SOony NGPIt's obviously too early to tell if Sony's next PlayStation Portable -- tentatively called "NGP," for Next Generation Portable -- will be a hit and help Sony gain gaming ground lost to Nintendo and Apple in handheld games.

But if the dust collecting for years on the original PSP and ancient Sony Dreamcast sitting in my closet are any indication, then you can bet the company has plenty of ground to make up in regaining gamers' attention. Being an early adopter, as I was with both of those Sony games, isn't always a great idea. The cost is high, and if they don't catch on with other consumers, product support can drop quickly and it can be hard to find games for them.There are already enough versions of the PlayStation Portable to make your head swim: Slim, PSP Go, and limited editions with specific games included, or designs on the outside to give it a unique look. Gazelle offered me $41 for my used PSP, which isn't enough to get me to do it, but it's a relief to see that it's worth something.

The NGP has a touchscreen on the back, making it look like a confused iPod Touch. It is expected to come out in various versions, meaning all will have WiFi, but it will cost more to have 3G.

Prices haven't been set, but Sony says it will be "affordable." Its handhelds have regularly been in the upper range when they debut, so as with many electronic gadgets, it's best to wait a while to see if the price drops or if it's bundled at a discount. One of the NGP's competitors, the Nintendo 3DS, is expected to cost $249, which may be just less than where Sony wants to enter.

The Nintendo 3DS is getting a major jump on getting into gamers' hands by coming out on March 27. That may be enough to leave Sony in the dust, if the 3DS catches on. A release date for the NGP hasn't been set, with gaming sites predicting anywhere from September to Christmas this year. If that's how it works out, Sony will have given Nintendo at least six months of lead time to sell its product.

Nintendo's DS devices are already outselling Sony's PSP by more than two to one: 135 million units compared with 62 million units, as of September, according to the New York Times.

The handheld game systems also are competing against smartphones and other casual games, which might not be as intense and look as good as the NGP and similar games, but they beat having to carry a couple of expensive gadgets to play games and make phone calls.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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