Year of the PSP

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All week I’ve been talking about the best games of 2005 as part of Macworld ’s annual Game Hall of Fame feature. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the biggest sea change for portable gaming this year—Sony’s introduction of the $249 PlayStation Portable (PSP).

The PSP isn’t the first or, arguably, even the best handheld system for playing games—there seems to be a philosophical debate between Nintendo and Sony fans that’s every bit as contentious as the eternal arguments that pit Macs against PCs. But the PSP is an incredibly versatile little machine that can play games, play movies, show digital photos, and even play digital music.

Regular readers have seen me opine on the PSP’s video capabilities: I’ve compared the technical specs of the PSP and the video iPod. I’ve also written a head-to-head comparison between the two devices. So I won’t repeat myself here. But I will say that since I got the PSP, I’ve spent more time gaming on it, and less time gaming on the PowerBook.

Case in point: Last summer I was stuck on the runway at Logan Airport in Boston for an hour when our plane had to have some last-minute maintenance done. After the pilot announced the delay and parked the plane back at the gate, the flight crew asked us to stay in our seats. While the majority of the passengers groaned, resigned to reading the complementary magazines in their seat pockets or whatever paperback they’d stuck in their carry-ons, at least half a dozen of us opened up our PSPs and started playing.

At one point, one of us noticed the number of us who had PSPs and said out loud, “Anyone for a pickup game of Hot Shots Golf?” At least two or three people jumped right in. See, the PSP features built-in WiFi connectivity, and can support “ad hoc” gaming between users of the same title.

It’s a lot easier than opening up a laptop and draining down its batteries for some good gaming action, and you can turn off the WiFi connectivity when the plane takes off. And while it hasn’t totally replaced my PowerBook for gaming (especially for World of Warcraft ), the PSP has definitely supplanted the PowerBook much of the time, especially if I’m traveling.

And it’s no wonder. The PSP is a comfortable device to hold, has a crisp, bright screen that looks fabulous (it measures 4.3 inches diagonally and features a widescreen aspect ratio), and can play a wide variety of games, from action RPGs to sports titles, racing games, puzzle games, and more.

So far, owning a Mac really doesn’t come into play as far as playing PSP games are concerned, and I don’t expect it will any time in the future, either—beyond using existing Mac to PSP synchronization utilities to create backups of your game files, so if something happens to the PSP’s Memory Stick Pro card, you’re covered.

But if I had my druthers, I’d love to see Sony come out with a writeable version of its Universal Media Disc (UMD) format—the optical media from which the PSP plays commercial movies and games. It’d be really handy to use the storage capacity of a UMD to store movies and television shows I’ve ripped to .MP4 format, rather than having to rely on the flash memory confinements of the Memory Stick Pro card.

Handheld consoles aren’t for everyone. And whether you’re better suited to buy a PSP or a Nintendo DS is a matter of personal preference, depending on the kind of games you want to play and how you want to play them. Some mobile gamers will still be better served by a laptop and whatever games they prefer.

But from where I’m sitting, it’s awfully handy to be able to pull out my PSP on the train or subway or airplane and not have to worry about having enough juice left over to write that article I’m on deadline for.

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