The world of handheld gaming has been owned, patented and dominated by the Nintendo Game Boy franchise for as long as anyone can remember. The Atari Lynx, the Sega Game Gear and various little known consoles have all had a shot at toppling Nintendo but as time went on, they all fell by the way side and the Game Boy remained.
Sony has a hard task ahead of them. They have created quite a revolution in handheld gaming with the PlayStation Portable, making a console that does things that have to be seen to be believed, but whether they will have the following that will affect the Game Boy sales remains to be seen. Somehow, I don't think Nintendo is sweating just yet.
The PSP is a demi-god of design with a widely appealing aesthetic dominated by its 16:9 4.3 inch screen. The usual Playstation control buttons live on the right of the unit with the direction pad on the left. There is also a small nub on the bottom left of the unit which acts as an analog control stick and the volume controls and start/select buttons are on the bottom of the face, below the screen. The face of the unit is finished in a glossy black plastic with clear plastic shoulder buttons and a matt black finish adorning the rear of the unit. The whole design screams "buy me, own me, love me, I'm high-tech" and appeals to the geek in us all.
The PSP isn't just a gaming device. It's a multimedia device capable of playing video, viewing JPEGs and listening to Mp3s. Games, audio and video are delivered via 1.8G UMD discs inserted into a tray ejected from the rear of the device and resembling a mini-disc. This proprietary format was designed specifically to stop video game piracy as the discs are rather difficult to copy.
This is the part of the review that gets a bit technical. The PSP runs on a CPU core, two graphics cores and a sound core with a separate engine for media playback. The CPU is 32bit with a 128bit bus and 32MB of memory. It has a bus bandwidth of 2.6GB/sec and has a vector unit that runs at 2.6GFlops. The first graphics core is devoted to 3D curved surfaces, 3D polygon rendering, texture compression, hardware clipping, morphing and various other graphics effects and subroutines required for the second core. The second graphics core is the rendering and surfacing engines which run on a 512bit bus with 2MB of VRAM. It has a bus bandwidth of 5.3GB/sec, a pixel fill rate of 664 megapixels per second and can render 33 million polygons per second at full 24bit RGBA colour. The sound core is a series of reconfigurable digital signal processors running on a 128bit bus and operates at five giga-operations per second. The audio core can deliver 3D sound, has a multi-channel synthesiser and is capable of a wide variety of audio effects. For those that have no idea what that last paragraph says, don't worry, as not many people do - but what it translates to is raw power whether it be for gaming or media use and a resource that developers can tap into to bring some of the best games ever seen on a handheld device.
Graphics & Audio
After all, this is first and foremost a gaming device and it does like no other. The graphics capabilities are on-par, if not better than the Playstation 2. There are certainly things that the PSP can do that the emotion engine in the ps2 can't. However, there are also a few shortcomings to it as well, since the UMD only has a limited storage capacity, many games tend to come out with features stripped from them, especially the sports titles.
We tested various titles on the PSP and found that overall, the games ran very well at a constant frame rate, naturally this will vary from title to title but the cross selection we used all seemed to run without any major problems.
The PSP comes with two rather mediocre speakers which degrade the sound and detract from the overall impressive sound quality. The unit also comes with a set of headphones which, when employed, prove how good the sound can be. Using a high-end set of HiFi headphones like the Sony DMR200 increases the quality further allowing the PSP to show off its range and the stereo separation that the audio core can perform.
The screen on the Playstation Portable is a 4.3-inch 16:9 widescreen LCD TFT screen with a native resolution of 480x272. It is bright with a good contrast ratio and delivers consistently unbelievable images. Unfortunately, all that quality and brilliance flies right out the window the minute the PSP is used outdoors. The reflective surface of the unit means that the minute any kind of sunlight hits the unit, the image becomes unusable and the gamer tends to end up looking at their own reflection rather than the display. The bevy of advertisements of celebrities playing their PSP at the beach are pure fantasy. The only way the PSP can be used outdoors is if it's at night, otherwise this is strictly an indoor unit. Using it on trains can be more than adequate according to where you sit, but the overhead fluorescent lights tend to interfere with the picture quality and window seats end up flashing sunlight across the unit at odd intervals.
The screen is also open faced with no cover so it is particularly susceptible to scratches and smudges. In fact, the whole face of the PSP is a breeding ground for smudges and fingerprints, especially around the control buttons. There have also been many reports of dead pixels on the PSP but thankfully, our review unit didn't have any to speak of.
The controls on the PSP are sturdy and respond well. The analog control nub has a few issues and isn't quite as responsive as the rest of the controls but it isn't bad enough that it hampers game play too much. The nub is also located a little too far toward the bottom of the unit and as such tends to make the thumbs sore after extended game play.
Dead pixels are the bane of LCD handheld consoles. Both the Nintendo DS and the PSP have had reports of dead pixels but Nintendo has hit back against the problem with their exchange guarantee. Sony on the other hand, has made no such guarantee and when contacted stated the company has no official policy on the matter. As it stands, if you purchase a PSP, you need to be aware that should the screen be littered with dead pixels, unlike with Nintendo, there is no guarantee that you will get your money back even if the product is still under warranty.
The PSP is also WiFi capable which is used primarily for playing multiplayer games over the internet but also for downloading updates to the firmware. There is also an inbuilt web browser but it is extremely poor. As there is no keyboard for the PSP the user has to enter any text via an on-screen keypad that makes SMS look primitive. Even once the page address is entered, the PSP takes a long time to load a page and even then has serious issues translating the html onto the screen. Web banners tend to appear in the wrong places and since there is no scaling technology within the browsers, the pages always go beyond the boundaries of the PSP screen, forcing the surfer to move across the page, which gets annoying quickly. It would have been wise to have the pages shrunken down with the option to zoom in for more detail. As it stands, the web browser is painful to use and should only be resorted to in desperation.
On the up side though, the WiFi is very easy to set up and the online gaming quality is restricted only by the quality of the connection and the limitations of the Sony online service. In most of the games we tested, we had trouble finding any players to play against but the few multiplayer games where we did find opponents worked really well with very little lag. There is no voice chat, as far as we can see, but the service is still rather satisfying. One issue with the PSP WiFi that we found frustrating is that the WiFi is not permanently available. You have to flip a switch between the different wireless modes, and attempting to start a game in the wrong mode gives the player a prompt to change the switch. We don't understand why both modes couldn't just be available at the same time without the need for a switch.
The PSP also utilises the proprietary Sony Memory Stick Duo to store information and does not support any other popular memory stick formats. The Duo memory can be found in sizes up to 2GB and tend to be very expensive. Unfortunately, in order to save games or use any of the media capabilities of the PSP you will need memory and since only 32MB of memory is included you will need far more. The unit is already rather expensive, so purchasing this memory that makes the PSP a costly purchase for the average gamer. Once the memory is in place though, the PSP uses USB for file transfers and does so with ease, found on the PC as a storage drive.
The Mp3 mode of the PSP works perfectly and delivers high quality sound reproduction. Unfortunately the audio playback is rather limited as it does not support many other sound formats including OGG or FLAC. Also, when putting files on the PSP you have to be careful the file structure isn't more than 2 folders deep. Files outside of that restriction are not supported by the PSP firmware. Software is also included to rip music from CD via a PC straight into the PSP but again this audio is restricted to either Mp3 or ATRAC3Plus.
Video is handled in two ways on the PSP. UMD video is released by the film distributors, just like a DVD and can be purchased for about the same price as a DVD. These look fantastic on the player and have high quality sound. The other format is MPEG-4 which needs to be re-coded for the PSP. This is generally a giant pain and is yet another unnecessary restriction hampering what could have potentially been the ultimate multimedia device.
Yet another restriction is imposed when viewing pictures on the PSP. The unit only supports JPEG which is mind numbingly ridiculous. There are so many image formats out there that easily surpass JPEG that it is a real shame none of these are supported. When viewing image the PSP also seems to take a while to load them up, although it does have a neat slideshow feature which looks very impressive on that incredible screen. The detail in the image viewer is unsurpassed by any other photo viewer we have seen.
Battery life for the PSP is about 4 hours of game play or around 2.5 hours of UMD video playback. The recharge time is only about 2 hours so most gamers wont have too much of an issue with these times.
The PSP is a revolution in handheld gaming, but it is a little too expensive to topple Nintendo as the king. If you are looking for a great gaming experience, this is a definite option, but if you are looking for a multimedia player the storage issues as well as the restricted file formats drive the PSP out of contention. The Cowon A2 or the Zen Vision are probably more up your alley. This is, unfortunately, a flawed product but if those few things are expanded upon and fixed and if the price becomes more competitive, the PSP or its future iterations could give the Game Boy a moment of pause.