Every once in a while, a product arrives that combines form and function and captures people’s imaginations. The very best and most innovative of these products tend to gather interest beyond their initial target audience, and eventually become ubiquitous in a culture. Apple Computer’s iPod is one of the most notable and recent such products to become a pop-culture phenomenon. This spring, the next one may have just arrived. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Sony’s PlayStation Portable, or as it's known - the PSP.
While the specs are impressive-sounding enough (480x272 pixels, 16.7 million colors, 16x9 widescreen display), these pale in comparison to the sight of the PSP's visuals in action. Pop a copy of Wipeout Pure or MLB into the system, and watches peoples' eyes light up. Switch that out for a copy of the movie "Spider-Man 2" and watch their jaws drop as well. The reaction to it in my experience is almost uniform - people are shocked by it's clarity and brightness at first, and then so mesmerized by what they're looking it that they can't put it down. While you can expect to see the "jaggies" so prevalent in PS2 titles, the smaller screen size tends to make that much less of an issue. The bright colors and solid frame rates that the PSP is capable of more than makes up for the shortcomings inherent in both the PSP and it's larger cousin, the PS2.
To put it simply, the PSP's graphics and visual display is nothing short of stunning; whether you're watching a movie, playing a game or perusing through digital photos. It has no equal in the handheld arena.
The PSP also plays MP3 music and MP4 video, so you'd expect it to be a solid audio performer - and you'd be right. Using a set of headphones, the PSP sounds as good as an iPod or any other digital music or multimedia player. The tiny stereo speakers on the front of the unit are tinny sounding, but that's not unreasonable given their size, and they do the job quite admirably under most circumstances. The headphones that come with the unit connect into an extension cord with a small control disc attached to a clip. This control disc allows the user to skip back and forth between tracks, control the volume, and place the PSP into "hold" mode without touching the unit itself. If you have a pocket large enough to hold the PSP unit, this makes using it as a MP3 player much more convenient.
It's obvious that Sony put a lot of thought into designing the PSP as a portable device as opposed to a shrunken PS2. The volume control has a wide range, and it can be muted entirely to save power. In the same vein, the display has three different brightness settings and can be shut off entirely during MP3 play. The onboard Wi-Fi functionality can be placed in "power save" mode - which reduces it's speed, but saves power. Easy-to-use menu options can be set to extend the battery life even longer. The fact that Sony took all this into account and made power management so simple and flexible serves as one of the PSP's strongest attributes.
A simple "hold" mode allows the PSP to shut down while pausing your game; so it can be picked up again later at the very moment you left it. Wi-Fi connections are a snap to set up, and can even handle advanced encryption for security purposes. A USB connection makes transferring music, photos and movies a snap. Pictures and video can be easily resized, rotated and zoomed in at your leisure. The 1.8 gigabyte Universal Media Discs (UMDs) used by the system are durable and run rather quietly in the unit. Taken as a whole, the PSP is an altogether well-designed portable system that does just about everything right.
There are a few blemishes here and there, however, and I'd remiss not to mention them.
The unit itself is lovely to look at - and as such, you'll undoubtedly be frustrated when it's covered in smudges. Unfortunately, that will happen all the time. You'll want to keep the included cleaning cloth nearby when you use the unit. The screen itself is also prone to abrasions and micro-scratches; so don't just use your shirt to try and wipe it clean. An investment in a third-party screen protector is highly recommended.
The PSP's multimedia indexing system is very simplistic, so those expecting to see an iPod-type system with multiple MP3 albums or photo albums will be a bit disappointed. Moreover, for a multimedia device such as the PSP, the included 32MB Memory Stick Duo is far too small to fully leverage the potential of the unit. A 128MB card would have been much more appropriate. Memory Sticks themselves are significantly more expensive than other flash memory, as well - so be prepared to pay a lot more per megabyte than you may be used to. While UMD movies look fantastic on the PSP, it remains to be seen how much of a market there will be for a $15-20 movie that plays only on a four-inch screen. I could certainly see a market to rent UMD films, but at the moment, it's a bit pricey to enjoy a bit of Hollywood on the go.
As a multimedia Swiss Army Knife; the PSP does what's necessary - and that might be enough for you… or it might not. As a game system, however - the PSP is undeniably first-rate.
The PSP's design and button layout is flexible enough for playing all different types of games, and while the shape of the unit won't fit every hand perfectly, it should be acceptable for most people and remain comfortable for lengthy sessions of play or viewing. The buttons have a solid, responsive feel, and the triggers are easy to reach and spring back quite nicely. For many people, the position and responsiveness of the D-pad makes it the control of choice, but the PSP also has an analog "nub" that feels much like the ones on Toshiba laptop PCs that control their mouse movement. The "nub" has decent range and feel, but it does take some getting used to. It's important to do so, because some games will force you to use it, like Tiger Woods PGA Tour.
My thumb tends cramp a bit when using the analog control exclusively, but since that's not a complaint I've heard much, it's likely just fine for most people. The PSP is little heavier than most handhelds, but not so much that it's an issue. After a few days, I didn't even notice anymore.
Due to the familiar button layout, there's virtually no learning curve on the PSP - you'll adjust instantly to the controls, and that's a wonderful thing.
The PSP has Wi-Fi capability in both "Ad-hoc" (PSP to PSP) and "Infrastructure" (Internet) modes. It's simple enough to set up a connection - in many cases; the PSP will detect and configure one automatically. Users can manually create and edit multiple connections, and utilize the latest WEP encryptions to boot. Performance will vary from game to game, but in general, it's satisfactory - and playing online with your PSP is an amazing experience. You can kick back at a Starbucks and play a little MLB with someone across the country while sipping your espresso. It seems almost too good to be true.
I was first introduced to the PSP at last year's E3. While I knew at that time it was an impressive piece of technology, I had no idea how much of an impact it might have on the gaming world. Now I do. Sony's newest wonder takes our preconceptions of what's possible in a handheld and turns them on their ear. It's multi-pronged approach will likely make the PSP a hot item for even non-gamers; and with its music, picture and video capabilities; it's the perfect travel companion. A digital camera attachment and GPS add-on are likely to soon add to the PSP's usefulness. If it only had a web browser and incorporated Sony's CLIÉ PDA functionality - I wouldn't need to ever carry anything else around…