Sony PlayStation Portable review

£180
Price when reviewed
It plays MP3s. It plays video. It has 802.11b WLAN for gaming built in. And a Memory Stick Duo slot accessible via a USB 2 port. And a mini-optical drive, which accepts proprietary 1.8GB UMDs (universal media discs), including commercially available movies. Oh, and it plays games too. But that description doesn’t do justice to the experience when you have a PlayStation Portable in your hands: the whole look and design of the device is unsurpassed, and the 4.3in widescreen LCD is simply gorgeous.

The PSP has a custom-designed processor running at up to 333MHz, with 32MB RAM for games. It doesn’t sound like much, but with a fixed hardware specification there’s more scope for game programmers to squeeze performance out of the hardware than would be possible with a PC. And the fact that UMDs hold up to 1.8GB of data brings about the prospect of far larger and more expansive games than any previous console.

There are drawbacks though. Although the slick menu system gives prominence to options for video, photos and MP3s, the PSP has initially been released without any software to transfer them to the device – a peculiar oversight, presumably resulting from the need to release it as close as possible to the launch of the competing Nintendo DS. Getting photos onto the PSP itself – a 32MB Memory Stick is supplied for storage – requires only the creation of folders with the correct names to drop them into.

Videos are a different matter, and need to be converted to the correct MP4 format. Doing this for your personal DVDs requires trawling around the Internet for third-party utilities, but it can be done. You’ll need a 1GB Memory Stick to get more than an hour of video at decent quality, although for a couple of half-hour TV episodes, a 512MB stick is sufficient and will set you back only about £45 inc VAT. Videos running from the Memory Stick slot as opposed to commercial UMDs are limited to 320 x 240 resolution though; full native-resolution 480 x 272 is a UMD-only luxury. But that’s fine, especially as you can maintain widescreen aspect ratios; the PSP lets you stretch the video. Imminent official third-party software should make the process easier.

Playing games on the PSP is a revelation. Firing up the PSP version of Ridge Racer takes you back to the time you gasped at the graphics on the arcade version: the only difference is the lower resolution which, with the screen size, is rarely noticeable. All the visual effects are there: texture mapping, light trails, motion blur and lens flare. And all at a frame rate of at least 30fps. It’s stunning, and the game has a huge range of selectable background music tracks to complete the feel. Look closely and you’ll see that the polygon counts aren’t particularly high, but the deficiencies are covered by expert game design.

Playing a game solidly gives about four hours of use; enough for a gaming session but it leaves you wanting more. However, the battery is small and light enough to slip an extra one in your bag: spares are already available on sites such as www.expansys.com for £30 including VAT. As things stand, you can upgrade the firmware over the wireless connection and connect to other PSP users if you want to game – although there’s no actual web browser included as standard.

It all adds up to a device that makes Microsoft’s Portable Media Centers look simply outdated and overpriced. If you don’t mind the hassle of media file transfer, buy a PSP. If you do mind, buy one anyway – you’ll still love it.

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