Handhelds compared: video iPod vs. PSP

It plays music. It displays photos. Oh, and you can watch video on it, too. No, it’s not the newly unveiled video iPod —this is the Sony PlayStation Portable. And while the PSP has a very different core function—it’s a portable video game console, first and foremost—there are enough similarities between it and the latest round of iPods to merit a side-by-side comparison.

Big and little

Let’s start with the differences between the PSP and the iPod, the most obvious one being the size of both of the unit and of the screen. Apple’s newest iPods are quite slender and quite light compared to previous white iPods, measuring 4.1-by-2.4-by-0.43 inches. (The 60GB model is .12 inches thicker than its 30GB counterpart.)

This compares to 6.7-by-0.9-by-2.9 inches for the PSP, which weighs more than half a pound. That’s large enough to make it unwiedly to stick the PSP anywhere but in a bag or an oversized jacket or coat pocket. The PSP comes with a sleeve to protect it from wear and tear. (For my PSP, I opted for a bulkier, but better protected, hard case made by a third party.)

The iPod has a 2.5-inch screen that’s limited to 320-by-240-pixel video and thousands of colors. There’s been some early criticism aimed at Apple for making the screen too small, but folks who have gotten their hands on the new iPod say it’s not too bad.

By comparison, the PSP has a 4.3-inch screen that displays a widescreen format of 480-by-272 pixels in millions of colors. It’s a glory to behold—terrific for playing games and watching movies and videos. There have been some reports of dead pixels on the PSP’s screen, but I haven’t had any problem with mine, a standard production unit that I’ve had since the day the devices first became available in North America.

The iPod has enormous amounts of storage capacity—up to 60GB, which is good for 150 hours of video content storage, based on Apple’s spec (H.264 video at 320-by-240 pixels and 30 frames per second).

The PSP, meanwhile can only store as much as the Memory Stick Duo flash media card can hold—up to 2GB, if you can find a 2GB stick in stock. And you’re sharing that space with saved game files and any other content you care to store. (You can also watch video using Sony’s proprietary Universal Media Disc format.)

The PSP offers enough room in practice for you to store two or three heavily compressed feature-length movies onto the PSP or a few hours of TV shows. It’s not like carrying your entire DVD collection around with you, but it’s certainly enough for a commute or two—presuming you want to regularly reload your PSP with new video content.

Connecting and sharing

Both devices connect to a Mac using USB 2.0. The PSP shows up on the Mac as a mass storage device—the same as if you had stuck the PSP’s memory stick into a card reader.

This means that you don’t need any extra software to connect the PSP to your Mac, although navigating Sony’s bizarre directory structure in search of a place to put your music, movies, and video can be daunting. That’s why several shareware applications and third party software have popped up to simplify the process.

The iPod also features tight integration with iTunes and the iTunes Music Store, and that is a huge advantage for users who don’t want to have to toy with other software to get video onto their iPods. You can buy TV shows and music videos for $1.99 and have the same experience syncing video on your iPod as you do with music. Obviously it takes a bit longer because of the file size, but the experience itself is a pretty familiar one.

And the iTunes Music Store content is, like its music, protected by Apple’s FairPlay Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. That means it’s only playable on the iPod — you can’t download a copy of that Desperate Housewives video to your PSP and expect it to play.

By comparison, getting TV shows to your PSP is more of a hassle. First of all, you’ll need a PVR like Elgato’s EyeTV or some similar hardware to actually capture the show. Then you’ll need to convert the video to a file format that makes sense for the PSP, and transfer it on to the PSP.

Kinoma Producer, iPSP, PSPWare, Toast 7 Titanium, and EyeTV all contain the raw ability to get this done, and I’ve had varying degrees of success with each of them. The video conversion process isn’t flawless — I’ve seen the applications I’ve worked with crash and burn inexplicably, popping up unfriendly error messages and failing to transfer files. Then again, it hasn’t all gone wrong — I’ve gotten video transferred over to my PSP, and when it works, it works great.

A QuickTime 7.0.3 update offered earlier this week also provides QuickTime Pro users with a new “Movie to iPod” export feature, so this option is open to iPod users as well. How many people are willing to take advantage of either process is anyone’s guess, though.

A v2.50 system software update for the PSP published by Sony earlier this week provides a huge boost to the system’s video-friendliness. It adds LocationFree Player, a software application that works in conjunction with a Sony peripheral called the LocationFree Base Station. This product streams video from your TV, DVD or DVR to your PSP. It works via a household Wi-Fi connection, and can also work over the Internet — so you can stream video to your PSP from home while you’re on the road, too.

Battery life

Perhaps one of the most glaring differences between the two systems is that of battery life. Sony was strongly criticized for overstating the PSP’s battery life, which is still an issue of debate in some circles. Making the PSP’s UMD drive spin up and down and using the Wi-Fi connection to surf the Web and play multiplayer games seem to be the biggest drain on power.

My own experience has been that playing video back from a UMD puts a pretty heavy load on the PSP’s battery, since it’s constantly spinning — about three hours or so, maybe a bit longer. Playing video from a Memory Stick Duo doesn’t seem to drain it as badly, since there are no moving parts. That compares to Apple’s estimate of two hours of battery life for video playback for the 30GB iPod — that’s bad. That’s not even a commute for some of us taking mass transit in from the more distant suburbs.

Another point in the PSP’s favor — the battery is removable. So if you find that you’re running low on juice, you can pop off the back panel and put in a new one that you’ve charged the night before. Some companies also sell an external battery pack that gives your PSP a bit more juice, if you’d prefer.

Add-ons

The iPod definitely has the edge when it comes to peripherals that go along with your portable device. There’s a cottage industry of chargers, docks, adapters, carrying cases, FM transmitters and other products that are designed to work specifically with the iPod. Some of them already work with the new fifth-generation iPod model, and many more are in the works that will.

There isn’t the same breadth or depth of peripherals that go along with the PSP, but it’s a product that’s been on the market for the better part of a year now in Japan, and it hasn’t undergone the changes in form factor that the iPod has — so there’s a steady supply of products that you can buy that will work.

What’s more, some of the same companies that make iPod products have designed some of them to work with the PSP too — At this past summer’s Macworld Expo in Boston, for example, DLO showcased its Transpod for the iPod shuffle —which features an auxiliary mini jack-based input—transmitting audio from a PSP to a nearby car radio.

In closing

Both of these devices rule their own respective roosts. The PSP is the better-rounded portable entertainment system. It has a larger and better screen, Internet access and web browsing through Wi-Fi. The support of various movie studios who are now publishing content for it on UMD discs is a big draw. LocationFree Player is a nice touch, if you’re willing to invest in Sony’s LocationFree Base Stations. The PSP is also $50 cheaper than the 30GB iPod.

The iPod is smaller and lighter and can hold a lot more content, too. But perhaps the most important factor in the iPod’s favor is a content delivery system through the iTunes Music Store that makes it a lead pipe cinch to get video onto your iPod.

Content deliver is the key factor missing from the PSP’s equation that’s likely to relegate it to the domain of gamers, video enthusiasts and tweakers for the foreseeable future. At least until the utility developers who are working on PSP connectivity for the Mac can make it as bulletproof as what we’ve come to expect for Mac software to be.

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments