Hands on with the Sony PlayStation Portable

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Sony Corp. on Thursday released its US$249 PlayStation Portable (PSP) to the North American market. There's no question the system packs a lot more versatility under the hood than an equivalently-priced iPod mini, though the PSP comes with some drawbacks of its own.

The basics

Measuring about 6.7 x 2.9 x x.9 inches and weighing a bit more than half a pound, the PSP is gargantuan for anyone who's accustomed to Apple's heftiest iPod photo, let alone an iPod mini or an iPod shuffle. But the PSP is designed for a very different purpose: It's a multipurpose entertainment console that can play music, movies and video games, and display photos.

The PSP features a crystal clear 4.3-inch, 480x272 pixel color LCD display set in a widescreen orientation as well as an array of buttons and an analog thumbstick. Games are loaded through a pop-up door on the rear of the unit; inside is a Universal Media Disc (UMD) reader. Similar in size to Sony's Mini-Discs, UMDs can hold 1.8GB, and are used not only for games but also for movies -- Sony plans to release several UMD movies in the coming months and has invited other movie studios to support the format.

Sony is selling PSPs in North America as part of a "Value Pack" that includes the console, AC power cord and adapter, battery pack, headphones with remote control, 32MB Memory Stick Duo, wrist strap, pouch, polishing cloth and manual. Also included is a sampler UMD containing music videos, movie trailers, and trailers of some PSP games in action, and a UMD version of Sony/Columbia's blockbuster action film Spider-Man 2.

Gaming and movies

The PSP's wide screen shows off graphics that are lush, detailed and colorful. And while it's small, the screen is surprisingly well-suited to watch movies. It's more compact than a handheld DVD player or laptop. The glossy plastic outer shell of the PSP draw smudges to it like iron shavings to a magnet; I didn't even have the PSP out of the box before I could see my fingerprints all over it. A screen protector is a must.

I bought two games with my PSP: Wipeout Pure, a futuristic racing game, and Lumines, a falling-blocks puzzle game. There are almost a dozen and a half games available at launch -- more than are available for Nintendo's rival DS system, not counting the DS's downward compatibility with Game Boy Advance games.

The PSP titles now available run the gamut of action, sports, racing and puzzle titles, with many more expected in the coming months. A parental control feature can restrict the PSP to play games with specific ESRB ratings, if you prefer.

Built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi wireless network enables PSP users to play against other PSP gamers either in "ad-hoc" or "infrastructure" modes -- respectively, peer-to-peer or through an access point like an AirPort hub. A wireless LAN switch and a user-selectable power saving mode will let you conserve as much battery life as possible.

Getting the system connected to my household AirPort network was trivial, though entering the 128-bit WEP key was an exercise in frustration: All the data input is done using the PSP's buttons navigating a cell phone-like on-screen keypad.

The PSP supports H.264, or Advanced Video Codec (AVC), the scalable MPEG-4 codec that Apple will finally introduce to Mac OS X users with Tiger's debut. As a result, UMD movies are gorgeous on this little system -- this is a great system for watching movies or playing games while traveling or commuting. Support for MPEG-4 means you can watch your own videos too (more on that later). You can also look at JPEG-encoded photos using a built-in slideshow program.

How's it sound?

The PSP's built-in speaker is tinny, but the included earbuds sound great. Molded in white, the PSP earbuds are superficially similar to Apple's iPod headphones, but they're slightly oblong-shaped and rest in my ears more comfortably than Apple's earbuds do. Sony includes a remote control that allows you to set volume and change tracks. When using earbuds or headphones, PSP users can also change the tone quality of the music or audio to suit the material by pressing a button the PSP that cycles through a few different settings.

Game data and material transferred from your Mac or PC is stored on a Memory Stick Duo card. Sony includes a 32MB card, which is enough to store some game data and maybe a few photos or a song or two. Sony and other companies sell Memory Stick Duo cards in capacities up to 1GB, which gives the PSP iPod Shuffle-like storage capabilities, at least for now. There's no room for a hard drive on this system, so it's unlikely that the PSP will offer the iPod mini or regular iPod any challenge for storage capacity unless flash memory storage technology increases dramatically, or some enterprising PSP peripheral developer figures out a neat hack.

You can expect maybe six hours of play without needing a recharge at the very outside. The limited battery life is the PSP's biggest weakness when compared to other portable media players, but unlike the iPod, the PSP's rechargeable lithium-ion battery is removable. Sony sells spares; they're available for about $50. It takes about two and a half hours to top off a drained battery.

The PSP supports MP3 and Sony's ATRAC3plus music format. That makes it compatible with the most widespread digital music format and Sony's Windows-only Connect music download service. You won't be able to listen to FairPlay-encoded songs downloaded through the iTunes Music Store, and if you've ripped your music in a format other than MP3, you'll need to transcode it.

Connecting to the Mac

A USB A to 5-pin mini cable is all you need to connect the PSP to your Mac. Activating USB Mode on the PSP makes the contents of its Memory Stick Duo card visible on your desktop. Sony makes no connectivity software available for the PSP -- although a company executive recently stated plans to do so within a year -- but shareware developers have stepped up to the plate with their own solutions: The $20 iPSP from Ronin no Sakura Kai Softronics and the $10 PSPWare from Nullriver Software.

Both software applications offer some comparable features, such as the ability to synchronize iTunes playlists, iPhoto photo libraries, backup PSP game data and more. And both offer some transcoding and optimization capabilities for certain types of video.

iPSP offers lots of options for users who want tool with how their videos and photos look or how their music sounds before they upload the content to their PSP. PSPWare adopts a more streamlined approach, presuming users want to just connect, transfer, and get on with their work or play as quickly as possible. Demos of both are available for download, so check them out and see what works better for you.

The PSP's manual also tells you how to set up the Memory Stick's directory to accept digital photos, audio and video, and Sony's Connect service has set up a Web site of its own to help PSP users move video -- they've also posted a bunch of sample videos. While the instructions are Windows-centric, it's easy enough for Mac users of an intermediate skill level to muddle through.


Is the PSP an iPod killer, like some pundits would have you believe? Hardly. As a music player the PSP isn't as convenient, easy to use or full-featured as an iPod. It's bulkier, has more limited storage capacity and considerably worse battery life, too. My aging 15GB third-generation iPod won't be usurped by the PSP as my portable music player of choice.

But as an all-around entertainment platform, the PSP wins hands down. Not only does the PSP appeal to gamers -- Nintendo, look out -- but it reaches out to a much broader market of mainstream consumers who want a system versatile enough to do it all -- music, games, movies and photos. The PSP isn't the first device to test these waters, but from what I've seen, it has every bit the genre-reinventing power that the iPod had when it sprung onto the scene.

To that end, Sony's PSP may very well give Apple's iPod some stiff competition for consumers' dollars, especially come this Christmas.

For more game news, reviews and other related info, please visit Macworld's Games page.

This story, "Hands on with the Sony PlayStation Portable" was originally published by PCWorld.

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