Review by The Vic Viper

"Fantastic hardware, tons of features, and a decent library of games for a resonable price"

The PlayStation Portable is possibly the first handheld to be able to challenge Nintendo's control of the handheld gaming market since Sega introduced the GameGear over a decade ago. Like all of Nintendo's recent challengers, such as Nokia's N-Gage and Tapwave's Zodiac, the PSP is not just a videogame system - it is a complete multimedia device. Released at the end of 2004 in Japan and early 2005 in North America, Sony managed to create a tremendous amount of consumer hype and developer support in the relatively short time between it's official announcement in May of 2004 and it's release.

With the PSP you get a lot in a very small package. The console weighs less than half of a pound and is around seven by three inches and less than an inch deep, so the device is truly portable. There are several accessories and power cables that can add to the size and weight, however for short term mobility, the PSP is perfect for sticking in your pocket and taking with you.

PSP games and movies are stored on a proprietary medium called Universal Media Disc (UMD), which is a 1.8GB mini DVD. Like all disc based consoles, the PSP requires memory cards to save games and other content. Rather than create a new format like the home consoles have, Sony incorporated their Memory Stick flash cards into the PSP. Like all flash cards, Memory Sticks are very cheap, with 256MB cards costing around $35 – compared to PlayStation 2 cards which cost the same and only hold 8MB of data. There is also 32MB of internal flash memory, which is good for starters, but once you have more than a handful of games or want to put music on the PSP, you'll defiantly need a memory card.

For a handheld that is the first in its product line and was announced just a year ago the PSP has a very large library already and many more games are on their way. Many of the games are ports or side-stories of existing series, such as Metal Gear, Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy VII, Viewtiful Joe, and Dynasty Warriors. There are also new titles, such as the simplistic yet highly addictive Lumines. Many new games have been announced at both last years and this years E3 conventions, so the PSP looks like it will have an excellent library for fans of any genre, even MMORPG players. However at this point in time there aren't too many games that you can't find on a home console. If you are looking for a mobile version of games you already play then the PSP is a great videogame system for you, however if you are looking to expand your library of games, then you might want to wait a little while.

The PSP is the only portable media device that can play full length movies (without ripping the movie to a hard drive or flash card). Unfortunately it cannot play normal DVDs, so if you want to watch movies on the PSP you will have to buy the UMD version instead of/in addition to getting the standard DVD version for home viewing. While the UMD version is typically the same price as the DVD version, the PSP is not quite a portable DVD player. The other drawback is that there are no rewritable UMD discs so you can't play your own movies on the PSP or transfer movies you already have to UMD. The good news is that since Sony is one of the largest movie publishers around, many movies are being released in UMD format as well. However other publishers may take longer to transfer their movies to UMD or not release all of their movies on UMD.

The PSP can play standard mp3 files as well as Sony's proprietary ATRAC format, but not the audio formats used by Apple and Microsoft for their files. However almost any kind of audio file can be converted into mp3 and all encoders can rip CD audio tracks into mp3. For video the PSP can read AVC and mpeg files as well as display jpeg images. There are numerous PC programs available that can convert almost any audio or video format into something the PSP can read. Sony has announced that there will be more features in the future such as the ability to watch TV broadcasts and download music online via the PSP, however at this point these features do not exist.

Accessing all of these media playback programs is done through the PSP's operating system, which is basically the same thing that Sony uses in their TVs and the now dead PSX. The operating system (called the XMB) is basically a row of icons representing applications and settings that can be called up at any time by pressing a button on the console. Aside from launching applications the XMB can change system settings like the date/time, network configurations, accessing the memory cards/system memory, setup connectivity, among other things. The PSP has updatable firmware which can be installed though an internet connection (WiFi or shared over USB) or by downloading it from a PC onto a memory stick, so more applications may become available at some point in the future.

The basic controls of the PSP are clearly modeled after the PlayStation controllers. There are four unconnected directional pad buttons on the left and four keys one the right, as well as two shoulder keys. Bellow the directional pad there is an analogue “nub,” which is basically an analog joystick with almost no height. It takes a little getting used to (mostly because of its placement, not its shape), but once you adjust you can play games very smoothly. There are also the standard control buttons such as start, select, volume and brightness adjustments, eject, on/off, and wireless on/off.

While the display on the PSP is fairly small (4.3 inches), it is a very sharp TFT LCD (the same kind laptops use) and has a resolution of 480 x 272 pixels, which is very high considering its physical size and in 16:9 widescreen ratio. The graphical processor is capable of displaying millions of colors at once as well as processing 3D objects. In many ways the PSP is capable of playing games as well as the PlayStation 2 is, and in some cases even better.

Sound quality on portable systems has always lagged behind the home consoles due to the fact that once consoles became using optical discs they had the storage capacity to hold CD quality audio. While cartridges have grown in storage size, they are still unable to hold enough data for high quality sound. However, since the PSP uses optical discs, the sound on the PSP is almost as good as from a TV. Despite the small size of the speakers, the sound is very sharp and more than loud enough.

There are two main methods of connecting the PSP to other devices – USB and WiFi. The built in 802.11 WiFi card is used for communicating to other PSPs, computers, the PlayStation 3 (possibly in a manner similar to Nintendo's GBA-GC connectivity), and can be used to access webpages. The PSP can be connected to network infrastructures for web access and multiplayer and it can create an ad-hoc network of up to sixteen PSPs for multiplayer gaming.

The USB connection is used to connect multiple PSPs to a PlayStation 2, which can then use the PS2 as an FTP server to move data between PSPs. The PSP can also be connected to a PC which can share the PC's network connection, giving it all of the capabilities it would have in a wireless network.

As any laptop owner can tell you, two of the best ways to drain a battery are by using a wireless network card and an optical disc drive, both of which the PSP uses heavily. All things considered, the PSP battery has a surprisingly long life. Sound volume and screen brightness play a significant role in how fast the battery is drained, but expect four to six hours of movie playback and three to five hours of gameplay. Graphically intensive games drain the batteries faster than simple ones, and wireless networking will drain the battery in less than three hours. However, since the PSP has a rechargeable battery it is not a major problem like it was for GameGear owners.

Right now there are a handful of accessories out for the PSP including a remote control, headphones, cases, and so on. Nothing too exceptional, and most of the accessories are available boxed with the PSP as part of Sony's value pack. There are also 3rd party versions of most of the accessories, however these aren't much cheaper than Sony's version and are often low quality. There are some good third party manufacturers, such as Logitech, however there aren't a whole lot of accessories to get excited about at this point.

Unfortunately the more features that a product has, the more expensive it becomes, and the PSP is expensive for a console. The PSP console costs $250, compared to the Game Boy Advance which is only $80. The PSP is also much more than the home consoles (Xbox, GameCube, and PlayStation 2), which are currently under $180. However, it should be noted that the PSP is in the same price range as many PDAs, and it has features that PDAs lack, such as the ability to play movies off of optical discs.

At this point in time you cannot buy the device alone – it only comes as part of various bundles. The original PSP Value Pack costs $300, but was worth it since all of the hardware (battery, AC adapter, headphones, remote, memory stick, and case) were very useful since you would probably end up buying all of that stuff anyway. However, most of the bundles available now are the PSP console and two or three games, which raise the price to $320 to $400. If the bundle includes games that you want, that's great, however I find that no matter what the bundle there is at least one game that I have no interest in. There are a few bundles that are just the console and accessories, which are usually cheaper and more useful.

So is the PSP worth it? It really depends on how much mobile gaming you do and if you already have a mobile media player such as a PDA. The Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS are much cheaper but lack the media functionality that the PSP has. Also, because the GBA has been around much longer and has a larger userbase, it has many more games. While the PSP's library of games will continue to grow, at this point media player aspect is what really creates the PSP's appeal. Personally, I would say if you already have a PDA then get something else. However if you are in the market for both a portable videogame system and a media player, then kill two birds with one stone and get a PSP.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 05/31/05, Updated 10/10/05

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