Hands on with Sony's PSP 2.0 Firmware

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More than a week and a half after it was first expected and almost a month after it made its debut in Japan, Sony has finally released its 2.0 firmware for the North American Playstation Portable (PSP). The firmware update adds some long-awaited capabilities, such as the addition of a built-in Web browser, but takes other things away, such as the ability to run homebrew software.

You’ll need to have at least 16MB of free space on your PSP’s Memory Stick Pro Duo card to download and install the firmware update, which can be done either by using the PSP’s Network Update function or through a USB 2.0 connection on a Mac or PC.

Browsing the Web

One of the most obvious changes to the PSP with the 2.0 update is the new Web browser, accessible through the “Network” icon that appears alongside other horizontally-placed main menu interface icons like Game, Video, Music, Photos and Settings.

The PSP Web browser is pretty decent: It renders clean looking images and anti-aliased text, and provides you with options to reflow pages to fit the PSP’s display — which, while widescreen, is narrower than a computer display.

A busy icon will flash in the lower right hand corner to let you know that a page is loading — handy, since the browser tends to freeze while it’s loading content. The PSP’s browser takes longer to download pages than a Mac or PC.

The PSP doesn’t have a keyboard, so Sony’s engineers have created a key entry system that’s reminiscent of a cell phone keypad. They’ve tooled Web-specific features (.com and http:// are only a keypress or two away), but it’s still a slow pain in the butt.

The PSP browser displays animations and run JavaScript (you can turn that off too). You can even save images and other files to your Memory Stick if you want. That even includes MP3 files, which means you can even use your PSP to download podcasts, for example. What’s missing is support for Macromedia’s Flash technology.

The browser even supports tabs, so you can have multiple pages loaded into memory. A File menu lets you gather info about the page you’re look at, display certificates and more. You can also save bookmarks, a discrete home page and view your browser’s history.

The PSP’s Web browser isn’t perfect — some pages that have specific browser requirements won’t load. Some pages seem to exceed the PSP’s memory limits, as well (MacCentral’s, for example), and turning off images doesn’t help. So there’s still room for improvement. But for now, it may prove useful to some PSP users.

Video and image support

Mac users have been hearing about H.264, or Advanced Video Codec (AVC) for quite some time. It’s built in to QuickTime 7, and it promises higher quality video at smaller file sizes than other video technology. The PSP supports AVC too, but up to now that support has been limited to the Universal Media Disc (UMD) the PSP can play movies and games from. Now you can play back video encoded in AVC from your Memory Stick card, too.

You can also force video saved to a Memory Stick Duo card to be played back in 4:3 aspect ratio. An A-B repeat feature has been added, so you can play back sections of video or music you’ve copied to your PSP repeatedly. And you can now specify chapters (on UMDs) and time sequences where you’d like to start video playback.

This updated firmware also adds support for TIFF, GIF, PNG and BMP images, so you can view a wider array of still images than you could before. You can also share image files between PSPs using Wi-Fi, in Ad Hoc mode. Selecting an image from your Photo library now lets you send it, or, alternate, you can receive an image from someone else, as long as you have your Wi-Fi connection turned on.

It’s frivolous but fun: PSP 2.0 adds a “Wallpaper” mode. In fact, there’s a new “Theme Settings” function that lets you manually configure the background color of your PSP (previously it would change to a different color monthly). Alternately, you can select a photo or image on your PSP’s memory stick card to serve as your wallpaper. A number of PSP wallpaper archives have popped up on the Internet since the 2.0 firmware’s release in Japan last month. I now have a nifty Transformer Autobot logo wallpaper serving as my backdrop.

Music improvements

You could already use your PSP as a digital music player if you wanted, thanks to a built-in MP3 player. It’s considerably bigger and bulkier than an iPod, and with Memory Stick Duo cards topping off at 1GB, you don’t get any more storage than an iPod shuffle, but some users like the marriage of convenience and game playing ability.

Sony has enhanced the PSP’s audio playing ability with the addition of Advanced Audio Codec, or AAC support. I converted all my MP3 files to AAC when iTunes first added that support to help save hard drive space (hey, with more than 3,000 songs at the time on an older G4, it made a big difference), so I can now listen to that music on my PSP.

Unfortunately, AAC songs you download from the iTunes Music Store are still verboten, thanks to Apple’s use of FairPlay, a digital rights management (DRM) scheme that renders the files useless outside of iTunes or an iPod.

The new release also adds support for Sony’s ATRAC3 plus digital music encoding format. This isn’t really relevant to Mac users, since Mac support for ATRAC services and software is non-existent.

Other settings

A few other changes have been made, such as the addition of Korean language support. An Internet Browser Start Control function lets you password-protect the Web browser. Wi-Fi connectivity has added Wired Protected Access Pre-Shared Key (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol), or WPA-PSK (TKIP) support, which provides considerably stronger authentication support for wireless networks.

Mac connectivity

PSPs continue to work as before when they’re connected to a Macintosh using a USB 2.0 cable — the Memory Stick pops up on your desktop as a mass storage device. And the third-party software already available for the PSP, such as Nullriver Software’s PSPWare, RnSK Softronics’ iPSP and PocketMac for PSP. Some of these utilities have been updated to take advantage of new features in the 2.0 firmware, as well, so if you’re using them, check to make sure you’re using the latest versions.

Homebrew busted

There are a lot of great improvements to the PSP in the 2.0 firmware update, but there’s one really important caveat for PSP users fond of “homebrew” software — that is, games and emulation software that’s been developed to run from the PSP’s Memory Stick.

Such software has been popping up with regularity since the PSP first debuted. There’s an obvious appeal in getting something for nothing, and PSP enthusiasts also like to see what developers unconstrained by corporate restrictions can do.

Homebrew efforts aren’t supported by Sony. Like any console manufacturer, they want companies to pay their licensing and royalty fees, and they want consumers to buy them: That’s one of the big ways that console makers make their money, especially in the early days of a new console’s manufacturing and distribution.

This is the third firmware update since the console first debuted in the United States this part March. Sony has taken efforts to lock out homebrew programmers from running their software at each step. The 2.0 firmware update is no exception — it’s tougher than ever for people to run homebrew games on their PSPs now.

So if you’re still running an unadulterated PSP with 1.50 firmware (you can check by visiting “System Information” in “System Settings”), you’ll need to decide what’s more important to you: Running homebrew software, or surfing the Web, viewing new image formats, playing AAC music an the other improvements the 2.0 firmware upgrade offers.

At least until the homebrewers figure out a way around the new restrictions.

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