Sony PlayStation Portable, €254.99

30 Aug 2005

The most desirable gizmo of the Christmas season will surely be Sony’s assault on the handheld games market. Quite whether it has the mass appeal that made Apple’s iPod an instant iconic hit remains to be seen, but PlayStation Portable (PSP) unquestionably sets a new benchmark for what integrated portable devices can deliver.

At the heart of its compact technology is a new proprietary storage medium called Universal Media Disk (UMD). Sealed in plastic, 60mm in diameter, a UMD looks like a mini-CD but can store up to 1.8GB of digital data, more than three times the data held on a CD-Rom. A slider-switch clicks open a slot on the back of the device to accommodate the disk.

Sony’s plan is to use the format to deliver a broad range of digital entertainment with the onus on games (between €40-50) quickly followed by movies (€24.99 or €26.99). There are 33 games available at launch, including PlayStation stalwarts such as Ridge Racer and Wipe Out, with around 100 promised by Christmas.

The volume of film software is also impressive. Sony Pictures will release 19 movies this month with seven titles appearing each month afterwards. Hellboy and Resident Evil 2 are among the early releases.

Other media are also supported via Sony’s Memory Stick, its compact memory card that clicks into place on the left side of the machine. UMD is not a recording format so music and video have to be transferred over from your PC on to Sony’s proprietary cards. But they don’t come cheap (€150 for a 1GB card) and you’ll soon be looking to upgrade on the 32MB Stick that’s bundled with the console. You’ll also need to buy a USB lead because it only ships with headphones and a remote control.

The jet-black slab of technology is dominated by a 4.3-inch, widescreen TFT LCD. Boot up a game or movie and the wow factor is instant. From the original audio Walkman to the PS2, Sony has a long tradition of aesthetic excellence. The PSP is no exception. Controls are sprinkled around the main screen, with choice positions inevitably going to the two sets of game controls either side of the screen, emulating the PlayStation pads that we’ve all grown accustomed to.

The equivalent to its left/right buttons are the clear plastic corners on the top of the chassis that engage with a reassuring click. Even more tactile is the analogue thumb-stick on the left side. A minor irritant, however, is a TFT screen that’s a magnet for dust and fingerprints — so much so that Sony includes a small cleaning cloth as an accessory.

Under the bonnet is a 333MHz processor and 32MB of built-in memory. Wi-Fi is also onboard for wireless network connection and peer-to-peer play. Battery life will give you more than five hours of intensive game playing, but be warned, recharging takes the best part of two and half hours.

The UMD technology may be spanking new but the gameplay is reassuringly familiar. Load time is a bit sluggish but it’s worth the wait — the graphics and gameplay were stunning on our test games, Ridge Racer and Everybody’s Golf. Images are ever-so-slightly dumbed down from PS2 but a million miles better than anything we’ve seen on a handheld to date. Yes, it’s more expensive than Nintendo’s dual-screen DS but it’s a very different proposition: games in your hand, with virtually no compromise in quality from the console experience.

Movies also look great. The display handles 16.77 million colours on a 480×272 pixel high-resolution screen and picture quality is excellent. The biggest niggle is that the volume just isn’t loud enough. Only when I ditched the weedy Sony earpieces for more enclosed Sennheiser phones did I get the level I wanted.

As a music player it’s generally less convincing. MP3 is a crucial component in its attempt to be a one-stop entertainment box but the limited onboard memory and expensive asking price of Memory Sticks means it’s not in any danger of stealing the thunder of iPod. The absence of the USB connecting cable and any bundled software suggests music is something of an afterthought for Sony. Similarly, the ability to store and view digital photos is hardly a core function. Games and movies are the thing.

Some will moan and groan at the price (hardware and software), others will baulk at having to fork out for yet another disc format but there’s no escaping its prowess. Make no mistake, PSP is a ground-breaking product that will seriously dent Nintendo’s dominance of the handheld market and open up a whole new world of portable entertainment.

By Ian Campbell