Sony PSP - Review

Sony PSP - Review

PSP stands for PlayStation Portable, but it might as well stand for "Nintendo, you have a problem." One of the most highly anticipated tech products to hit stores in recent memory, the Sony PSP largely delivers on its remarkable promise of bringing a PlayStation 2-like gaming experience to a handheld gaming platform with built-in wireless capabilities, all at a relatively reasonable price. It also doesn't hurt that the PSP can do other tricks, such as play video and music, display images, and--as of the August 2005 v2.0 firmware update--even surf the Web. But while the Sony PSP largely lives up to the hype as a portable gaming device, it still needs some work before it fulfills its potential as an all-in-one portable entertainment unit.


From an aesthetic perspective, the Sony PSP is a gorgeous device. It's one of those gadgets you immediately want to get your hands on but vigilantly want to protect once you set it down; fortunately, a simple neoprene slipcover is included with the $250 Value Pack. Weighing essentially the same as the Nintendo DS (6.2 ounces, including removable battery) and measuring 6.7 by 2.9 by 0.9 inches (WHD), the body feels well built and solid in your hand. Although not a lightweight, it's by no means a brick, nor, we suspect, would it be especially durable in a fall; you'll want to treat the PSP just as gingerly as an iPod or a Palm-style PDA.

The PSP's screen is roughly the same size as the entire front face of the iPod.

The centerpiece of the handheld is its especially impressive 4.3-inch wide-screen display (480x272 pixels, 16.77 million colors). The screen is flanked by controls that will be immediately recognizable to fans of past PlayStations: the directional keypad is to the left of the screen, and the familiar square, triangle, circle, and X buttons are to the right. We dug how Sony managed to include an analog "joystick" below the directional keypad. The stick isn't raised like the analog controls on a PS2 or an Xbox, but it conveys that multidirectional element that gives it a joysticklike feel.

The analog controller (located just below the four-way directional pad) is surprisingly responsive.

In lieu of the PS2 controller's four total shoulder buttons, the PSP has two: one per shoulder. Ergonomically, the device is OK but not great; as with most handheld gaming devices, you'll have to do a little finger stretching every 15 minutes or so to keep from cramping up.

The PSP uses Sony's recently created "cross media bar" interface. You use the directional keypad to horizontally navigate through Settings, Photo, Music, Video, Game, and Internet icons, and each section has other icons attached to it on a vertical axis. All in all, it's a simple and elegant way to access the PSP's many features.

Games and officially licensed movies come on Sony's proprietary UMD (Universal Media Disc) media, which are housed in protective cartridges. The UMD drive is grafted to the back of the unit; you load it and snap it shut just as you would a camcorder. The top edge also sports infrared and a USB 2.0 port that you can use to link the device to your PC or Mac, though no USB connection cable is included. The USB port will also be the home base for any future accessories you might add, such as a keyboard or a camera attachment.

UMD media slip into the back of the PSP. The top-facing USB port provides PC connectivity.

The headphone jack is at the bottom left of the unit; the Value Pack ships with earbud-style headphones and an in-line remote to control basic playback. The nice thing about the remote is that you can use other headphones with it, not just the provided 'buds. Like Apple, Sony has chosen to go with white headphones. We're not sure why, since the PSP is black.

One gripe: Since the device has a glossy finish--and is mostly black--it is a fingerprint magnet. To help keep your PSP clean, Sony throws in a small cloth for wiping purposes. A padded slipcase is also included, but a variety of third-party versions are also available (see our list of PSP accessories for more information).

Note: An unspecified number of Sony PSPs reportedly suffer from pixels that are either permanently light or dark. All products with LCDs are prone to this problem, and at this point, it is unclear how many units are affected and the severity of this issue. Sony told us that, so far, it has received few complaints from the first U.S. customers. The company's dead-pixel policy is unclear, but Sony suggests that customers who experience this issue live with the device for a week or two, and if the "the spots are interfering with gameplay/video viewing during this period," the company will "support the various elements" of its one-year warranty. We also recommend that you check the retailer's replacement policy for devices with dead pixels, especially if you experience this problem shortly after purchasing the device.


The folks at Sony tout the PSP as first and foremost a gaming device. But in the next breath, they claim that it can do so much more, billing it as "the first truly integrated portable entertainment system." Both statements are, in fact, true, and suffice it to say that as a portable gaming device, particularly from a graphics standpoint, the PSP is unparalleled. You're getting a miniaturized PS2 gaming experience--or close to it, anyway--and Sony has put together a nice set of launch titles from various game developers to show off its handheld's gaming chops.

Beyond gaming, the PSP's video prowess may be its most impressive trait. As we previously noted, the display is a 4.3-inch TFT LCD with a 480x272-pixel resolution and 16.77 million colors; by comparison, each of the Nintendo DS's two screens has 256x192 pixels with 260,000 colors. The picture quality from a UMD movie such as Spider-Man 2 is superior to what you'll see on most portable DVD players, though the majority of DVD players have significantly larger screens.

The only problem with video playback--and it's a big one--is that it's currently hard to watch anything but UMD videos on the PSP. Unlike Sony's MiniDisc, UMD is not a recordable storage format, so you'll have to store any video or music and images on a Memory Stick Duo card. (The Value Pack ships with a 32MB card, which is really good only for storing game data and a handful of photos or songs.)

The PSP Value Pack includes a variety of accessories, including headphones and a carrying case.

To make matters worse, even if you do get a high enough capacity card--we recommend at least a 256MB card for storing video--the process of getting videos to play on your PSP is needlessly complex. Though dragging and dropping files to a memory card is generally easy once you've purchased a USB cable or a card reader, getting your videos to play requires several additional steps. You'll first have to set up a special ROOT_MP directory on the memory card, then convert the clip to a special PSP-friendly video format using a separate program (see how to put video on your PSP). Even then, the videos are limited to scaled-down resolutions that fail to completely exploit the PSP's native 480x272 screen. It's a shame that the only way to take full advantage of video on your PSP is to buy UMD-format movies, which look great but are overpriced at essentially DVD levels.

The PSP ships with a 32MB Memory Stick Duo card, but you'll need a much larger one for music and movies.

What about music? Well, the good news is the PSP plays MP3 files without your having to convert them to Sony's proprietary ATRAC format first--a common problem with the company's earlier MP3 devices. You simply drag MP3 or ATRAC files into the music folder on your Memory Stick Duo card, and they'll show up on the PSP. Furthermore, the v2.0 firmware upgrade enables the PSP to play WAVs and AAC-encoded song files, though not the copy-protected versions from Apple's iTunes Music Store. The device supports M3U playlists, but if you have your playlists in another format, you'll need to find and download a converter. However, as basic as the PSP's music player is (read: iPod Shuffle with a screen and no autosyncing capabilities), it will be adequate for many people.

Those interested in replacing their iPod with the PSP will have to deal with the lack of on-the-go playlist functionality and, most importantly, storage. Fortunately, you can get a 1GB Memory Stick Pro Duo card online for about $100. Player controls can be initially tricky--the in-line remote is handy--but we like the speedy precision of the fast-forward/rewind functions as well as the undulating background graphics. The PSP can also display album art when it's available.

The image viewer is also basic, with simple slide-show functionality. But again, it's easy to drag JPEG files--or TIFFs, PNGs, GIFs, and BMPs, if you have v2.0--onto a memory card, rotate them (if needed), and show off your shots to anybody who might want to see them. In addition, you can set a photo as your PSP's background wallpaper, replacing the colorful splash screen behind the home menu. Unfortunately, you can't view photos and listen to music simultaneously.

Last but not least, the PSP has built-in Wi-Fi capabilities. Getting our handheld up and running on even a WEP-encrypted home wireless network was a breeze, and the PSP lets you save multiple wireless configurations so that you can connect from multiple locations without repeating the setup procedure each time. Though PSPs purchased before September 2005 were previously limited to WEP encryption, upgrading to v2.0 firmware adds support for the more secure WPA-PSK standard. Once you're Wi-Fi enabled--and you've installed the latest firmware--you can access the Web using the PSP's onboard browser. This slick, nearly full-featured app supports tabbed browsing, Javascript, and CSS, though Flash support is still lacking (read more about the PSP's Web browser). The PSP's strong slate of features--in addition to the many bells and whistles that Sony has added via its first major firmware update--proves that the handheld is still under development, and hints at even greater things to come. VoIP, anyone?


The Sony PSP runs on a proprietary 333MHz processor and comes with 32MB of built-in memory, some of it reserved for the PSP's operating system and applications, and 4MB of embedded DRAM. While we would have preferred more built-in memory, game developers we spoke to were happy it has what it has, given that early rumors suggested Sony would include only 16MB of RAM.

One of the issues with using an optical disc format such as UMD as opposed to Nintendo's flash memory-based cartridges is that load times tend to be significantly longer. After we previewed beta versions of games, we were concerned that load times would indeed be a serious problem. But now that we've run shipping versions of such titles as EA's Need for Speed Rivals, Konami's Metal Gear Acid, and Sony's Twisted Metal Head-On, we can safely say that it's a relatively minor hindrance. Yes, games can take a good 10 seconds to load, but it's not much worse than what you'd expect from the PS2 itself. (As one might expect, content does load very quickly from a Memory Stick Duo card.) That said, the Nintendo DS and the Game Boy Advance SP are much zippier in this regard.

Luckily, the wait is usually worth it because most of the games look spectacular. As we said, you're getting close to a PS2-like gaming experience, and many of the titles are ports of their PS2 counterparts with only small compromises made to the graphics. For the most part, games play smoothly, though you may encounter some frame drops in bigger action sequences in certain games.

We played Twisted Metal Head-On against four other players in multiplayer peer-to-peer (PSP-to-PSP) wireless mode and were impressed by the smooth gameplay. We also played Twisted Metal via the Internet with two other people and had good results. But we imagine that when you get up to a dozen players (Twisted Metal supports up to 16-player multiplayer), you'll probably encounter a hiccup or two. And, of course, wireless gameplay depends on your connection--or, in the case of peer-to-peer action, the distance and potential obstructions between devices. As far as distance goes, we were able to move about 60 feet apart with a clear line of sight in an office setting before our connection became spotty. We felt the Nintendo DS offered better wireless coverage.

Before we get to battery life, a few sentences about the PSP's audio. Using the included earbud-style headphones, sound quality was fine with games, but we would have liked the maximum volume to go a tad higher when we listened to our MP3s, especially in noisier environments. (When you play games and watch movies such as Spider-Man 2 on UMD, you can boost the volume a bit via a special UMD volume-settings menu, which is helpful.) It's also worth noting that many people may find the included 'buds uncomfortable and choose to upgrade to new 'phones. A few preset equalizer settings (Heavy, Pops, Jazz, and Unique) are onboard to tweak the sound, but you can't manually set treble and bass levels, which is too bad. The PSP's external speakers can't put out booming sound, but they're certainly adequate for gaming and casual video watching; using the headphones, however, will give you a much more immersive experience. Conveniently, volume can be raised and lowered from two buttons just below the screen or via the in-line remote.

Battery life? Well, a lot of numbers have been bandied about, with some critics suggesting its relatively short run time would be the PSP's Achilles' heel. Here's what we got:

Running on full brightness, we managed about 5.5 hours of gameplay before having to recharge the included 1,800mAH lithium-ion battery pack; gaming time can vary significantly depending upon screen brightness (two dimmer settings are options) and the game you're playing. It's worth noting that recharging a battery to full capacity takes a lengthy 2.5 hours. Playing in peer-to-peer wireless mode reduced game sessions by a little more than 2 hours; the battery pooped out after 3 hours, 15 minutes. For music only, the PSP was able to run for a decent 11.2 hours. And finally, we managed to watch Spider-Man 2 all the way through twice and got 20 minutes into a third showing before the battery died. All in all, that's not too bad and slightly better than we expected. Still, the easiest way to ensure that your PSP doesn't go dead at an inopportune moment is to purchase an additional battery pack; kudos to Sony for making it replaceable. Transfer rate over USB 2.0 to an inserted Memory Stick was a reasonable 2.2MB per second.


Design: 9/10

Features: 8/10

Performance: 9/10


The good: The Sony PSP has a slick design; impressive wide-screen display; PS2-like graphics; built-in Wi-Fi, Web browser, MP3 and video playback, and image viewer; removable battery.

The bad: The Sony PSP's multimedia functionality is half-baked, especially for video; you need to supply your own software and expensive memory cards.

The bottom line: The Sony PSP elevates portable gaming to the next level, but its multimedia functionality falls short of its full potential.