Love It or Hate It, Sony's Latest Stokes Passions

A game expert puts on a demonstration during the U.S. launch of the Sony PlayStaton 3, which at one point was fetching thousands of dollars in online auctions.
A game expert puts on a demonstration during the U.S. launch of the Sony PlayStaton 3, which at one point was fetching thousands of dollars in online auctions. (By Kevork Djansezian -- Associated Press)
By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, January 4, 2007

Mauricio Soto and Arne Fleisher have love-hate relationships with Sony Electronics. Soto loves the company. Fleisher hates it.

For gadget lovers, a certain reverence for Sony used to be an instinctive thing that dated to the Walkman or the original PlayStation.

But these days, the consumer-electronics giant is struggling with its image as new game fans line up to play the Nintendo Wii or dis the PlayStation 3's graphics for not having as much punch as such recent Xbox 360 offerings as Gears of War. Remember those $2,700 eBay auctions for the PS3 when it first came out, just before Thanksgiving? They've since cooled off, and now it's easy to find one on Craigslist for near list price.

Listen to Sony's die-hard fans and there's an overwhelming belief that Sony is always on the cutting edge of technology. Nobody makes a laptop as small or flashy as the Vaio. Nobody makes a mobile device quite as slick or versatile as the PlayStation Portable. And the PS3 is already being called the best device on the market by Sony lovers -- mostly because it's the gaming console that plays all the games they liked on the PS2 and the original PlayStation.

Soto is about as die-hard as they come. He sold his Xbox 360 to pay for a PlayStation 3 back in November. He also has a PlayStation Portable, a Sony laptop, a Sony handheld computer and two Sony cameras. His car stereo system is all Sony, as is the home theater system that plugs into one of the four Sony televisions in his Potomac townhouse.

I met Soto in November, when I was writing about the craziness surrounding the launch of the PS3. He was camped out at the head of a line at Best Buy in Rockville, waiting for the new game console to go on sale. When I asked what he was thinking, spending his time out in the cold and rain to get the $600 device, his answer boiled down to this: "It's Sony."

"I'm confident in their products," he said this week. "I always look at Sony first -- they're always coming up with new ways to stay ahead of the game, new ways to stay ahead of the market."

He makes an exception for the MiniDisc, an audio format that Sony pushed but that never caught on. Soto owns two MiniDisc players.

This is what Sony love looks like.

By comparison, Sony haters say the company's products are too expensive. They criticize as annoying its habit of relying on pricey proprietary formats, such as the Memory Stick -- convenient if you already own a bunch of Sony products, somewhat useless if you don't. And what's more, the rep goes, the company doesn't provide good product support.

Arne Fleisher used to be a big-time Sony fan. He had admired the company since he was a kid and had a Walkman cassette player. As an adult, he has owned Sony cellphones, cordless phones, laptops, a VCR or two -- and, yes, even one of those MiniDisc players.

The falling out didn't happen at once. There were plenty of bumps in the road that he sees now only in retrospect: gadgets that didn't work right, support issues and so on. But his Sony hatred didn't kick in until 91 days after he bought a PlayStation 2 back in 2000, when the system launched.

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