Sony's PSP is handheld entertainment

$250 buys the PSP, headphones, battery, power adapter and a 32 MB Memory Stick Duo, Sony's in-house memory card.  Games run an additional $50 each.John Smock / Sipa Press
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Capable of commanding the eyeballs of the user no matter how long the family car trip,  handheld gaming devices are the BlackBerry of the younger generation. 

That's where the comparison ends. The handhelds stuffed in kiddie backpacks worldwide make their parents beloved BlackBerry look like a toy.  

Take Sony's PlayStation Portable -- a regular Swiss Army Knife of handheld entertainment that supports crisply rendered 3-D graphics, wireless game play, movie, music and photo playback and, starting next week, web browsability.  

Its adaptability and its sexy black techno-design has allowed the Sony PSP to shift public perception of handheld gaming since its April debut from mere child's play to another excuse for dad to head off to the electronics store.

But make no mistake; playing games is the Sony PSP's meat and potatoes which it often does quite well due to its ability to display 16.77 million colors at a resolution of 480-by-272 pixels.

The Sony PSP uses a 333MHz processor and includes 32MB of built-in memory translating into in-game graphics that are almost PlayStation 2 in quality.

The flat LCD 4.3 inch-wide screen sounds small to the uninitiated, but its 16:9 resolution provides Grand Canyon type views -- ok, a tiny Grand Canyon.  Certain games are able to translate that resolution into an illusion of depth and openness never seen with handhelds.

In "Tiger Woods PGA Tour" a flying camera perspective allows players to literally share the ball's flight from tee to green.  Fairways look and feel massive.

Baseball on handhelds usually translates into tiny pixels on on a diamond-shaped splash of green.  But the Sony PSP's wide screen adds the required oomph -- provided game developers know how to work it to their advantage as they do in "MVP Baseball" where, through a series of quick cut shots that capture both the massiveness of a baseball stadium and facial characteristics of the batter.

Racing games? Parents are advised to bring along a travel sickness bag for their PSP-strapping kids on those long car trips.  "Wipeout Pure," a popular PSP title, features dips, loops and quick turns through a futuristic urban landscape. Look too long and some players may reach for the Dramamine.

Controls on the Sony PSP mimic those on a Sony PlayStation 2 controller: Shoulder buttons, nicely done in clear plastic, straddle the top of the PSP; directional buttons and a small joystick sit to the left of the screen while standard PlayStation 2 buttons the right. 

The six-and-half inch wide Sony PSP fits nicely when held by two hands.  Index fingers naturally hover over the should buttons just like with a PS2 controller.  But smaller hands may have difficulty straddling buttons.

The PSP will wipe out the piggy bank
Now the bad news. 

$250 buys the PSP, headphones, battery, power adapter and a 32 MB Memory Stick Duo, Sony's in-house memory card.  Games run an additional $50 each.  And guess what?  They come on a new storage disc, the 2.3-inch wide Universal Media Disc.

So kids might as well hang their Sony PlayStation 2 discs from trees or use them as frisbees.  They are not going to work on the PSP.

The same goes for movies. 

The 1.3 gigabyte UMD is also capable of holding full-length movies.  Sony is betting that customers will purchase a Sony Pictures film like "Spider-Man 2" on DVD and then turn around and buy the same movie on UMD.

Despite what I had read about the PSP's 4.3 inch 16:9 wide screen high resolution display and its true color clarity and other technical gobbledygook, nothing had prepared me for the "Wow!" factor.

After watching a "Spider-Man 2" on my PSP I would recommend that customers skip the DVD version because despite what one would think the experience of watching the film on a crystal clear 4.3-inch wide screen is actually quite engrossing.

I should note that some Sony PSP users have complained of experiencing permanently dead pixels on their LCD screen.  This problem came to light shortly after the PSP's April release.

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.  Additionally the included 32 MB Memory Stick card is no where near big enough for today's media junkies.

Wireless games and beyond
The largest advance in handheld gaming has to be the built-in wireless functionality.   The stereotype of handheld gamers being completely wrapped in their own little world has been replaced by gamers walking outside -- yes, outside! -- in search of fellow gamers to battle.

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.

Most multiplayer, WiFi enabled games for the PSP require that each player have his or her own version of the game, but there are a couple games where only one copy of the game is required.

It's long been speculated that the Sony PSP's "infrastructure" mode hinted at eventual web browsability.  Last week Sony that they would release a software upgrade allowing web browsing. 

But parents hoping to cut the number of electronic devices in your children's lives take note: the PSP won't take the place of your kids iPOD or DVD player or computer anytime soon.

Which may work in your favor because while your kid uses the iPod, you get a chance with the PSP.  The PSP may be another power sapping gee-gaw with a built in expenses associated with a new format.  But you're going to have to come clean.  Admit it.  You want it.