Movie plays on a PSP
Donna Mcwlliam  /  AP
Not just for gamers: The Sony PSP also plays movies and music.
By Columnist
updated 3/24/2005 9:05:05 AM ET 2005-03-24T14:05:05

Hope you enjoyed your 15 minutes, iPod. Sony, the company that invented the modern handheld entertainment industry 20 years ago, moves to reclaim the throne with the Sony PSP, a media device that plays music, movies and games and looks great.

Flat, encased in black plastic and metal and highlighted by a pair of clear plastic shoulder buttons the PlayStation Portable exemplifies Sony's aesthetic: a savvy combination of state-of-the-art circuitry and techno-design that screams, "Buy me!"

Looks ain't everything. The PSP plays music, delivers stunning picture clarity when used as a film playback device and plays games -- supporting 3D graphics and wireless play -- with a deftness that appears to outmatch its rival in handheld gaming, the Nintendo DS.

The Sony PSP doesn't come cheap. For $250 you get the PSP, headphones, battery, power adaptor and a 32 MB Memory Stick Duo, Sony's in-house memory card. Games and movies run an additional $20 to $50 each and they come on yet another new storage disc -- ugh! --  the 2.3-inch wide Universal Media Disc which works on nothing else save the PSP.

Gaming for grownups
While the PSP handles the things any self-described techno-fetishist would desire, the majority of buyers this week will be buying the PSP for one thing and one thing only: gaming.

Sony literature claims the PSP renders graphics comparable to the PlayStation 2. After playing more than half of the 17 games currently available, I can say that the PSP comes close.

The PSP's 4.3 inch screen is capable of displaying 16.77 million colors at a resolution of 480-by-272 pixels. This translates into game graphics that are unbelievably detailed and crisp.  Although there are rare moments where game objects betray ever-faint white outlines, the level of overall detail and clarity should lure anti-handheld gamers out of their living room lairs.

Take, for example, "Tiger Woods PGA Tour" and "MVP Baseball," two PlayStation 2 best-sellers that use the PSP's wide screen for sweeping, TV-riffic effect.

The PSP version of "Tiger Woods PGA Tour" includes the flying camera perspective where we literally share the ball's flight from tee to green.  In "MVP Baseball," views jump from blimp shots of the diamond to up close shots of the batter at the plate and the box seats behind him.

In both games the wide screen helps create the illusion of depth and openness without reminding you that you're looking at a screen 4.3 inches wide.

The PSP's 4.3 inch screen offers unbelievably detailed and crisp game graphics.
Best of all, the Sony PSP supports wireless 802.11b WiFi multiplayer play in the form of head-to-head competition or over what Sony calls an "infrastructure" mode where users connect their PSP to the Internet using a wireless access point and do battle with anyone logged on anywhere.  Does this "infrastructure" mode portend future web browsing capability for the PSP?  Hmmmm.

Of the PSP titles available now, "Tony Hawk's Underground 2: Remix," "Tiger Woods PGA Tour," "Metal Gear AC!D;" "WipEout Pure," and the DreamCast remake "Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaso Tower" look like definite winners.  But while Sony deserves kudos for gathering so many (if not quite as many as originally promised) well-produced titles for launch -- compared to the Nintendo DS's measly eight titles at launch -- none of the titles have the originality, gameplay wise, of the DS's ""Feel The Magic: XY/XX."

Instead, most of the games, while well produced, are remakes of popular PS2 titles with built-in wireless connectivity. Here's hoping for some original and creative games in the future.

More than a gaming device
But what about the non-gamers? Should they care? Ah grasshopper, there is so much to learn.

Gamers are a discriminating bunch and expect their hardware to house a processor capable of delivering 3-D animation, state-of-the art video display, wireless capability, stereo sound and an intuitive control system (the PSP's collection of directional buttons, shoulder buttons and tiny joystick translate into a smooth playing experience).

When all this technology is applied to something as basic as movie playback, hold onto your eyeballs.

My review copy of the PSP included a full length version of "Spider-Man 2" on the Universal Media Disc. Despite what I had read about the PSP's 16:9 wide screen high resolution display and its true color clarity and other technical gobbledygook, nothing had prepared me for the "Wow!" factor.

Wow! The PSP offers a level of immersion I did not think possible from such a relatively small screen. I have since showed off "Spider-Man 2" on the PSP to a number of discerning media types -- photographers, video producers and gamers -- and their response has been a rousing, "I want one!"

The PSP's playback of users' own MPEG and MP3 files aren't quite so encouraging owing to the tedious process of first shuffling files from your PC to the PSP's Memory Stick card via a USB cable (not included) and then organizing said files in the PSP file hierarchy. The process had me pining for the iPod's comparatively intuitive feel.

Already one free tool, PSP Video 9, is available to help PSP users frustrated with getting their MPEGs to work on the PSP. Things may get easier when Sony releases its anticipated movie and image converter software.

Another @#$*#@ format
While the PSP's included memory card makes it possible for users to download their favorite music and videos (though, only if they're small -- the included 32 MB card is no where near big enough for today's media junkies), the intended media storage workhorse of the PSP is the Universal Media Disc, an 1.8 GB proprietary optical disc that has the storage power of three CD-ROMS.

What does the UMD mean for the customer? First, because the UMD can store so much, customers can expect longer loading times for some games. And second, the UMD represents yet another storage medium gamers need to blow their hard earned money on. And remember, it doesn't work with anything else.

Video: Sony PSP When the next "Grand Theft Auto" hits, will users have to buy a copy for their PlayStation 2 and their PSP? What about films? One for the family room and one to take on the bus? For the gamer on a budget, the PSP represents a dilemma.

If sales offer any guidance, no one seems that troubled by the financial complexities of a new storage disc. As of this writing the Sony PSP has already sold over 800,000 units in Japan, where it was released last December. Sony has 1 million units ready for the U.S. launch and retailers expect they'll go quickly.

The sales couldn't come at a better time. Sony has been steadily losing ground in the handheld hype department thanks to Apple's non-stop iPod campaign. And on the gaming front, it was only two years ago where Sony's announcement of a handheld gaming device evoked scattered shrieks of disapproval from industry experts who wondered how anyone, even Sony, could dare take on handheld gaming giant Nintendo.

Now, however, while the Nintendo DS arguably holds a slight edge in terms of game originality, it looks like a bubbly hunk of gray plastic when matched up against the PSP's slick lines.

The PSP may fall short in a couple departments, but as a handheld gaming and movie platform the PSP seems set to recapture the Sony magic and introduce a little sophistication to handheld gaming.

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