Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: October 2007

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sony's diet consoles

The Empire strips back.
Sony are trimming the fat with their two new Playstation offerings: the new Slim & Lite PSP which has been on the market for a few weeks now, and the new model 40GB PS3, which will be officially announced very soon.

At a glance, the Slim & Lite PSP looks remarkably similar to the original PSP, but has a number of significant changes. As the Lite name implies, the new model weighs much less. It's 33% lighter than it's predecessor, and that difference is immediately evident when holding the unit. The new PSP feels almost empty by comparison. It's also true to the Slim name, being almost 20% thinner. The back of the unit is now truly flat, unlike the old PSP which had protruding bumps on either side. While the screen is the same size, it's now brighter and features a faster response time (though some ghosting is still apparent). Placement of the speakers and wi-fi switch have been adjusted for the better. The responsiveness of the d-pad has also been improved.

The differences extend beyond the physical unit however. Two key additions to the PSP's functionality have been added in the Slim & Lite. First of all, the amount of RAM in the PSP has been doubled to 64MB, with the Slim and Lite utilizing the extra 32Mb as cache to reduce loadtimes and improve web browser performance. The benefit of the UMD caching feature varies greatly from game to game, but in some cases loadtimes are halved or better. I expect developers will program future PSP games to exploit the Slim's caching feature, resulting in significantly shorter loading delays.

The second big addition is TV Out. You can plug a Slim and Lite PSP into a TV and display it on the big screen. This is a feature that has been requested since the PSP launched. The output looks fantastic. It's hard to believe it's coming from a handheld. Cables are sold separately (of course) and there's one major caveat: PSP games can only be displayed in 480p via the component cable. The composite and S-video cables can display everything but games (photos, videos, etc.). I should also mention that games are displayed at the original resolution of the PSP screen, 480x272, which means they appear in a smaller window inside the 480p TV screen output. Given that all the other PSP features are shown full-screen at full 480p resolution via TV out, Sony's decision not to output PSP games full-screen has been a controversial one. Having used the TV out feature extensively, I think it was the right decision. Games look good via TV out at their original resolution. The PSP wouldn't have enough CPU cycles leftover to upscale game output to full-screen gracefully, so the choice between great looking smaller output and ugly chunky upscaled output seems a no brainer to me. If your TV has a "zoom" mode, you could always use that to do the upscaling for you.

Incidentally, it's apparent that Sony intended on supporting TV out from PSP all along. Evidence of this can be seen when playing UMD movies via TV out. They look virtually indistinguishable from DVDs. Despite the PSP's screen being only 480x272 pixels, all UMD movies are encoded at full 720x480 (NTSC) DVD resolution. My Japanese Biohazard 2 UMD from 2004 was deliberately encoded in 480p despite the fact that there wouldn't be a device capable of playing it at that resolution until three years later. Sony were clearly planning ahead.

Regardless of whether you're using the new Slim and Lite PSP or the old Phat (as it has become known), games are now able to use the PSP's full 333MHz clockspeed. Sony finally lifted the clockspeed cap that I wrote an expose on way back in April 2005 (See Unlocking PSP's Future). We should start seeing some really impressive titles on PSP in 2008. The next Remote Play barrier has also been broken: you can now actually play PS3 games on your PSP remotely. Only Sony's beautiful, but flawed Lair is playable via Remote Play so far, though other games will surely follow. The ability to remotely switch your PS3 on and off from your PSP is coming in a future firmware update too, which should make Remote Play a much more practical proposition.

So, onto the other big news; a 40GB PS3 will be launched across Australia on October 11. In the wake of Microsoft's Halo3 launch and in the lead-up to the all-important holiday season, Sony have addressed the single biggest problem the PS3 has: the price. Nearly a thousand Aussie dollars is just too much to compete effectively with XBox360. While it hasn't even been announced yet, Sony's response is the introduction of a new SKU: the 40GB model. It's cheaper. That's the main thing. The 40GB PS3 will retail for just AU$699.

Of course, reduced cost comes at a cost. The difference between the standard AU$999 60GB model and the AU$699 40GB isn't just 20GB. The 40GB PS3 has been stripped back to make the price cut possible. The card readers are gone, the four USB ports have been reduced to just two, and here's the real kicker: PS2 backward compatibility is out. I don't just mean there's no hardware backward compatibility; there's no PS2 compatibility at all.

Current model PAL PS3s feature software-based backward compatibility anyway, so why wouldn't the 40GB model? It's not like the emulation software costs anything extra to include, right? Well, it's not quite that simple. When Sony introduced software backward compatibility into PAL PS3s, they removed the Emotion Engine (the PS2 CPU) which saved them about $25 a unit. The backward compatibility on these PS3s was never pure software emulation at all - these machines still contained the PS2's GPU (the Graphics Synthesizer). Now in a further effort to reduce manufacturing costs, Sony have stripped out the GS chip, making PS2 games impossible to play on the 40GB unit.

Expect the 40GB PS3 to be officially announced this weekend (and prepare for the internet shitstorm that will undoubtedly ensue). Microsoft will counter attack with the announcement of a new cheaper XBox360 SKU, details of which will emerge shortly.

I'll leave you with more pics of my new PSP. I picked up one of the 77,777 limited edition Japanese bundles made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the ground-breaking PSone RPG, Final Fantasy VII. The bundle came with the new FFVII prequel, Crisis Core (which is absolutely brilliant by the way).