First Look: Sony Playstation Portable (PSP)

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Date: Friday, April 1st, 2005, 12:06
Category: Gadget

Sony Playstation PortableFor some gamers, March 24 was a very important day.
I have never done a lot of gaming on the computer mainly because most of my computers are Macs and to be honest, there isn’t really a great showing of games for the Mac. There are some exceptions, and the best titles do make their way over, but sadly there isn’t a huge library of options, and when it comes to mobile gaming, the PowerBook isn’t my first pick when I am looking for entertainment. The other thing about gaming on the computer is that you’re constantly at odds with game developers who keep requiring faster and faster machines, and more expensive equipment upgrades every time you want to play a new game!
For these reasons, I usually stick to playing games on consoles, both large and small. The Nintendo Gameboy Advance SP has always been a go-to device when waiting in line at the DMV, or when traveling. It also lives in the beside table, dutifully waiting for an opportunity to serve up an hour of Final Fantasty I & II these days, as well as letting me play my favorites from gaming days of yore.
On March 24th, I woke up at 6am and made my way to the local Best Buy to stand in line in hopes of being one of the first to get my hands on a Sony Playstation Portable (PSP). I had been closely watching the release schedule of games for the Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP, and while I like the Gameboy Advance SP as much as anyone else, I was really undecided on which device I’d like to actually buy. Read More…


Sony Playstation PortableFor some gamers, March 24 was a very important day.
I have never done a lot of gaming on the computer mainly because most of my computers are Macs and to be honest, there isn’t really a great showing of games for the Mac. There are some exceptions, and the best titles do make their way over, but sadly there isn’t a huge library of options, and when it comes to mobile gaming, the PowerBook isn’t my first pick when I am looking for entertainment. The other thing about gaming on the computer is that you’re constantly at odds with game developers who keep requiring faster and faster machines, and more expensive equipment upgrades every time you want to play a new game!
For these reasons, I usually stick to playing games on consoles, both large and small. The Nintendo Gameboy Advance SP has always been a go-to device when waiting in line at the DMV, or when traveling. It also lives in the beside table, dutifully waiting for an opportunity to serve up an hour of Final Fantasty I & II these days, as well as letting me play my favorites from gaming days of yore.
On March 24th, I woke up at 6am and made my way to the local Best Buy to stand in line in hopes of being one of the first to get my hands on a Sony Playstation Portable (PSP). I had been closely watching the release schedule of games for the Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP, and while I like the Gameboy Advance SP as much as anyone else, I was really undecided on which device I’d like to actually buy.
What really did me in, however, was the media player applications of the PSP and the release dates for some really amazing games coming faster for the PSP — before it even launched in the United States it already had a better schedule and library than the Nintendo DS, at least for my palette of games.
The Sony PSP is a beautiful device, too. It looks like a very nice piece of equipment, and while a little heavy, has a nice feel in the hand. I went ahead and slapped some eGrips on the back of the PSP to keep it firmly in my grasp, and bought a flip-top lid that bolts on to help keep the screen safe while on a desktop or not in the sleeve it came with in the Value Pack.
Games play smoothly and look gorgeous on the display, and most of them adhere to a nice user interface, the only inconsistency I could find was that Metal Gear: Acid doesn’t follow the same convention for selecting items in menus with the “O” instead of the “X”, which can be irritating when trying to use the menus or select items, which you do a lot of in Metal Gear: Acid, because the game-play is designed around playing “cards” a la Magic: The Gathering.
Sony includes headphones in the value pack, and they suck. They are uncomfortable for me and my small ears, and I prefer to use iPod headphones or different ones entirely, depending on where I am. For some reason I can’t seem to get over the repulsive notion of carrying big studio-style headphones with me everywhere I go.
Everyone knows the PSP plays games. It plays games very well, and the WiFi connection was able to reach other coworkers in the building for network games of Wipeout Pure at lunchtime, which worked great and was really a lot of fun. I didn’t have a chance to play many other games via the network connection since you need to have the same games to play of course, until that whole “Game Sharing” feature is used by a title, hopefully soon. I was suddenly very sad that I wasn’t back in DC anymore, because I could imagine the morning commute on the Metro being a lot more entertaining with a few PSP’s thrown into the cars now and then.
What not a lot of people understand is the media capabilities of the PSP, and they aren’t exactly easy to use. Luckily there are some developers making software to make media management easier for users, because the process of doing something as simple as playing back a video on the video is ridiculously difficult because you have to encode the files a certain way, and populate the Memory Stick Duo cards in the right places for the PSP to see them.
The music player works as expected, and MP3 files with album art show the artwork just like an iPod Photo would, but don’t think that the PSP can replace your iPod – the storage options are few for large capacity, and the largest of the Memory Stick Duo is usually 512MB in stores and 1GB and 2GB cards available online for a premium. (From what I can see, the 2GB cards will be available in a month for around USD$450 – almost twice as much as the PSP itself, just to give you storage that is half that of an iPod Mini!)
Added to this difficult storage problem is that the PSP doesn’t have a great way to edit or manage playlists, and you can only put media into the PSP one folder deep. You can group music into a folder called “New Order”, but then can’t have various albums from New Order sorted out further underneath. Hopefully in a software update this will be resolved, because it would really make things a lot better.
The same situation with photos, you can put albums into folders one folder deep, which isn’t as problematic as the limitation for music. I found myself wishing I had one of those fancy desktop charger and speaker systems for my desk at work so that I could have an ever-changing photo slideshow at my desk. Photographs look great on the PSP’s display, and while I used to keep photo albums on my Palm and Nokia smartphones, my BlackBerry doesn’t exactly have a great photo viewer. The PSP lets me keep snapshots of friends and family with me, and can also double as an address book of sorts with the application “myPSP.”
myPSP is being developed to do a lot of things, but one of the things that separates it from the others is that it takes your Address Book.app data, and turns it into JPEG files viewable on the PSP. This is pretty clever, but since you can’t really sort or group things past that one folder, “Contacts”, it isn’t especially practical if you have a lot of contacts. I think it would be a good idea for myPSP to let you choose a group of contacts, letting you have just the ones you really would need to carry around with you. Then again, most people that have a PSP would probably also have a mobile phone or other method of carrying their contact data. I will say that myPSP’s Contact Card trickery is one of the most clever hacks I’ve seen so far.
It is likely that Sony will add rudimentary PIM features into the PSP at some point, since they already did with a leaked system update that apparently was causing PSP’s unfortunate enough to run the update to stop functioning. Originally it was something of a mystery how this update came to be, but Sony eventually copped to it, according to The Register. We can expect that more applications will be available for the PSP soon.
It is true that the device has no web browser or email client, but some people have taken the obvious step of seeing how some games have an online content feature, such as Wipeout Pure, and tricked out their local networks to dish up different information to the PSP and effectively let it act as a browser for other purposes. Personally I don’t see why this is so exciting, since you’ve demonstrated that you have computers to trick the PSP, and they must be local, so you could browse the web from one of your local computers twice as fast as you could on the PSP. On the other hand, hacking a device like the PSP to do things like this is fun. Eventually it will just be a value-add to PSP owners to run the “Internet Essentials” UMD title and have their email available while at a hotspot, as well as a somewhat serviceable browser. That’s really the only need I could see for such a thing, social networking and basic information retrieval.
Working with video files can be a real pain in the neck. Video has to be encoded for the PSP. FfmpegX does a pretty good job of doing the right thing for video via the PSP MP4 target for encoding a video file, but I had a lot of problems with high-bitrate DivX AVI being converted into viewable formats on the PSP. FfmpegX doesn’t create the THM thumbnail file, and it also doesn’t add the full title of the movie to the output file, so you end up with a bunch of things named “Movie” on your PSP and no way of knowing what movie it is.
You don’t need to buy anything at all to manage your PSP, you could just use the Finder to manage the media you put on your PSP. Nothing says you need to fork out any cash when you can do what these applications do on your own. It just does have a nice feel to use these applications, and frees up the time you’d otherwise spend sorting through your media to put things onto the PSP. I also like that most of them automatically backup your saved games.
Most of the “PSP Manager” applications for the Mac boast a video encoding and content mover, as well as a method of performing backups and such.
iPSP 2.0.7 uses the same binaries that ffmpegx uses for video encoding, which probably isn’t kosher. Additionally, iPSP gives me a lot of error messages and refuses to quit sometimes, so I have to force quit the application when it breaks down. I didn’t really have a lot of patience for break-downs like this, so I moved on. I hope that I can take another look at it in the near future and have it be a more reliable product. It is good to have options.
PSPWare 1.5 also uses the ffmpeg binaries and charges a lot less money for a more refined user experience than iPSP. I was able to pick playlists from iTunes and iPhoto albums without a problem, and PSPWare dutifully backed up my saved games while it refreshed my PSP with my music and photos. PSPware makes the video thumbnails, but my PSP doesn’t seem to care. I get nothing. It does, however, show the actual movie name instead of just “Movie” when you view your videos. That’s a good start.
I like that PSPWare gives you the option of how you want to see your music in the PSP, by album, my artist, or by playlist. PSPWare also handles video encoding well and lets you pick which videos you want to get pushed to your PSP, and it uses a built-in preview mode which comes in handy as well.
I will be covering PSPWare in-depth in another article, because it really is the Bee’s Knees when it comes to managing your own content on the PSP.
While my PowerBook is great at a lot of things, and the iPod will always be the best portable music player, the PSP has managed to supplant the iPod at least for a little while, while I use the music player and video playback of the PSP in addition to some fantastic games. The only reasons I’d use an iPod over the PSP for audio playback is the limited storage of the PSP, and the fact that organization of music isn’t very useful. Sony knows a little bit about audio, however, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see some big improvements to the audio player coming soon.
If you’re looking for a device that plays great games, and can serve as a backup audio player and video player, the Sony PSP is a perfect fit, and thanks to developers such as Nullriver Software and PSPWare, it even fits in with the Mac as well as the iPod does.
Because everyone is probably wondering what everyone else got with their PSP or for their PSP, I picked up a few games, a screen protector, a hard-top flip lid from Pelican (which seems to have a pretty critical design flaw in that it cracks where the cover pivots and I am certain will fall apart in the near future) which also came with some UMD protectors for the games.
I have been eyeing a skin for the PSP as a nice way to keep the fingerprint fairy at bay. The PSP has a knack for looking like a crime scene after you’ve had it with you for a day. Considering the options, I think a decal such as that one may be the best route.
Coming up next, an in-depth look at PSPWare. It’s a PowerPage Pick for sure, and a bargain.

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