. The main face buttons are compact enough to be covered completely by your right thumb, which is far more comfortable than the PSP's design. They've clearly been modelled on Sony's classic PlayStation template, but as this is a 'mulitmedia' device, the main action buttons have been replaced with play, stop, rewind and fast-forward labels. It makes no difference in-game, of course, but if you are playing MP3s or movies, it makes it easier to naviagate.
The D-pad is adequate and crucially it favours prolonged use, but the Gizmondo doesn't have an analogue control -- making it the only major handheld console without this form of interface. We also despise the placement and size of the menu buttons -- they're situated along the top so you have to adjust your hands to access them, and even if you manage to overcome this crime against ergonomics, you have to push them hard to register and their shape is unnaturally thin.
On the rear, the VGA camera has been intelligently placed at the top, meaning that you're unlikely to have your finger over it when taking a quick snap. In terms of quality, it's very much like a phone camera (although the better camera phones are now offering 1- or 2-megapixel cameras). There's no button to take you directly to the photography menu quickly, so if you see David Beckham in the street and want to get a quick snapshot, you'll have to ask him to wait around for a minute while you wrestle the console into photography mode.
When you're charging the battery in the off mode, you can't turn the console on. But if you have the console turned on, you can charge up at the same time. If you use the console a lot you'll need to remember not to let the battery wear down completely. Like a mobile phone, though, the battery will vibrate as a feature of certain games, which is a vaguely embarrassing nuisance when you're playing on the bus.
Gizmondo's branding is very strong, with a nicely packaged unit, and when you open the box you find you get a few free downloads from the Web site. The SD format is a logical way of storing games but it also makes them quite fiddly and prone to getting lost. Luckily, each game comes with a Gizmondo-branded storage case for two cards.
While the physical design of the console is endearing, the operating system is completely the opposite. It's based on Microsoft Windows CE, which will make the blood run cold in many gamer's veins. True to form, it takes about 20 seconds for the machine to boot up, which to our minds is about 19 seconds too long. The interface is simple but fairly easy to use, and you can change the colour scheme or wallpaper by downloading skins from the Gizmondo Web site.
Games are stored on standard SD memory card, most of which are 64MB in size. As the SD format has become so accepted in other electronics, you can also play back music, movies and photos from the card by sending data over from your PC (it isn't Mac compatible). Music and photo playback are simple because of the standardised formats (MP3 and JPEG), but movie playback is a joke. While the Gizmondo Web site promises all sorts of multimedia functionality, cheekily showing off stills from Sin City and Hitch, the reality is that unless your collection is in Windows Media Video then you'll have to start converting it, and there aren't any tools included to do so. The de facto video standard is DivX, and if it was included on the Gizmondo then it would have transformed it into a worthwhile portable media player.
The Gizmondo isn't recognised straight away by your computer -- you have to install the drivers from the disc. The Gizmondo might have been useful as a mass storage device, but not in its current state. Because of the Windows-based media support, you need to set up ActiveSync, which is included on a CD. This means that it can be easier to keep tabs on your media collection and what's currently sitting on the SD card, but it makes it harder to grab a few MP3 files off your friend's PC.
The most irritating aspect of the Gizmondo is that it is a sponsored device -- meaning that you're victim to adverts beamed directly to the console. Billed as Smart Adds-enabled (as though you're getting some benefit from it), it means that when you register the console, Gizmondo can send you up to three advertisements per day. If you don't want this bothersome intrusion, you need to pay £100 more up front for the console. It's a good discount if you don't mind the adverts, but a hefty premium if you do. The service is still yet to be set up, but the promise is that you'll get context-sensitive advertising (ie for products that should interest you). The reality is that you may be bombarded with Crazy Frog ringtone offers.
The GPS functionality may be tied in with this advertising. The device is fairly rudimentary as a positioning device, certainly not as good as anything for your car, but if you're lost it could provide a useful tool. A game called Colors promises to take advantage of GPS in the most exciting way by pitting you against other players in the local vicinity. You also get a Vodafone SIM card in the box with £5 of credit, so you can text your friends (but not make phone calls). Typing an SMS on the Gizmondo is as nightmarish as you would expect from a device with no keypad.
Graphically, the console has the power to impress, but this is probably a testament to some talented design teams. We tried Sticky Balls, a game from Jon Pickford that proved popular on the Internet, which was particularly polished. We have no doubt that it can compete with the Nintendo DS, but without any unique way of interacting with games (until the GPS-powered Colors arrives) or a graphical powerhouse title, we haven't really seen what it's capable of. Either way, there's no gaming impetus to buy the console at the moment.
The console's mono speaker is tinny, but it goes much louder than other handheld consoles. As always though, the best way to enjoy the console is with some headphones, and preferably not the ones that you get in the box. The console's audio is certainly as good as anything else, although the soundtracks from Sticky Balls and Trailblazer have the potential to annoy, whereas Wipeout Pure and Lumines on the PSP have soundtracks that elevate the experience.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide