Games are going small in a big way, with both Sony and Nintendo announcing powerful new handheld gaming devices on the eve of the Electronic Entertainment Expo here this week.

Sony fired the first shot in its battle with Nintendo's popular Game Boy Advance in the portable gaming arena by unveiling specifications for its PlayStation Portable (PSP) unit. Due in North America by March 2005, the device has been the subject of much speculation since Sony announced it at last year's E3.

Nintendo managed to steal a bit of Sony's thunder by announcing its dual-screen portable system, code-named Nintendo DS, will ship in the United States by year's end. Neither company revealed pricing for the upcoming units.

Gaming industry professionals in attendance at both events were clearly impressed with both platforms. At Nintendo's event in particular, they applauded loudly when company executives promised to ship on time and "at a reasonable price."

Sony Goes Small

Sony says the PSP will offer top-notch graphics and audio, in a sleek portable black package that measures 6.8-x-3-x-1 inches. The device sports a full-color 4.3-inch, 16:9 wide-screen LCD display; built-in stereo speakers; 32MB of main memory plus 4MB of embedded memory; and a lithium ion battery that should run about ten hours between charges.

"Now we have the ability to bring 3D console experiences to a mobile platform," said Kaz Hirai, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America.

The device's clear screen and sharp 3D graphics drew audible gasps from the gaming professional audience during on-stage demonstrations of upcoming games. Hirai noted that 99 game publishers are already working on titles for the PSP. Also, gaming giant Electronic Arts has pledged to have four titles ready in time for the launch.

New Media Appears

Games will appear on Sony's new Universal Media Disc (UMD) media, a 60mm optical disc technology that's smaller than a standard CD but can contain up to 1.8GB of data. The company also plans to offer music, movies, and other entertainment content via UMD media in the near future. The PSP will also support Sony's proprietary Memory Stick Pro Duo storage media.

The PSP will also offer a handful of connectivity options, including built-in 802.11b wireless, USB 2.0, and infrared, so Sony can offer downloadable content. Planned peripherals include USB cameras, external battery packs, and Global Positioning System equipment.

Hirai acknowledged Nintendo's current dominance in the handheld market, but said Sony expects the PSP to become a serious contender in a short amount of time.

"The PlayStation Portable is a brand-new technology and a totally new play experience," he said. "It enters a crowded market, but one with plenty of growth opportunities."

Nintendo Strikes First

Sony may be the big dog in the console market, but Nintendo is the clear leader in mobile gaming. Company executives noted that this isn't the first time a competitor has challenged Nintendo in the mobile market, but pointed out that nine of nine have failed to succeed.

"As a tenth serious competitor makes a run at Game Boy, we're raising the bar before they even get started," said Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America's executive vice president, pointing to the company's upcoming dual-screen unit. "This redefines portable entertainment."

The main innovation of the Nintendo DS is its dual 3-inch displays, which will offer users multiple perspectives, depending upon the game, he said. In some instances a single image stretches across both screens, while in others the player can view two different perspectives at once.

An on-screen demonstration of the unit's dual-screen capabilities drew a roar of approval from the industry-professional crowd.

In addition, the DS will feature touch-screen capabilities, the first-ever handheld to do so. Different games will use this feature in different ways. For example, in some games you might point and shoot by tapping on the screen, Fils-Aime said.

The DS will also include a built-in microphone, so eventually users will be able to interact with their games using their voice too, he said. "The mike can be married to voice-recognize programs so your voice, and your voice alone, can tell the game what to do," Fils-Aime added.

Dual Wireless Options

The DS will also include a long list of connectivity options, including a proprietary wireless standard that will let up to 16 users connect to wage multiplayer games at a distance of up to 30 feet. The unit will also feature built-in 802.11b wireless for Internet gaming, he said.

Nintendo won't use optical media for the DS, instead opting for a new, proprietary solid-state media that the company says will offer up to 1GB of storage. In addition to games, Nintendo plans to offer its own multimedia content on the media. A second slot on the DS will accept today's Game Boy Advance games, ensuring full backward compatibility.

In terms of sheer graphics power, Nintendo's offering won't compete with Sony's PSP. While the company offered few specifics about the unit's internal components, executives compared the DS's 3D graphics to the company's older Nintendo 64 games, and noted the best games don't always require the latest technology.

"Tech specs don't matter," said Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo. "The time when horsepower alone made an important difference is over, and from this time forward we must create unprecedented experiences."