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Old Before Their Time
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Apple's gPod

Posted on Friday, March 12 @ 11:12:13 Eastern by Mike_Reilly

In a controversial design decision, the gPod allows you to capture multiple game saves, dock them as shortcuts, and navigate through them quickly. Instead of being forced to drive for 40 minutes to retry a mission in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, you could quickly double-click the Sense Pad's center, save the game, and continue to give it hell. Though some players might like to cheapen their game experience by saving every time they kill a bad guy, functionality to save at any time is crucial in a handheld. Apple has decided that losing progress due to a dying battery or poor game design is a greater evil than a runaway n00b. The company trusts that once we buy the game, it is ours to enjoy as we see fit, and that we gamers are the only ones empowered to make that decision. Our game experience is rightly in our hands.

To handle the higher octane games and have Cheshire available on the fly, gPod features a robust 300 MHz G4 processor, 512 MB of RAM and 32 MB of dedicated video memory. The system bus is a whopping 1.0 GHz, which means any heavy graphics or data processing can be crunched with no sweat. Since the G4 processor also has remarkably low energy consumption, tests we ran had the gPod's lithium ion battery lasting a full two hours longer than the PSP's.

The gPod has a slightly smaller screen than Sony's device, but sports a much higher resolution and contrast ratio. Since gPod uses the same screen technology as Apple's famed digital displays, expect refresh rates and brightness that trumps anything on the market.

The iPod's intuitive click wheel has been mastered to serve as a touch-sensitive analog pad able to detect 256 degrees of pressure. The amount of sensitivity is set by the software, so you can tap the Sense Pad inward like a conventional D-Pad, hold a direction by lightly keeping your fingertip on a section of the pad, or perform rotations by grazing over it, depending on the game and your style of play. The Sense Pad has a bit of give and is very forgiving if you can't resist pushing your finger into it. Once the center is double-clicked and held for a second, the game pauses, minimizes, and your customizable desktop comes onscreen, where you can access all of the system's preferences and settings.

What's most interesting about Apple's latest interface innovation is that every point on the circular Sense Pad is mapped to points on the gPod's screen, so it can be used as a mouse to navigate a cursor in the OS or in genres that used to be strictly limited to PCs, like real-time strategy games, simulations, or point-and-click RPGs. In other words, games like StarCraft, Rollercoaster Tycoon, The Sims, or Diablo may now be developed for a handheld. The dam is about to burst.


Click to enlarge

The genre blending could well be unprecedented. While playing an RTS, you could zoom into a conflict and take full control of your hero to unleash moves of Soul Caliber complexity, all in an RPG-sized leveling and equipment scheme, saved and resumed at your leisure. The possibilities are endless. For more casual players, the Sense Pad may also be used as a variation of the DS's touch screen for certain puzzle or mini-games, but without the need for that pesky stylus.

The six main buttons are laid out in classic arcade style. As a nod to the stellar Genesis six-button controller, this simple and effective design is one we have been without for way too long. Once you handle it, you'll feel right at home.

When it comes to memory, the gPod stands up beautifully, packing a 2 GB Hard Drive. A PC or a Mac will treat the gPod as an external drive much like an iPod, so you can store and watch movies or transfer data back and forth easily. Music stored on a gPod can be played back, arranged into playlists, or shuffled at any time during a game, since any software's background music and sound effect volume levels are controlled entirely by Cheshire.

Staving off the curse of the cartridge, Apple is using optical mini-disks, similar in size to the PSP's UMDs, that have a thin protective coating to prevent scratches and fingerprints. They slip into the gPod like the G5 iMacs � fewer parts means there's less that can break or wear.

Apple has also learned from another past mistake: the skull-numbing iPod Photo. In addition to photo view software, gPod will come with built-in 2.4 megapixel digital camera capability, enough to print standard 4� x 6� shots with photo lab clarity. Since gPod uses the same USB connection cable as an iPod, you can print photos to any printer which supports Mac OS X or WinXP.

Given the types of games on the horizon for gPod and the fact that it must pass the PSP gauntlet, online connectivity is an obvious must-have. Because of Wi-Fi connectivity standards, the gPod will connect seamlessly to any PC and/or Mac network. To prevent widespread illegal file-sharing, you will NOT be able to copy software back and forth between the unit and a computer. Pirates might as well head back to sea�at least until those troublesome hackers find ways around the built-in encryption.

However, Apple's gPod will naturally support iTunes for your music downloading, and plans are in the works to facilitate game downloads as well. Simpler games of tiny file sizes, such as Solitaire or Ms. Pac Man, may be purchased online, saved directly to your gPod for future play, and even backed up to your computer's hard drive.

With rumors circulating about Nintendo already putting their next Game Boy into rapid development to compensate for the whooping they fear from Sony, Apple is watching the market with a jeweler's lens. To stay competitive, Apple knows they have to hit the $200 price tag, regardless of the array of features the system boasts. Apple kingpin Steve Jobs gave the world his take on the seemingly intractable situation: �We're certainly willing to take a hit on the hardware. Even if we break even after all the software sales, we'll be able to bring publishers back to the Mac. It's a win/win situation.�

Apple could certainly push for a December launch, but a system can only be as good as the games. With Sega, Konami, Capcom, Ubisoft, Namco, Blizzard, EA, and others already jumping on the bandwagon, exclusivity deals for gPod games that take advantage its unique functions are looming. There is some talk about Apple releasing the gPod to coincide with Nintendo's next Game Boy, since Sony is proving to the world that you can, in fact, challenge Goliath.

Looks like David's about to get some competition, too. We'll have more on the gPod as the facts roll out. Until then, check out the official Apple press release.

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