First Look: The PSP

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FEED ME: UMD discs can hold movies, games and music

The PSP (PlayStation Portable), the Sony corporation's synergistic foray into the realm of handheld media players and one of the most hotly anticipated gadgets of 2005, arrives in stores today. At $250 a pop it combines wireless connectivity, music, a photo viewer, movies and games into one elegantly designed and portable package. Were it any more intoxicating the ATF would get jurisdiction over it. road tested one for a week, along with several of the games due for release. Without question the best-looking, most comprehensive and exciting portable media device so far, the PSP has many pleasures. Still, there are a few things to consider before buying.

The first thing you notice is how much of the PSP's six and a half inch width is taken up by the surprisingly wide (4.3 inches), cinema-style screen. Intensely bright and vivid, with an LCD screen capable of displaying over 16 million colors, it can be easily viewed at arm's length or from any angle. The controls mimic those of the PlayStation home systems, with four input buttons on the right, a directional pad on the left, and two "shoulder" buttons on the top. It also has a neat little analog "stick," like the kind in laptops, which you manipulate with your thumb, allowing for better control in many games. Four tiny speakers provide decent, if somewhat tinny, stereo sound. It weighs almost as much as a mug full of strong coffee, and offers about the same amount of stimulation (and nourishment.)

The PSP comes with almost everything you will need to begin enjoying it — a rechargeable battery, power cord, memory stick, earbuds with remote control, strap and case with chamois cloth — except for a game. The first million units even come with a copy of the movie Spider-Man 2 in Sony's new Universal Media Disc format. A plastic-encased 1.8GB-capacity digital disc the size of a chocolate chip cookie, UMDs are a PSP-only media source, carrying games, movies and possibly music, although no music UMDs are available at this time. There are no writable UMDs either, so you will not be able to copy your library over. Sony has announced 8 games available on the day of release, with 16 more available during the "launch window." The first movie titles will not be available until April 19th and will be a fairly limited list, including Hellboy, Resident Evil 2 and House of Flying Daggers.

Games for PSPs will cost between $40 and $50, while movies will average $20. The UMD of Spider-Man 2 does not offer any of the extras usually available on DVDs, but it has lost very little else in its transfer to the smaller format. Details were sharp, tonalities were subtle and the action was smooth. Seeing it in the original cinematic aspect ratio is also a treat, but the size of the screen means even less engagement with a movie than one gets through a television. In spite of a battery that lasts three to four hours per charge, the PSP seems designed with the idea that no one will use it for more than an hour at a time. For example, it lacks a stand for hands-free viewing.

The PSP can also be used as a photo viewer, allowing you to build slideshows, and an MP3 player. But you'll probably want to hang on to your regular MP3 device. The PSP lacks any kind of native play list or photo organizer, relying instead on the order of the files as they appear on the memory card to determine the order of play. It theoretically supports the "m3u" music play list, a standardized format used by many players except for iTunes, but I couldn't get it to work. The PSP has other limitations on its multimedia. It does not support song formats other than MP3 and Sony's proprietary ATRAC3plus, and although you can put your own movies on it, they must be encoded in the MPEG4 format.

Regardless, you are severely limited by the small amount of memory you get on the removable 32MB Memory Stick Duo provided. While it has plenty of space for saving game data, it only holds about six songs. To make the PSP really usable for your own media you will have to buy a Memory Stick Duo with more capacity. One-gigabyte versions can be found for $150. At that amount of space you could even rip some TV shows. You transfer files through a USB to 5-pin "mini-B" cord (not provided) that is pretty standard with digital cameras. The transfer worked fine in both Windows and Mac machines, allowing you to use the PSP as a storage device for any kind of file.

Now for the core of the PSP: the games. Of the five provided for review — Wipeout Pure, Twisted Metal Head-on, Gretzky NHL, NBA and World Tour Soccer — none strike me as a must-have the way Grand Theft Auto became for the PlayStation 2. Still, they are pretty incredible for such a small device. The graphics and game play sophistication rival that of Sony's home system, the PS2. The sports games almost exactly mimic their "big-screen" counterparts with full rosters that you can manipulate and on-the-fly playmaking. Wipeout Pure, part of the futuristic Wipeout racing series set to a techno soundtrack, has a huge selection of impressive tracks and vehicles all of which look and sound amazing. Likewise, Twisted Metal Head-on, a kind of extreme demolition derby game, carries on its dark, comedic game play from previous incarnations.

All of the games provided allow for "ad hoc" networking, meaning that other PSP users within WiFi range who also have the same game can play against each other. Future games may even allow players to network without everyone owning the software. Just as cool, some games allow you to connect through a wireless network and play other PSP users in other parts of the world. Connecting to my home network was pretty easy, and the PSP even supports WEP password protection. The only thing you can't do: play PSP games with someone on a PS2.

The PSP easily trumps all its competitions as the most sophisticated, integrated, attractive and all-around "neat-o" handheld multimedia device on the market. Though currently best used for games and movies, with the addition of few amenities — a better music interface, text messaging and a web browser, to name a few — it could even surpass the iPod as the must-have, status symbol gadget for adults.