Thankfully, getting media onto a PSP is much less of a hassle than it used to be. The Sony Media Manager software lets you transfer photos, music and videos from a PC to your PSP with relative ease. It also lets you back up your saved games and manipulate podcast feeds. It's a worthwhile alternative to the bare-bones media management options with which the PSP originally shipped in March 2005, but it will cost you $19.95 from Sony's site -- it's not bundled with the PSP.
Fortunately, there are also a wide variety of third-party and freeware software titles available, many of which focus on converting existing video files to PSP-friendly formats (see our Video Conversion guide). Unfortunately, 'home brewed' videos are limited to scaled-down resolutions that fail to completely exploit the PSP's native 480x272-pixel screen. It's a shame that the only way to take full advantage of video on your PSP is to buy UMD-format movies, which look great but are overpriced at essentially DVD levels, especially when you consider the lack of special features on most UMD movies.
What about music? Well, the good news is the PSP plays MP3 files without your having to convert them to Sony's proprietary ATRAC format first -- a common problem with the company's earlier MP3 devices. You simply drag MP3 or ATRAC files into the music folder on your Memory Stick Duo card, and they'll show up on the PSP. The device supports M3U playlists, but if you have your playlists in another format, you'll need to find and download a converter. However, as basic as the PSP's music player is (read: iPod Shuffle with a screen and no autosyncing capabilities), it will be adequate for many people.
The image viewer is also basic, with simple slide-show functionality. But again, it's easy to drag JPEG files on to a memory card, rotate them (if needed), and show off your shots to anybody who might want to see them. In addition, you can set a photo as your PSP's background wallpaper, replacing the colorful splash screen behind the home menu. Unfortunately, you can't view photos and listen to music simultaneously.
The PSP's strong slate of features -- in addition to the many bells and whistles that Sony has added via its first major firmware update -- proves that the handheld is still under development, and hints at even greater things to come. Some of those future upgrades are more fully developed than others. Sony highlighted a few of the more noteworthy forthcoming PSP features in the pipeline at a business conference in March 2006. In terms of gaming, an emulator is being developed that will allow the PSP to play digitally distributed (that is, pay-per-download) PlayStation One titles. Later in the year, Sony is pledging to add Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) support to the PSP, with an EyeToy-styled Webcam peripheral to complement it. A GPS-locator accessory is also in the work, with compatible games slated to support it. Finally, Sony is said to be preparing a major upgrade to its Connect online service that will create a more iTunes-like music and movie download service, but details remain scarce.
The Sony PSP runs on a proprietary 333MHz processor and comes with 32MB of built-in memory, some of it reserved for the PSP's operating system and applications, and 4MB of embedded DRAM. While we would have preferred more built-in memory, game developers we spoke to were happy it has what it has, given that early rumours suggested Sony would include only 16MB of RAM.
One of the issues with using an optical disc format such as UMD as opposed to Nintendo's flash memory-based cartridges is that load times tend to be significantly longer. After we previewed beta versions of games, we were concerned that load times would indeed be a serious problem. But now that we've run shipping versions of such titles as EA's Need for Speed Rivals, Konami's Metal Gear Acid, and Sony's Twisted Metal Head-On, we can safely say that it's a relatively minor hindrance. Yes, games can take a good 10 seconds to load, but it's not much worse than what you'd expect from the PS2 itself. (As one might expect, content does load very quickly from a Memory Stick Duo card.) That said, the Nintendo DS and the Game Boy Advance SP are much zippier in this regard.
Luckily, the wait is usually worth it because most of the games look spectacular. As we said, you're getting close to a PS2-like gaming experience, and many of the titles are ports of their PS2 counterparts with only small compromises made to the graphics. For the most part, games play smoothly, though you may encounter some frame drops in bigger action sequences, something which is most apparent in Wipeout Pure.