While some still consider it second fiddle to Nintendo's nearly ubiquitous DS Lite, the Sony PSP has sold more than 41 million units since it appeared on the scene in 2005. The company released a second-generation version in 2007 — the PSP 2000 — giving it a slimmer and lighter chassis, some speed tweaks and the ability to output straight to a TV screen.
For 2008, the PSP is getting another minor makeover: the PSP-3000 gets an improved screen (better colour reproduction and less glare), a built-in microphone (to increase the usability of its on-board Skype functionality) and better video output support (you can now play games on non-HD TV hook-ups). Otherwise, the AU$299 PSP-3000 is all but identical to its predecessor.
The PSP-3000 has the same slim dimensions (71mm high by 168mm wide by 16mm deep) and lightweight (200g with the battery, game disc and Memory Stick on board) as its predecessor. The luscious 109mm (4.3-inch) LCD widescreen remains, and it's been tweaked: it now delivers better colour reproduction, and is less prone to glare.
When compared with the 2000, the PSP-3000 does, indeed, deliver better colour vibrancy (you can toggle between "wide" and "standard" colour 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.
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) 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 it up and play.
The bottom left of the front face also houses an analog thumb stick for more precise movement. A second thumb stick 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.
New to the PSP-3000 is the built-in microphone, located just below the screen, which can be used for online communication 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, or 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. The Memory Stick Duo slot remains on the left edge.
The headphone/AV jack, on the bottom edge, takes any standard 3.5mm headphones as well as special PSP-only AV-out cables for connecting to a TV. The USB port remains centred on the top edge of the PSP. Sony doesn't include a cable, but it's a standard mini-USB connector, so you may 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, 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 easy to manoeuvre 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 less potent. The PSP includes a 5-volt AC power adapter, though it can also be charged via USB, albeit at a slower trickle rate.
The PSP is primarily a gaming device, but it's got some notable media functionality as well, such as built-in Wi-Fi capability. That allows it to connect to any wireless internet service, including those with WEP and WPA encryption (but not WPA2). One annoyance is that the 3000 continues to use the slowest 802.11b version of Wi-Fi. An upgrade to 11g or even 11n is overdue.
As for video, the 3000 can play them from a variety of sources. The easiest, and most ill-advised, is to buy pre-recorded UMD video discs. 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 pixels).
Invest in an add-on cable, 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, limiting you to HDTV hook-ups.
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 half-way around the world.
The device doubles as a decent music player, with the ability to play DRM-free MP3, WMA, WAV, AAC and ATRAC3 files, and with support for album art. Shuffle and repeat modes are supported, along with a visualiser function. It can display JPEG, GIF and TIFF photos stored on the MS Duo card individually or as a slideshow. Larger photos may need to be compressed before viewing.
As already mentioned, 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 mobile phone), the ability to have full Skype access — without the need for a special headset — could definitely be useful.
Another neat feature is PS3 "Remote Play", which allows the PSP to log into a PlayStation 3 on a home network or via the web, and stream any video, audio or photos stored on the PS3.
There's a built-in web browser, too, but you'll lament the device's lack of a touchscreen (or even a numeric keypad) here. Many graphically rich pages will be cramped or broken on the screen, and the limited Flash support isn't particularly robust. That said, using the analog stick to control the cursor is nice. And for many people, it will be a better mobile internet experience than they're getting on a phone.
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. There's also a dedicated icon for doing a Google search. Additionally, the PSP has a dedicated Shoutcast client that offers free streaming internet radio. It's just a plug-in that works through the browser, but it's over-designed and not as straightforward or easy to use as it should be.
One annoyance remains: video content from UMD discs (pre-recorded movies) and Memory Stick (home-ripped videos) can be displayed at DVD-level 720x480-pixel resolutions — though quality will vary depending upon 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-pixel display. So, if your TV doesn't have a robust zoom function, you're stuck with a window-boxed experience for games.
While the PSP's robust media and online functionality are impressive, for most buyers, they'll be decidedly secondary to its raison d'être: 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 (less kid-orientated) games than the DS offers. And for those who can't abide the oh-so-cute antics of the Pokemon, Cooking Mama, Zelda, Mario or Animal Crossing games, 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. 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 games, but it's not all sweat and blood, either. Plenty of quirky puzzle games, such as Lumines, Puzzle Quest and LocoRoco are available, as well as a host of family-friendly favourites such as 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 and 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.
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 programs, and it also allows users to buy downloadable games. All downloadable content is stored on the Memory Stick Duo.
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.
To date, in fact, you'll first need to download your games or media via the PS3 or PC versions of the PlayStation Store. But we're hoping the rumours are true about an upcoming firmware update that will allow direct-to-PSP Store access and downloads. With Apple's App Store, which has a growing number of games, and the Nintendo DSi, which will be able to access an online DSi Shop for game downloads, the PSP deserves an equivalent service that doesn't require a clumsy intermediary.
Finally, can the PSP take the place of your iPod, iPhone or even a portable DVD player? For die-hard media junkies — those with an 80GB iPod filled to the brim with music and videos — the answer is basically no. But if you're looking to travel with a few hours of music or some TV programs, it makes for a good diversion from a game, and eliminates the need to lug a second device along. And while the screen isn't as large as you'd get with a portable DVD player, the PSP is decidedly less bulky — and its screen is considerably larger than that of the iPod or the iPhone.
That said, the small but growing gaming library available on the iPhone and iPod Touch — and the fact that those devices offer far better communications, web browsing and media options — means that Apple is on deck as just as big a competitor to the PSP as Nintendo currently is.
Someday, no doubt, Sony will debut a full-on PSP2, with a host of next-gen features and a more radical redesign. But for now, we've got an evolutionary upgrade of a portable gaming and media console that already had a lot going for it. Existing PSP owners won't need to run out and get this new version unless they really need the improved video output, built-in microphone or slightly more colourful screen. Anyone else need only look at the available line-up of PSP games. If playing sophisticated, graphically rich versions of games such as Syphon Filter and Metal Gear Solid, to name just two, the PSP will ensure that you'll always be entertained.