Before I get started on the writeup proper, a declaration of bias- Sony could spray a toaster black, stamp their logo on it, and I'd fork out a daft amount of money for it. So when the PSP was announced, it was almost inevitable that I'd obtain one to nestle amongst my Vaio laptops, Sony-Ericsson mobile phones, 'Dream Machine' clock/radio and assorted other gadgets in the shrine to Sony that is my room... hence this is unlikely to be a balanced, rational evaluation of the relative merits of the PSP and its competitors. In large part that would be impossible since I've not owned a console since the N64, nor have access to a Nintendo DS for handheld comparisons. Rather, I hope to illustrate the pros and cons based on my own first impressions, now that I've got my hands on a PSP of my own.
That, of course being the first challenge. Here in the UK, over 185,000 units sold in its first three days after the official launch (with the keenest going for grey imports from Japan before then) By contrast, Nintendo's DS sold around 90,000 units in its opening weekend; unsurprisingly then the PSP marks the biggest launch of a console in Britain. So now, of course, demand so heavily outstrips supply that since mid-November internet giant Amazon is only taking orders to ship in 2006, and I had to join a three week waiting list at HMV for mine. Then there's the price- £180 for the value pack is steep enough, but presumably because of this seller's market most retailers are only offering bundles with accessories such as a memory stick or (often sub-par) selections of games that push the total price well towards the £250 mark.
Assuming then that you've sold one kidney to finance your purchase, and the other to jump the queue and get hold of a PSP this side of christmas, just what do you get for your money? Indulge me to offer some numbers first.
- Dimensions- Approximately 6.7 in (W) x .9 in (H) x 2.9 in (D)
- Weight- Approximately 280g / .62 lbs (including battery) (33% less for the PSP Slim)
- 4.3 inch, 16:9 Wide screen TFT LCD 480 x 272 pixel, 16.77 million colors
- Available in Black (original), White and various themed colour schemes.
- PSP CPU (System clock frequency 1 - 333MHz)
- Main Memory- 32MB (64MB for the PSP Slim)
- Embedded DRAM- 4MB
- UMD Drive (Read only, 1.8GB capacity)
- Memory Stick Duo (Read/Write, originally 1GB capacity; firmware updates extend support to 4GB)
Lets start with the criticisms then.
Too many tricks?
As the above list (and that price tag) might suggest, the PSP is more than just a gaming platform. The essence of the PSP vs DS debate is whether this is a smart move on Sony's part- whilst the DS is a pure gaming experience, the PSP's audio and video abilities may have diluted its appeal for gamers; especially if the titles are seen as rehashes of existing PS2 titles. Whilst the library of UMD film titles is already impressive, the cost of the media, their restriction to the PSP and its lack of outputs to larger screens makes them a less appealing choice than a portable DVD player. Meanwhile, harddrive based systems such as the Archos offer far greater capacity for films ripped to (or otherwise acquired) a PC. The PSP's form factor and fragility, along with this reliance on memory stick, also prevent it from becoming a competitor to the dominant player in portable digital audio, the iPod.
So if it can't rival an Archos for video, an iPod for audio or existing consoles for gaming, why get one? The answer is in the question- it's one device that makes a decent stab at all these tasks. If you already have those other toys, then chances are a PSP won't be of such great value- but I don't even own a television.
Features in Detail
With those concerns at least recognised, lets move on to what the PSP has going for it. Boot
the unit up without a game in, or hit the home
button at any time and you're presented with a simple environment (for which you can choose the colours and/or a background image, should you wish). This offers 6 icons- Settings
. Sony seems to hope these middle four will become as iconic for the PSP as the cross, circle, triangle, square
are for the original Playstation
, but this does lead to some navigational quirks. For instance the supplied UMD demo-disc
features game footage, a film trailer and music videos. Rather there being a UMD option which takes you into a browser
for the disc as a whole, you must approach it through the appropriate icon- so for the music videos you go to Music, for the trailer you go to Video and for the game videos you go to Game; from each you can then select the UMD. This is the only quirk I've noticed- other than this, the interface is very intuitive.
It seems sensible to appraise the PSP in terms of those icon themes, so here we go.
The PSP screen is truly gorgeous, and if you strive for perfection Sony has backtracked from its stance on dead pixels and will now replace these under warranty, although they ask you to see if you can live with them for a while first, and the manual describes then as a natural part of the manufacturing process. I had to work hard to spot the lone stuck pixel on my screen, and it's simply undetectable when either gaming or watching a film.
Content on UMD is at DVD resolution of 720x480, allowing it to make full use of the 480x272 screen (and better resolutions on future UMD devices, if any emerge.) Sony draws a distinction between films and video clips in describing the platform's capabilities. In their vision for the PSP, the memory stick is intended for viewing short footage such as trailers, music videos or content generated on other memory stick devices such as their cybershot camera range. Thus there is an upper limit of 76800 pixels when playing back content from memory stick, which gives rise to 320x240 (4:3) or 368x208 (16:9) resolution limits.
With this emphasis on UMD for films, Sony's official approaches to getting such content onto memory stick are, unsurprisingly, expensive. There seems to be no reason to buy their conversion software when free alternatives such as PSP video 9 are entirely straightforward to use; whilst their Memory Stick Entertainment Packs offer a poor selection of films, a crippling DRM system, and cost more than the combination of a rival brand stick and a DVD of choice.
With the relevant gadgets, you can even bypass the technicalities of the conversion process- DVR manufacturer TiVo now officially support mp4 and hence the PSP with their TiVoToGo kit allowing (digitally watermarked) TV shows to be downloaded; The Neuros MPEG4 Recorder 2 is a hardware solution for creating suitable files straight onto a memory stick from anything with a video out jack; whilst Sony's own LocationFree technology allows the mega-rich to stream content from their TV or computer via a broadband connection to a PSP within range of a wireless hotspot.
Simply enough, the PSP is a great way to share photos, be they freshly taken shots from a memory-stick compatible camera or transferred onto said stick from a PC by a card reader or the PSP's USB connection. The screen offers more pixel real estate than any digital camera I can think of (or the iPod photo), whilst being easier to move around than a laptop. Photos can even be transferred to other PSPs wirelessly.
But this is only the start of the applications of this seemingly simple function. Content ranging from specially formatted versions of gaming websites or dead-tree magazines through manga/comics and art showcases to, yep, lads mags (and even more adult content) is all available online.
The PSP currently supports MP3, ATRAC and WMA file formats, which may be accessed from the memory stick. Again, the magic gate DRM should ease the concerns of content providers, whilst you can still happily access any unencumbered mp3's of your own. Sound quality from the internal speaker is fair, headphones are of course a considerable improvement and it copes just as well as my laptop when hooked up to a more powerful sound system. They have missed a trick however in that it's currently impossible to start an audio track and then wander off into the OS to look at photos or use the web browser. (Update December 2007: the 3.71 firmware features support for simultaneous audio playback and photo viewing.)
All that and I've barely even mentioned the gaming side- hopefully this proves just how much more the PSP has to offer. I am limited in my ability to assess the strengths as a games platform, having only access to Wipeout Pure and a demo of Fired Up. The first is, however, almost enough reason in itself to buy a PSP, and I can't imagine many owners who won't obtain this title. Graphically, it's a visual feast, with the beautiful PSP itself enhancing the futuristic racing experience; but this title is more than just an effects demo, with some truly addictive game play modes.
Criticism, when it arises, has come from two main camps. First is the argument that the PSP controls are simply awkward- that the single analog stick and 2 shoulder buttons are too restrictive for players used to a PS2's dual shock controller; or that the buttons are too close to the screen to be comfortable. I've not found it too unnatural to use, although Wipeout doesn't need the analog stick at all so I'll have to reserve judgement on that one for now.
The second charge levelled at the PSP is that the games fail to innovate- that the DS's pair of screens and touchscreen capabilities allow for more inventive titles whilst Sony recycles tired Playstation franchises. Whilst it's true that they may have played it safe with a lot of the titles being ports or sequels of PS2 content, it would be unfair to say that developers aren't experimenting with the platform. For instance, the Metal Gear Solid title takes the form of an open-ended card game like Magic:the Gathering, and its sequel gave us the bizarre solid eye; whilst Infected makes full use of the PSP's wireless capabilities to pit player against player in a unique way. The platform is only young and should have many surprises in store as coders learn to work to its strengths- be they official developers or homebrew projects.
With support for wireless 802.11b, PSPs can either be clustered together in ad-hoc mode or connected to access points and wireless routers. The first allows for sharing content and games (a single Pure disc will support two players, for instance) and head to head gaming, whilst the latter also allows for web browsing -I even managed to tap out a couple of emails on it. Firmware updates, demos of new games, and additional content for old ones, are also made available online either direct to the PSP or, for those without wireless kit, as downloads that can be transferred from a PC via a USB link cable.
For a first offering in the handheld market, the PSP is an extremely solid product, fulfilling a number of tasks competently whilst still being a remarkable gaming system. Where Sega and Atari were unable to out-market Nintendo with their technically superior handheld consoles, Sony has proven their ability to shake up the console market with the original Playstation. As the platform opens up, more and more impressive applications of this beautiful device should appear. Despite its faults (and there are some) I'm thrilled with it, and expect to be for a long time. So long as I don't drop it.
http://www.us.playstation.com/pressreleases.aspx?id=250 for system stats.
http://www.pspmagazines.com/pspm/ for magazine-style PSP content.