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DriverHeaven Review

With the European release of Sony’s PSP slowly creeping up, an in-depth analysis of this handheld gaming unit was definitely needed. Gamers are in all probability, filled with questions regarding its worth, how it fares against Nintendo’s DS and how effective is the browser’s special features. In this review, all of your biggest fears regarding the Sony PSP will finally be dismissed!

Technical Standpoint

For all of you hardware buffs out there, I have compiled a list of the PSP’s main hardware features, and they are as follows:

PSP CPU (System clock frequency 1~233MHz)
32MB Main Memory
4MB Embedded DRAM
UMD Drive (Playback only)
IEEE 802.11b (WiFi)
USB 2.0
Memory Stick Duo PRO – 32MB
IrDA
IR Remote (SIRCS)

5V DC OUT
Terminals for charging built-in battery
Headphone/Microphone/Control connector
Dimensions: Approximately 170mm (L) x 74mm (W) x 23mm (D)
Weight: Approximately 260g (including battery)

Screen: 4.3 inch, 16:9 widescreen TFT LCD
480 x 272 pixels (16.77 million colors)
Max. 200 cd/m2
Built-in stereo speakers
3.6V 1800mAh lithium-ion battery


Out of the box

For all the gamers who don’t fully understand all of the technical jargon, I’ve included a description of the contents that should accompany your new handheld.
• PSP Hardware
• 32 MB Memory Stick Duo
• Headphones with remote control
• Battery pack
• AC adaptor
• Soft case and cleaning cloth
• Movie/music/game video sampler UMD disc including multiple non-interactive game demos

The PSP Hardware unit has a 4.3-inch 16:9 widescreen LCD screen with a 480x272 resolution. On the left side, there are 4 directional buttons and beneath the D-Pad is a fully functional analog stick. On the right side, there’s the same ‘Triangle’, ‘Circle’, ‘X’ and ‘Square’ buttons. The ‘L’ and ‘R’ shoulder triggers are also existent, while ‘Start’, ‘Select’ and a whole mess of other buttons (to be discussed later) are spread out across the bottom. An LED light indicates the battery status.

The 32 MB Memory Stick Duo is enough to hold saved game files on, but if you plan on listening to a lot of music or watching homemade movies on your PSP, you will need to upgrade to at least 512 MB, but I would recommend getting 1GB if you don’t want to worry about space constrictions. I clocked Sony’s 32MB Memory Stick Duo with a transfer rate of 1.57MB/s, which isn’t terrible for a device that can only store 32MB of data. The PSP uses its own format for playing music and video files to save space, but even so, the default memory stick will not suffice.

The stock PSP battery lasts for roughly 3 hours of gameplay, but there are many aftermarket battery packs that can be used to increase playtime. Sony’s stock 3.6v battery might be enough for people who don’t find themselves straying too far from power outlets, but external solutions such as the Power Brick External Battery Pack, will add a few hours of uptime.

The PSP also has a USB 2.0 port, permitting it to be connected to any PC so that music, video, or games can be transfered with ease. Aside from being directly connected to your PC, the PSP also has 802.11b WiFi support, easily allowing users the potential to have a wireless internet connection if they have the right equipment in their home.

Setup

The setup process for the PSP is simple, and even those who don’t consider themselves tech-savvy should have no trouble at getting a game to play in a matter of seconds. After inserting the Memory Stick Duo, making sure the battery is connected and inserting the proper UMD disc, you’ll be ready to go in no time.

As seen in the picture above, the 3.6v battery fits nicely into the backhand side of the PSP. The cover will easily slip off and the battery can be placed right in. The battery pack uses Sony’s standard 5v DC source to charge and the AC Adaptor will allow you to use said charger.

On the back left side, you will find the port where you can place the Sony 32MB Memory Stick Duo (pictured below). Once the back part of the case is lifted up, a tray will pop out. All you have to do is put the disc on the tray and then slide everything back into place. Once this is completed, you will be able to have network access, save different files and truly enjoy some of the PSP’s strongest features.

Once it’s up and running, you will run through a brief setup process asking about your name, the current time and your sound and video preferences. By sliding the ‘Open’ switch (on the top) a tray will pop out, allowing you to insert any UMD disc you have handy. If you don’t have a disc, don’t fret, there is still a whole new side of the PSP to uncover.

The PSP Browser

For those of you who don’t feel like playing games or watching movies right away, or if you simply forgot to buy a game, there are still loads of features that can be used. The PSP’s default browser (pictured below) consists of 4 tabs: System, Photo, Music, Video, and Games, respectively.

The system menu consists of default configuration settings, but more importantly, it contains network settings and firmware updates. The PSP can automatically detect network settings if there is any type of wireless network in the area. You can choose to enter network settings manually, but for the most part, this won’t even be necessary. By selecting ‘Network Update’, the PSP will scan the internet for a new release of the firmware, and if one is available, it will download it directly to the memory stick. Whether you want to update your firmware or not is entirely up to you, but the option is always there if you need it.

The Photo, Music, Video, and Game modes are really self explanatory. By uploading .jpg images to the /PHOTO/ directory of the PSP, you will be able to have your own personal slideshow wherever you travel.

While you can simply upload .mp3 files to the /MUSIC/ directory on your Memory Stick Duo, these files will take up most of the stick’s capacity. Fear not, because a freeware program entitled SonicStage will convert the .mp3 files to PSP’s “ATRAC 3” format, saving you a ton of space. In this format, the stock memory stick will hold roughly 26 full-length songs.

Again, there are some compatibility issues with videos on the PSP. The handheld will only read .mp4 format video files, which can’t even be viewed on most computers. Luckily, another freeware program entitled PSPVideo9 will convert .avi and .mpg files to mp4, easily allowing any videos on your PC to become mobile. With the basic storage capacity, users can look forward to about 5 minutes worth of video.

Uploading games to the 1.51 firmware or later isn't possible, but PSPs with earlier firmware should have no trouble with homebrew applications. Some freelance programmers have also developed their own little games, such as Pac-Man, Tic-Tac-Toe and there is even a homebrew version of Doom floating around. Unfortunately, these programs are only compatible with 1.50 or earlier versions of the firmware. There is currently no way to downgrade the firmware either, so it will be a while before people who upgraded can play homebrew games. Most of the 1.50 Firmware PSPs are no longer on sale in stores, those unfortunate enough to have purchased said version of the PSP will have to play the waiting game. The upcoming 2.0 firmware will also fix a serious amount of security issues present, but will most importantly add a new web browser to the PSP, allowing gamers to surf the internet wherever they have internet access.

Instead of having a bare bone GUI, the PSP browser has a very homely feel to it. The soft background moves gently and in a soothing manner that is relaxing. In addition, the color of the background varies each month. Whether it is time for the clear blue skies of summer or the brisk colors of autumn, the background always seems to fit right in with the current time of year.

Performance – Entertainment

Now that we’ve covered the basics, it’s finally time to see just how well the PSP performs. In the photo department, you truly couldn’t ask for much more. The 16:9 LCD Widescreen not only displays a crisp picture, but the luminescent glow makes them come to life! The quality is absolutely outstanding, it’s impossible to find blemishes, rough edges, color distortions, or any other problem at all. Although the PSP uses an LCD screen, the fear of dead pixels is ever present. With the screens coming from various manufacturers, it’s really a game of hit or miss, albeit I have no complaints about mine. In the event of having the misfortune of receiving a faulty LCD screen, Sony offers a specific return policy on the subject and there’s even a variety of methods and programs that attempt at “unsticking” the pixels, such as the “Stuck Pixel Fixer” found here.

Two small speakers on the bottom-left and bottom-right of the PSP is all you’ll have in the audio area, so don’t expect a blaring 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound experience. There is hardly any bass and static can be heard during some games or songs, but for the most part, it is bearable. Luckily, a set of ear buds come with the PSP. These headphones offer an enjoyable amount of bass, the quality is superb and it is simple to distinguish noises reverberating from the left or right speaker. The headphones will be more than sufficient for any music buff to get the most out of their handheld.

While the sound effects on the PSP won’t be crisp due to the simple speakers, the video quality is incredible. Again, the sharp widescreen LCD screen displays perfect quality that is similar to that of a Plasma LCD TV. Movies run perfectly and there is nothing negative to complain about here. There are even aftermarket products that can be purchased, such as Nyko’s Theater Experience, which provides you with a stunningly impressive audio experience.

Performance – Gaming Controls

Aside from all of the PSP’s other features, at its core, it is meant for one purpose: gaming! Firstly, we will uncover the PSP’s button layout.

The main frame looks much like a standard PS2 with an LCD screen in the center. You have the four D-pad buttons on one side and the four other geometric buttons on the right. The ‘L’ and ‘R’ shoulder triggers are intuitively placed on top. However, there is much more to the PSP than these few buttons. On the left hand side, you can find the network switch. Turning this off will preserve your battery life slightly, but you will not have access to the wireless network feature. Below the D-pad is a mesh-skinned analog stick that slides along the surface of the PSP, allowing for precision movement when needed. Along the bottom of the PSP resides the main function keys. The ‘Home’ button will prompt you to quit the game and take you to the browser. Failing to do this before turning off your PSP may lead to some troubles on startup, so you should always make sure to quit your programs before powering down. Next to this are the audio controls, where the volume can quickly be adjusted by the press of a button. Subsequently, the next button controls the LCD’s brightness, which also affects the battery life. Pressing the button will cycle through the dim, normal, bright, and overbright settings. Lastly, the typical ‘Select’ and ‘Start’ buttons can be found side by side.

With a slimmed down design, many have wondered how hard it is to use the PSP as a controller. For those of you who have used a PS2, you shouldn’t expect much of a change. The controller is slightly less bulky, which makes it easier on your hands during long hours of gaming. The top shoulder buttons fit smoothly with the curvature of your fingers and are easily accessible during gameplay. The only problem regarding the controller deals with the analog stick. While it certainly was a nice feature to include, the joystick has a very small range of motion. The entire analog stick has about 2cm to cover 360 degrees of rotation, and frankly, this isn’t enough. The stick will slide around effortlessly under your thumb, but with a lot of practice, gaming experts will eventually become accustomed to it and utilize it to its full potential.

Performance – Playing Games

Remaining to cover is the PSP’s capability at playing games. The 233MHz processor with 4MB of DRAM may not seem like much, but it packs quite a punch. The graphics are comparable to a PC system with a 64mb onboard graphics card and you can see this clearly from the bland textures and rough edges seen in most games. Most titles can be played with steady frame rates and the LCD’s quality is amazing enough to make the gameplay come to life right before your eyes. While analysts are comparing the results to that of PS1, the LCD screen alone is enough to leave PS1 titles in the dirt.

Gamers have been curious as to how well the online feature was going to work with such a little device, but again, the PSP is still able to amaze us. The PSP will automatically set up the Ad-hoc connection, allowing the information to be “tunneled.” It will also automatically create the system’s infrastructure and access points, giving the handheld device network capabilities. A few select games, mostly launch titles, require the use of the Xlink Kai software that can be setup in the Windows Control Panel. Despite this, other games with fully functional online capabilities hardly experience any lag and relatively no frame rate loss, so most of the problems found with multiplayer on other systems is nonexistent here.

Overall Value

The most popular question regarding Sony’s PSP is: “Is it really worth $250, and would I better off buying a Nintendo DS?” To answer the first part simply, yes. The PSP definitely lives up to its hefty price tag not only because it is an impressive gaming system that can be taken with you anywhere, but also for the vast multimedia features. Aside from playing games, you will also have a personal slideshow, mobile music player, portable UMD video player and a web browser is even in the works. Along the road, you might need to purchase a bigger memory stick, screen protectors and even protective cases, but the PSP Value Pack is quite a bargain considering everything the system is capable of accomplishing.

Even though some may argue that owning a PSP or a DS is simply decided upon preference, there’s certainly a handful of reasons why the PSP is leaps and bounds ahead of the DS.

Regarding controls, again, the PSP is superior to Nintendo’s DS. While puzzle games are easy to control with the D-Pad on both systems, the immersive 3D games clearly separate the boys from the men. Using a stylus to travel around a world is difficult and not very user friendly, while PSP owners will have the option to use a D-pad or an analog stick for precision controls.

Comparing the functionality of these devices is hardly fair, the Nintendo DS was made to play games and nothing more. The PSP allows you to play games, watch movies, listen to music, view slideshows and even compete in wireless online competitions against your friends. As I mentioned above, this is a no-brainer.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Sony’s PSP is an outstanding handheld device that has immense potential and a solid future. This device maintains the simplicity of a standard Playstation controller with the visually stunning quality of a 16:9 widescreen LCD.

There are certainly enough aftermarket products for the true hardware enthusiast and there will certainly be more to come. Hip Gear has a PSP stand that will turn the speakers into a booming stereo, while SanDisk has their own line of Memory Stick Duos for increased storage capacity.

The firmware is constantly being updated to include new features, such as the web browser, while security fixes are preventing the use of homebrew programs on the PSP; the updates alone add enough innovations to make the PSP even more enjoyable.
The hardware is unrivaled by any other handheld device, and as a result, we can expect to see a handful of games pushing the system to its limit. There have already been games including free-roaming, fully destructible environments, but only the future will tell what lies ahead.

If you’re in the market for a handheld device, then you should definitely purchase Sony’s PSP. It has so many uses not only for gaming, but for all areas of entertainment as well. Simply put, the Sony PSP is the best handheld device and a must buy for anyone looking for a sensational multimedia experience.

 

Contacts: Reviewer: Andy "Vesper" Levine
Editor: Alex Di Domenico // Designer: Allan "Zardon" Campbell



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