Back in the days, playing on a handheld games console usually meant playing whatever it was that Nintendo decided to release. Not any more. Watching movies, listening to music, finding out where in the hell you are via GPS, making phone calls, and taking photo's are all part of the arsenal of features being attached to the next-generation of handheld devices. In the quest for the ultimate gadget, it seems handheld devices have become the battleground, and Sony, Nintendo, Nokia, and others are getting ready to fight for the customer.

At the 2004 Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3) held in Los Angeles this year, it was clear that handhelds are the next wave of must-have consoles for gamers. The number of visitors itching to check out the PlayStation Portable (PSP) from Sony, DS from Nintendo, Gimzondo from, er, Gizmondo, and of course the N-Gage from Nokia was at least a thousand. Interest was high and the market is tough. Nintendo will not have such a nice fat cushion lining their pockets for long. Even if the DS is a success, the PSP will eat into the market, and innovations from Gizmondo and Tapwave will force Nintendo into updating their hardware faster than they'd really like.

Here's the list of entrants:

- Nokia N-Gage and N-Gage QD
- Sony PlayStation Portable
- Nintendo DS
- Gizmondo
- Tapwave Zodiac

N-Gage QD
The N-Gage QD is Nokia’s latest effort at getting a stake in the handheld market. Demonstrating that they can quickly rectify problems, the QD is an huge improvement on N-Gage, the original game deck released last fall. N-Gage QD has redesigned buttons and changes to the MultiMediaCard (MMC) access point for quick and simple game play. The new QD also feels more study than the original—a rubber lining that surrounds its edge can also (in theory) help break a fall when you get mad with Tony Hawk!

Although the QD is primarily a gaming device, Nokia has included cell-phone functionality and additional organizer-like applications. Personal information management (PIM) programs such as a calendar, to-do list, memos, and address book. Driven by the well-established Series 60 platform, there are plenty of apps, games, and mods already available to the N-Gage user.

If you want to play games online, Nokia introduced the N-Gage QD with N-Gage Arena. The software lets you take part in online games, check worldwide scores and tourneys, and grab extras such as new levels and characters for your games. The N-Gage really seems to be like a Swiss Army knife; however, the initial game deck launch was deemed a failure, so many eyes are upon Nokia with the new QD unit.

Sony PlayStation Portable
The Sony PSP is getting as much hype as the Microsoft Xbox did before launch. The device looks quite long—similar, we think, in style to the failed Atari Lyns. The dimensions of 170mm x 74mm x 23mm are larger than any of the other offerings, but we think it looks and feels great. Few can argue with the 4.3" screen, ideal for games and movies!

Sony demonstrated the PSP at E3, running movies, games, and music. The PSP uses a lithium-ion power cell battery and is expected to provide 10 hours of game play, eight hours of music, or more than two hours of movie watching. The picture clarity of the PSP is remarkable, with incredibly accurate color and an amazing resolution, dare we say DVD quality? The PSP will come set to connect to WiFi 802.11 networks, which means you can connect to the Internet and send messages. You can also compete with other players wirelessly, without the hassle of connecting cables.

Nintendo DS
When you think of handheld gaming, you think Gameboy. Not for much longer my friend. Handheld games are about to grow up; but don't worry, there will still be plenty of space for Zelda, Mario, and the rest of the gang.

The Nintendo DS is the biggest break from the norm. The beta device is shaped like a small rectangle box and has two LCD screens that will supposedly allow you to experience games from two different perspectives. Along with the normal button-mashing sections, Nintendo has really thrown in a curve ball by making one of the screens touch-sensitive. Quite what we'll do with the touch-screen is anyone's guess, but we'd imagine looking around maps, checking inventory and menus with a stylus.

Nintendo has thrown in a rather tasty sounding voice recognition function. The DS software can identify everything from voice commands to hand clapping. VR will allow players to talk to the game and issue commands; perhaps we'll even be able to chat to other players over the network whilst playing. Using WiFi, the DS allows you to connect with a local wireless network of as many as 16 players, with a 30-foot range, telling us that Nintendo uses the B (11Mbps) technology. The DS has two ARM processors, no doubt due to the dual-screen format.

Gizmondo
Gizmondo seems to have the biggest bang for the buck. Showcased at E3, we saw plenty of life in this wondrous little gadget. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), Bluetooth, phone, games, movies, camera, music, the only thing missing is an espresso machine. Gizmondo works on an ARM 400 Mhz processor with a 64-bit graphics accelerator. It has a 2.8” Thin Film Transistor (TFT) color screen with a resolution of 240 x 320 pixels. The makers of Gizmondo announced that interactive, state-of-the-art 3D games would be launched with the device, and can be installed through an MMC or Secure Digital (SD) memory card or even downloaded remotely through the mobile phone network.

Navigation-wise, Gizmondo has an eight-way directional pad, right triggers, and four face buttons. With its Windows CE, it has an advanced video playback capability, with a built-in Windows Media Player 9, allowing for Mpeg 4 video format viewing. In the future, Gizmondo can even allow for users to view entire feature films on the device.

To make it a truly multifunctional device, Gizmondo has an integrated camera in the back of the unit so you can take and send pictures. There is even a My Friends area on the hard drive that lets you collect and store your friends’ images.

Tapwave Zodiac
The Tapwave Zodiac is the final member of the handheld club. The device launched back in November 2003, and they're about as rare as a Brachiosaurus. Based upon the Palm OS, and with Palm functionality (you can hot-sync to email and check websites with AvantGo), the Zodiac is a fine piece of gaming equipment.

We were blown away with the graphical capabilities of the Zodiac. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 (THPS 4) looks and sounds great, and the 480 x 320 pixel screens makes for some intense gaming. A lack of titles—six or so at the moment—and lack of availability has hindered the success of Zodiac, but we're hopeful the new distribution deals will help get the message out.

Other features of the Zodiac device include a touch screen, a media player for movies, Bluetooth capabilities, and two MMC slots (SDRAM and MMC cards work). You get a lot for just $299.

What Should You Buy?
If you need to get busy today, then Zodiac is the way to go. The lack of games is a concern, but we hope to see more titles emerging this year. And you can't argue with the bulletproof Palm OS and thousands of available apps. N-Gage QD is a nice alternative if you need a cell phone, and the graphics are good, but the limited screen-size is a drawback.

Next-Gen Handhelds
For pure gaming, the Nintendo DS will get plenty of internal support. Mario, Zelda, Warrior, Donkey Kong and the rest of the gang are certain to be popular with the younger crowd. For movies, the PSP is smoking hot! For gadgets-a-plenty the Gizmondo seems to have a nice jump-start. All in all, you can't go wrong with the new handsets!

This article originally published at on the Handheld Gaming Network.

The Memory-Optimization Hoax
Detailed Specs Sony-PSP Nintendo-DS Nokia N-Gage Gizmondo Tapwave Zodiac
Price $299 N/A $100 $350 $299/$399
Memory 32MB 4MB 4MB N/A 32MB/128MB
Size 170mm x 74mm N/A 134mm x 70mm N/A 143mm x 79mm
Weight 260g N/A 137g N/A 6.3 oz.
Processor PSP CPU ARM 67 MHz ARM 104MHz ARM9 400MHz ARM9 200MHz
Second Processor N/A ARM 33MHz N/A N/A ATI Imageon
Media Sony UMD Thin-card media MMC MMC/SD MMC/SD/SDIO
Screen Size 4.3" 3" 1.5" 2.8" 3.8"
Second Screen N/A 3" N/A N/A N/A
Pixels 480 x 272 256 x 192 176 x 208 240 x 320 480 x 320
Colors 16 million 262,144 4096 64,000 65,536
Movies Yes N/A Yes Yes Yes
Music Yes N/A Yes Yes Yes
Wireless 802.11b 802.11b Bluetooth Bluetooth Bluetooth
Connectors USB 2.0 System link USB USB USB
GPS N/A N/A N/A Yes N/A
Cell Phone N/A N/A Yes Yes N/A
Third-Party Support Yes Yes Limited Limited Limited
Camera N/A N/A N/A Yes N/A
Available Spring 2005 Winter 2004 Now Fall 2004 Now
Connected Home Rating 9 8 5 7 7