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What's New for 2006

Two worlds will collide in 2006, producing the first systems capable of running both Windows and Mac OS. (Maybe.)

For years, computer users have sought a hybrid. Not a half-electric, half-gasoline motor vehicle, but a computer that combines the elegance of Apple's software design with the raw horsepower of an Intel CPU. In 2006, that dream will come true.

When Apple announced in June 2005 that it was abandoning IBM PowerPC processors in favor of an Intel engine, the blogosphere lit up at the possibility of buying brand-name PCs loaded with Apple's Mac OS X. That won't happen, at least not in a form that Apple will officially sanction. Apple will probably key the final release of its Mac OS for Intel processors to a specific piece of hardware included in the new Intel-based Macs.

That means that the Apple family of computers will suddenly get a much needed power boost, initially in the notebook line. Held back primarily by the IBM-based chips' lack of cooling capability, Apple has struggled to match the chip speed of its Intel-based Windows competitors. With Intel powering its products, Apple will no longer have to cope with this issue.

Don't look for Apple to start marketing Windows-loaded computers anytime soon, though. That hybrid isn't coming. But Apple's next revision of its OS X operating system, code-named Leopard, is likely to arrive in late 2006, which is right around the time Windows Vista hits the shelves. With both platforms running on some of the same processors, the Apple-versus-Microsoft war could heat up.

Also, look for some hacked-together systems (not released by Apple) in which an Apple computer runs Windows or dual-boots both OSs. Asked about that possibility when he made the Intel announcement, Apple CEO Steve Jobs seemed resigned to it. Apple will neither sell nor support such a thing, but "that doesn't preclude someone from running [Windows] on a Mac," he said. "They probably will."

Xbox 360

Gamers, get your thumb muscles in shape--2006 will be a great year for consoles.

Click here to view full-size imageBethesda Software's Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion highlights the Xbox 360's graphical capabilities. Fasten your seat belts. Next year is looking to be one of the most exciting since 2001 for console video games, as major releases from Sony (PlayStation 3) and Nintendo (Revolution) follow the November 2005 launch of Microsoft's Xbox 360. It's like an election: Every four years or so, gamers get to choose which platform they'll support for the next cycle.

Many experts give the early nod to the Sony PlayStation 3, which is due to arrive in the spring. But Sony will have a hard time fending off the Xbox 360, in part because that console debuts roughly four months before Sony's PS3, and in part because Microsoft has lined up an impressive slate of games for this release.

Nintendo looks certain to continue bringing up the rear, but not necessarily for lack of innovation. Nintendo is rethinking one of the gaming world's longest-lasting components: the controller. The company's Revolution controller looks like a television remote, and you hold it the same way. What sets it apart is its array of sensors for detecting its own physical motion. If you're playing a fly-fishing game, for example, you might have to make the fly-fishing motion with your hand and wrist, not simply push buttons. Another cool Nintendo feature: Revolution owners will be able to download and play any game from the Nintendo catalog, including games designed for the original Nintendo Entertainment System from 1985. Microsoft and Sony will feature backward compatibility in their devices, too, but only going back to the last console they released.

Click here to view full-size imageAnother Xbox 360 title, Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 2 features stunning re-creations of World War 2 battles. As you'd expect, the processing and graphics hardware powering these consoles is quite impressive, bringing at least two of the units closer to the specs of a PC. Both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 will support gaming at HDTV resolutions, and all three consoles will offer high-speed Internet connectivity. At press time, however, Nintendo had not yet announced support for HDTV gaming.

Microsoft has specified two pricing tiers for the Xbox 360. The Xbox 360 model will cost $399; along with nonessential hardware add-ons (faceplates and the like), it will include a 20GB detachable hard drive and a "Silver" subscription to the Xbox Live online gaming service, which allows users to chat with other gamers, transmit voice and text messages, and access content from Xbox Live Arcade. The Xbox 360 Core System, debuting at $299, will consist exclusively of the basic hardware setup, with no Xbox Live component or detachable hard drive. At press time, neither Sony nor Nintendo had announced pricing plans.

Here's how the units compare on one key spec: Sony and Microsoft will have 3.2-GHz multicore processors in their respective devices. And Nintendo will pack IBM's "Broadway" processor into its device's slim, black frame. The processing power in the new consoles is 35 times and 15 times as strong as that of each machine's predecessor, respectively. Those numbers translate into cleaner, sharper graphics and faster game play when more objects are on the screen.

Impressive stuff. If you have delayed buying a gaming unit or have long resisted the urge to revisit your teenage gaming years, the arrival of this potent group of consoles will soon make that temptation a whole lot harder to fight off.

If you're looking for a next-generation console this holiday season, your only choice is the Xbox 360. But do yourself a favor and opt for the full $399 package rather than the $299 Core System. Most gamers will want the $100 hard drive, the $50 wireless controller, and the $40 HD video cable--all of which come with the full system--eventually anyway, so paying the extra $100 up front is worth it.

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