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Commentary > Game Over
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New game machines en route
As Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo prepare for the next generation, two new companies join the fight.
January 15, 2004: 3:28 PM EST

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – Sean Connery said it best in "The Untouchables": Never bring a knife to a gun fight.

I'm paraphrasing a bit there, but the sentiment is right on target. If you're going to wander into a raging war, you need a solid plan and state-of-the-art weapons. Unfortunately, the latest newcomers to the battle for the living room seem to be getting in over their head.

Last week's Consumer Electronics Show saw the unveiling of two gaming consoles – Infinium Labs' Phantom and Apex Digital ApeXtreme. Both are trying to bring a new angle to home gaming, but neither has shown any signs of making a dent in Sony's, Microsoft's or Nintendo's bottom line.

Both the Phantom and the ApeXtreme (pronounced, despite appearances, Apex Extreme instead of Ape Extreme) hope to blend the personal computer with the gaming console. Owners will be able to play games that have, to date, been exclusive to the PC on their television. Both use Windows XP at their core and feature 3D graphic chips, surround sound capabilities, broadband Internet connectivity and a decent processor.

The ApeXtreme  
The ApeXtreme

Neither will come cheap, though. The Phantom will run anywhere from $300 to $500 – and owners will pay a monthly fee of $10 to download games. ApeXtreme owners will pay $399 for a machine (due out this quarter) that will play standard PC game discs with no delay.

Let's stop right there. Nobody expects these products to best the gaming industry's leaders. But asking $300-$500 when the PlayStation 2 and Xbox are only $199 (and, rumor has it, are on the verge of a $50 or greater price cut) is lunacy. Nintendo's $99 GameCube only makes these prices more cringe-inducing.

Apex (and its partner VIA Technologies) argues it is introducing a new sort of console – one that blends the power of the PC with the form factor convenience of a traditional console (i.e. a computer in the shape of a VCR). Besides playing games, the ApeXtreme will also play DVDs and audio CDs. Problem is: So do the Xbox and PS2.

And as for the ability to play PC games? $400 will buy you a decent desktop PC these days. In fact, a quick check online found one with specs comparable to the ApeXtreme for just $350.

The Phantom  
The Phantom

"I think in that case, it becomes a matter of personal taste and opinion," said Apex spokesperson Mark Rosch. "Yes, you could get a PC that would do many of the same things out of the box, but that's most likely to be in a tower case. Do you want to put a tower next to your TV in the living room?"

The ApeXtreme boasts a competent CPU and graphics card, but it is ill-suited to handle some of the most popular games headed to market, such as "Doom 3" and "Half-Life 2".

"The ApeXtreme runs games like 'Madden' very well," said Richard Brown, associate vice president of marketing for VIA. "We wouldn't recommend it for next generation games like 'Half-Life 2' and 'Doom 3.' ... I don't really think that's the market we're after."

Ok, maybe you could argue that the typical ApeXtreme customer won't be interested in games that contain such violent content. Even so, it still puts the machine at a severe disadvantage for future games that utilize the graphics engine of either title.

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Apex said it hasn't set any hard sales goals for the ApeXtreme yet. That's a bit hard to believe, frankly, but it's overshadowed by Infinium Labs' astonishing (and, frankly, ludicrous) aspirations for the Phantom's success. At a seminar last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a Phantom representative said he would be happy if the console sold 2 million units in the first two years. To put that in perspective, the Xbox sold just 3.9 million units in its first year, despite spending hundreds of millions of marketing dollars.

The Phantom lives up to its name so far. After months of industry speculation that the machine was a hoax, Infinium Labs unveiled it in Las Vegas last week. So far, though, it has not announced a release date.

The company behind it is something of a mystery as well. Hardware specialty site [H]ardOCP had a stinging report on the company and its principals last September. Calls to the company for comment for this column were not returned.

 
More gaming? Click the orc.

The battle to control entertainment in your living room is escalating. The PS2 and Xbox were actually Trojan horses from Sony (SNE: Research, Estimates) and Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates). Marketed as game machines, they quickly expanded their entertainment functionality with their imbedded DVD players. Both now also function as karaoke machines. Sony has introduced the PSX, which combines a DVD recorder and digital video recording capabilities with the PS2's normal functions. And Microsoft last week announced the Xbox Media Center Extender Kit, which will let owners browse pictures, listen to digital music and watch TV shows recorded on home PCs.

It's always nice to see competition and innovation in the industry. I just fear that Apex and Infinium not only came armed with knives, but dulls ones at that.  Top of page


Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.




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