First Look: Sony's Impressive PlayStation Portable

Sony PlayStation Portable
Photograph: Rick Rizner
It's black and shiny with clear acrylic buttons; it plays games, music, and movies; and it's coming to a store near you March 24. It's Sony's $250 PlayStation Portable, and after two days of intense testing, I've reached a conclusion: You're probably going to want one of these, despite a few minor flaws.

The first thing you notice when you remove the unit from the box is that big display.

The PSP's 4.3-inch, 480-by-272-pixel TFT LCD screen is absolutely beautiful, with bright, vibrant color on display during both game and movie play. Everyone who peeked at the PSP commented about how good the screen looked, and I have to agree, it's striking.

However, there are several drawbacks to the display's brilliantly shiny surface, chief among them fingerprints. Within minutes of opening the box, I'd covered the device with prints that were so noticeable you wouldn't need a crime scene investigation unit to lift one. I guess that's why Sony ships the special gray chamois cloth with the unit. I predict that the PSP will inspire many gamers to perform a new ritual: wiping fingerprint grease off the screen before playing a game or watching a movie.

A Bit Too Shiny?

Unfortunately, the reflective surface can also impact enjoyment of the device. During my tests with both games and movies, I quickly realized that any ambient light from behind caused distracting reflections. This made watching a movie on the very small screen an interesting experience: I had to find a way to hold the screen close enough to my face to take in all the action, while at the same time fidgeting with the angle I held the PSP at to minimize reflections, which seemed to happen even in the darkest rooms.

Down in the lab, our Test Center analysts also liked the screen, but one commented that, while watching a fast-moving movie scene on the unit, he saw some video artifacts--bits of blockiness that probably resulted from the video compression.

Watching a movie, I was surprised by the good quality audio that emerged from tiny speaker holes in the base of the device. There was great stereo separation and rich sound--though in a car, outside, or anywhere that you'll encounter ambient noise of any kind, you'll probably prefer to use headphones; even at top volume the speakers weren't loud enough to overcome city noise.

If you don't need to watch the screen, such as when you're listening to music, the speaker placement works great. Just lay the player flat on its back, and you've got a nifty personal stereo. Or you could, of course, just use headphones.

The PSP is good for viewing still photos, too, if you have some way to get JPEG images onto the Memory Stick Duo (I used a SanDisk 12-in-1 card reader). The photos looked great on the PSP, and you can look at them one at a time or turn them into a slide show.

In the Box

The $249 PSP Value Pack includes a 3.6-volt, 1800-milliamp-hour rechargeable battery (rated to last about 4 hours by Sony), a 32MB Memory Stick Duo card, white earbuds, a control device for navigating music and movie menus, a carrying case, a demo disc (with games, music, and movie clips), and the movie Spider-Man 2.

The Value Pack doesn't include any actual games; you'll pay about $50 each for those. Another thing that's missing is some sort of portable stand. At just 10 ounces, the PSP isn't exactly heavy. Still, after a while, I found that it wasn't comfortable to hold the unit while watching the film. My hands started going to sleep, and my wrist ached.

To alleviate my discomfort I began trying to figure out ways to stand the device on a table, leaning on various objects to achieve a reflection-less angle. The unit can balance on its bottom edge, but doing so blocks most of the sound from the two millimeter-sized speaker holes in the base. I leaned it back against a few books, resting the base on its padded travel case. It worked, but it wasn't optimal.

I also found that the unit's game pad-style controls, and the lack of any visual cues indicating the function of each button in movie mode, less than ideal for controlling playback of a movie. It took a few minutes to figure out the device's menu system, then another few minutes to figure out how to start the movie from the beginning a second time. Note to Sony's user-interface designers: Not everyone owns a PlayStation and therefore knows that the "X" button is the selection button, and that the "O" backs you out of the menu you're currently in.

Smooth Game Play

Sony shipped five games with our review unit: Twisted Metal Head On, Wipeout Pure, Gretsky Hockey, NBA, and World Tour Soccer. I spent most of my time with Twisted Metal, which proved quickly addictive. The game play was crisp and smooth, with no midplay pauses or other signs that the unit's processing power was being taxed. All of the games looked sharp.

The PSP has an analog stick on its face, which confused a few people at first (it looks like it might be a speaker), but it's a nice addition that will make some games much more playable than they would be with the directional pad alone.

One thing I noticed about the PSP and games: the loud spinning noises associated with the PSP's proprietary media, called the Universal Media Disc. The 2-1/4-inch optical disc offers 1.8GB of capacity and comes mounted inside a plastic cartridge. It's largely silent during game play, but between levels it's quite noisy.

Ejecting the UMD proved rather interesting, too. Hold your PSP so its face is horizontal, and the UMD slot faces downward. Slide the eject lever, and watch the spring-loaded UMD carrier pop the disc out of the device and onto a desk, the floor, or the gutter. Word of advice: If you're going to eject your UMD, don't do it next to the subway tracks.

Wireless Wonder

The PSP is the first dedicated handheld gaming device to support Wi-Fi out of the box. The wireless connection is usable only for multiplayer games and for downloading firmware updates (at the moment). You cannot browse Web sites, or perform messaging.

Setting up the PSP to work with my home network was incredibly easy; it picked up the SSIDs of the three access points in my house, locked on to the one I chose, and then received an IP address from the router. The entire setup took roughly 2 minutes, and about 1 minute, 50 seconds of that was spent naming the connection with the PSP's awful text-entry interface.

There's no keyboard on the device, so I naturally assumed that the PSP would have some sort of on-screen software keyboard, which I'd have to scroll through to enter letters and numbers. But the PSP's text-input paradigm is that of a cell phone: 12 "numeric keypad" buttons, arrayed as on a phone's keypad, with the same style of text input that an SMS text messager would use. One tap on the 3 button gets you a d, and three taps on the 3 button gets you an f, for example. Ugh.

Clearly, nobody's going to use the PSP to type memos, so I can tolerate the nuisance of the text-input method. And while finger grease on the screen is distracting, it's also easily wiped away. For portable entertainment, the PSP looks like it's going to be the gold standard in terms of sound and video quality.

Of course, as with all new platforms, the PSP's overall success will depend on the quality of games you can buy for it. If the rest of 2005's PSP lineup is as good as this initial batch of games, the PSP looks like a serious challenge to Nintendo's handheld dominance.

Sony PlayStation Portable Value Pack


Incredible screen, great sound, and top-notch games make this smudge-prone unit hard to resist.
Street: $249
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