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.
The image viewer is also basic, with simple slide-show functionality. But again, it's easy to drag JPEG files--or TIFFs, PNGs, GIFs, and BMPs, if you have version 2.0--onto a memory card, rotate them (if needed), and show off your shots to anybody who might want to see them. In addition, you can set a photo as your PSP's background wallpaper, replacing the colorful splash screen behind the home menu. Unfortunately, you can't view photos and listen to music simultaneously.
The browser looks great, displaying crisp images and reproducing colors very accurately. Typing isn't quite the pain it could have been; Sony has augmented its standard cell phone-style input system with a few shortcuts, giving common strings such as http:// and .com their own keys on the virtual keyboard. Furthermore, the PSP remembers every address you type, so you'll never have to tap in a long, complicated URL more than once. You're given the option to reshape the browser's display window, in much the same way that you can resize video clips during playback. This helps avoid the dreaded left-to-right scroll-back while reading articles, though it usually garbles the page's layout in the process. You can easily save images from the Web to your Memory Stick Duo and subsequently use them as wallpaper on the PSP's main menu; customizable wallpaper is another perk of the 2.0 firmware.
As expected, overall Web performance is a little slow. On CNET's reasonably fast connection, we still had to wait a good 5 seconds before images started popping up on the pages. Once the images began to load, the cursor would freeze in place until they were finished downloading. This sort of thing isn't a problem on a computer, where you can still read plain text and click links without images, but the PSP's small screen made the wait a bit more frustrating.
The PSP's strong slate of features--as well as the many bells and whistles that Sony has added via its first major firmware update--proves that the handheld is still under development and hints at even greater things to come. Some of those future upgrades are more fully developed than others. Sony highlighted a few of the more noteworthy forthcoming PSP features in the pipeline at a business conference in March 2006. In terms of gaming, an emulator is being developed that will allow the PSP to play digitally distributed (that is, pay-per-download) PlayStation 1 titles. Later in the year, Sony is pledging to add Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) support to the PSP, with an EyeToy-styled Webcam peripheral to complement it. A GPS-locator accessory is also in the works, with compatible games slated to support it. Finally, Sony is said to be preparing a major upgrade to its Connect online service that will create a more iTunes-like music and movie download service, but details remain scarce. In fact, since these new features were announced, Sony's been mum about new details--the camera was shown off at E3 2006, but no new information has been revealed about any of the other new PSP concepts. It's more than likely that Sony is waiting until the November release of the PlayStation 3 nears to comment on most of them, as it's likely that numerous features of the next console--accessories and downloads, among them--will be shared between the two.The Sony PSP runs on a proprietary 333MHz processor and comes with 32MB of built-in memory, some of it reserved for the PSP's operating system and applications, and 4MB of embedded DRAM. While we would have preferred more built-in memory, game developers we spoke to were happy it has what it has, given that early rumors suggested Sony would include only 16MB of RAM.
One of the issues with using an optical disc format such as UMD as opposed to Nintendo's flash memory-based cartridges is that load times tend to be significantly longer. After we previewed beta versions of games, we were concerned that load times would indeed be a serious problem. But now that we've run graphically intensive games such as EA's Need for Speed Rivals, Konami's Metal Gear Acid, and Sony's Twisted Metal Head-On, we can safely say that it's a relatively minor hindrance. Yes, games can take a good 10 seconds to load, but it's not much worse than what you'd expect from the PS2 itself. (As one might expect, content loads very quickly from a Memory Stick Duo card.) That said, the Nintendo DS and the Game Boy Advance SP are much zippier in this regard.
Luckily, the wait is usually worth it because most of the games look spectacular. As we said, you're getting close to a PS2-like gaming experience, and many of the titles are ports of their PS2 counterparts with only small compromises made to the graphics. For the most part, games play smoothly, though you may encounter some frame drops in bigger action sequences in certain games.
We played Twisted Metal Head-On against four other players in multiplayer peer-to-peer (PSP-to-PSP) wireless mode and were impressed by the smooth gameplay. We also played Twisted Metal via the Internet with two other people and had good results. But we imagine that when you get up to a dozen players (Twisted Metal supports up to 16-player multiplayer), you'll probably encounter a hiccup or two. And, of course, wireless gameplay depends on your connection--or, in the case of peer-to-peer action, the distance and potential obstructions between devices. As far as distance goes, we were able to move about 60 feet apart with a clear line of sight in an office setting before our connection became spotty. We felt the Nintendo DS offered better wireless coverage.
Before we get to battery life, a few sentences about the PSP's audio. Using the earbud-style headphones, sound quality was fine with games, but we would have liked the maximum volume to go a tad higher when we listened to our MP3s, especially in noisier environments. When you play games and watch movies such as Spider-Man 2 on UMD, you can boost the volume a bit via a special UMD volume-settings menu, which is helpful. A few preset equalizer settings (Heavy, Pops, Jazz, and Unique) are on board to tweak the sound, but you can't manually set treble and bass levels, which is too bad. The PSP's external speakers can't put out booming sound, but they're certainly adequate for gaming and casual video watching; using the headphones, however, will give you a much more immersive experience. Conveniently, volume can be raised and lowered from two buttons just below the screen or via the headphones' in-line remote.
Battery life? Well, a lot of numbers have been bandied about, with some critics suggesting its relatively short run time would be the PSP's Achilles' heel. Here's what we got:
Running on full brightness, we managed about 5.5 hours of gameplay before having to recharge the included 1,800mAH lithium-ion battery pack; gaming time can vary significantly depending upon screen brightness (two dimmer settings are options) and the game you're playing. It's worth noting that recharging a battery to full capacity takes a lengthy 2.5 hours. Playing in peer-to-peer wireless mode reduced game sessions by a little more than 2 hours; the battery pooped out after 3 hours, 15 minutes. For music only, the PSP was able to run for a decent 11.2 hours.
And finally, we managed to watch Spider-Man 2 all the way through twice and got 20 minutes into a third showing before the battery died. All in all, that's not too bad and slightly better than we expected. Still, the easiest way to ensure that your PSP doesn't go dead at an inopportune moment is to purchase an additional battery pack; kudos to Sony for making it replaceable. Transfer rate over USB 2.0 to an inserted Memory Stick was a reasonable 2.2MB per second.