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Sony PSP

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.

Design

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.

Performance
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 this regard.

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 wireless coverage.

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.

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