I’m fairly certain there are folks at Nintendo feeling some serious self-loathing right about now. You see, back in the mid-90′s Nintendo contracted Sony to develop a CD-ROM drive for the Super Nintendo. As the project progressed, a number of factors (one of them being the spectacular failure of the Sega CD and its’ followup the 32X) led Nintendo to can the project. Sony was left holding the bag, with a CD-based gaming system but no one to sell it to.
Making proverbial lemonade from lemons, Sony turned around and produced what is perhaps the most successful game console in history, the Sony Playstation. The result? For the first time in history, Nintendo took second place in the video game console market, while fellow rival Sega got out of the console business altogether.
One segment of the gaming market Nintendo still has a stranglehold on, however, is the handheld sector. Beginning with the original Gameboy, the name Nintendo has been a veritable synonym for handheld gaming. This dominant streak has held sway through several subsequent iterations of the Gameboy. Some have claimed Nintendo’s dual screen DS handheld system to be a revolutionary step forward in portable gaming. Others have decried it as gimmicky. Whichever side you fall on, there’s no doubt Nintendo execs are fingering their collars as Sony prepares to rain on their parade with their new Playstation Portable – aka the PSP.
Comparing the two systems, I’d say there’s a real chance Nintendo may finally have a serious challenger to the portable gaming throne. Most assuredly, Nintendo will claim that they are pursuing a different demographic than Sony (read ‘kids’), and to their credit the pre-teen crowd will probably favor the DS over the PSP. But for anyone over the age of 12, the PSP is definitely a serious contender for your pocket change.
Okay, so enough Nintendo-bashing. Review the damn thing already.
The first impression one gets from the PSP (once you’ve ravenously clawed your way through the packaging) is just how sleek the system is. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the PSP is one seriously sexy piece of cutting-edge tech. The system’s faceplate is fashioned of one glassy piece, interrupted only by the protrusion of the various buttons. The backside is just as nice, with the UMD disc door featuring a prominent PSP logo inside a silver metal ring set flush against the backplate. The two shoulder buttons are clear plastic, and the perimeter edge is accented in silver giving the whole thing a very streamlined look.
Of course, looks are one thing, but how does it actually play? I’m happy to report that the PSP delivers very well in this regard. For a portable system, weight is an important factor, as it is by nature handheld. The PSP is fairly lightweight, especially considering all the hi-tech goodness crammed into it’s slim chassis. In fact, it weighs just about the same as the Nintendo DS, if you need the comparison. You could easily play this thing for hours straight without feeling weighed down.
One thing that takes a little getting used to is the somewhat cramped form-factor. While the PSP’s controls may be perfect for Japanese gamers, most Westerners will find that having a go with the PSP will involve a short learning curve while hunting for a comfortable grip. Really, though, it’s no worse than any handheld system before it, and there’s no denying that Sony designed the PSP with ergonomics in mind. The back of the PSP has a very subtle curvature on each side, creating a natural shallow channel for placing one’s fingertips…it’s a small detail, but it counts.
Sony smartly modeled the PSP’s controls on the PS2′s Dualshock controllers, minus two of the front triggers and the right control stick. Replacing the left stick is an analog ‘nub’, which works much better than it sounds. Rather than tilt on an axis, the nub moves gently in a horizontal direction, giving you the same control as a stick but without the height a stick would require. It’s actually a small bit of genius, and works great in action.
As you’ve probably heard, the PSP’s main selling point is its’ 4.3-inch hi-def screen. While 4.3 inches doesn’t sound like much on paper, the PSP’s screen really must be seen to be appreciated. Both games and feature films look absolutely fantastic, and since the screen is formatted to a 16:9 ratio both applications can be appreciated in full widescreen, high-definition glory. Watching Spiderman 2 (which was included in the first million units sold in the US) is a remarkable experience; when I first booted it up, I laughed at the game store manager and proclaimed ‘It looks better than my television!’. And sure enough, it does. The screen is bright and crisp, and you may find yourself picking details out of the image that you might not have noticed the first time around.
Of course, movies are one thing, but the PSP is primarily a game platform. You wouldn’t think so, but games benefit from the PSP’s hi-def screen more so than films. Watching something like Wipeout Pure in motion is amazing; not only is the image in razor-sharp hi-definition, it’s also widescreen, allowing a larger view of the playfield than ever before. Again, you’d think a 4.3-inch screen wouldn’t capable of very much, but it just isn’t so. Without a doubt, the PSP’s screen is one of the greatest single innovations the handheld gaming world has ever seen.
Powering the PSP is a single 333mhz processor, which may not sound too impressive up front, but visually, the PSP stacks up favorably with it’s bigger sibling, the PS2. All the flourishes you’ve come to expect from the full-size gaming platforms, sharp textures, lens flares, hi-poly models, can be found on a device roughly the size of a scientific calculator. Pick up Ridge Racer, perhaps the most visually impressive title in the PSP’s launch lineup, and you won’t miss the PS2 iterations one bit. Ditto for the aforementioned Wipeout Pure, which actually manages to overtake the PS2′s Wipeout Fusion by a fair mile…and not merely by virtue of it’s portability. It’s actually a better game…if that doesn’t say anything to you about the power of the PSP, nothing will.
The PSP also lends itself to other applications, such as viewing photos, watching videos, and playing music. Though these are definitely secondary uses for the PSP, they are no less good selling points, as the PSP handles them well enough to be a serious consideration for anyone looking for a secondary media display device. In each instance, simply connecting the PSP to your PC with a 5-pin USB cord will let you drag files from your hard drive onto the PSP’s Memory Stick. Pictures and music are fairly straightforward, while video is less so, requiring you to convert it to .mp4 format and set up a separate folder on the Memory Stick.
Picture viewing is a breeze. The PSP interface is set up in a horizontal hierarchy displaying each function; you simply navigate left or right to choose the application and then vertically to choose the source. Selecting ‘Pictures’ and then ‘Memory Stick’ will let you browse whatever images you have stored on your Memory Stick. Since the PSP uses standard Memory Stick Duo format chips, if you have a digital camera that uses MS Duo sticks, you can simply slap the stick from your digican into the PSP and browse to your heart’s content. The PSP allows you to zoom in or out and pan the photos in any direction using the nub.
Music is just as easy…you just drag your ATRAC (ech!) or .mp3 (yay!) music files onto the Memory Stick, and then navigate to them the same way you did the photos. One thing the PSP is not, however, is an iPod…you have to set up folders for each group of tunes you want, though you can assign tracks to song groups and play them back at will. That said, the PSP’s music playback functionality is great. The PSP comes with a decent set of ear buds and a remote extension allowing you to control the PSP’s music functions without having to dig the unit out of your pocket. More importantly, it sounds great. If you know how to edit .wmu playlists, you can even assign thumbnail images to the tracks which will appear when you play back the tune on your PSP.
Videos are the biggest pain in the arse, mainly because you have to do the most fiddling. Luckily, homebrew PSP programmers have already jumped to action, and there are already a number of freeware apps available online which will let you drag ‘n drop video onto your PSP with little or no trouble.
The biggest drawback to all this media fun is the fact that the PSP ships with a measly 32mb Memory Stick. By the time you start messing around with music and video files, you’ll be sorely aching for a big ‘ole 1GB Memory Stick.
So okay, I’m sure you’re wondering whether or not any of the horror stories you’ve heard about the PSP are true. One of the bigger points of contention that’s hounded the PSP is the dreaded ‘dead pixels’ issue. Reports have circulated widely that a number of PSP units have been plagued by ‘dead pixels’, pixels which are either permanently light or dark, depending on how they’re stuck. My unit does indeed have a handful of these dreaded dead pixels, but seriously…I think you’d have to be a real anal-retentive type for it to be considered truly bothersome. I’m certain that a handful of PSP’s have some serious issues, and Sony has agreed to repair or replace these units at no cost. However, seeing the problem first-hand, I can honestly say that it doesn’t seem to be that big an issue. In fact, over the last week or so, some of the ‘dead pixels’ seem to have disappeared, leaving only two barely noticeable spots. The other standout problem with the PSP’s screen is that it is a veritable magnet for smudges and fingerprints. Sony thoughtfully includes a microfiber cleaning cloth with the unit, and believe me, you’ll get a lot of use out of it. If this really bothers you, be aware that for less than $5 you can buy a number of PSP ‘skins’ which protect the screen from smudges or (gasp!) scratches.
The second biggest concern about the PSP has been the battery life. So far, in my experience, the power supply is adequate for what the PSP is…a portable gaming system. With average use, you should expect to get between 4-5 hours of use between recharges. I generally use the PSP to while away lunch breaks or spare moments in the evening when I’ve got nothing better to do, and I have yet to encounter a situation when I’ve been left with a fully discharged PSP. If you really expect to put some time into the PSP, you will probably want to get into the habit of carrying around the included 5v power supply or invest in a secondary power source (Pelican currently sells a ‘power brick’ which will recharge your PSP twice on a single charge for a mere $10). Other reports, from UMD’s ejecting from the unit when its’ twisted, to poorly fabricated ‘square’ buttons, have really been overblown. I’m sure you can find faults with the system, but overall, it’s very well manufactured and should withstand years of use provided you take care of it.
A minor issue of mine lies with the UMD movie lineup. While I’m all for enjoying fan-favorite fare like Hellboy and Kill Bill, I wonder if film studios will truly embrace the format. Will we ever be able to enjoy Citizen Kane or the works of Jean Cocteau on the PSP? I think not. Considering the highly proprietary nature of the UMD format, I can’t imagine the studios taking a risk on less bankable material for consideration for UMD release. I suppose those of us who enjoy the occasional foreign or classic film will have to resort to storing flicks on the Memory Stick. Oh well…least common denominator, I suppose…
Film snobbery aside, the PSP is truly a remarkable piece of engineering. When the PSP’s specs were first unveiled a mere two years ago, it was widely believed that Sony’s handheld system was vaporware in the making, and that the final product couldn’t possibly deliver. Amazingly, they have. Nearly every point on Sony’s ambitious list is intact. With numerous hardware and software improvements on the way (digital camera attachments, installed web browser and chat clients, PSP MMORPG’s), Sony has crafted the first true challenger to the handheld gaming throne…and suddenly it feels like 1995 all over again.
Alex Mayo is a graphic designer of Irish/Filipino descent who grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was raised on comic books, punk rock, and grade-B kung fu movies, which explains his complete and utter inability to deal with real life in a rational manner. He is reasonably well-educated (if Art school counts), reasonably well-read (if graphic novels and the ‘Letters to Hustler…’ columns count), and reasonably well-fed (if Sliders from White Castle count).
Alex currently supports himself as a freelance graphic designer and as the helmsman in charge of http://destroy-all-monsters.com a popular Asian-American Pop Culture webzine.