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FAQ: The next video game consoles?

Manufacturers won't spill details on upcoming game consoles, but got some, anyway. Images: Consoles of tomorrow?

The swallows come back to San Juan Capistrano every year, the Olympics happen every four years, and old video game consoles get junked every five years.

Which means that the game industry is due for a shake-up any quarter now. The current crop of consoles--Sony's PlayStation 2, Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube--all have been on the market for about four years.

Each manufacturer wants to squeeze as much market life as possible out of the current machines, so they won't spill too many details about future consoles for fear of making the current ones look outdated. But information on next-generation plans has slowly accumulated, supplemented by a steady stream of rumors that range from outlandish to vaguely plausible.


What's new:
The current crop of consoles have been on the market for about four years, which means that the game industry is due for a shake-up.

Bottom line:
Manufacturers are being tight-lipped about future game consoles for fear of making the current ones look outdated, but that hasn't stopped CNET from digging up details on price, capabilities and more.

More stories on game consoles

Here's what we know or think we know about the new game systems.

What's it going to be called?
Sony--For a while, Sony wouldn't even confirm that there would be another version of the PlayStation at all. But lately, even Sony executives are comfortable uttering the words "PlayStation 3."

Microsoft--The next Xbox is code-named "Xenon." What it will be called when it hits stores is the subject of rampant speculation, with Microsoft reportedly wanting to avoid the obvious Xbox 2 because that would be one less than PlayStation 3. Favorite names in the rumor mill include Xbox Next, Xbox 360 and Xbox HD. Microsoft has registered domains for and; belongs to British squatters. For simplicity's sake, we'll stick with Xbox 2 until Microsoft offers something more definitive.

Nintendo--The company traditionally comes up with an entirely new name for each console. The GameCube's successor is going by the code name "Revolution." There's a chance Nintendo will keep the name for the final product, but the company hasn't bothered to register the Web domain.

When can I get one?
Sony--Sony has promised to have a prototype version of a PS3 to show off at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show in May. Consensus among analysts is that consoles won't arrive in stores until early 2006, at best.

Microsoft--It will also be showing off the goods at E3--several days after it provides a first public glimpse of the new Xbox in an MTV broadcast on May 12. Game makers already are hard at work with Xbox 2 development kits, so consoles could be in stores in time for this year's holiday shopping season.


Nintendo--Revolution will complete the three-ring console circus at E3. Nintendo executives have said they don't plan to repeat their experience from the current console cycle; the PlayStation 2 beat the GameCube to market by almost a year. But no game publishers have reported receiving Revolution development kits, meaning that Nintendo will have to move quickly just to keep pace with Microsoft.

What will it cost?
Sony--Consoles have entered the market at $300 for the last few hardware cycles, but some analysts think that game companies will push the bar with this generation. Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst Michael Pachter predicted in a report last year that the PS3 could come with a price tag as high as $500 if Sony thinks it can cram in enough multimedia functions to justify the price.

Microsoft--Ditto for Xbox 2, but Piper Jaffray analyst Tony Gikas predicts that Microsoft will aim for a more modest bump, to $350 to $400.

Nintendo--Dramatic price cuts on the GameCube, appealing to the Wal-Mart crowd, have helped keep Nintendo in the game the last few years. Nintendo is unlikely to push the $300 barrier with Revolution. What processor will it use?
Sony--Sony is promising a brave new world of computing with the multicore Cell processor, a joint project with IBM and Toshiba.

The Cell will have nine independent processing units that can divide up complex computing tasks or loan processing power to other systems. The initial version of the chip--the one likely to run the PlayStation 3--will run faster than 4GHz, be capable of 256 billion calculations per second and have built-in security systems to prevent illegal copying of games and other content.

Microsoft--Unlike the current Xbox, which uses a standard Pentium PC processor from Intel, the software giant has hired IBM to design a custom Xbox 2 processor based on Big Blue's Power architecture. Microsoft says the chip will be capable of processing more than a trillion calculations per second (1 teraflop), putting it on a par with high-end servers.

Nintendo--The console maker hasn't revealed any specifics about the Revolution processor--or much else, for that matter--except to confirm that IBM is building it and its code name is "Broadway."

What about storage, graphics, memory and so on?
Sony--Nvidia will design the graphics processor for the PlayStation 3. Sony hasn't said anything about storage, but it would be hard for the PS3 to accomplish its touted multimedia functions without something more capable than the current 8MB memory cards--the leading candidate would be Sony's Memory Stick cards. Sony also has confirmed that the PS3 will use its Blu-ray technology for high-capacity DVD discs.

Microsoft--After a somewhat difficult experience with Nvidia on the current Xbox, Microsoft is going with rival ATI Technologies to create the graphics chip for Xbox 2.

The storage picture for Xbox 2 is less clear. Flash memory partner M-Systems has indicated that the 8GB hard drive in the current Xbox will be replaced with high-capacity removable storage, but more recent signs point to the possibility of two Xbox models, one with a hard drive and one without. A recent Microsoft survey also suggests that the Xbox 2 may come with built-in support for wireless networking.

Nintendo--ATI signed a "technology development agreement" with Nintendo two years ago that appears to cover the Revolution graphics chip. Besides that, evidence gets pretty slim. Previous consoles from piracy-sensitive Nintendo have all introduced proprietary new media formats, so support for current or upcoming DVD formats is unlikely.

Recent Nintendo patent applications hint at ideas that could actually live up to the Revolution name, such as a digital-camera controller, a sunlight-monitoring system and numerous advances in virtual golf.

Will it do stuff besides play games?
Sony--Executives have talked for years about outfitting the PlayStation with multimedia functions, which would seem natural, given the parent company's ownership of major movie and music operations.

To date, those efforts have culminated in little more than the Japan-only PSX hybrid machine. But recent moves by Sony management and the multimedia-friendly design of Cell suggest that the PS3 may arrive just as Sony finally gets serious about convergence.

Microsoft--It has gradually outfitted the current Xbox with nongame functions such as voice chat, karaoke and digital music. Microsoft also introduced "extender kits" for hooking up an Xbox to a PC running the Windows XP Media Center.

Expect those type of functions to come together in a nice, sleek package with Xbox 2, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told CNET recently. "We didn't do Xbox just to do a video game; we did it to be part of our vision of the digital lifestyle, and with the next generation, we really get to go there," Gates said.

Nintendo--Executives have insisted for years that nongame functions in a console would just dilute the game experience, and there's no sign that they're changing their position with Revolution.

What kind of online capabilities will it have?
Sony--Support for multiplayer online games has gradually grown with the PS2, and the PS3 should continue the trend. But one of the most intriguing aspects of the Cell processor is the capability to use broadband connections to shuttle demanding computing tasks to groups of networked machines, which could dramatically boost performance for streaming media, online games and other tasks.

Microsoft--The Xbox Live online game service has become one Microsoft's key selling points for its console, and the company is promising dramatic expansions of the service with Xbox 2. Gates has talked about adding features such as instant messaging to the service, which will also become more of a venue for selling downloadable games and other content.

Nintendo--Executives until now have vowed to steer clear of online games until they see a viable business model in it. But Nintendo recently revealed that Revolution will have built-in support for wireless networking, partly to support an online gaming service Nintendo plans to launch late this year.

Will it connect with other gadgets?
Sony--A recent Sony patent application paints an intriguing picture of a PlayStation 3 hooking up with Sony's new PlayStation Portable handheld machine to perform tasks such as downloading content and swapping settings from one version of a game to another.

Microsoft--Xbox connectivity is centered on the PC. Xbox 2 could be Microsoft's secret weapon to popularize Windows XP Media Center, the entertainment-centered version of its PC operating system.

Nintendo--It tried to make connections with its ubiquitous Game Boy Advance a key selling point for the GameCube, but the idea never caught on. Built-in wireless networking in the new DS handheld player could promote a more spontaneous type of networking with the Revolution.

Will it play games for current consoles?
Sony--It set a game industry precedent by making the PS2 backwards-compatible; it can play games for the original PlayStation, and the company has vowed to continue the practice with PS3. "PlayStation 3 will offer the same compatibility for PS2 software, and the format will continue forever," Sony President Ken Kutaragi told a Japanese newspaper last year.

Microsoft--It hasn't said whether the Xbox 2 will play games for the current Xbox. Backwards compatibility likely would be an expensive feature to implement, thanks to licensing and hardware restrictions, but Microsoft may feel pressured to match Sony's commitment.

Nintendo--Nintendo, which has introduced an incompatible new media format with each console, plans to break with tradition and make Revolution compatible with GameCube discs.