Summary: It has arrived. Marcus has returned with the Promised Sony Product, as foretold in Marketing 5:38, where the Prophet of Sony hath said "the PSP shall be uber, and ye shall all know it is good, so spend your money on it." But Marcus, the heathen that he is, spends 13 pages dissecting it, bit by bit.
So, it looks like Nintendo is sitting pretty with its firm grip over the handheld market, right? Sure, the Game Boy has fended off attacks from technologically superior opponents such as the Sega Game Gear and the NEC Turbo Express – is there much reason to believe that there will ever be a legitimate threat to Nintendo’s reign? Perhaps the Nintendo of old would scoff at the idea of a challenger, but the Big N of today is much more cautious, especially of a certain Japanese consumer electronics giant. All one needs to do is look back to the days of the SNES and its never-released CD-ROM add-on (codenamed “Play Station”) in cooperation with Sony. Nintendo dismissed Sony as a partner; and the disgruntled Sony went on to develop its own PlayStation and hasn’t looked back since.
Today, we will investigate in great detail Sony’s foray into Nintendo’s domain: the PlayStation Portable, which will probably be more conveniently known as the PSP.
As a portable game machine, the PSP is extremely powerful and in a completely different league than any other handheld device. Developers have said that, in some ways, the PSP has more power than the PS2 because it offers more effects that can be done in hardware rather than software. Let’s take a look at the technical specifications:
Approximately 6.7 in (W) x 2.9 in (H) x .9 in (D)
Approximately 280g / .62 lbs (including battery)
SIDEBAR: The PSP is region locked only when it comes to UMD movies, but not games! Import junkies rejoice!
MIPS R4000 32-bit core
32MB Main Memory
4MD Embedded DRAM
2.6GB/sec bus transfer rate
FPU, VFPU (2.6 billion flops)
3D graphics extended instructions
PSP Media Engine
MIPS R4000 32-bit core 128-bit bus
2MB eDRAM submemory
90nm CMOS manufacturing process
PSP Graphics Core
512bit Bus, 1-166 MHz
5.3GB/sec bus transfer rate
3D curved surface and 3D polygon engine
664 M pixels/sec
max 33 M polygon/sec (T&L)
24bit Full Color: RGBA
Support for compressed textures, hardware clipping, morphing, bone, tessellation, bezier, b-spline (NURBS)
4.3 inch, 16:9 Wide screen TFT LCD
480 x 272 pixel, 16.77 million colors
Maximum luminance 180 / 130 / 80cd/m2 (when using battery pack)
Maximum luminance 200 / 180 / 130 / 80cd/m2 (when using AC adaptor)
VME (Virtual Mobile Engine)
Reconfigurable DSP engine
5 billion operations per second
3D sound, 7.1 channels
Synthesizer, effecter, and other abilities
ATRAC3 plus, AAC, MP3 for audio
IEEE 802.11b (Wi-Fi)
USB 2.0 (mini-B)
Memory Stick Duo™
Stereo Headphone Out
UMD (Universal Media Disc) (Read only)
660nm laser diode
1.8GB capacity (dual-layered disc)
11Mbps transfer rate
AES crypto system
Unique disc ID
Memory Stick Duo™ Slot
DC IN 5V connector
2Hours(High Quality) - DVD movie
4Hours(Standard Quality) - CS Digital
[Video]: "UMD": H.264/MPEG-4 AVC Main Profile Level3
[Video]: "Memory Stick": MPEG-4 SP,AAC
[Music]: "UMD": linear PCM,ATRAC3plus™
[Music]: "Memory Stick": ATRAC3plus™,MP3(MPEG1/2 Layer3)
(Encryption) 128bit AES (Copyright protection technology) MagicGate™
Region, Parental Control
Ad hoc mode (connection up to 16 consoles)
Clearly, there is a ton of technology packed into this thing. Not all of it, however, is meant for gaming. While the PSP is backed by the PlayStation hype machine, many of the attractive features are borrowed from Sony’s other consumer devices.
The ability to watch full-length movies and videos comes from Sony’s portable DVD players. Playing music encoded in ATRAC3 and MP3 is straight from Sony’s Network Walkmans. And the ability to display photos could be something tossed in from the digital camera division.
Sony definitely had more than just games in mind when designing the PSP.
SIDEBAR: The PSP uses S3TC for its texture compression scheme.
What’s in the Box
The PSP first launched in Japan on December 12, 2004. We first got a glimpse of the device at last year’s E3, and after hearing all the great things (and some not-so-great things) since the Japanese launch, we couldn’t wait for the PSP to hit North American shores.
To get the full retail experience, we lined up during the early hours of March 24 to grab the first North American PSPs sold. Sony decided to sell the PSP in the form of a $249.99 ($300 for Canadians) “value pack” which includes the following:
Memory Stick Duo (32 MB)
Headphone with remote control
Soft case and cloth
UMD In-pack Sampler
Spider-Man 2 (with the first million units shipped) (better get them while they last!*cough* -ed)
The 5V AC adaptor is reasonably sized and is comparable to the ones you may already know from Nintendo’s handhelds. The 3.6V 1800mAh lithium ion battery is easily installed (and removable). The Memory Stick Duo serves as the PSP’s memory card, though you’ll probably want much more storage if you plan to take advantage of non-gaming applications. The earbuds and remote are white in color, allowing all PSP owners to blend in with the hip iPod crowd. Equally as white is a wrist strap that loops onto the lower left hand corner of the unit. The soft case is just a black sleeve to slip your PSP into so that it won’t get scratched up while sliding around in your bag or rather large pocket. Inevitably, fingerprints will rule the PSP’s shiny finish, so Sony’s foresight provides you with a cleaning cloth that’s not unlike what one would use for eyeglasses.
Finally, the sample disc mostly just a useless collection of video clips from launch titles, movie trailers, and music videos. They are as follows:
· Wipeout Pure
· Ape Escape: On the Loose
· World Tour Soccer
· Twisted Metal: Head-On
· Gretzky NHL
· Hot Shots Golf Fore
· ATV Offroad Fury: Blazin' Trails
· Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade
· Ridge Racers
· XXX: State of the Union
· The Longest Yard
· Lords of Dogtown
· Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo
· Kung Fu Hustle
· Are We There Yet?
· Coheed & Cambria – Blood Red Summer
· Cross Fade – Old
· Kasabian – Club Foot
· Omarion – O
· Petey Pablo – Vibrate
· Silvertide – Ain't Comin' Home
· Three Days Grace – Home
· The Zutons – Pressure Point
Sadly, none of the games are playable, making this sampler largely a waste of Sony’s UMD production capacity.
SIDEBAR: Gretzky NHL is the pack-in game for Canadian PSPs forcing the price up to CDN$349.99, though there are a limited number of plain CDN$299.99 Value Packs for those lucky enough to find them. We love (and miss) hockey here in Canada, but we still prefer our hockey videogames to be good.
After digging through the entire contents of the cardboard box to get to the PSP at the bottom, the first thing that hits you about the PSP is its screen. It’s big. It’s widescreen. It’s about twice the size of the GBA SP screen, though Nintendo can still boast that the DS has twice as many screens.
Aside from select and start, the rest of the function keys are ones that you wouldn’t find on the DualShock. Directly below the screen are keys to take you back to the main browser, adjusting the brightness level, and changing/muting the volume. Left and right stereo speakers are found on the lower respective corners of the display. On the left side of the unit is a switch to enable or disable the Wi-Fi, which is usually left in the off position when conserving battery life. Beside that is the MagicGate slot for the Memory Stick Duo. Directly underneath the wrist strap loop is the plug for the headphones and remote. On the right side is the power and hold switch, and next to it is the DC in for the AC adaptor. The top of the unit hosts the mini-USB connector, the infrared port, and an open switch to pop open the UMD hatch. Making up central back-side of the PSP is the UMD hatch, which operates identical to that found on most MiniDisc players. Also on the back is the battery compartment.
Overall, the PSP is riddled with buttons and switches, though none of which seem to run contrary to ergonomics. It’s a very compact design, making use of every square inch. After inspecting all the physical features of the hardware, you’ll probably find fingerprint smudges all over the slick, shiny piano-black finish and screen. Now you know why Sony included the cleaning cloth (though we really should get a lifetime supply instead of just one).
The UMDs look like rounded MiniDiscs without the protective slide cover over the part that’s exposed to the laser. This means that the discs themselves are exposed and can be scratched up if not handled with care.
The Memory Stick Duo looks like… well, a Sony Memory Stick. We really wish that the PSP would accept other forms of flash memory, such as SD, but then again, the words “Sony” and “proprietary” always seem to go together.
SIDEBAR: Hi-MDs hold only 1GB and are completely different from the technology behind the UMD.
Main Screen Turn On
A very handy feature is the sleep mode. Sliding the power switch while the machine is on doesn’t always mean that the machine turns off. A quick slide will enable sleep mode, but the cool thing is that upon wake, the PSP resumes whatever you were last doing without skipping a beat. Even if you were in the middle of your hitting your nitro in Ridge Racer before sliding the switch, the game resumes as if nothing happened. To truly turn off the PSP, the power switch must be held in position for two seconds. As for sleep mode’s drain on battery life, it’s minimal. Color us impressed.
Setting up the wireless connection is easy. When connecting to our wireless network in infrastructure mode, the PSP detected our router (and some others nearby) and prompted for a WEP key. Entering in our 128-bit key was a bit of a tedious chore, as instead of using an on-screen keyboard, Sony chose to display a number pad with letters on it, requiring us to type in letters as we would on a cell phone. The PSP supports only 802.11b and WEP, forcing those running pure G networks with WPA will have to reconfigure down to mixed mode in order to connect.
SIDEBAR: The browser screen background color changes every month. Scroll through all 12 by changing your date & time!
The Dreaded Square Button
Undoubtedly, many of you have heard of various hardware problems on Japanese PSPs. The most notorious is, of course, the square button flaw. Those unfamiliar with the story, take a look at these pictures from an Asahi-net.or.jp user site:
We can see that the square button’s detection switch is to the right of where the actual button sits – because the controller hardware has to accommodate the edge of the screen – which causes the button to be less responsive and to sometimes stick. According to reports, almost 5000 PSPs were returned because of this flaw. In an interview in Nikkei Business magazine, PlayStation father Ken Kutaragi defended the obvious weakness in design in his statements. Here’s the translation from GameSpot's story:
"This is the design that we came up with. There may be people that complain about its usability, but that's something which users and game software developers will have to adapt to. I didn't want the PSP's LCD screen to become any smaller than this, nor did I want its machine body to become any larger.
Almost a month after, and likely following a lot of dissatisfied gamers’ complaints, Sony Computer Entertainment in Japan announced that it will fix all units suffering from a ‘defective’ square button. Still sticking to its purposeful specification stance, Sony blamed the button problem on a manufacturing defect rather than a design weakness. Whatever the case may be, Sony stated that all units coming to North America will be free from the manufacturing defect.
So, has it been fixed? Perhaps. While we haven’t experienced any button sticking on our PSP, the square button feels noticeably different from the others. Upon pressing it, the left side of the button dips down much more eagerly than the right side, as if there were nothing underneath supporting the left side of the button (which is actually the case). The button even makes a different clicking noise when pressed. In order to achieve a somewhat normal feel, one must press down on the right edge of the button, which is presumably where the detection switch is. At any rate, the feel of the square button does not affect its functionality.
We’re very impressed at the compact size of the PSP, especially in relation to the screen; but it’s glaringly obvious that certain sacrifices in design were made to achieve the end result.
SIDEBAR: Even the most renowned architects make mistakes. Take a look.
A Display Just Shy of Perfect
Unfortunately, our PSP’s beautiful displayed is marred by the presence of dead pixels. Although dead pixels are a possibility when it comes to LCD, manufacturers are now capable of producing displays with at least ten times the resolution of the PSP’s screen with no visible flaws. It’s perplexing to think about why a 480 x 272 screen manufactured today would still have such a high incidence of faulty picture elements.
Our screen has two dead pixels near the top and upper left-hand corners that are most visible on dark backgrounds. Thankfully, the stuck pixels are located far away enough from the center of the action that they don’t become too distracting, though there’s no hiding them. As with all LCDs, your mileage may vary when it comes to dead pixels. We’ve heard of many happy owners with no screen defects whatsoever, to those who have dead pixels numbering in the double digits. Although most retail stores are willing to exchange your PSP, Sony will cover bothersome dead pixels as part of its one-year warranty. Mind you, replacement or repair could be at Sony’s discretion, as the user manual states clearly that dead pixels are normal for LCDs and are not a sign of malfunction.
Prismatic Spray Juice
Samsung is one of the suppliers of LCD screens for the PSP (Sharp being the other manufacturer). As of this year, Samsung employs a new “zero dead pixel policy” meaning that any Samsung monitor with even just one dead pixel may be exchanged for another within six months of purchase. With such confidence behind its displays, we wonder if Samsung adheres to the same quality standards when making PSP screens. As for LCDs from Sharp, we’re not sure – though to further cloud the picture, early words on the street from the Japanese launch said that the Sharp LCD is the superior one. Whatever the case may be, every PSP display that we’ve seen is gorgeous with the only flaw being dead pixels.
Our final concerns regarding the PSP display deals with wear and tear. The shiny, mirror-like surface of the PSP is extremely prone to scratching, thus creating a whole new accessory in screen protectors. Also, dust taking residence on the inside of the display is something that’s plagued all sorts of devices from PDAs to cell phones. It’s probably only a matter of time before dust finds its way into the PSP.
SIDEBAR: The TurboExpress handheld had an active matrix LCD screen way back in 1990. I had one, but I sold it. Stupid me.
Best Launch Titles Ever?
Alright, let’s get to the games. As is the trend for the past few new game system launches, many retailers are selling the PSP as part of a bundle that forces you to swallow some extra games that you may not want just to boost attach rate numbers. In some cases (where you get to select your own games), this is fine since the UMD sampler disc is mostly a throwaway. We were free to pick up whichever games we pleased, and we chose to go with the current cream of the crop: Lumines, Ridge Racer, and Wipeout Pure.
No PlayStation launch would be complete without a version of Ridge Racer, and the PSP iteration does not disappoint. It borrows all the familiar tracks and follows the same winning formula as the rest of the series. Drifting now fills the newly added nitro bar, giving even more reason to stay sideways. Solid gameplay is what we expect from a Ridge Racer series, but what really pops out at us is the graphics. Ridge Racer looks amazing at 60fps and arguably the most visually impressive of all launch titles.
Like Ridge Racer, Wipeout Pure doesn’t stray from its heritage. Thumping electronica mixed perfectly with high intensity, high speed combat racing remains the foundation and attraction. Rather than being just a remix of previous Wipeout games, Pure is brand new experience built from the ground-up. Although the frame rate isn’t as smooth as Ridge Racer’s, Wipeout Pure strongly contends for being the best looking PSP title, while also taking the lead in gameplay of the two racers.
The two games above lead the graphics department, but Lumines reigns supreme when it comes to sound, and perhaps in enjoyment too. At first glance, Lumines is just your simple puzzle game – which is mostly what it is. After all, the portion of the manual devoted to explaining the game spans only 7 pages. Stacking blocks to form rectangular shapes isn’t exactly revolution gameplay, but the presentation of Lumines makes it seem like it is. Every action, be it rotating or moving your blocks around, emits a specific sound that matches perfectly to the astoundingly catchy background music. Lumines’ is an experience; it’s something perfectly suited for rest, relaxation, and recreation. We can only imagine the world-dominating “Tetris effect” if Sony had bundled Lumines with the PSP, because no PSP owner should be without this game.
Sadly, we didn’t have much of a chance to spend exploring multiplayer, though we have heard positive things from many other gamers. Currently, all games except for Twisted Metal: Head-On operate solely in ad hoc mode, meaning that all PSP participants must be within range of one another. However, resourceful gamers can partially remove that limitation through the use a tunneling applications like XBConnect and XLink Kai. We can only hope that future PSP titles will make better use of the 802.11b for online gaming.
SIDEBAR: Lumines is the only PSP title launched in Canada without a French manual… which is pretty odd, considering that its publisher, UbiSoft, is a French company.
Does Whatever a Spider Can
Sadly, the UMD version of Spider-Man 2 gives up certain things that we’ve come to love about DVDs. The most glaring omission from the UMD is the lack of a scene selection menu. When we want to skip to our favorite scene, we have to manually hit the chapter skip until we reach that certain point. If not using the chapter skip, the fast-forward and rewind functions have a maximum speed of only 3x. Those of us who love the extra features, documentaries and commentaries won’t find them on UMD. Forget 5.1 surround sound. Then again, if the consumer really cared about all that, then he’d probably own the DVD instead.
Another curious point concerns the aspect ratio of Spider-Man 2. We figured that the PSP having widescreen meant that it would play widescreen movies in their full original aspect ratio glory – but not so with the Spider-Man 2 UMD. The movie is framed at a 2.40:1, but Spider-Man 2 fills the entire 1.78:1 display, meaning that picture to the left and right is lost. Though, this is somewhat understandable, as we could imagine Sony receiving thousands of complaints from casual PSP owners on why there are black bars on the top of bottom of their screens. Another reason could be that Sony wanted to have every bit of resolution devoted to the movie. Whatever the case may be, the bottom line is that UMD is no replacement for DVD, but rather it is an alternative to other portable movie players.
SIDEBAR: So why couldn't it make use of the video player's “screen mode” function that supposedly toggles between three modes: normal, zoom, full, and original. This function could be used to keep the OAR of the movie and fill the screen for viewers who wish to do so.
Home-brewed PSP Video
Not happy with Sony’s aspect ratios in its UMD movies? Well then, you can make your own. The PSP’s ability to act as a portable media player makes it attractive even to non-gamers. Perhaps that is why Sony decided to pack-in Spider-Man 2, since a casual observer on the train will likely find a lot more to look at in a movie than a new-age Tetris.
The first step in transferring data over to the PSP is connecting it to a PC via USB. Sony does not include a USB to mini-USB cable as part of the value pack, but most of us with USB-enabled devices such as digital cameras and MP3 players should have one at our disposal. (Alternatively, plugging the Memory Stick into a card reader will also do the trick, which is something that we did when too lazy to fetch a cable.) Upon plugging in the cable and selecting “USB Connection” from the PSP browser, the PC recognizes a mass storage device, allowing for drag-and-drop operations.
Putting videos onto the PSP, however, requires a lot more effort than just dragging over your MPEG-4 files. The instruction manual points us to http://www.memorystick.com/psp/ where Image Converter 2 software can be purchased from Sony for US$19.99 to convert and transfer videos to play on PSP. Instead of going the official software route, however, we decided to go with the current popular choice of the PSP hobbyist community: PSP Video 9.
MP3 and JPEG Support
PSP Video 9, found at this site, is freeware that converts regular video files into PSP video files, as well as copying these video files between the PC and PSP. It offers several encoding options, such as resolution, framerate, and bitrate so that the video can be sized according to the storage space.
Sound quality is quite good, though listening through headphones is a must. While adequate for quick and casual gaming, the built-in speakers just can’t reproduce the range needed when music is the main application. Plus, the in-line remote is there just for this purpose – to orchestrate your music without having to fiddle with the PSP.
Although the PSP can’t compete with dedicated music machines like the iPod, its MP3 playback easily pleases those who want an intermission between games and video.
Finally, the PSP also acts as a portable photo viewer with its support for JPEG. Create a PSP\\PHOTO director on the Memory Stick, drag the files over, and they’re ready for viewing. Given the specifications of the display, high resolution images are a bit overwhelming to the PSP (though there are zooming functions to extract further detail). For casual viewing, however, using the photo capabilities of the PSP is a techno-geek alternative to pulling pictures out from your wallet.
SIDEBAR: What would Paris Hilton keep in her video and photo directories of her PSP? Perhaps we’ll soon find out! *H4x0r3d*
Undocumented Use: Web Browsing
Where 1800mAh Gets You
After all the wonderful functions and uses of Sony’s PSP, one question remains on the minds of many: what about battery life? This was one of the concerns when the specs of the PSP were first announced, and Sony did nothing to help the situation when it quoted a battery life of 2-10 hours. Then again, that original quote isn’t too far off from the actual truth.
So what about that 10 hour battery life that Sony previously stated? That’s only when playing MP3.
Those who are able to sustain gaming sessions over entire transatlantic or transpacific flights will find the PSP unable to keep up (road trips are covered thanks to car adaptors). We suppose that buying an extra battery or external charger would double playing time, but those aren’t the most ideal solutions. There are no doubts in our minds that Sony is working on extending battery life in a future hardware revision. We just hope that there will be battery upgrades available, especially since replacing the battery is quite easy.
SIDEBAR: I wonder if Wi-Fi (ad hoc) gaming is allowed on airplanes.
In the same way that high-end notebook computers are billed as desktop replacements, the same association applies for the PSP. The impressive visuals, high quality sound, and multiplayer capabilities enable it to deliver the gaming experience that we’re accustomed to today. Just as stirring are its video, music, and photo features that’ll entertain even non-gamers. It’s a portable media center.
We have no qualms about spending US$249.99 on such a packed device. In fact, it’s quite a value when considering all its functionality. The only faults that we found are due to its level of quality control, particularly in the LCD; and we hope that all will be cured once manufacturing stabilizes. Battery life shouldn’t be a concern for most, though there is much room for improvement.
Sony has truly created an amazing piece of technology. We can’t help but to agree with Ken Kutaragi’s tremendously bold words of calling the PSP “the most beautiful thing in the world.” It redefines portable gaming of a magnitude close to that of the original Game Boy 16 years ago and oozes cool that handily eclipses the iPod. The PSP is easily the one of the most compelling gadgets that we’ve ever seen.
SIDEBAR: OK, enough of this. I’m going back to playing my PSP.
|© Copyright 2003 FS Media, Inc.|