Sega Dreamcast

Sega's Dreamcast features quality, 128-bit graphics effects and speed, plus the ability to go online. But first things first - a games console has to do games well, regardless of fancy features like Net connections.

The Dreamcast CPU speeds at 200MHz, and the 8MB of dedicated video RAM can generate three million polygons per second and display 16.7 million colours. There is full Direct 3D and Open Gl support, and the unit outputs a VGA signal for computer monitors as well as the standard TV output of 640x480. Dreamcast operates on a customised version of Windows CE and produces 64 channels of 32-bit Yamaha sound (it also plays audio CDs).

Impressive numbers maybe, but what does it look like? In a game like Tokyo Highway Challenge, you'll notice the precision of localised lighting effects and the "little things" of top-level gaming, like the puffs of smoke from the locked-up rear wheels of a car - delivered, in fact, by Dreamcast's 26 levels of "fog and translucency".

There are only about 20 titles available for the Dreamcast at the time of writing, but the future release schedule shows about eight or 10 titles per month from now. For what it's worth, we also tested Crazy Taxi, which was oodles of open-topped taxi-driving mayhem on the streets of San Francisco. Although Crazy Taxi was great fun, it is important to remember that not all games developers are the same, and just because a title is released for a particular games platform doesn't mean it necessarily makes use of all the platform's performance capabilities.

Dialling in

Now that we've got the graphics issue out of the way, consider that Sega's Dreamcast is also an Internet device. The in-built 33.6Kbps modem (why not 56Kbps?) dials online via Telstra's Big Pond service, and 150 hours of free connection time (must be used in three months) is included with the Dreamcast. The Internet service only went live in mid-March, and existing Big Pond subscribers can reconfigure their accounts for access from Dreamcast.

I doubt whether getting online with the Dreamcast could have been any easier: plug in the supplied phone cable, insert the Dreamcast CD, and just follow the on-screen instructions. About 15 minutes later, your games console is connected to Web land.

The home site is Comma.com.au, the standard sort of portal with areas like Life, Games, Mail and Chat. Quite frankly, it looks like an exercise in retailing, with "e-tailers selected specifically for our generation Y target market", according to the Dreamcast release. The search facility at the site, powered by LookSmart, gets you into the rest of the Web. Web navigation with the games controller wasn't as awkward as I expected. The console triggers - so handy for blasting baddies - display useful Web menus for browsing back and forward, bookmarking sites and changing display options.

The small print of the browser spec says there could be "limited access to some third-party services and sites", such as banking, share trading and Java-based sites, which should be fixed in future browser upgrades. I also had problems with a Macromedia-enhanced Web site.

Add-ons and then some

The standard Dreamcast controller has analog and digital joypads, left and right triggers, and the familiar coloured quartet of selection buttons. Why stop there? Also available are a steering wheel; standard PC-type keyboard (a good idea for the more serious Web user); vibration pack for "realistic rumble action" in shooting, fighting and racing games; light gun; and even a fishing controller (with the Bass Fishing game).

Another important feature of the Dreamcast are the Virtual Memory System (VMS) units. These little fellows function as standalone mini games machines and also plug into the Dreamcast console to act as memory cartridges for saved games. Furthermore, two VMSes can be plugged together to transfer game action, and the mono LCD screen acts as an additional display in the games console for Dreamcast games. They can also be plugged into the steering wheel peripheral.

I'll come straight out and say Sega's Dreamcast is certainly a PC alternative - not for everyone, but one for the kids or for anyone who just wants good quality gaming and a bit of Internet on the side. Hard to beat for the price and ease of use.

Sega Dreamcast

Price: $399

Distributor: OziSoft

Phone: (03) 9415 7611

URL: www.dreamcast.com.au

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MARK STAFFORD

PC World

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