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Sony PSP: Handheld Game Console Review

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Review posted March 25, 2005 by Tony Peak and Lisa Gade

Nearly a year after Sony announced the PSP at the world's largest gaming trade show, E3, in May 2004, the PSP has arrived. Undeniably the slickest and most beautiful handheld gaming console, the PSP appeals to both adult and young gamers alike, though its non-ruggedized design, $250 US price tag and $40 to $50 games likely target adults.

With the PSP, Sony is making the bold move of entering a market where so many others have failed before. From the Game Gear to the Lynx, the NeoGeo Pocket Color to (arguably) the N-Gage. Nintendo's Game Boy series of handheld gaming consoles have time and time again stood strong while their competitors fell. This isn't to say there haven't been other success stories in mobile gaming, but those stories involve hybrid devices such as cell phones and PDAs rather than dedicated portable game consoles.

Sony PSP

 

It's hard to deny that Nintendo is the king of handheld gaming and challengers to the throne have an uphill battle to wage. Sony understands this well, and have had great success breaking into a gaming market. The Sony Playstation rocked the gaming console scene and took gamers in a whole new direction from the Nintendo and Sega consoles. Can Sony bring this same innovation and once again capture a whole new crowd of gamers with their Playstation Portable? With one million consoles sold in the first day of its US launch, it looks like they can.

And in fact, the PSP attempts to be your favorite new gaming platform and more. Not only is the PSP a gaming console, it's also a portable wide screen movie player (you can purchase movies on UMD discs or burn them to a Memory Stick Duo card), photo viewer and an MP3 player.

Sony PSP

In the Box

In the US, the PSP is currently sold in the Value Pack package for $249 and we haven't seen the $199 base unit package. The Value Pack includes the PSP, rechargeable Lithium Ion battery, 32 meg Memory Stick Duo card, stereo earbud headphones with integrated remote, a slip case, screen cleaning cloth, wrist strap, game sampler and the movie Spiderman 2 on a UMD disc.

 

Playstation portable box

Design and Ergonomics

The PSP pulls off an impressive design and ergonomics coup that must have designers shaking their heads in bemused wonder. In this day and age of ever-shrinking phones and portable devices, and the very popular Game Boy Advance SP and DS with their clamshell designs, Sony opted for a fairly large, meaty slate device. They're being praised for it, and they deserve it. As much as folks love fold-away space saving devices, there's one thing they love even more: wow factor.

The subtle black-on-black controls, the sheen of the black plastic, glassy display, and especially the relatively thin 1" profile and narrow bezel make for a stunning console that's pure eye candy. It's clear the device is longer because of the large widescreen display rather than lackluster industrial design. The key is simple: no wasted space.

side of PSP

Above: the PSP's top edge. Right, the box.

 

Deals and Shopping

 

 

 

On the left you'll find both an analog controller and a four-way digital direction pad. The four standard Playstation buttons live on the right (square, circle, triangle and X), and the two shoulder buttons function as L1 and R1. Along the bottom of the unit just below the display you'll find a Home button, volume controls, brightness control, MP3 player button and the usual Select and Start console buttons. The charger port and headphone jack are on the bottom edge and the mini USB and IR ports are on the top edge. The PSP has front facing LEDs for power, WiFi and Memory Stick Duo activity.

The gaming ergonomics are excellent and the small analog controller works well, as do the standard Playstation buttons when gaming. Unlike hybrid devices, you won't be crying for better control, and unlike the GBA your fingers won't go into spasms working in such a confined area.

Clearly, the PSP is designed for a more mature audience than the GBA and Nintendo DS. Its heft is likely too much for the average 5 year old, and its huge, vulnerable display isn't something most of us would entrust to a small child. While the PSP looks like (and is) a sleek new piece of consumer electronics, Nintendo handheld gaming consoles are by far less sexy but durable thanks to their smaller protected displays and bump-absorbing plastic casings.

Sony PSP, Tapwave Zodiac, Nokia N-Gage and Nintendo DS

Sony PSP and Nintendo DS

Above: the PSP and Nintendo DS handheld gaming consoles

Left image, from top to bottom: Sony PSP, Tapwave Zodiac, Nokia N-Gage QD and the Nintendo DS.

 

Performance

The PSP is powered by the PSP CPU with a system clock frequency of 1 to 333MHz, depending on load. It has 32MB of main memory and 4MB of embedded DRAM. But let's face it, you can read dry spec sheets anywhere you'd care to. What does this really mean to you and me? Well, subjectively speaking you can expect games with between PSOne and PS2 quality 3D graphics and detailed, in-depth gameplay. From the launch titles, it's clear every cycle of the CPU is put to use.

Of course there are scalebacks from its console siblings, and the small screen size and resolution helps to smooth the rough edges the PS1 and PS2 are sometimes known for, but a good deal of launch titles look much better than PS1 games. Once the developers have time to master the system and really push it to the limits, we'll see some great results. Loading times are reasonably fast, but those used to the 'instant on' feel of the Game Boy series may have to adjust to short reads of the UMD discs between levels.

The PSP has an optical UMD drive which takes 2.3" discs that look like very small CDs encased in a cartridge with a clear cover and an opening for the laser. This opening will likely trap dust and dirt, so keep UMD discs in their protective jewel cases when not in use. Both games and movies are sold on UMD discs. To insert a disc, side open the release and the drive door will open in a fashion similar to minidisc and cassette walkmen. Drop in the disc, close the door and you're ready to play.

UMD disc

Display and Sound

The 4.3" 16:9 widescreen is certainly larger than any PDA or competing handheld console display, and for comparison, it's a bit taller and much wider than the standard 3.5" Pocket PC screen. But the comparison ends there: the moment you turn on the PSP, you'll know it's in a league of its own. To appreciate the PSP, you simply must see it in person.

The screen is superbly crisp, carries perfect color tones in both games and movies, and is very bright. The only drawback is that the screen does glare in well lit rooms thanks to its reflective XBrite-like surface. The PSP offers four brightness levels controlled by the front button, though the brightest level can only be activated when the unit is plugged in. In well lit rooms, the 2nd or third brightness level is plenty bright and in a dark room, the 2nd brightness level is quite good. No one will complain that the display is dim!

While the internal stereo speakers on the PSP are adequate for brief gaming or general use, they're neither loud nor impressive in terms of sound quality. I rather hoped for higher quality stereo speakers built right in to the unit, but thankfully the unit sounds great through headphones.

Using the bundled earbud headphones in the value pack, sound is very impressive. It's loud, clear, and has great dynamic and tonal range. While it may not deliver the slamming bass of your home theater amp, the PSP is more than suitable for listening to your favorite music or watching your favorite action flicks. We tested the PSP with Kinyo 5.1 surround sound headphones, and the end result was decently deep bass and rich, smooth sound. Yes, you can use any set of 3.5mm stereo headphones you like. And yes, the PSP doubles as an MP3 player.

Memory Stick Duo: Game Saves, MP3s, Videos and More

The PSP uses Sony's Memory Stick Duo card format for storage, which looks like a half length Memory Stick and can be read by card readers with a Memory Stick slot using an adapter. Unfortunately Sony doesn't include the adapter, though if you buy a Duo stick an adapter is always included. Games saves go on the card and you can put photos, MP3s, and your own videos on the card. If you're a big MP3 or home-brew video fan, you'll want to get a higher capacity Duo and those are available in sizes up to 1 gig.

To get content onto the Duo, you can either use a card reader or get a mini USB to USB cable and plug the PSP into your computer (the PSP is a USB 2.0 device). The Memory Stick Duo will appear as a removable drive on your computer and you'll be able to move, copy and delete files on the card. Sony instructs you to format the card on the PSP before use. The card really uses the same standard FAT file system used by all flash media cards and formatting it creates several standard directories used by the PSP. If you wish to play movie trailers, you can visit www.connect.com/psp/ to download a zip file and a selection of movie trailers and other content. The zip file merely creates a folder that the PSP uses for movies and has a sample video. Drag that folder structure to the Memory Stick Duo, or create it yourself rather than using the zip file. Simply create a folder called MP_ROOT on the card, then create a folder named 100MNV01. Put the MP4 and thumbnail files from the download site into the 100MNV01 folder, insert the card into the PSP and you're ready to watch movies.

MP3s go in the MUSIC subdirectory of the PSP folder on the card and JPEGs go in the PHOTO subdirectory of the PSP folder. The PSP creates these folders for you when you format the card, and yes, they must be ALL CAPS. You may remove the card from the PSP whenever you wish as long as files aren't currently being read (i.e.: it's playing MP3s) or written in the case of game saves. The PSP's Memory Stick LED lets you know if the card is in use. When playing music and videos, you can bring up an on-screen display that allows you to control playback features and settings by pressing the triangle button. You can also use the various hardware buttons to control playback.

Games and Software

Launching with an impressive list of 24 titles (17 were available on launch day) and many more in the coming months, it's quite clear the PSP has a great deal of support where it needs it most. With titles from giants like Namco and Konami such as Ridge Racer and Metal Gear Acid, Sony has an impressive lineup both now and forthcoming. The future promises both many original titles, and ports of old favorites from the Playstation lineup.

The PSP, though not exclusively, tends appeal to an older audience than that of Nintendo. Of course everyone can enjoy Mario and Lumines, but it's refreshing to see more mature titles like Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo 4 Mobile alongside more general audience titles like Bust a Move in the upcoming games list. The M rated Metal Gear Acid is a prime example of Sony's opportunity to steal adult gamers from the Nintendo handheld console line, and to thus repeat their original success with the Playstation and expand the market in new ways.

Battery Life

The manual estimates game time at 3-6 hours and video playback at 3-5 hours with a 2 hour 20 minute complete charge, and that's proved accurate. You'll see less time when using WiFi, as is the case with all devices since the wireless radio consumes significant power. After the better part of a day playing two games off and on, watching part of a UMD movie, and watching various music videos and movie previews off the demo disc, the PSP still had 47% power remaining.

The system menu has a battery icon with four segments, as well as a menu option with more detailed information such as percentage and an estimated time in hours and minutes of remaining power. When the last brick disappears from the battery meter, the system warns you that power is low. You can also play the PSP while it's connected to the AC adapter, and charge the battery at the same time. The unit ships with an1,800 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's user replaceable. So if you're on the go for long periods of time and won't be near an outlet, get a second battery. Given the cottage industry of accessories that's already sprung up for the PSP, someone might even make an external battery charger that would allow you to charge spare batteries.

While it's true that battery runtime is lacking compared to Nintendo handheld gaming consoles, the PSP's much larger and brighter display, along with the fast CPU and optical drive do require more power. And without those features, the gaming and video playback experience simply wouldn't be so stunning. The PSP actually offers longer runtimes for gaming and video playback than do current PDAs.

If you put a game down the unit will automatically turn off the display and put the unit to sleep so it won't run out of juice if you forget to turn it off. You can set the display and system timeouts individually. If you waken the unit by sliding the power switch, you'll see your game exactly where you left it. If you turn the unit off while a game is still running, you'll be returned to the same point in the game when you turn it on. The PSP seems to go into a deep sleep rather than fully turn off. And don't worry about accidental button presses turning on the console when in transit: simply slide the power switch to the bottom to activate the hold switch.

Wireless and Multiplayer

The PSP has integrated WiFi 802.11b wireless networking which you'll turn on and off using a switch on the unit's left side. The PSP's WiFi indicator light won't light up when you switch on WiFi, you must actually establish a connection to power up the radio and LED. That's very battery friendly: even if you forget to switch off WiFi, the radio will sleep until needed for an active connection. The PSP can connect to other PSPs and access points.

We found it easy to set up and use the WiFi, and the device had good range. It played nicely with DHCP and WEP encryption when connecting to access points. You can save a long list of connection profiles, so you need not re-enter settings if you enjoy online play at home, at a friend's house and your favorite Starbucks. The network utility can search for available access points and PSPs and walk you through connecting to them. Unlike the Nintendo DS, this is true 802.11b using standard networking protocols with support for both ad hoc and infrastructure mode as well as 64 and 128 bit WEP encryption. If only Sony had included a web browser! They do include a network update feature which you can use to update your PSP when it's connected to the Internet, should an update be available.

You can use WiFi to connect to other PSPs in ad hoc mode and play multiplayer (1-8 players) games wirelessly. Quite a few of the launch titles support multiplayer gaming between PSPs. In addition, select titles support online play right out of the box, such as Twisted Metal: Head On. Simply connect to your WiFi access point using the infrastructure setting, and you're ready for some online action. Another interesting upcoming feature is 'game sharing'. For example, Namco Museum lets an owner of the game send a temporary one round demo over to a friend's PSP.

Conclusion

Who wouldn't love a console that looks like a $500 ultra-modern and cool device, has Sony behind it, a great list of rollout titles and a widescreen that can't be beat? Throw in movie playback, an MP3 player, stereo, a photo viewer, stereo output, standard 802.11b WiFi and geat gaming ergonomics, Sony is taking the market in new directions. If you wonder what may make Sony different than the rest that have tried in the past, Sony makes Sony different. They have the tools, the developers, the technology, and from what I see so far, the audience they need to succeed.

The PSP isn't perfect, the internal speaker could be better, the battery life could be longer, and the price could be just a little bit lower to compete with the DS. There have been reports of dead pixels and some of us have had first hand experience with very small amounts of dust trapped under the display on the initial US shipment, and it remains to be seen how this will play out or the quality of subsequent shipments. For your money, the wow and quite possibly a whole new direction of handheld gaming, I can completely and honestly recommend the PSP to any gamer out there. For the most part, I haven't had to... Anyone who sees one, wants one.

Web Site: www.sony.com/psp

Price: $249 US for PSP Value Pack

Comparison Shopping: Where to Buy

 

Specs:

Display: 4.3" Transflective widescreen 16:9 TFT color LCD. 64K colors. 480 x 272 resolution.

Battery: 1800 mAh Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.

Performance: Sony CPU running from 1 to 333MHz depending on load. 32 megs main memory, 4 megs embedded DRAM.

Size: 6.7 in (W) x 2.9 in (H) x .9 in (D). 280 grams ( .62 pounds).

Audio: Built in stereo speakers and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone jack. Plays MP3s and Value Pack includes earbud stereo headphones with integrated remote.

Supported Video and Audio Formats:
[Video]: "UMD": H.264/MPEG-4 AVC Main Profile Level3
[Video]: "Memory Stick": MPEG-4 SP,AAC
[Music]: "UMD": linear PCM,ATRAC3plus™
[Music]: "Memory Stick": ATRAC3plus™,MP3(MPEG1/2 Layer3)

Networking: Integrated WiFi 802.11b supporting ad hoc and infrastructure modes. Used for peer-to-peer multiplayer gaming and online play over the Internet.

Expansion and Ports: Memory Stick Duo slot. 32 meg card included with Value Pack. Mini USB 2.0 port, IR port.

 

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