All-encompassing or also-ran? We get hands on with the underdog newcomer to the handheld market...
Pitched as "one gadget to rule them all", Tiger Telematics' Gizmondo may be perceived from many industry quarters as hopelessly out hyped by Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, yet our time with the versatile little machine proved an encouraging counter to the old adage of three being a crowd, in the field of on-the-go gaming.
â€¢400mhz ARM9 Processor
â€¢64bit Graphics accelerator
â€¢MPEG 4 Video Playback
â€¢MP3 Music Playback
â€¢2.8" TFT screen ~ 240 x 320 pixels
â€¢JPEG Built-In Camera
â€¢GPS / GPRS Capability's
Rather soulless number-crunching aside, our initial impression of the machine was not how it measured up to statistics, but how comfortable it felt in the hands - due in large part to "a spray-on rubber finish", we were told by Head of Sales Jamie Robertson. The weight of the Gizmondo, too, was surprisingly apt - pleasingly centralised behind the screen and light at the sides, making for a solid finish, and one we were informed had been drop-tested from six feet.
Equally impressive appeared display clarity - the high resolution being demoed to us by Robertson with the first of the hardware's multimedia features, a digital camera. This function, we were told could be downloaded to PC, using the machines integrated Bluetooth wireless technology or USB connectivity, or sent to other mobiles via the Gizmondo's messaging function.
Next up was movie playback; again good quality - clear and surprisingly detailed on the well-sized screen. We viewed Matrix Reloaded and Lord of The Rings trailers, and were told by Robertson that, "within time, enabling technology will allow for full feature movies". It was at this point, that he eagerly shuffled headphones into our midst, insisting we hear the sound quality. A few minutes of seeing his mouth move, only to hear the opening credits of The Two Towers (quite a bizarre sense of displacement), and we were left in agreement as to his repeated turn of phrase about the sound being "something else". Knowing too, that the machines MP3 function would share this sound quality makes for a very attractive prospect, particularly with Robertson's boasted 350,000 available MP3's online.
But despite all the impressive multimedia functions, we were eager to sample the machine as a gaming platform, and here things hit a snag. The Gizmondo uses Nvidia's GoForce 4500 3D chipset, but the unit we tested did not feature this chipset, which is certainly capable of doing more than we saw. The first game we experienced - arcade racer Stuntcar Extreme, was both lacking in graphical detail and control accuracy - the circular d-pad proving a touch awkward for precision steering. This too was a problem with the next title demoed, vertical scrolling 2D shooter Angelfish, diagonal movement across the screen in particular, proving bothersome, and leading to much frustration.
On the plus side, however, Stuntcar Extreme did boast an impressive sense of speed, while collecting letters Tony Hawk's style added a neat twist to the action, even if it was unclear what function this served. Angelfsh too, had its positives, with a busy on-screen display alluding to an addictive, surprisingly deep shooter. The fact that these games come on substantial SD card format also bodes well for future software generations, and proposed downloadable gaming is a reality currently only on mobile phones that could push gaming forward on a format capable of more sophisticated titles, as Gizmondo appears to be.
Yet in terms of the hardware controls, the selection of symbols on the facia buttons, as opposed to the widely recognised connotations of A,B,C,D/ A,B,X,Y, or even the Playstation's famous combination (circle is the only present of these on the Gizmondo's front face), could throw a proportion of seasoned gamers. Even so, this is the idiosyncrasy to sum up the desire for Gizmondo's unique brand identity, augmented by a solid range of first generation games, and the companies obvious level of enthusiasm for the product - something that really did show through in Robertson's presentation.
Whether consumers will buy into this vision though, remains to be seen. A Â£229 price point could easily put off impulse purchases on which the gadget industry thrives, while the lack of mobile phone option in Gizmondo's otherwise comprehensive package could be an offset. Add a car GPS system for a further Â£50 and the package begins to look increasingly expensive, if reassuringly so. That it offers value for money, with such a range of uses, may not be in doubt - that the average buyer would need every single function is cause for uncertainty. It is a device you would love to own, but would be reluctant to buy.
But the public also loves an underdog, and in Tiger Telematics, Gizmondo has a company that appears willing to do what it takes to make its product succeed. A price point gradually reducing from launch onwards, smart advertising, and a steadily increasing library of quality games, could all help the cause. And Robertsons assurance that "with three major publishers soon to be announced, Gizmondo will be making a major statement to the industry", when you get past the hype, could still pique the interest of a dubious market segment. Still, if some big guns do sign up, interest in the device could quickly grow. Currently the biggest publisher on board is SCI, backing the unit by bringing franchises such as Carmageddon and the Conflict series to the handheld. Richard Burns Rally is also scheduled to hit the system, while a number of other unannounced titles are due in 2005/2006. It's a step in the right direction, but a few of the real big boys would certainly help bolster the unit's line-up.
So then, one gadget to rule them all? Against the dual might of Sony and Nintendo, probably not, but Gizmondo may just offer enough to carve itself a niche. Comments likening it to "an N-Gage minus the phone" are certainly unfair, with aesthetic and ideology both being positioned to give the likable handheld a fighting chance. And in the current portable climate, that's about the best anyone could ask for.