After roughly a decade at the top of the home console industry, Sony decided to tackle the portable system market -- one heavily fortified by Nintendo's Game Boy Advance and DS. Sony sought to take down Nintendo by adopting the tactic that made the PlayStation 2 such a runaway success: by offering sophisticated, graphically intensive games and a heavy dose of multimedia functionality.
The device is called the PlayStation Portable (PSP), and in addition to playing games of PS2 graphical quality, it can play music and movies (downloaded or via disc), as well as surf the Web, with many new features on the horizon. It may not be the best handheld media product on the market, and the games lack the innovation of ones on Nintendo's portables, but as an all-in-one device, the Sony PSP is king of the hill.
The Sony PSP is available online in a number of bundles. Two of the most common are the base model pack, which is just the console, battery and the AC adaptor, for around £150, and the Giga pack, which usually has a carry case, a pair of headphones and a 1GB Memory Stick Duo, for around £200. Games are around £30 and UMD movies around £17 for the latest titles.
From an aesthetic perspective, the Sony PSP is a gorgeous device. It's one of those gadgets you immediately want to get your hands on but vigilantly want to protect once you set it down; fortunately, a simple neoprene slipcover is included with the £180 Value Pack. Weighing essentially the same as the Nintendo DS (176g, including removable battery) and measuring 170 by 74 by 23 mm, the body feels well built and solid in your hand. Although not a lightweight, it's by no means a brick, nor, we suspect, would it be especially durable in a fall; you'll want to treat the PSP just as gingerly as an iPod or a Palm-style PDA.
The centrepiece of the handheld is its especially impressive 109mm (4.3-inch) wide-screen display (480x272 pixels, 16.7 million colours). The screen is flanked by controls that will be immediately recognisable to fans of past PlayStations: the directional keypad is to the left of the screen, and the familiar square, triangle, circle, and X buttons are to the right. We dug how Sony managed to include an analogue 'joystick' below the directional keypad. The stick isn't raised like the analogue controls on a PS2 or an Xbox, but it conveys that multidirectional element that gives it a joystick-like feel.
In lieu of the PS2 controller's four total shoulder buttons, the PSP has two: one per shoulder. Ergonomically, the device is okay but not great; as with most handheld gaming devices, you'll have to do a little finger stretching every 15 minutes or so to keep from cramping up.
The PSP uses Sony's recently created 'cross media bar' interface. You use the directional keypad to horizontally navigate through Settings, Photo, Music, Video, and Game icons, and each section has other icons attached to it on a vertical axis. All in all, it's a simple and elegant way to access the PSP's many features.
Games and officially licensed movies come on Sony's proprietary UMD (Universal Media Disc) media, which are housed in protective cartridges. The UMD drive is grafted to the back of the unit; you load it and snap it shut just as you would a camcorder. The top edge also sports infrared and a USB 2.0 port that you can use to link the device to your PC or Mac, though no USB connection cable is included. The USB port will also be the home base for any future accessories you might add, such as a keyboard or a camera attachment.
The headphone jack is at the bottom left of the unit; the Value Pack ships with earbud-style headphones and an in-line remote to control basic playback. The nice thing about the remote is that you can use other headphones with it, not just the provided 'buds. Like Apple, Sony has chosen to go with white headphones. We're not sure why, since the PSP is black.
One gripe: Since the device has a glossy finish -- and is mostly black -- it is a fingerprint magnet. To help keep your PSP clean, Sony throws in a small cloth for wiping purposes. A padded slipcase is also included, but a variety of third-party versions are also available.
The chaps at Sony tout the PSP as first and foremost a gaming device. But in the next breath, they claim that it can do so much more, billing it as "the first truly integrated portable entertainment system". Both statements are, in fact, true, and suffice it to say that as a portable gaming device, particularly from a graphics standpoint, the PSP is unparalleled. You're getting a miniaturised PS2 gaming experience -- or close to it, anyway -- and Sony has put together a nice set of launch titles from various game developers to show off its handheld's gaming chops.
Beyond gaming, the PSP's video prowess may be its most impressive trait. As we previously noted, the display is a 109mm (4.3-inch) TFT LCD with a 480x272-pixel resolution and 16.7 million colours; by comparison, each of the Nintendo DS's two screens has 256x192 pixels with 260,000 colours. The picture quality from a UMD movie such as Spider-Man 2 is superior to what you'll see on most portable DVD players, though the majority of DVD players have significantly larger screens.
The only problem with video playback -- and it's a big one -- is that it's currently hard to watch anything but UMD videos on the PSP. Unlike Sony's MiniDisc, UMD is not a recordable storage format, so you'll have to store any video or music and images on a Memory Stick Duo card.
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.
We played Twisted Metal Head-On against four other players in multiplayer peer-to-peer (PSP-to-PSP) wireless mode and were impressed by the smooth gameplay. We also played Twisted Metal via the Internet with two other people and had good results. But we imagine that when you get up to a dozen players (Twisted Metal supports up to 16-player multiplayer), you'll probably encounter a hiccup or two. And, of course, wireless gameplay depends on your connection -- or, in the case of peer-to-peer action, the distance and potential obstructions between devices. As far as distance goes, we were able to move about 18m apart with a clear line of sight in an office setting before our connection became spotty. We felt the Nintendo DS offered better wireless coverage.
Before we get to battery life, a few sentences about the PSP's audio. Using the included earbud-style headphones, sound quality was fine with games, but we would have liked the maximum volume to go a tad higher when we listened to our MP3s, especially in noisier environments. When you play games and watch movies such as Spider-Man 2 on UMD, you can boost the volume via a special UMD volume-settings menu, which is helpful.
A few preset equaliser settings (Heavy, Pops, Jazz, and Unique) are onboard to tweak the sound, but you can't manually set treble and bass levels, which is annoying. The PSP's external speakers can't put out booming sound, but they're certainly adequate for gaming and casual video watching. Using the headphones, however, will give you a much more immersive experience. Conveniently, volume can be raised and lowered from two buttons just below the screen or via the in-line remote.
Battery life? Well, a lot of numbers have been bandied about, with some critics suggesting its relatively short run time would be the PSP's Achilles' heel. Here's what we got.
Running on full brightness, we managed about 5.5 hours of gameplay before having to recharge the included 1,800mAH lithium-ion battery pack; gaming time can vary significantly depending upon screen brightness (two dimmer settings are options) and the game you're playing. It's worth noting that recharging a battery to full capacity takes a lengthy 2.5 hours. Playing in peer-to-peer wireless mode reduced game sessions by a little more than 2 hours; the battery pooped out after 3 hours and 15 minutes. For music only, the PSP was able to run for a decent 11.2 hours.
And finally, we managed to watch Spider-Man 2 all the way through twice and got 20 minutes into a third showing before the battery died. All in all, that's not too bad and slightly better than we expected. Still, the easiest way to ensure that your PSP doesn't go dead at an inopportune moment is to purchase an additional battery pack -- kudos to Sony for making it replaceable. Transfer rate over USB 2.0 to an inserted Memory Stick was a reasonable 2.2MB per second.
Editor's note: this review was updated on 28 March 2006.
Edited by Rob Dubbin, John P. Falcone and David Rudden
Additional editing by Nick Hide