Sega of America unleashed its Windows CE-based Dreamcast Thursday to Christmas-like crowds across the continent as eager users waited at midnight for the special retail rollout to begin. Sega has taken over 300,000 preorders for the $200 system, which is three times higher than anticipated. With its latest hi-tech system, Sega beats the best from Nintendo and Sony by a long shot, but its two entrenched rivals have sold a combined 40 million units over the past few years and have new systems coming in the next year.

But Sony sees a level playing field going forward, not the historical market where one player dominates the others. After Nintendo's success with its 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console, Sega catapulted to market dominance in the early 1990's with its 16-bit Genesis system. But faulty product introductions and a lackluster 32-bit system, the Saturn, caused Sega to lose ground--big time--to Sony, which introduced its Playstation system, and to the Nintendo 64, which offered 64-bit processing and incredible 3D graphics.

For the time being, however, the technology crown clearly belongs to Sega. The Dreamcast features 128-bit 3D graphics that meet or beat the best the PC world has to offer. And Sega, noting mistakes made at the Saturn and N64 launches, was sure to have a bunch of notably good games available when the Dreamcast arrived, including a bevy of sports titles, a Sega strength. The Dreamcast is also the first Internet-enabled gaming console, with an integrated 56Kbps modem for online multiplayer gaming. And because Windows CE beats at the heart of the Dreamcast, it will quickly evolve into a WebTV-style Internet set-top box and possibly even a home computer system.

Sony supporters, seemingly numb to the fact that the Playstation is the day before yesterday's technology, see no problem with a one-year wait before the Playstation 2 hits the streets. And Sony has dropped the price on its own system to $99. But Sega is counting on the head start to shore up some marketshare.

"The \[Sony\] advertising is great, if you want to go and get a obsolete system for $99," says Charles Bellfield, the director of marketing communications for Sega of America. "After Dreamcast, the PlayStation will only be good for a doorstop.