Sony's PSP has been getting a lot of attention on the internet of late. It's been the subject of much hype, fanboyism, derision, ridicule, adulation and speculation. Well, I'd like to tell you about the PSP, without predjudice and without rose-coloured glasses. I'm not in Sony's pockets or anyone else's. In this comprehensive (and admittedly very long) PSP feature, I'm going to cut through the hype and tell it how it is. Let's start with the big issue.
A crucial factor that portable devices live or die by. This is certainly a bone of contention for PSP, as solid figures have been conspicuously scarse. Sony haven't helped the situation by offering wildly varying reports of what kind of battery life users can expect. The PSP's own battery information, as accessed through the system settings menu, is sketchy at best. It offers a reliable percentage indication of power remaining, but couples that with a much less reliable estimate of hours and minutes remaining that can change dramatically based upon recent usage patterns. This ambiguity is unavoidable really, as the PSP can chew up a lot of power very quickly, or use very little, depending on which combination of features are in use.
Playing back MP3s all day through the headphones with the screen off is all well and good, but what the gaming world really wants to know is how long a PSP will run when playing a game - and a good game at that; one that takes advantage of the PSP's strengths. So I decided to put it to the test, running Ridge Racers at full brightness and mid-volume. For the record, mid-volume is loud and full brightness is really very bright. You could easily play at mid-brightness and much lower volume without feeling at all like you were compromising your experience for the sake of power saving.
I started my test by running the battery down totally and giving it a fresh charge. Fully charging the battery took two hours and five minutes. Before commencing play, the battery information indicated 100% charge (obviously) with seven hours, seventeen minutes remaining. I booted Ridge Racers, watched the intro and spent the next forty-five minutes completing seven races. I then checked the battery information again: 94% charge, 4:15 remaining. Back to the races. After another solid hour and forty minutes the battery information indicated 55% charge and 2:23 remaining. One hour and thirty-five minutes later, it was at 16% charge and 35 minutes remaining. I had now been playing for four hours, and it struck me that since the second time I checked the battery information (at 94% after I started playing RR), the estimates had been pretty accurate. I began racing again and the power light started flashing ten minutes later. I should mention that the power light is usually hidden by your right thumb when playing, which suited me, as I didn't want to have to look at a flashing green light until the battery ran out. I continued racing for the next eighteen minutes, and then mid-race, the screen went blank and displayed a flashing dead battery icon before shutting down.
So, grand total: four hours, twenty-eight minutes of solid gameplay from a single charge. Take that how you will. In my opinion, it's perfectly adequate. Of course, you could always buy a spare battery if you feel the need, and with the battery being removable, Sony have left their options open to release a higher capacity battery when battery technology improves.
The PSP's graphic capabilities have been widely talked up as "a handheld PS2". Sorry to burst the bubble, but that's not quite what I'm seeing. The PSP certainly marks a revolution in handheld gaming graphics - it blows every other handheld game platform out of the water, but based on the current software, I'd have to say it's graphic capabilities lie somewhere between PSone and PS2. Ridge Racers looks great and features many impressive effects like real-time reflection mapping, sun bursts and particle effects, but its poly-count and texturing don't quite live up to PS2 standards. Anti-aliasing is notably absent too, though jaggies are far less obvious on such a small screen. The number of pixels the PSP needs to render in each frame is far less than the number a PS2 renders to a TV frame, so it has much less work to do in that regard. Compare Metal Gear Acid on PSP with MGS3 (or even MGS2) on PS2 and you'll see a world of difference. Metal Gear Acid bears a closer resemblance to MGS1. In any case, such comparisons are probably pre-mature, as this is the very first generation of PSP software, and there's certain to be a lot more potential in the PSP than the launch titles are exhibiting.
Bottom line: the PSP is a graphics powerhouse whose results are extremely easy on the eye, thanks to both its sheer grunt and its bright, sharp, high-resolution widescreen.
The PSP is a very slick looking device, particularly when you first take it out of the box. Take a good look, because chances are it will never look that good again. The glossy front panel shows fingerprints very noticably, even from clean hands, and wiping with a tissue or cloth has a tendency to smear them. The brightness of the screen means that you won't notice them too much when its on, but its disappointing that such a good looking device takes on a grubby look so quickly and doesn't wipe clean easily. The unprotected glossy front panel is also prone to scratches, and several people have reported that even sliding the unit in and out of the official soft case has resulted in scratches. I have been keeping the PSP in its soft case whenever its not in use, and if I look hard enough under the right lighting conditions, I can see very fine horizontal scratching on the surface, but it's not visible enough to be annoying. It does tend to suggest that scratches are going to be an issue across the lifetime of the product though. You'll need to handle your PSP with kid gloves if you want to keep it looking its best. Handhelds take a beating - Nintendo know that, and have designed their two latest handhelds to survive portability without damage to the screen or controls. Sony have chosen to sacrifice some durability for the sake of style. The PSP looks absolutely gorgeous, but having to treat it so carefully is kind of frustrating.
Yet another size comparison shot.
The 16:9 screen is outstanding. It's the best screen I've seen on any handheld device. It's exceptionally bright and sharp and can actually be viewed from most angles without losing too much contrast. At full brightness its easily visible in direct sunlight, and in a darkened room its practically blinding. It does tend to struggle when shifting blacks though. On a sunset course in Ridge Racers you'll find the rear tyres of the car in front of you leave a black blur behind them as they weave across the screen. That's no visual effect, it's the screen failing to lighten the previously black pixels fast enough. It's not a dealbreaker by any means, but if I had to find fault with the screen that would be it.
The rear of the unit is made of a textured black plastic that provides a welcome degree of grip in comparison to the glossy front. The battery cover and pop-open UMD door feel, well, a bit flimsy to be honest. They don't actually feel like they'll break, but they do feel very thin and lightweight. The memory stick duo slot is hidden behind a small clip that folds out on a flexible piece of plastic. If any part of the PSP is going to break first, this feels like it. Even with the clip fully open, it still gets in the way and makes inserting or removing a memory stick duo more of a hassle than it should be. The UMD door is secured by a metal catch and there's no way that simply flexing or twisting the unit would open the door and send the disc flying. The creator of the notorious flying UMD videos online must have been deliberately flicking the open switch.
The memory stick duo clip.
I should also mention that I have some reservations about the design of the UMD media in the long term. The clear underside of the UMD casing has a large open slot that leaves a portion of the disc inside exposed. The open area is plenty big enough to catch a whole fingerprint and without carrying around the UMD cases (which are significantly bigger than the PSP itself) it seems inevitable that dust will accumulate inside the UMD casing over time. A sliding panel or smaller exposed area would have been nice. No doubt some third party are already manufacturing small plastic cases to carry UMDs around in.
Sony's decision to stick with the Playstation control layout was a bit of a no brainer, and makes the system feel instantly familiar. Unlike PS2's dual shock, the PSP's buttons have no analog sensitivity, and due to size limitations, one of the best features of Playstation's controller, its four shoulder buttons, has been reduced to only two. The twin analog sticks have been replaced by a single analog control beneath the d-pad. I was expecting it to be something like the spongy, tilting analog nub that IBM use on their ThinkPad laptops, but PSP's analog control is a flat disc that slides in all directions without tilting and springs back into the centre. It has good analog sensitivity, it's textured for maximum grip and it's springiness provides effective tactile feedback. It's an extremely clever and space-efficient design for analog control on a handheld console. It's placement may irritate some people however. People with large hands may feel like the analog control ought to be another centimetre to the upper-right. It's not too hard to find a comfortable position for your hands, but it will take a little re-adjustment. The start and select buttons are within easy reach of your right thumb under the lower-right corner of the screen, while the other buttons beneath the screen (the home, volume +/-, screen and mute buttons) are all well out the way, so as not to be accidently pressed. The two switches on the lower side edges of the device (the power/hold switch and the wi-fi switch) are also well placed to be comfortable when needed but to avoid accidental use. I haven't had any problems with the buttons being loose, squeaky or unresponsive.
Loadtimes are an inevitable disadvantage of disc-based systems, and it does feel strange to have to wait through "now loading" screens on a handheld after generations of cartridge-based portables. However, the loadtimes are no worse than what we've come to expect from Playstation. There's a loadtime of about fifteen seconds when first booting up Ridge Racer and a loadtime of around twelve seconds before starting each race. The loadtimes are roughly the same as those on Ridge Racer V for PS2. They're not long enough to be painful and considering the many advantages that disc-based systems make possible, it's a worthy trade-off.
At this stage, PSP save files are somewhat larger than their PS2 equivalents, with the average size weighing in at around one megabyte. Ridge Racers comes in at the lower end of the scale at 352 kilobytes. Despite online reports of PSP save files making use of video clips on the save management screen, I have seen no evidence of this being the case. The save files appear to use animated .png icons instead. This should relieve early fears that PSP save files were wasting precious space on video clips. The confusion seems to have arisen from the video previews that are displayed in the menu system when selecting the UMD itself. These videos are loaded from the UMD, not the memory stick. With any luck, the size of PSP save files will decrease as developers use compression more efficiently. Even if the save files remain significantly larger than those on PS2, it's hardly cause for concern, as you can buy half a gigabyte of memory stick duo pro for about the price of two 8MB PS2 memory cards.
The PSP's menu system is based on the Cross Media Bar (XMB) that Sony utilize in many of their high-end AV devices. It's an aesthetically pleasing and intuitive icon-based system that is well suited to the PSP's functions. The menu is split into five main categories horizontally (Settings, Photo, Music, Video and Game), with sub-options presented vertically. The PSP's interface has a few niggling quirks though. When switched on, the system will always auto-boot the UMD if one is present. This can be a pain if you want to do anything other than play the UMD when you switch the PSP on. Of course, you could eject the UMD first to go directly to the menu, but that could be a little impractical if you're on the go. With the UMD in, you have to wait for the game to begin loading and then press the Home button, select Yes to indicate that you do want to quit the game, and then wait a few seconds for the XMB interface to load up. The trouble is, once the XMB has loaded up, you'll begin navigating your way through to whatever it is you want to do, only to have the XMB hijack your navigation and return you to the UMD icon a moment later when it finally recognises that a UMD is present. That's annoying.
Allow me to also mention that the background colour of the menu changes monthly. There's no option to choose the background colour, though it seems you can temporarily set a photo or video-still as your background by pushing select while viewing it. The XMB will be superimposed over the picture until you select your next category. It will then return to its monthly background colour. The same applies to music - by pushing select during music playback, you can return to the top layer of the XMB menu, but the music stops as soon as you select a menu item. This is also annoying. The XMB taunts you by allowing you to set a picture or music behind the menu but makes it pointless by cancelling it as soon as you do anything. Hopefully future versions of the system software will actually allow custom backgrounds and music.
The PSP's sleep feature more than makes up for these minor annoyances. To fully switch the PSP off, you need to push the power switch up and hold it for a few seconds. Otherwise, the PSP enters sleep mode. The next time you push the power switch, the PSP will instantly return to whatever it was doing before. That could be in the middle of a game, or playing a song or video, or just sitting at the top of the XMB menu. The return from sleep mode is truly instantaneous, without any loadtime. This feature is a godsend for a portable console, allowing you to stop everything at a moment's notice and pick it up again later at your convenience, without having to worry about saving your game first, or having to sit through the boot up or loading times when you resume. The PSP also enters sleep mode automatically when your battery dies, so you can pick up where you left off after you've had a chance to recharge. Obviously the PSP still uses some power when in sleep mode, so it may not be advisable to use this nifty feature all the time, or for extended periods. It's worth noting that this feature is essentially the same as the sleep mode that is activated when you close a Nintendo DS during play. It just seems more beneficial on PSP as it can be used to effectively side-step loadtimes (which is an issue the cartridge-based NDS doesn't have).
The system software isn't 100% stable. I've managed to crash the PSP three times in the last few days: twice in the XMB, and once in Ridge Racers. I wasn't doing anything particularly tricky either - I was just trying to zoom into a photo or delete a video when the system locked up. Before I had a chance to switch off, the PSP powered itself off. The third crash was shortly after I had resumed a game of Ridge Racers from sleep mode. I resumed to the car selection menu, selected a car and hit OK to start the race. The race never started loading. In that instance, I had to switch off manually. None of these crashes bugged me too much (what can I say, I work in a Windows environment) and I expect the software could become more stable in future versions which are available for download through the network update section of the settings menu.
The in-game audio is top-notch, as could be expected of a disc-based system. The sound out of the well-concealed on-board speakers is crisp and surprisingly loud, but its no match for a good pair of headphones. The PSP makes quite a good MP3 player (I haven't tried ATRAC), and when using the in-line remote with the screen off and the hold switch on, the PSP never needs to leave your bag or pocket. On-screen, the artist, title, album information and artwork (if any) are displayed. File transfers are simple - just connect your PSP to your PC via USB cable, or pop the memory stick duo into your PC's card reader. Then you can just dump all your MP3s into the Music folder. You can group your songs in folders, but be aware that you can only have one layer of folders - any sub-folders will be ignored. (The same folder limitation applies for photos and videos.) M3U playlists are supported, but seem to work only for songs in the main music folder.
Sorry about this picture. January's background colour is silver, which makes getting a clear photo of the MP3 screen difficult.
The PSP is pretty picky about the exact type of MPEG-4 compression it likes. Japanese residents can purchase Sony's official "Image Converter 2" software to encode videos into an MP4 format that the PSP will play. I've been using the free 3GP software instead, which performs drag and drop conversion of most video formats into PSP-friendly MP4. At 1500kbps the quality is excellent, and the PSP provides all the playback options and aspect ratio settings you could want. Unfortunately, your own videos on the memory stick will never look as good as the videos Sony will release on UMD, which will be encoded to take full advantage of every pixel of the screen's resolution. The maximum resolution video you can play from the memory stick is 320 by 240. It may sound low, but widescreen video encoded to 320x240 and then stretched back to widescreen on the PSP looks fantastic. To really put it to the test, I encoded Faithless' "I want more" music video, as the sheer amount of moving detail in it would be more likely to produce bad compression artifacts than any other video I could think of. Played back in zoom mode (as the original is letterboxed anyway) it looked brilliant. Compression artifacts were barely noticable. To store whole feature length movies at good quality, you'll need a 1 or 2 gig memory stick duo pro, when they become available/affordable. Each video on the stick has its own icon showing a still from the start of the video. Given that most videos start with a black screen, the icon actually shows a still from three seconds into the video. Clever.
The Photo viewer is very well implemented. The jpeg decoding is not instant, it takes a second with large jpegs (like high quality digital camera photos), though if you're viewing a slideshow, you won't notice, because it buffers the next photo before displaying it. Rotating, zooming and panning are supported. The zoom works in a way reminiscent of satellite images in movies: you zoom in to a slighty pixellated image that sharpens up a second or two later.
It looks like Sony are planning to introduce games that are playable off the memory stick. There's already a menu option to access them. Whether these will be commercially available, or downloaded from PS2/PS3 games, or the internet is anyone's guess. There have been numerous mock-up accessories shown at Japanese trade-shows too, including a clear touch panel keyboard and stylus. I'm dubious as to whether any of these will ever see the light of day, though Sony could certainly score a checkmate if they were able to add PDA and mobile phone functionality to the PSP.
Sony have produced a very impressive device that is more than just a portable Playstation. It's a portable entertainment centre that competes with all the other portable MP3 and media players out there, and there's very clearly a big market for them right now. It just happens to play games too, at a standard never before thought possible. It's not without its faults, but most of these will likely be overcome with software upgrades, larger capacity memory sticks and advanced battery technology. At the end of the day, Sony have delivered an exceptional range of features in a stylish and compact package that will (eventually) be available at a very reasonable price. Move over iPod, it looks like PSP has won next Christmas already.