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Portable Passions, Part 2: Sony PSP

Last week, I examined the Nintendo DS, a somewhat middling portable game player that provides dual-screen and stylus capabilities along with backward compatibility with the GameBoy Advance. Until recently, Nintendo basically had the portable gaming market to itself. But all that has changed with the introduction of Sony's exciting PlayStation Portable (PSP). And from what I can see, Nintendo is in a lot of trouble.

First Impressions
From the moment you remove the PSP from its packaging, you know you've purchased something substantial and of high quality. The PSP is elegant and sophisticated, whereas the DS is all cheap plastic and awkward angles. With its sleek, black design—looking an awful lot like a PlayStation 2 hand controller with an enormous screen (relative to the size of the device) wedged in the middle—the PSP is the uber-device, the gotta-have-it geek gift. It's gorgeous and attention getting in a way that only Apple products usually are.

The PSP is heavier than the DS, but in a good way. The device’s huge and beautiful screen is exposed, as with an iPod or Portable Media Center, begging for some sort of screen protection. The various buttons and controls are arranged like that of a PlayStation 2 Dual Shock controller, supplying even a hat-style mini-joystick, which looks like a speaker or microphone because of its low profile. The PSP offers an astonishing number of control options.

The sophistication of the graphics and the awesome clarity of the PSP screen are primarily what set the PSP apart from the DS. Games and movies—which are stored on a proprietary disk format called Universal Media Disk (UMD)—are absolutely stunning and far beyond the capabilities of the DS. The screen also features a widescreen aspect ratio, making it suitable for Hollywood blockbusters. Even the sound quality is terrific. Audio seems to come from hidden speakers that occupy much of the front side of the device.

Digging Deeper
So far, I've been more impressed by the PSP games I've tried than the DS games I’ve dabbled with. However, slow UMD load times can become frustrating, compared with the relative quickness of the cartridge-based DS. And the PSP gets only about half the battery life of the DS—which can be problematic and perhaps necessitate a second battery. I do appreciate that Sony supplies a Memory Stick-based storage mechanism, but the PSP supports only the smaller and more expensive Memory Stick Duo format, rather than the larger, cheaper, and more common Memory Stick.

Rounding out the problems, the PSP is a typical Sony device, which means it's busy with ports, panels, and buttons. However, these features all add up to extra functionality. For example, with the included USB port, you can connect the PSP to your PC and access its Memory Stick Duo card directly. Although the process is somewhat convoluted (especially in the case of video) and isn't automated by any Sony-provided tools, you can copy MP3 songs, JPEG photos, and MPEG-4 videos to the PSP for an iPod- or Portable Media Center-like experience. My photos and movies look stunning on the PSP, as expected, and the music experience is similar to that of the iPod photo. Well done.

These multimedia features, along with integrated Wi-Fi and the ability to wirelessly download game updates, might put the PSP over the top. In an upcoming Connected Home Express, I'll be looking more closely at how the PSP integrates with digital music, photos, and movies.

One-Upping ‘Em All
Nintendo isn't the only company that stands to lose if the PSP takes off the way I think it will. That's right, Apple. I'm talking to you. You say a video iPod will never make it? Well, that's exactly what the PSP is—plus, a killer game machine, an MP3 player, and a photo slideshow viewer. All in all, the PSP combines the best of the DS, the iPod, and the Portable Media Center, and then one-ups them all. If you're looking for the ultimate portable digital-convergence device, you've found it.

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