NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Two years ago, Nokia introduced the N-Gage, which quickly became viewed (by the community, if not the industry) as one of the worst hardware launches in gaming history. Hold on to your hats, folks: Here we go again.
Tiger Telematics is attempting to get a piece of the lucrative handheld market, with the U.S. launch of the Gizmondo. It's planned to take place Saturday, roughly one year after the Gizmondo launched in the U.K. The company's definition of 'launch' is a bit nebulous, however (more on that in a moment).
You really can't blame Tiger for trying. Nintendo has made a fortune with its Game Boy line and the DS continues to sell nicely. Sony's (Research) PSP has been a solid performer as well. Even the N-Gage has found a niche audience after a redesign of the system.
Ah, but what those companies do right, Gizmondo fails to duplicate. The product lacks focus, suffers from numerous flaws and carries an insultingly high price tag.
Let's start by acknowledging the Gizmondo's efforts. The system, like the PSP, offers digital movie and music playback functionality. It also tries to distinguish itself with additional features none of its competitors offer which is admirable. The GPS technology? Nice touch and likely to be the chief selling point eventually. (I wasn't able to utilize it in my test unit.) Text messaging? Teens might enjoy that, though the interface is awkward and they can do the same thing with their cell phone. A digital camera? Well, those are in many phones, too, but why not? A currency converter? Um... (Yeah, it's really in there, but you'll need to enter the current exchange rate yourself.)
It's pretty much downhill from there.
While the Gizmondo offers a fairly large selection of launch titles (sold separately for $20-$40), none of them are real standouts. Electronic Arts (Research) is onboard with "FIFA 2005" and "SSX 3" (both games, it's worth noting, are not the current versions of the franchises). Those two titles are the bright stars of a mediocre crop. The likelihood of games like "Sticky Balls" (really!), "Interstellar Flames 2" and "Pocket Ping Pong" becoming powerhouse franchises are slim, at best.
Assuming you do want to play one of those games, it's going to be a frustrating affair. The system's D-pad controller doesn't lend itself to accurate aiming, particularly in fast-paced games.
Of course, you have to turn on the Gizmondo to play games or take advantage of any of its offerings. This is not a quick task. In fact, it takes 48 seconds. (Compare that to less than five seconds on the Nintendo DS.)
Done playing? It's no easier to turn off. You must press the power button twice, scroll down the options to "power off," then confirm your choice. With competing devices, simply press a button and go about your business.
Music playback (MP3 and WMA formats) is pretty good, though you're going to want to get a different set of headphones. Watching video, though, will remind you of streaming a clip via a low-speed modem. It's jerky and occasionally blurry and that was the video included on the demo sim card that came with the Gizmondo.
Pictures taken with the device are, as you might guess, fairly low resolution. There's no zoom or flash, so unless your subject is close and well lit, you're pretty much out of luck. Any modern camera phone can replicate the functionality just as well.
Pricewise, unfortunately, Tiger decided to reach for the high end, offering two choices. The less expensive system, at $229, will feature an advertising service that sends commercials up to 40 seconds long to your unit as many as three times a day. It won't interrupt your game, movie or music, but you'll have to watch them before the unit will allow you to power down. (Well, unless you rip the battery out, I suppose.) A bundle, priced at a staggering $399, will allow you to turn off the ads and comes with extra GPS software.
Let me repeat that price: $399. That's the same price as the high-end Xbox 360. That's madness, people.
More madness? The Gizmondo will launch without any retail support. Tiger plans to use its Website and 14 stand-alone kiosks at malls around the country. Retailers, it says, will be phased in over the coming months. (EBGames.com, incidentally, lists its expected ship date for the device as Jan. 31, 2006.)
The company's finances don't offer much encouragement. SEC filings from Tiger (Research) show the company recorded a $99 million net loss in 2004 and had lost an additional $210 million in the first six months of 2005.
Regardless of whether the Gizmondo's launch is in stores or online, it probably won't make a big difference. The system is sub-par. The games are barely worthy of mention. And the extra features just won't appeal to the gaming audience the company is targeting.
Somewhere at Nokia (Research), someone's feeling pretty good about the N-gage's launch all of a sudden.
Want an Xbox 360? Good luck.
Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.