Editors' note: As of October 2008, this original PSP model (the "PSP 1000") has been replaced by the PSP 3000. Check out CNET's full review of the Sony PSP 3000 for more details.
After roughly a decade at the top of the home console industry, Sony decided to tackle the portable system market--one heavily fortified by Nintendo's Game Boy Advance and DS. Sony sought to take down Nintendo by adopting the tactic that made the PlayStation 2 such a runaway success: by offering sophisticated, graphically intensive games and a heavy dose of multimedia functionality. The device is called the PlayStation Portable (PSP), and in addition to playing games of PS2 graphical quality, it can play music and movies (downloaded or via disc) and surf the Web. It may not be the best handheld media product on the market, and the games lack the innovation of ones on Nintendo's portables, but as an all-in-one device, the Sony PSP is king of the hill.
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. 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 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.
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 headphone jack is at the bottom left of the unit; Sony's official earbud-style headphones sport 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 (though an iPod-white version is available in Japan).
One gripe: Since the device has a glossy finish--and is mostly black--it's a fingerprint magnet. A static-free cloth should always be at the ready when using your PSP, and the Value Pack had one bundled. Sony's official carrying case is a padded soft case, but a variety of third-party versions are also available (see our list of PSP accessories for more information).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 amassed a decent selection of 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 lack of affordable and recordable UMDs has put the format in dire straits. Sony is hoping to give the format a boost by bundling UMDs with its DVDs and creating an accessory that can transfer the video to TV, but it remains highly unlikely that the many studios and retailers that have jumped ship will come back.
Thankfully, getting media onto a PSP is much less of a hassle than it used to be. The Sony Media Manager software lets you transfer photos, music, and videos from a PC to your PSP with relative ease. It also lets you back up your saved games and manipulate podcast feeds. It's a worthwhile alternative to the bare-bones media management options with which the PSP originally shipped in March 2005, but it will cost you about $25--it's not bundled with the PSP. Fortunately, there are also a wide variety of third-party and freeware software titles available, many of which focus on converting existing video files to PSP-friendly formats (see our "How to put video on your PSP" tutorial for one example). Unfortunately, "home brewed" videos are limited to scaled-down resolutions that fail to completely exploit the PSP's native 480x272 screen. The exception: live, streaming video from Sony's LocationFree TV accessory. This Slingbox-like device lets you watch live TV on your PSP while in range of any Wi-Fi hot spot. Still, it's a shame that the only way to take full advantage of video on your PSP is to buy UMD-format movies or expensive networking accessories.
What about music? Well, the good news is the PSP plays many types of audio 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 your audio files into the music folder on your Memory Stick Duo card, and they'll show up on the PSP. Firmware-updated PSPs can play MP3s, ATRACs, WMAs, 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 important, the DIY storage. You can get a 1GB Memory Stick Pro Duo card for about $50, while double the capacity will cost you about three times as much. Sony announced 4GB and 8GB Memory Sticks at E3 2006 but no pricing. 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.