PSP stands for PlayStation
Portable, but it might as well stand for "Nintendo, you have a
problem." One of the most highly anticipated tech products to
hit stores in recent memory, the Sony PSP largely delivers on
its remarkable promise of bringing a PlayStation 2-like gaming
experience to a handheld gaming platform with built-in wireless
capabilities, all at a relatively reasonable price. It also
doesn't hurt that the PSP can do other tricks, such as play
video and music, display images, and--as of the August 2005 v2.0
firmware update--even surf the Web. But while the Sony PSP
largely lives up to the hype as a portable gaming device, it
still needs some work before it fulfills its potential as an
all-in-one portable entertainment unit.
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 $250 Value Pack. Weighing essentially the same as the
Nintendo DS (6.2 ounces, including removable battery) and
measuring 6.7 by 2.9 by 0.9 inches (WHD), 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 centerpiece of the handheld
is its especially impressive 4.3-inch wide-screen display
(480x272 pixels, 16.77 million colors). The screen is flanked by
controls that will be immediately recognizable 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 analog
"joystick" below the directional keypad. The stick isn't raised
like the analog controls on a PS2 or an Xbox, but it conveys
that multidirectional element that gives it a joysticklike feel.
In lieu of the PS2 controller's
four total shoulder buttons, the PSP has two: one per shoulder.
Ergonomically, the device is OK 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, Game, and
Internet 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 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 rumors 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
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 in certain games.
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 60 feet
apart with a clear line of sight in an office setting before our
connection became spotty. We felt the Nintendo DS offered better
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 a bit via a
special UMD volume-settings menu, which is helpful.) It's also
worth noting that many people may find the included 'buds
uncomfortable and choose to upgrade to new 'phones. A few preset
equalizer settings (Heavy, Pops, Jazz, and Unique) are onboard
to tweak the sound, but you can't manually set treble and bass
levels, which is too bad. 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,
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.