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Sony PlayStation Portable

Move over Nintendo, there’s a new sheriff in town. Finally Nintendo is getting the competition that is needed in the portable market. The Sony PlayStation Portable is a sexy new toy that should attract both young and old and we of course have been playing with it for several months.

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Introduction
 
One company has held the portable console market in an iron grip for a lot of years. Of course I am talking about Nintendo. True, other competitors have briefly popped up but over time Nintendo has dominated the market with its GameBoy portables. I’m pretty sure Nintendo didn’t expect this to change for a long time so it must have come as a surprise when Sony announced that they would enter the handheld market with their PlayStation Portable.
 
While Nintendo has dominated the handheld market Sony has dominated the stationary console market with the PS2. I’m not sure why they have decided to release a portable console but maybe they feel the pressure for the next generation of consoles and want to diversify or they just felt it was a good time to enter the market. Whatever the reason Sony is one of the few companies that has enough behind them to take on Nintendo.
 
When the Sony PSP was released in Japan December 2004 I promptly imported one (and paid through the nose for it) and this review is based on 3 months of gaming on this unit. The US version will be the same, possibly without some of the smaller glitches that the Japanese PSP has.
 
The Specifications
 
The Sony PSP is a beast. Forget about having to accept limited graphic-capabilities or mono sound.
 

Color

Black

Product Code

PSP-1001K

Dimensions

Approximately 6.7 in (W) x 2.9 in (H) x .9 in (D)

Weight

Approximately 280g / .62 lbs (including battery)

CPU

PSP CPU (System clock frequency 1 – 333MHz)

Main Memory

32MB

Embeded DRAM

4MB

Display

4.3 inch, 16:9 Wide screen TFT LCD
480 x 272 pixel, 16.77 million colors
Maximum luminance 180 / 130 / 80cd/m2 (when using battery pack)
Maximum luminance 200 / 180 / 130 / 80cd/m2 (when using AC adaptor)

Sound

Built-in stereo speakers

Main Input/
Output

IEEE 802.11b (Wi-Fi)
USB 2.0 (mini-B)
Memory Stick Duo™
Infrared Port

Disc Drive

UMD Drive (Read only)

Main Connectors

Memory Stick Duo™ Slot
USB connector
DC IN 5V connector
Headset connector

Keys/Switches

Directional buttons (Up/Down/Right/Left)
Analog Stick
Enter keys (Triangle, Circle, Cross, Square)
Left, Right shoulder buttons x 1
START button, SELECT button, HOME button x 1
POWER/HOLD switch x 1
Display button, Sound button, Volume +/- buttons x 1
Wireless LAN switch (ON/OFF) x 1
OPEN latch (UMD) x 1

Power

Lithium-ion Battery
AC Adaptor

Profile

PSP Game
UMD Audio (profile name TBD)
UMD Video (profile name TBD)

Codec

[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)

Security

(Encryption) 128bit AES (Copyright protection technology) MagicGate™

Access control

Region, Parental Control

Wireless
communications
IEEE802.11b

Infrastructure mode
Ad hoc mode (connection up to 16 consoles)

PSP Value Pack
supplied
accessories

AC adaptor
Battery pack
Memory Stick Duo (32 MB)
Headphone with remote control
Soft case and cloth
UMD In-pack Sampler

 
There are a few things that stand out when you hold a PSP in your hand:
 
The screen
My recent portable gaming has been on GBA and GBA SP’s as well as on some mobile phones. The screens of these devices pale in comparison to the screen on the PSP. The screen is huge and has vibrant colors. It has several levels of brightness and even at the lowest brightness setting it is far better than anything I’ve seen.
 
Large screen of image
Look at this huge screen!
 
The looks
 
This is how a console should look in 2005. It doesn’t look like a toy, more of an accessory that my wife would buy. The machine has a black shiny finish with a metal strip going around the PSP on the side. Just look at these images.
 

View a small movie of the PSP
 
The controls
 
Sony chooses to go a more traditional way that Nintendo and its DS. You will quickly feel at home with the controls of the PSP. Sony however has added a cool feature: the analog disc.
 

That little round knob is the analog disc
 
Feeling a lot like the analog stick on the Dual Shock controller from the PS2 and works similar. It isn’t a stick though and barely rises above the surface.

 
 

The package

In Japan the PSP was sold in two bundles – either the basic bundle which contained nothing but the PSP as well as the Value Pack which contained some added items. In the US the PSP will only be sold as the Value Pack but with a few more items included. This is what you get with a Sony PSP:
 
. The PSP unit
. A soft case for the PSP
. A 32 MB memorystick Duo
. A cleaning cloth
. Headphones with remote control
. Batterypack
. UMD Demo disc with sample movies, music and video game footage (no game demos)
 
The first 1 million customers also will get Spiderman 2 on a UMD-disc.
 
While there have been some complaints about having to pay for extras that you don’t want. I don’t think the extra stuff is useless. I did in fact buy the Value Pack myself and thus got almost the same stuff.
 

This is part of the bundle
 
The soft case actually is a very good case. Even though it is open on one end it fits tightly around the PSP making it almost impossible to have the PSP fall out of the case. The only complaint I have is that it does not have any room for extra UMD-discs.
 
The 32 MB memorystick Duo Pro certainly isn’t big enough if you want to watch movies and listen to music. It is however big enough to be used for savegames.
 
The headphones are nothing special without being completely crappy. The remote is a pretty plastic IMHO but works.
 
The cleaning cloth wasn’t part of the Japanese value pack but is really needed. The shiny surface of the PSP is a magnet for fingerprints. I got myself a separate cloth since I want to keep my PSP as clean as possible all the time. You will need to wipe it down quite often since the fingerprints really show up on the shiny surface.
 

I’m not sure why every product must use a different small USB connector

There is actually one item that is missing: a USB cable. If you want to connect the PSP to your computer you have to get a separate USB cable. I realized that the cable for my Creative Zen Micro fit so I didn’t need to buy an extra cable.

Build Quality

As I mentioned above you will quickly realize that while looking really good the shiny finish of the PSP is a fingerprint magnet. I actually recognize that problem from some other Sony products I have/have used like the Sony S700i mobile phone and the Sony V800 mobile phone.
 
 
The overall build quality of the PSP feels very good. It is a pretty heavy machine that feels well built. The shoulder buttons though feel a bit flimsy and could have used a bit stiffer response. There has been a lot of talk about the square-button on the PSP. Sony has purposely put it close to the screen and had to move the trigger beneath it a bit to the side due to space restrictions. This means that this button has a bit less sensitivity than the other buttons and feels a bit different to push. In Japan less than 1% of the PSP’s had some issues with the button getting stuck. I didn’t have any problems and nor did any of the few friends I know who also got a PSP. I’m still not aware if Sony has made any changes to the button for the US PSP.
 
 
Another problem all products that use LCD screens have are dead pixels or dirt between the glass and the LCD-screen. I didn’t have any dead pixels but did have 1 speck of dust between the glass and the LCD screen.
 

Click for the large image and spot the dust particle on the screen.
 
It isn’t noticeable unless you look for it and I probably never would have noticed it if I hadn’t inspected the screen closely for the review.
Using the PSP
 
The Sony PSP is controlled through a set of menus. It allows you to access music on memorysticks or UMD discs, watch MPEG4-videos, as well as configure access for WIFI networking. One annoying ‘feature’ is that the background changes color depending on which month it is. Right now (march) it is a pretty ugly lime green color.  Please Sony, allow us to select our own background color or even background images.
 

The color of december
 
Storage
 
The Sony PSP uses memorystick Duo and memorystick Duo Pro for storage.
 
 
You can expect the prices of these sticks to take a dive when the market grows for the use of them. Right now SanDisk has pretty cheap 512 MB sticks and the prices of the 1 GB sticks are slowly coming down. A 512 MB stick is enough if you choose to bring some music and some episodes of your favorite show. If you want to bring a couple of movies you should invest in a 1 GB stick.
 
 
Music
 
The Sony PSP supports music in either MP3 or ATRAC format. Sony doesn’t include any software that can convert music to ATRAC format so I was forced to use only MP3s when I did my testing.
 
 
The sound of the PSP is good when you use good headphones. You cannot change the bass/treble separately and have to make due with the 5 equalizer settings that Sony includes.
 
Right now the PSP can only recognize music in 1 folder level, thus you cannot create a deep structure of all your albums. Other than that the PSP supports playlists and you can loop tunes as well as play them randomly just like any other MP3 player.
 
 
The only really negative side of the PSP as a MP3 player is the size. It is much easier to have a small iPOD or Creative Zen Micro in your pocket than the PSP.
Using the PSP

Movies
 
The Sony PSP can play movies in MPEG4 format. Unfortunately you need to convert any video clip/movie you have to the correct format before it will play on the PSP. When the Japanese PSP was released there was only a beta of the Japanese version of a program from Sony that could be used to convert to the correct MPEG4 format. To download it you have to pay a small fee and as far as I know you had to live in Japan to download it. A program called 3gpp however pretty quick added support for creating videoclips in ‘PSP-supported’ format and this is the program I used when UI tested the video capabilities of the PSP.
 
[Update: John M pointed me to a new software called PSP Video 9 that is available now. MAC owners also can look for a piece of software called iPSP that looks cool. I'm sure more programs will appear now that it is out in the US.]
 
The Sony PSP has a nice wide screen with 480 x 272 pixel resolution. This resolution is only supported when watching a UMD movie. If you play a movie from the memorystick you are limited to 320×240 pixels. This sounds bad but to be honest the quality of the movies is still excellent. You can display the video in various modes (stretch, fill, etc.) and depending on the quality you encoded the movie in the image quality can be quite stunning.
 
It is hard to specify exactly how big a movie can be but I encoded the Spiderman 2 movie from a DVD to MPEG4 format and with good quality (subjective I know) the 2 hour movie ended up with a filesize of about 520 MB.
 

View videoclip showing off the
movie capabilities (WMV, 16 MB)
 
Watching episodes of Stargate:SG1, Enterprise and other TV-series has been an important part of my PSP experience during train trips and I must say it has performed very well.
 
In addition to your own encoded movies the PSP also can play movies on UMD-discs. Sony has already announced a variety of movies that will be sold on UMD-disc including Spiderman 2 and Hellboy.
 
Games
 
Music and video are nice but the PSP is a gaming machine. If you were worried that all the extra features would mean it would not be good at gaming you are wrong. The PSP raises the bar on what you can expect from a portable console. The graphics capabilities are impressive and some of the earlier games have stunning graphics. Think of it as a mix between PS1 and PS2 level graphics.
 

Watch a short movie clip of
Ridge Racers. (WMV, 26 MB)
 
In the next article we will take a closer look at some of the games so right now we will just take a look at the  impressive launch list:
  • Ape Escape: On the Loose, Sony Computer Entertainment America
  • ATV Offroad Fury: Blazin’ Trails, SCEA
  • Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower, Capcom
  • Dynasty Warriors, Koei
  • FIFA 2005, Electronic Arts
  • Gretzky NHL, SCEA
  • Lumines, Ubisoft
  • Metal Gear Acid, Konami
  • MLB, SCEA
  • MVP Baseball, EA
  • NBA, SCEA
  • NBA Street Showdown, EA
  • Need for Speed Rivals, EA
  • NFL Street 2 Unleashed, EA
  • Rengoku: Tower of Purgatory, Konami
  • Ridge Racer, Namco
  • Smartbomb, Eidos Interactive
  • Spider-Man 2, Activision
  • Tiger Woods PGA Tour, EA
  • Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 Remix, Activision
  • Twisted Metal: Head-On, SCEA
  • Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade, Sony Online Entertainment
  • Wipeout Pure, SCEA
  • World Tour Soccer, SCEA
Some of the games I can directly recommend are Lumines, Ridge Racers and Wipeout Pure. Below are some screenshots from a few games I played.
 
Ridge Racers
 
     

Minna No Golf (Hot Shot Golf)

     

Lumines

     

Apes Escape: Academy

     

WIFI

The Sony PlayStation Portable has built-in WIFI support. You can either use in in ad-hoc mode to connect directly to another PSP or a computer or you can use Infrastructure mode to connect to a WIFI network. With the release of the PSP in the US some games like Twisted Metal now will start support gaming online through WIFI. up until now games have only supported ‘local’ multiplayer through ad-hoc mode (although you could use a tunnel software like xFire to play over the net).

One additional use of WIFI is to download firmwares for the PSP. Right after the reelase of this article Sony released a new firmware version for the Japanese PSP with adds support for more languages as well as some bugfixes and new features. The US PSP already has this firmware. If you don’t have access to a WIFI network you can of course also download firmwares from Sony.

Battery time
 
Before the PSP was release there were a lot of speculations on how short/long the battery time would be. With a huge and bright screen as well as a disc-based medium for games no-one expected the PSP to last especially long. After using the PSP for 3 months I can safely say that most of the fears were unfounded. The PSP might not win any prizes for its battery time but it actually isn’t as bad as some want you to think.
 
 
The battery time can be anything from 4-10 hours depending on what you do with it. Listening to MP3’s will make your battery last the longest but even a game like Ridge Racers will last at least 4 hours. One thing that does decrease the battery time though is WIFI
 
My normal use for the PSP is to play games/watch movies when waiting for the train and on the train as well as play some before going to sleep. The battery always lasts about a week before I have to recharge it again. The only time I can think of where the battery time can be a bit too low is if you plan on spending a trans-Atlantic flight playing the whole trip.
 
If you need more juice you can either just get another battery as the batteries are easily exchangeable or wait for an updated battery that has 30% more capacity. That should be out later this year.
 
The bad
 
There really are not many bad points with the PSP. If I however have to choose some things I guess I can complain about the long loading times for the games. Since it uses discs the PSP has to spin up the discs when reading from them. This can lead to longer loading times than you are used to from a portable console like the GBA SP. It really does depend on the game though.

 

 

Conclusion
 
The Sony PSP will undoubtedly be a success. It simply is a very well made and capable portable console that should even get people who have been wary of getting a portable console interested. The price of $250 might feel a bit steep for a portable console but I think that for what you are getting it is a bargain. With the Sony PSP portable gaming is taking a huge step from the kiddie feel that it had with the earlier GameBoys and quite frankly grown up.
 
Pros
 
-         Huge screen
-         Looks good
-         Awesome image quality
-         Performance performance performance
-         Can play both music and video and does it well.
-         Lots of games at launch
 
 
Cons
 
-         High price for a portable console
-         Longer loading times
 

My advice is to get one as soon as possible. I award the Sony PSP a solid 9.5 out of 10 and a Golden Bear Award.

 

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