PSP Hardware

Sony PSP

Initial impressions on this landmark hardware from Ben and Luke

You evil Sony-loving bastards. You know who you are. I despise fanboy banter but sometimes when I see Nintendo getting an unfair bashing I can't help but wade in and stick up for them, bless 'em. I find myself sticking up for them all of the time at work, not only because they are geniuses at what they do but also because a lot of people enjoy badmouthing them. Sometimes this berating can indeed be fair and on such occasions I will do nothing more than scowl in the corner or pretend to be busied with something else. Most of the time however, the jip they receive is wholly uncalled for and born from many people's misunderstanding of the company. That's part of the reason why I was so happy to big up the DS when we first received ours in the office. I was in like-minded company too because nearly everyone that I allowed to get their hands on it (read that as the people I like) was very impressed as well.

For a good few days I managed to bring more or less every telephone conversation I had back to the DS and enjoyed the opportunity to evangelise about how good the system is. However, in recent days when I've spoken to the same folk again the edge has noticeably gone from my enthusiasm. I hate it too because there's lots to admire about the DS and it deserves to do well. So why has my enthusiasm quelled somewhat? For one simple, almost painful to admit reason - I played a PSP. Even as I sit here and write this I agonise! I want to like the DS more, I want shun the mass-market PSP in favour of the subtler, more ingenious gaming machine that is the DS. But I can't. The PSP, put simply, is an absolutely incredible machine. Think of it like this: you meet the DS and you want to take it home, make sweet sweet love to it and then introduce it to the parents. Meet the PSP however and you want to grab it by the arm, drag it to the toilets, rodger it stupid on the spot and propose to it there and then. Both scenarios are good, but one is unquestionably better.

As I write this it sits here in front of me and I shan't deny I'm having trouble containing myself. The PSP is absolutely gorgeous, from a consumerist-gadgetry point of view at least. The DS is a fine machine but in comparison to the modern, smooth and shiny compactness of the PSP it looks like a child's toy (did I really just allow myself to use the word "child" in reference to a Nintendo product? I deserve to burn in hell and I shall!). Granted, it is little more than a rectangular slab of metal and plastic but you could say the Ferrari Enzo is a cubic slab of steel and rubber. What is all the more amazing is that when you look at the unit the vast majority of what you are seeing is screen, so vast is the gaming window that the PSP offers. It's simply huge! It's all the more amazing when you consider that Sony have managed to locate the controls perfectly around the small amount of housing left over once the screen has squeezed its huge arse into the casing. Sony PSP

On the left of the unit there's not only a Dualshock pad but also a mini analogue stick, which in fact is more like a nipple (albeit one on a miniature stand!) The right of the unit has the same face buttons too as well as single shoulder buttons located on the top left and right of the device. The controls are placed just as your body expects when you pick up the unit and bar a minor adjustment period needed to align your left thumb to the analogue stick (which sits closer to the thumb than when using a Dualshock, or indeed any pad) it all feels very natural from the off. Also on the face of the unit are the extra control buttons that line the bottom of the screen. They are tiny and at a glance fairly indistinguishable from the body of the unit and whilst after a time you are able to reach for them instinctually there's no denying that both their small size and only tiny protrusion from the body of the unit conspire to make them tough to locate when playing with the PSP in a darkened room. The controls themselves comprise of volume, brightness and music synthesiser settings along with the traditional Start and Select buttons and a "Home" button that can be used to get you back into the system menu at any time.

On the left hand edge we have the WiFi button used for wireless gaming whilst a symmetrical button on the right edge turns the unit on or off. Bizarrely, rather than simply opting for a three position switch for you to flick between on, off and hold (which freezes button control, ideal for when you're carrying the unit as an MP3 player for instance) instead we get a rather unsatisfying springed tab that flicks back to centre when you switch on or off. It does the job but feels unnecessarily complicated and ultimately less sure. The charging socket sits to the right on the lower edge and potential importers will be pleased to note that the supplied AC adapter that comes with the Japanese model is suitable worldwide. All you will need is a figure of eight power cord, like the ones supplied with PS2's in your country: plug that into the adapter and off you go - you're around two hours away from PSP on the move.

On the top you'll find the IR receiver, a USB type B port with which you can connect to your PC (using a cable exactly like those supplied with Sony's digital cameras) and the release switch for the UMD port. The UMD's themselves are tiny discs about two-thirds the diameter of a Gamecube disc. They're housed in a plastic cartridge much like a MiniDisc, a necessary step considering that opening up game cases and handling exposed discs on the move is more often than not a precarious business. Flick that and the slightly fragile disc drive opens up from a hinge at the bottom of the unit. Not only does it flick open a little weakly but it also looks fragile, certainly far more vulnerable than the hidden cartridge slots of the DS. In fact, as gorgeous and as well constructed as the PSP unquestionably is, you won't have the confidence to test its durability in the way that you would a GBA or even DS. Joints creek and innards rub if you contort it too much; you'd definitely brick it if you ever dropped the thing. I was recently asked by my girlfriend to show it to her seven year old brother. Bizarrely, she was a little upset when I refused outright (as was her mother, but there was no goddam way it was ever going to happen). Sony PSP

Still though, in the same way that you'd love to get your hands on Kylie, you know she's probably very delicate so you wouldn't want to handle her too roughly anyway. The PSP is a sophisticated and succulent device and you'll want to take care of it. It's due to this that the gloss sheen of plastic that coats it is such a double-edged sword. On the one hand it looks sumptuous; everything on the front of the unit, bar the silver finish that lines the outer edge and the transparent shoulder buttons, is coated in it, even down to the dark buttons and d-pad. The downside of this is that this plastic smears like no other substance in the known universe. You'll spend as much time gently polishing the soiled areas that surround every button as you will playing the bloody thing, at least for the first few days, after which you begrudgingly become accustomed to it.

Boot up the PSP for the first time and what was amazing before becomes mind blowing now. Once lit, the bright, clear and richly coloured screen is a real marvel to behold. Even more great news for importers here too - when you boot up the machine the first thing that greets you is the language options. Choose English and the OS will never chuck a single bit of Japanese at you (unlike some of the Japanese games). Speaking of the OS, it's clear and minimalist in much the same way as the PS2's and whilst it isn't especially flashy it is functional and very easy to navigate. From here you can set the system options, access various media stored on the device and boot up any UMD's. The standard PSP retail package doesn't come with a memory stick though the Value Pack includes a 32mb card. However, if you're serious about using your PSP as a media device as well as a gaming machine then you'll need to be buying a far larger card. Unfortunately, Sony Memory Stick Duo's are one of the more expensive cards available, though 512mb cards are available on the internet for around £50 if imported.

The media options are good even if a little fiddly. Pictures can be stored and viewed and look wonderfully vibrant on the large screen. More interesting is the MP3 support and with a large memory stick the PSP can work as a quite competent MP3 player, even if it lacks the subtlety and ease of use of an iPod. Movie playback is a tad more troublesome however, though if you do get it working the results are excellent. Sony have claimed that movies will eventually launch on UMD but until then MPEG4 video files can be streamed from the memory stick. Unfortunately, not only does a minor file adjustment need to be made on the memory stick itself (as explained here) and any movies you save have to be given a specific name, but any movies you wish to watch must also be converted into the MPEG4 format. Sony has released software for the job over the internet but not only is it all in Japanese, you must also be registered in Japan to download it. Programs are available however (such as in the previous link) and if you're prepared to take a little time with it you can indeed get video on the move. Saying that, it took me one hour and three separate programs (and three hunted down shareware downloads too, for that matter) to get one of my DVD's onto my PSP! Either way it's certainly not as easy as it should be and if you want to get an entire movie onto a 512mb card you'll have to knock down the video quality by some degree. An episode of Blackadder or Star Trek however will fit on nicely and be at near DVD quality. Sony PSP

Yet despite all this I have not mentioned the one issue that has hounded the PSP since the preview models were first paraded - the battery life. In truth however it's not really something I have personally found to be a problem. Reading gossip in both print and on the internet it's still not exactly clear what the batteries are capable of. Reports vary from the shockingly short to the unbelievably generous but much really depends on what you are using the unit for. Just listen to MP3 playback for instance and battery life can maybe hit double figures. Games however will drain much more. Use some headphones, set the screen to minimum brightness and play a less graphically demanding game (such as Lumines) and you'll probably get six hours. Play Ridge Racer on full volume with the brightness up full however and you might struggle to get much past four. Chuck in wireless multiplayer and many people claim they get less than three hours out of the unit. The fact is though that unless you are partial to frequent lengthy train journeys or are a frequent flyer with a posse of ever-present PSP-owning mates then battery life shouldn't be a huge problem, even if it could unquestionably be better.

As for the wireless multiplayer I mentioned, that too works brilliantly much like with the DS. One player must host whilst any others simply join the game once their PSP's have wirelessly located it via WiFi. It works seamlessly and it merely adds another layer of modern technological sheen to the package. Some people too have complained about loading times but that really is being fussy. Yes, we love the fact that cartridges don't require loading times and would rather do without them but at the same time we don't abandon our PS2's or Xbox's because of them. Any sane-minded and balanced person will be perfectly equipped to deal with the quite normal loading times that are certainly no more frustrating than with any of the disc-based home consoles. And as for the games themselves, well, you will have to wait for the individual reviews to start rolling out before we can judge them but technically what I have seen so far is amazing. I admit, what I have seen so far is only Ridge Racers but it totally blew me away. Whilst perhaps just a whisker behind PS2 quality, for a first generation title that was not only produced very quickly but also with limited dev kits it's really astonishing. I have no doubt that PS2 quality graphics will soon appear on the system.

The only worry as far as PS2 ports are concerned is the lack of a second analogue stick and extra shoulder buttons that you'd normally get on a PS2. We shall have to see how badly this limits the system in the long run, but it is a slight worry. The main drawback of the DS is that whilst it's designed to run N64 quality 3D games it lacks the analogue control of its console forbearer and therefore struggles to reproduce the titles that previously relied on it. The PSP might not have the exact same issues thanks to at least one analogue stick (even though it is far less sensitive than even the feeble sticks sported by the Dualshock 2) but any thoughts of Pro Evolution Soccer or Killzone on the move are plagued by these missing inputs. Only time will tell how this will or will not affect the fledgling handheld.

For now we can be sure that the PSP is an absolute marvel of design and easily the most impressive feat I have witnessed in gaming for a considerable amount of time. The sad truth, for me at least, is that after you play on a PSP, when you put it down you really feel as if you've just experienced the next generation of handheld gaming. It pains me to say so, but you simply don't get that feeling after playing the DS, especially not once you've tried a PSP. Fortunately, both units are obviously aimed at different markets so there's a chance that both will do well. I hope so, I really do. I won't deny though that if I was going away and could only take one system with me, I know which one it would be... and I think you know too. Sony PSP

By Ben Parfitt

Luke's impressions thus far...

Living and working in Japan certainly has its advantages: not only can I convince drunken Japanese ladies that yes, I really am David Beckham's brother, but I can also get my hands on the latest games and gadgets a little earlier than back home in good old Blighty. The Sony PSP is a prime example of this, the so-called 'Playstation Portable' having launched throughout the Japanese archipelago on December 12th, nearly four months before the expected but still resolutely unofficial March 2005 debuts expected in North America and possibly Europe (if they're lucky). Of course, as we already know, the PSP has sold out in Japan for the time being, the initial 200,000 units shipped disappearing pretty much entirely on day one; mainly via pre-orders, the source of our unit, captured from the local Yamada Denki for just over 20,000 Yen (£100) for the basic pack.

The basic pack includes a PSP, charger, demo UMD and not a lot else, however for a little more wonga (about 27,000 Yen, or approximately £130), the value pack can be acquired which includes headphones, a carry case and a 32mb memory stick too - and looks like great value, when you see the extra items priced individually. Opening up the package and the first thing I noted was just how sleek and sexy the PSP looks - never let it be said Sony lack an understanding of their potential market, the PSP is the very epitome of chic, a 'lifestyle' accessory to sit alongside your slimline PS2, iPod and Starbucks coffee maker. It also makes the Nintendo DS look like a cheap plastic toy; whilst by comparison the PSP looks like the future.

Lifting the PSP out of the packaging, the first matter of concern is the shiny black and silver frontage which looks like it might attract more than the odd smear or scratch, a concern tempered somewhat by the sheer decadence of the PSP's wide screen, which is frankly huge (and already has me wondering how Sony can afford to sell this contraption for only £100, even with heavy subsidising, certainly the DS has them worried). Of course, the amount packed into the PSP makes it a heavy little monster, certainly a tad more weighty than the DS, a little wider also. The PSP definitely won't be fitting into any trouser pockets, that's for sure.

Booting up the machine and the slick finesse of the exterior is instantly matched by the system's excellent menu system, which instantly places every aspect of the machine at your fingertips, from system options to pictures and music, everything is clear, accessible. Of course, the battery life - as a reviewer - was one of the first things of interest and entering the appropriate option I was pleased to note that with a full charge my PSP expected itself to last about seven hours initially, which I regarded with dubious relief. Of course, the real test would be the games - and owing to my more than a little lame Japanese reading skills ('Nihongo wa made heta desu'), I only had one title to fiddle with: Ridge Racers.

Opening the tray to the unit's rear (a very strange feeling for a handheld), I inserted the disc-come-cartridge, and the UMD clicked into place and began whirring a little like a CD or DVD drive when I closed the tray. The PSP recognised the title and I was given the option of playing the game on the UMD, which I selected and was immediately presented with a loading screen - a new feature for a handheld, but understandable given the nature of the storage format. It is however still somewhat odd to have to wait ten seconds at various times (and not infrequently) either, during play. Fortunately, the sight of the game's slick intro movie on the PSP's beautiful screen helped alleviate my fast forming issues, and I instead stared in wonder at a sequence which rivalled the PS2's finest blazing across my handheld's screen.

Yes, as you've probably heard already, the PSP is a graphical wonderment, and I'm still not used to seeing such outstanding detail and clarity in the palms of my hand, even after several week's play - the PSP does in fact feel very much like a gadget of tomorrow. Ridge Racers, needless to say, is by far the prettiest and most complex handheld racer ever - to the extent where I was actually drawing comparisons with other PS2 titles more readily than previous handheld driving games. After the initial shock of playing a game that looks like a current-generation console title on a handheld platform subsided, I began to look at Ridge Racers more objectively. It is a little sparse on the options front, it certainly wouldn't be anything special on the PS2, and whilst the wireless link-up option is very easy to use and great fun, the amount of choice can feel a little constraining. For all its polish, Ridge Racers certainly feels a tad like a hurried launch title in places.

That said, the handling is convincing and impressively different between cars and courses, of which there is, by the way, quite a few. Some of the courses can become tiresome rather quickly, though others, especially the more hilly offerings are a joy to traverse, as you seek to gain ground on your competitors. The PSP's thumb pad was quite well tested in this game, and past with flying colours though I have concerns about its durability under intense use. The D-pad was also responsive, and the triggers utilised effectively.

I shall leave further comment on Ridge Racers for a full review, but suffice to say it gave us an early taste of what the machine can do - my only real concern being the arrival of load times on a handheld, and the fact that the frequent UMD access means the battery runs down a lot faster in Ridge Racers compared to other titles. Indeed, two to three hours seems about the norm for Ridge Racers, whilst other games might allow five or more as they less frequently access the disk. This is a challenge for developers to overcome, and it will be interesting to see what battery time, and indeed more 'game' related plusses (visuals, multiplayer options, etc) can be squeezed from the machine as developers get to grips with it.

All in all, despite its niggling faults, the PSP smells suspiciously like the future of handheld gaming - whether we'd like it to be in Sony's hands or not - and it is obvious that with this veritable beast the goal posts have been moved very rapidly indeed. The DS might be an admirable attempt at something new; but with the PSP Sony are threatening to do to the handheld market what their PS2 did for home consoles. Nintendo are going to be taking a long, hard look at their next-generation GameBoy plans.

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