Editor's note (June 2, 2009): Sony has announced a new, smaller PSP model called the PSP Go. However, the PSP-3000 reviewed here will continue to be sold alongside the more expensive PSP Go once it becomes available in October 2009.
While some still consider it a second banana to Nintendo's nearly ubiquitous DS Lite, the Sony PSP has sold more than 50 million units since it appeared on the scene in 2005. Sony released a second-generation version--the PSP 2000--in 2007, giving it a slimmer and lighter chassis, some speed tweaks, and the ability to output straight to a TV screen.
For 2008, the PSP got another minor makeover: the PSP 3000 boasts a built-in microphone (to increase the usability of its onboard Skype functionality) and better video output support (you can now play games on non-HD TV hookups). It also has an "improved" screen that's said to reduce glare, offer better color reproduction, and diminished ghosting. However, these "improvements" actually resulted in visible artifacts on the handheld's screen. The flaws aren't visible in most circumstances, and it's not a dealbreaker--but the fact that it's a step backwards is annoying nonetheless.
The PSP 3000 is currently available in several configurations:
Sony PSP 3000 Ratchet and Clank Entertainment Pack (silver): This limited-edition $200 bundle includes a silver PSP 3000, UMD game, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets UMD movie, 1GB Memory Stick Duo card, and a voucher for (a downloadable game available at the online PlayStation Store).
Sony PSP 3000 Ratchet and Clank Entertainment Pack (black): This is the same as above, but in black instead of silver.
Sony PSP 3000 Rock Band Unplugged Bundle (black): This limited-edition $200 bundle includes a black PSP 3000, Rock Band Unplugged UMD game, 4GB Memory Stick Duo card, and a voucher for "School of Rock" (a downloadable movie available at the online PlayStation Store).
Sony PSP 3000 Hannah Montana Bundle (lilac): This limited-edition $200 bundle includes a lilac (purple) PSP 3000, Hannah Montana: Rock Out the Show UMD game, 2GB Memory Stick Duo card, an episode of the Hannah Montana TV series on UMD, and some Hannah Montana stickers.
Sony PSP 3000 Gran Turismo Pack (silver): This limited-edition $200 bundle includes a silver PSP 3000; the game Gran Turismo on UMD; a voucher for a white Chervolet Corvette ZR1 (a downloadable add-on to the Gran Turismo game); a voucher for a downloadable movie from the PlayStation Store; a Sony MusicPass voucher good for 10 downloadable songs from Sony Music; and a 2GB Memory Stick Duo card (available mid-October 2009).
Sony PSP 3000 Core Pack: This "no frills" version includes just a black PSP 3000 for $169.
Note that additional colors and bundles will likely be offered on a periodic basis.
With only a $30 premium, the bundles are a good choice for users who don't already have a Memory Stick Duo card on hand. You'll also want to be sure to pick up a case to protect the PSP's large, exposed screen. (Check out CNET's full list of recommended PSP accessories.)
The PSP 3000 has the same slim dimensions (2.81 inches high by 6.63 inches wide by 0.63 inch deep) and lighter weight (just over 7 ounces--or 200 grams--with the battery, game disc, and Memory Stick on board) as its predecessor.
The 4.3-inch LCD wide screen remains, and it's been tweaked. Sony says the new screen now delivers better color reproduction, reduced glare, and reduced "ghosting" on high-motion scenes. When compared with the 2000, the PSP 3000 does, indeed, deliver better color vibrancy (you can toggle between "wide" and "standard" color in the options to see the difference). As for glare reduction: we didn't find there to be a huge difference. Don't expect to play in direct sunlight, for instance. But you might have better luck with fewer distractions from indoor light sources.
But in its effort to deal with the ghosting issue, Sony's cure may have been worse than the disease. By increasing the screen's refresh rate, the new PSP seems to introduce a variety of video artifacts onto the screen. They appear as scanlines or jaggies, as if the image is interlaced. They're more apparent in high-motion scenes in games and videos--but that's most of the content on the PSP. (A good illustration of the differences in the screen can be seen at Kotaku.)
The silver version of the PSP 3000 has a matte finish, as compared with the shiny piano black finish of the black one. As a result, the silver body is immune to fingerprints and smudges that so easily show up on the black one. Unfortunately, the screen is identical on both--smooth and shiny--and it remains a magnet for fingerprints. As mentioned above, the lack of a clamshell design (as seen on the Nintendo DS and DSi) makes investing in a case as much a necessity for the PSP as it is for an iPod or iPhone.
Aside from a few very minor cosmetic differences, button layout on the PSP 3000 is basically identical to the previous PSP as well. The screen is bordered by controls on its left, right, and bottom side, plus two shoulder buttons along the top edge. The button layout is based on the classic PlayStation controller layout--the four-way directional pad on the left, square, triangle, cross, and circle keys on the right--so anyone who's used a Sony console over the last decade should be able to pick up and play. The bottom left of the front face also houses an analog thumbstick, for more precise movement. (A second thumbstick on the right, mimicking the design of the PlayStation controller, would've been a welcome addition.) More mundane media controls line the bottom of the screen: select, start, volume, brightness, and a "home" button. (Some of them are shaped a bit differently than the previous model, and the "home" button now brandishes the PlayStation emblem.)
New to the PSP 3000 is the built-in microphone, located just below the screen. It can be used for online communication, be it within a game or for the PSP's built-in Skype application. The advantage of having the mic integrated into the body is that you can use it with any standard pair of headphones. By contrast, the PSP 2000 required a special headset for communicating online.
The PSP is designed to play games and movies off something called UMDs--Universal Media Discs. We're not sure where Sony got the "universal" part of the name, because the PSP is the only device that plays them. They're sort of a cross between a mini-CD and an old MiniDisc, and they only hold about 2.2GB of data. They load into a snap-open door on the PSP's backside. Sony seems to be moving the PSP to more of a downloadable model for games and video (see the PlayStation Store section, below), so we wouldn't be surprised to see the UMD become more of a legacy medium for the PSP.
The Memory Stick Duo slot remains on the left edge. Like the UMD bay, it's a pry-open cover that slides on rubbery plastic rails. If you're not buying a PSP bundle that includes an MS Duo card (or don't have a spare one from a Sony camera), you'll want to invest in a decently sized one (2GB or better). They're widely available for less than $30 or so, but it's annoying--again--that Sony's gone with its own proprietary format instead of the more widely used (and cheaper) SD standard.
Rounding out the connections: the headphone/AV jack is on the bottom edge. It'll take any standard 3.5mm headphones, as well as special PSP-only AV-out cables for connecting to a TV (see "video output," below). The USB port remains centered on the top edge of the PSP. Sony doesn't include a cable, but it's a standard mini-USB connector, so it's likely that you already have one lying around. The USB connector is flanked by two screw holes that allow for accessories to be firmly attached to its frame. But most people will use the USB port for quick connections to the PC to transfer digital media--photos, music, and video, as well as games and demos available through the online PlayStation Store.
The PSP's interface is known as the Cross Media Bar, or XMB. The original PSP was the first Sony product to use it, and it's since been incorporated into the PlayStation 3 and many other Sony TVs and AV receivers. It's a pretty slick menu system that's generally pretty easy to maneuver through using the D-pad and control buttons. As you get into some of the applications, however, that simplicity can get lost. We wished the Web browser, for instance, was as well-designed as the overall XMB menu system.
If you don't want to use headphones, the PSP has external stereo speakers. They produce decent volume for games and UMD movies, but we've always found the volume on videos that we copy over to the Memory Stick to be a bit less potent.
The PSP includes a 5-volt AC power adapter. It can also be charged via USB, albeit at a slower "trickle" rate. Those interested in USB charging (from a spare iPod adapter or their PC, for instance) would be better advised to get something like the Mad Catz USB Data/Charge Cable, which is readily available for less than $10.
Multimedia and online features
The PSP is primarily a gaming device, but it's got some notable media functionality as well.
Wi-Fi: The PSP has built-in Wi-Fi capability, allowing it to connect to any wireless Internet service, including those with WEP and WPA encryption (but not WPA2). One annoyance: the 3000 continues to use the slowest 802.11b version of Wi-Fi. An upgrade to 11g or even 11n is overdue.
Video playback: The PSP can play videos from a variety of sources. The easiest--and most ill-advised--is to buy prerecorded UMD video discs. (With an extremely limited selection, and the fact that the PSP is the only place you can watch them, UMD videos are--not surprisingly--pretty hard to find.) A better option is to copy your own videos from a computer onto a Memory Stick Duo card, and pop it in to the PSP. A variety of freeware and commercial software products can readily convert files to PSP-friendly formats and resolutions (MPEG4 or H.264-AVC, up to 720x480).
LocationFree TV: Built into the PSP is the ability to stream live TV from a Sony LocationFree TV device, which is Sony's take on the Slingbox. As long as the PSP is in a Wi-Fi hot spot, it can stream the video and change the channels on a LocationFree box, even if it's halfway around the world.
Audio playback: The PSP doubles as a decent music player, with the ability to play DRM-free MP3, WMA, WAV, AAC, and ATRAC3 files, along with support for album art. Shuffle and repeat modes are supported, along with a visualizer function.
Photo display: The PSP can display JPEG, GIF, and TIFF photos stored on the MS Duo card--individually, or as a slide show. However, larger photos may need to be compressed before viewing.
Skype: As mentioned above, the PSP 3000 has a built-in Skype client, which can be used for free Skype-to-Skype calls as well as calls to and from regular phones (if you invest in paid Skype add-ons). While it's not going to be offering any serious competition to the iPhone (or any other dedicated cell phone), the ability to have full Skype access--without the need for a special headset--could definitely be useful for quick calls home during, say, an overseas trip.
PS3 "Remote Play": The PSP can log into a PlayStation 3 on a home network or via the Web, and stream any video, audio, or photos stored on the PS3.
Web browsing: The PSP has a built-in Web browser, but it's the one place--more than games--where you'll really lament the device's lack of a touch screen (or even a numeric keypad). A lot of graphically rich pages will be cramped or broken on the screen, and the limited Flash support isn't particularly robust (no Flash-based video, for instance). That said, using the analog stick to control the cursor is nice. And for a lot of people, it will be a better mobile Internet experience than they're getting on a phone.
RSS reader: Separate from the Web browser is an RSS reader, but it could use an overhaul to make it easier to use and add your own feeds.
Internet radio: The PSP has a dedicated Shoutcast client that offers free streaming Internet radio. It's just a plug-in that works through the browser. It's overdesigned and not as straightforward or easy to use as it should be, but it works.
Search: There's also a dedicated icon for doing a Google search.
Network update: The PSP has upgradeable firmware, and Sony has been diligent about adding additional features, fixes, and updates every few months. The upgrade is as simple as choosing the option from the system menu.
Invest in an add-on cable (about $16 for the composite or component version), and you can output the PSP's audio and video to a TV. The PSP 3000 corrects an annoying limitation of the 2000 model: now, video playback and gameplay will work on pretty much any TV. With the 2000, gameplay was limited to progressive-scan only via component video--pretty much limiting you to HDTV hookups.
One annoyance remains: video content from UMD discs (prerecorded movies) and Memory Stick (home-ripped videos) can be displayed at DVD-level 720x480 resolutions--though quality will vary depending upon how the compression of the video in question. That will fill the screen on a widescreen HDTV. But games are locked into the PSP's native 480x272 display. So, if your TV doesn't have a robust zoom function, you're stuck with a window-boxed experience for some games.
Accessories and add-ons
The PSP's top-mounted USB port is designed with at least two specific accessories in mind: the PSP camera and the GPS attachment. There are also rumors of a keyboard attachment in the pipeline. Although the camera and GPS add-ons are available internationally, neither one has been officially released in North America.
While its robust media and online functionality are impressive, for most buyers, they'll be decidedly secondary to the PSP's raison d'etre: gaming on the go. Yes, Nintendo's DS remains king of the portable gaming scene in terms of units sold, but plenty of people are looking for more sophisticated (read: less kiddie-oriented) games than the DS offers. And for those who can't abide the oh-so-cute antics of a Pokemon,Cooking Mama, Zelda, Mario, or Animal Crossing title, the PSP will be a welcome breath of fresh air. The graphics on the PSP are noticeably better than those on the DS as well--games are essentially at the level you'd expect on the PlayStation 2.
Early on, the PSP was knocked for being little more than the "PS2 portable," because so many of its titles were simply ports of PlayStation 2 games. And, indeed, its hit list is dominated by many PlayStation franchise standbys, including Grand Theft Auto, SOCOM, Tekken, and God of War (pictured). But many of these are phenomenal titles that have been designed for the PSP from the ground up. Genre strong suits include sports, racing, action, and shooter titles, but it's not all sweat and blood, either--plenty of quirky puzzle games (Lumines, Puzzle Quest, and LocoRoco) are available, as well as a host of family-friendly favorites as well (Daxter, and Ratchet and Clank).
It's also worth noting that many of the PSP games include an online multiplayer component. Some games offer ad hoc multiplayer (peer to peer, for playing against other PSPers in the same room), others offer Internet play, or both. Online gameplay is free, and--while the experience varies from title to title and is dependent on network speed--it can be just as fun and fulfilling as playing on a home console.
PlayStation Network and PlayStation Store
Currently, UMD is still the primary vehicle for delivering games and media to the PSP. But Sony has been expanding the options available on the online PlayStation Store as well. The Store allows users to rent and buy movies and TV shows, and it also allows users to buy downloadable games. (All downloadable content is stored on the Memory Stick Duo.)
Prior to the 5.0 firmware update that coincided with the release of the PSP 3000, getting content from the Store to the PSP was an arduous task--you had to first download your choices to the PC or PS3, then transfer them to the handheld. But that's now a thing of the past: the Store is directly accessible from the PSP's main menu, and everything can be downloaded straight to the PSP at the click of a button.
A single PlayStation Network account can be used for accessing the PlayStation Store, and you can have both a PS3 and PSP on a single account. Indeed, the Store is closely tied to the PS3: movies purchased on that system can be offloaded for viewing on the PSP, for instance.
The fact that the Store is now accessible directly through the PSP puts Sony in a better position to compete with Apple's App Store (which has a growing number of games for the Apple iPhone/iPod Touch) and Nintendo's DSi (which can access the online "DSi Shop" for game downloads). While the online store originally hosted just demos and ports of PlayStation One classics, Sony is now offering games that are no longer published on UMD as well as original download-only games that won't be coming to the UMD format at all. Clearly, the company wants to usher PSP users to a download model. And if you've got a large enough Memory Stick, it's a lot more convenient to have several games available at once on your PSP, instead of carrying around a bunch of clumsy UMD discs.
The PSP 3000 has the same 1,200mAh lithium ion battery as the 2000. (It's removeable and replaceable.) We ran a UMD movie on a fully charged PSP 3000 set at full screen brightness and half volume with the Wi-Fi turned on, and got 4.5 hours of playback time before the battery died. That's within Sony's rated times of 4-5 hours for UMD videos and 4-6 hours for games, and we suspect we'd squeeze a bit more life out of it if we ratcheted down the screen brightness or turned off the Wi-Fi.