Panasonic's Jungle Will Get Eaten Alive By Notebooks, Tablets, Cloud Gaming

Last Updated Oct 5, 2010 2:15 PM EDT

Last night Panasonic (PC) announced the Jungle, a small, portable computer dedicated to online gaming. The company obviously gets that mobile is the new black, but it is delusional to believe gamers will pay for a gaming-only laptop in a post-iPad, cheap home/laptop PC world.

Panasonic's mum on specs, but according to Gizmodo's Joshua Topolsky, the Jungle has the following:
  • Clamshell design
  • Hi-res display
  • Full QWERTY keyboard
  • D-pad and button
  • mini HDMI port
  • micro USB port
  • 3.5 mm headphone jack
Based on the picture obtained by Gizmodo, the Jungle looks to be about the length and two-thirds the width of the average keyboard. It also will launch with an exclusive Battlestar Galactica game and a web-based TV show called Online Underground.

Unfortunately, these features do not add up to a dream machine.

First, let's break down which audience would actually buy the Jungle. Casual computer gamers have the Apple (APPL) iPad, which offers Facebook-style titles and, of course, they wouldn't buy a computer dedicated to gaming. Console gamers weaned on Microsoft (MSFT) XBox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 (SCE) will balk at the tiny screen and, particularly, the idea of playing on something without a controller. That leaves two important audiences: One into the massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft and the other into the online first person shooters like Counterstrike. The great part is that these two groups are hardcore: They are willing to spend the money for the best experience.

The problem is that the Jungle will, by its very nature, not offer the best gaming experience available. The clamshell design looks slick, but the widescreen monitor, if the dimensions are accurate, will be about 3 inches by 7 inches. Smaller than the average tablet computer screen, the monitor would be too small for tight aiming in PC-level first person shooters and not detailed enough for intricate micromanaging in MMORPGs or their real-time strategy (RTS) cousins. (Oddly, based on the trailer, the Battlestar Galactica game could very well be a RTS title).

Worse, like any laptop, its compact size guarantees that its graphic and processing power will pale compared to any souped-up computer setup hardcore gamers have at home. It would be like buying a smart car when you've got a Ferrari at home.

Equally perplexing is this push for online mobile gaming since, just based on months of Gadget Watch posts, Panasonic is incredibly late to the party. Gamers, game creators and like-minded startups have already found ways to make the rich PC gaming experience portable with current devices. Legendary programmer and PC gaming advocate John Carmack not only told me a year ago that the iPhone was his favorite new gaming system, but announced this past summer that his next first person shooter, Rage, will launch on the mobile (and he didn't mean a tiny laptop). Apple and Microsoft have created GameCenter and Windows Phone 7, respectively, to promote online gaming on their mobile machines. And last summer SGN launched the first cross-platform action game, Skies of Glory, that allows iPhone-to-Android online interaction.

The nail in the coffin here is OnLive, the cloud-based gaming service. It currently allows gamers to play dozens of just-released console games on their PC or Mac without having to buy a dedicated system. Released last summer, OnLive symbolizes the final shift from having a specific gaming experience on a specific system to having any gaming experience on any system. Console game exclusives on the XBox 360, PS3 or Nintendo (NTDOY) Wii are becoming more rare, usually relegated to niche games, like a family title on the child-friendly Wii, or phenomenal blockbusters that can sell a system, like Halo (although even that title may be sneaking onto another system). From Google (GOOG) TV to cloud gaming, consumers do not want to buy a dedicated system anymore and smart companies are delivering on this premise.

A hardcore computer gamer would have already found the best notebook and "tricked it out" to his or her liking for the optimal gaming experience. Panasonic's connection to the video game industry is limited to the buggy and overpriced 3DO console, which has been the butt of many industry jokes for two decades. Panasonic would be perhaps the last company gamers would go to expecting an awesome gaming environment.

The Jungle would have been a hot machine circa 2006, before tablet, smartphone and cloud-based gaming really took off. Only one dedicated console line, the Nintendo DS, has managed to still sell like hotcakes, and that's based on incredible branding and equally incredible games. Panasonic's new machine looks like it has neither going for it.

Photo courtesy of icelight // CC 2.0
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