Hands On with Sony's New PlayStation Portable 3000

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Sony's new re-brushed and buffed-up PlayStation Portable 3000 handheld video game system should finally be dangling from plastic retail hooks or resting in neat little rectangle stacks on shelves as you read this, but should existing PSP owners think about upgrading? The PSP 3000 is basically a point update to the PSP "Slim and Lite," Sony's lighter, faster, slimmer refresh that arrived in September 2007. Recall that the original PSP debuted in March 2005, so we certainly weren't due for an update this soon, but an update we're getting, and one that includes a brighter, faster LCD display, expanded video-out, and a built-in microphone.

Nearly 14 million US gamers already own Sony's portable PlayStation, roughly half as many as own a Nintendo DS, which considering the PSP's current baseline price -- $170 to the DS's easier to swallow $130 -- is certainly a respectable feat. No one knows how many original PSP owners dropped $170 on the "Slim and Lite" last year, but if you (like me) were one of them, you're probably wondering whether it's worth another $170 simoleons or not.

Let's start with the casing, which top to bottom and side to side looks virtually identical to the PSP 2000. Weighs and feels the same too. Have a closer look, however, and you'll notice some subtle tweaks. For starters, the 'Sony' moniker has been moved from the right side of the screen to its left, where the PlayStation logo used to be. Where'd the logo go? Look down at what used to be the 'Home' button, which if you think about it kind of makes sense, bringing the PSP into alignment with the PlayStation 3, which has a similar "master control" button smack in the middle of its wireless gamepad.

The next thing you'll notice is that the 'PS', 'Select' and 'Start' buttons along the bottom of the PSP 3000 are now fully oval-shaped and no longer oblong half-circles. Run your fingers along their tops and they also feel flush to the case molding, not slightly protruding, as they do on my PSP 2000.

Finally, just to the left of the letters 'PSP' sitting between the volume and brightness controls, there's now a tiny hole: the new external microphone that's supposed to make spontaneous wireless voice communications more robust, since you no longer need a special headset to rattle off taunts or make Skype calls.

Flip the PSP 3000 around and it looks identical to the 2000, save for the circular band of metal on the UMD tray, which looks to be about one-half to one-third the width of the one on the 2000. Aside from creating a sleeker overall look, I'm betting that it's meant to reduce the amount of visible scratching, something my PSP 2000 shows traces of.

The overall ABS plastic of the casing feels and looks more metallic and less plasticky now, with a noticeably reduced amount of reflective "glitter" in the molding's weave. The screen remains as prone to fingerprints as ever, but then, so do iPhones, iPods, regular mobile phones, digital camera LCDs, and when you think about it, pretty much any piece of backlit plastic you're bound to end up touching at some point or another. (Hint: You know the special cleaning cloths you sometimes get with a new pair of glasses? I have a few of those, and they beat sweaters, sweatshirts, button-ups, dry cloths, damp cloths, etc. every time for getting any LCD safe and squeaky clean.)

Trip the "on" switch and you're greeted by the same familiar logo and XMB interface, though you'll notice it now looks quite a bit more colorful, with enhanced edge-distinctiveness in terms of darks and lights, no doubt an expression of the improved LCD which Sony said would offer a better color range and higher contrast ratio. There's also supposed to be less glare, but to be honest, I never noticed the glare on my original PSP all the way back in 2005. I can't see much difference one way or another with the 3000, which is to say, it looks just fine in any kind of ambient light and outside of direct sunlight.

Click over to 'system' settings and you'll notice a new 'color space' option that lets you switch between 'wide' and 'normal' (don't bother checking the PSP 1000/2000, -- it's not available). Think 'vivid' versus 'standard' on a TV and you've got the idea. 'Wide' is enabled by default, and makes everything look brighter and color-saturated. It tends to make the text in the operating system look a little too vivid at times, but load a game like Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core and the new colors simply pop, making it even easier to identify 3D in-game objects at a distance or in shadow, and the edges of menu bars and fonts in crowded interfaces look even cleaner and crisper. The picture looks quite a bit warmer, too, bringing the overall look nearer the sort of hard-to-duplicate hue richness you often enjoy with a really top notch high-definition tube television.

As for the microphone, well, it's a microphone all right. Everyone says I sound fine when I use it to chat across the pond and bug family and friends vis-a-vis Skype, though I'm also told there's a bit of an echo (to be fair, that could just be Skype). No word on whether it supports noise-cancelling tech, but let's just say the mic's still not the way you'll want to talk smack in a friendly online match if, say, you're playing in a noisy coffee shop or cafe. In a bind, though, it'll be a lot nicer than reaching for and untangling the snarl of wires and jacks that comprise the PSP headset. Think about getting a call and at least being able to answer and tell the caller to hang on while you get the headset into position (as opposed to fumbling and tumbling and losing the call in your rush to plug in). I actually use my PSP as a phone here in the UK (in lieu of a Skype or any other IP phone) so I'm proof positive it works.

What about video out? I wasn't able to test this because I don't have the proper hookups, but the gist of the update is that you were already able to plug the PSP 2000 into an HDTV with a separately sold cable and play games on the big screen using the PSP as the controller. With the PSP 3000, the big change is that you can finally plug into a non-HDTV as well.

Verdict: If you're a heavy PSP user with wads of cash to blow, need the external mic, or want to play games on a standard TV, the PSP 3000 is the sleeker, visually crisper twin to last year's model. If you're an original PSP owner and skipped the PSP 2000, you'll see an even more dramatic difference upgrading. But if you're already rolling with a PSP 2000, your money's better saved than spent on this nominal uptick.

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