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A Closer Look at the 'PSP'

by Eric on Feb. 9, 2005 @ 2:11 a.m. PST

March 24 is the day a lot of North American gamers are already looking forward to, as Sony will then unleash its PSP handheld. Of course we did not want to wait that long and decided to import ourselves a PSP so we could put it to the test. Namco's Ridge Racer was a launch title in Japan thus we also took it for some laps. Read more for our in depth report on how well, or not at all, it plays ...

Genre: Hardware
Publisher: Sony
Developer: Sony
Release Date: March 25, 2005

December 12th 2004 marked Sony's entry into the handheld gaming market for the first time with the release of its PlayStation Portable (PSP). The world was abuzz with excitement, as anytime Sony releases a new gaming product, people take notice, but this time was different because it's been a while since anyone has tried to challenge the dominance of Nintendo in the handheld market. To date, Nintendo had easily crushed every company that had tried to carve out a small piece of the handheld gaming market pie for themselves. But Sony is not just any ol' company, but the number one console maker by an insane margin and they also have something else that many of the other companies didn’t have: strong developer support! Sony brings to the table the support of the world’s best developers who have already pledged lots of love for their new handheld with some of the biggest titles out there.

This is a real threat to Nintendo and their new handheld, the DS. But more so than that, it's a brand new option for gamers who are used to having only one real choice when it came to handhelds. With Sony recently announcing a March 24th North America release date for the PSP, we thought it would be a good idea to give you guys the lowdown on Sony’s hot new system before it reached our shores. We have been testing a Japanese model with Ridge Racers since mid-December and will provide you with our impressions and thoughts.

First up here are the PSP's specifications:

CPU Core:
MIPS R4000 32-bit core
128-bit bus
333MHz, 1.2V
32 MB eDRAM main memory
2.6GB/sec bus bandwidth
I-Cache, D-Cache
2.6GFlops, FPU, VFPU (Vector Unit)
3D-CG extended instructions

Media Engine:
MIPS R4000 32-bit core
333MHz, 1.2V
128-bit bus
2 MB eDRAM sub memory
90 nm CMOS manufacturing process

Graphics Core 1:
2 MB VRAM
5.3Gbps bus bandwidth
3D Curved Surface + 3D Polygon Compressed Texture
Hardware Clipping, Morphing, Bone
Hardware Tessellator
Bezier, B-Spline (NURBS)

Graphics Core 2:
Rendering Engine + Surface Engine
166MHz, 1.2V
256-bit bus
2 MB VRAM
5.3Gbps bus bandwidth
664M pixels/sec fill rate
Max. 33M polygons/sec
24-bit full color

Sound Core:
VME (Virtual Mobile Engine)
166MHz, 1.2V
128-bit bus
5 billion operations/second
3D sound, 7.1 channel
Support for ATRAC3 Plus, AAC, MP3
Reconfigurable DSP engine

Media:
UMD--Universal Media Disc, 60 mm diameter
660 nm laser diode
1.8 GB dual layer
11Mbps transfer rate
Shock-proof
Secure ROM by AES
Unique disc ID

Display:
4.5" TFT LCD with 16:9 widescreen display
480x272 pixels, 24-bit full color

Communication:
Wireless LAN (802.11) [Hotspots, Home Server]
IrDA infrared wireless communication [PSP, Mobile Phone]
USB 2.0 [PSP, PS2, PC]
Memory Stick

Controller:
Directional pad, analogue stick
Circle, Cross, Triangle, Square, L1, R1, Start, Select buttons

Misc:
MPEG4 AVC Decoder
Rechargeable lithium-ion battery
AV input/output
Headphone output

Programming:
Similar to the original PlayStation
PSP libraries
middleware
sample code
simple programmable field
Media Engine and VME/AVE are not user programmable

As you can see from the specs, Sony was not messing around when it was building a handheld. The PSP is really quite amazing from a hardware perspective. The PSP is overall almost as powerful as a PS2 and in some areas actually surpasses what a PS2 can do, which is not too bad for something that barely fits in the palm of your hand. In comparison, the Nintendo DS is slightly more powerful than an original Playstation. So right off the bat, the PSP is a good bit more powerful than Nintendo’s handheld, but that alone does not make it better.

Features are also a very important part of any new system, and PSP definitely does not disappoint here. The first thing you will notice about PSP when you see it is its incredibly large and very beautiful LCD screen. Supporting a resolution of 480x272, the PSP's LCD screen is a true sight to behold. It's also quite a bit larger than both of Nintendo DS' screens combined, and pretty much larger than every single handheld screen ever made. Not only is the screen massive, but it looks great too! This is one high quality, top of the line LCD screen and the color and picture quality of it is in line with the high end PC and TV HD LCD screens on the market. Making this baby even sweeter is the fact that it is widescreen and supports 16:9 in games and movies. Adding support for widescreen really makes this LCD screen feel much larger than it really is.

Speaking of movies, that is another one of the PSP's big features, the ability to also watch movies on it. Both games and movies are shipped on Universal Media Discs (UMDs). These are little CD-like media that play in the UMD disc drive, which is basically a CD-rom drive for UMDs on the back of the PSP. UMDs can hold up to 1.8 gb of data, which is plenty for both games and movies. Sony has yet to release any movies on UMD for PSP at this time, but that will soon change. It's still unclear how many movie distributors will jump on board and release their movies on UMD format, but right now Sony is planning to release a good number of its movies on this format, the first of which will be "Spider-Man 2" and will be bundled with the PSP for its North American launch in March.

However, buying movies released on UMD is not the only way you can watch movies on your PSP. You can also encode your own and transfer them via USB to your PSP. Currently the PSP only supports MPEG 4 encoded movies, which may or may not change with new firmware updates. This seems like a bit of a downfall as not many movies are in that format, but fear not, as Sony has its very own encoder software that you can download for your PC. This software lets you encode just about any movie format to MPEG 4 so you can watch it on your PSP. You can watch any of your own personal movies you have made over the years, and you store all of your movies on an upgradeable memory stick. The PSP supports two types of flash-based memory card, the Memory Stick Duo and Duo Pro. Currently they range from 32 mb up to 1 gb, but as time goes on, Sony and its partners will release larger capacity memory sticks. A 32 mb stick will be bundled with the North American release of the PSP. This is really a great feature and opens up lots of possibilities down the road because there are already companies that are planning to sell movie downloads over the internet that have been already encoded to play on PSP.

As cool as watching movies on your PSP is, that is not the only thing you can put on a memory stick. You can also transfer your favorite MP3s over to your PSP and listen to them. Yet another great feature of this handheld, you can fully transform your PSP into an iPod thanks to the headset that is included with it. One really neat feature of this headset is the built-in track controls for your MP3s. There is a little round dial on the cord of the headset that lets you play/pause/fast forward/rewind and even change the track without having to ever touch the PSP itself.

Just when you think it's done, the memory stick has a few more tricks up it sleeve. The main use for the memory stick is for save game files, and it functions just like a memory card for PS2 or PSOne, letting you save your game's progress to it. You also can transfer jpeg pictures from your PC to your PSP, which is a really nice feature for people with digital cameras who want to share their pictures on a bigger screen or take them anywhere without having to print them out. You can also go into the PSP's menu and manage all of your saved games, music, pictures and movies on there. In the future, you will even be able to play games from a memory stick. This feature is already supported in the menu system, and Sony has hinted that they will be letting gamers purchase games and demos from the internet and download them to their PCs to play them from the memory stick.

The actual PSP itself is laid out nicely and closely resembles a Playstation controller. On the left side of the LCD screen, you have a digital pad like the one on a controller. Under that, there is a small analog joystick that you can also use. While this joystick is not like the ones on the PS/PS2 controllers and takes a little getting used to, it really works great, and I have found myself using it exclusively in Ridge Racers. On the right side of the screen, you have the standard Playstation face buttons: square, triangle, circle and X. On the top of the handheld, there are two shoulder buttons, one on the left and one on the right. At the bottom under the LCD screen are a bunch of general purpose buttons, such as screen brightness and volume controls as well as the start and select buttons. Additionally, there is a "home" button that, when pressed during a game or movie, will take you to the PSP's main menu system. Don't worry about accidentally pressing it during the heat of battle in a game though, because if pressed while playing a game, a dialog box will prompt you, asking if you really want to exit the game and go to the menu. This is really a great little idea and a very cool feature.

So now that you know all about the PSP and its features, it's time to move on to what this system was really made for: gaming! As stated above, we have only one title, Ridge Racers, which is probably the most impressive-looking of the launch titles and also one of the most playable for us non-Japanese speakers. We will not be reviewing the Japanese version of Ridge Racers for PSP, but. I will give you my impressions of the title.

Ridge Racers for the PSP is basically a complete history of Namco’s Ridge Racer line of arcade-style racing games. You have all of the famous tracks from the classic Ridge Racer all the way to the latest one on PS2, and even some tracks from Wave Racer have made the cut (a personal favorite of mine). Many of the classic cars are also packed in here, in addition to many new ones. All of the older tracks have had their graphics updated and look stunning on the PSP. Aside from visuals, though, the tracks are pretty much unchanged. Many of them now have multiple times of day to help keep things fresh, and the cars also look great and feature some nice reflection mapping on them and some decent polygon counts. The game blazes along at an insanely fast 60 fps with no hints of slow down to be seen. The overall graphic quality of the game is a good bit above the PSX versions but not quite as good as the PS2 versions.

Gameplay is the same old tried and true Ridge Racer style of hammering the gas and power sliding around corners, but there has been one new addition to this old school racer. For the first time ever in a Ridge Racer game, you can now use speed boosts. You have a boost meter on the screen that keeps track of your boost, which you earn by power sliding around turns, and the longer you power slide around a turn, the more boost you get. Once filled, you can hit the R button at the top to send you flying complete with motion blur past other racers on the track. The boost only lasts for about 10 seconds or so but can be refilled. Since it takes a decent amount of time to fill up the meter, there is a bit of strategy on when and where you should use your boosts. This adds a much-needed layer of depth to a pretty basic arcade racer and is a great addition to the game.

The PSP holds up very well during gameplay, and Ridge Racers controls great and both the D-Pad and Joystick work well. The design of the PSP itself is very good for gaming and still feels quite comfortable even after a few hours. There has been a lot of debate about the battery life of the PSP and a bunch of people complaining about it being too short. After many play tests over the past few months, I am very pleased with the PSP battery, getting between three to four hours of gameplay time in between recharges with Ridge Racers. While that may seem pretty short when compared to DS or GBA, when you realize you are getting near PS2-level graphics out of a handheld, things are suddenly put into better perspective. For most people, the amount of battery life is more than enough for when they are on the road. For people who travel a lot and spend more than four hours on the road or in the air, then there are some issues with the battery life, but you can always buy a second battery and have close to eight hours of gaming. For the rest of us, the battery life will do just fine when we are not playing on the AC adapter. One nice feature of the battery, though, is the ability to recharge it while you are hooked up to the AC adapter playing a game, which makes the recharges far less painful. The battery itself takes just under an hour and half to fully recharge.

Overall, we have all been extremely impressed with the PSP. Sony has done an amazing job getting such powerful hardware into something so small, and they have also done a great job including lots of useful out-of-the-box features, such as the ability to play music and movies. The quality of the system itself is top-notch, and we have had no issues with it after a few months of heavy testing. I myself have not only enjoyed it more but been far more impressed with the Sony PSP than with the Nintendo DS. The quality of the graphics alone is quite stunning and is pretty much like having a portable Playstation 2 console. Add in all of the other features and the very impressive game lineup that includes all of the big guns from EA, in addition to Sony's own GT 4, Twisted Metal, Wipeout, and many more big titles from AAA developers. Even at the somewhat high North American price tag of $250, the system is still very much worth it. People pay even more for MP3 players that only play MP3s, you are basically getting a portable PS 2, DVD player and MP3 player for that price, along with a free movie. While I think Sony should also offer a "standard pack" that is just the system itself for a cheaper price (like they did in Japan), the US version of the "Value Pack" is still a great deal, no matter how you look at it.

On a Side Note:

There have been quite a few reports going around the net about problems such as dead pixels and ejecting UMD roms, and I want to take a second to address these issues. First off, there is no such thing as bad UMD roms that randomly eject the discs and was just a hoax, but there have been real reports of dead pixels on the LCD screen as well as issues with the square button not responding correctly. We have not experienced any dead pixels or any other problems with the screen itself, but we did have a few issues with the square button not responding correctly. When you press down on the button normally, it works fine, but during gameplay, the square button sometimes doesn't respond when pressed, usually occurring if we hit it on the far left side of the button. The reason for this is the pad that picks up and registers the button press for the square button is slightly off-center from the button itself and does not lie fully underneath it. This is not a flaw in the design of the PSP, and Sony knew about this when they made the handheld, but they did not want to make the PSP any bigger or the LCD any smaller. It's really not much of a problem, because it's pretty difficult to press the button on just the far left side, even if you do have small fingers.

Score: 9.5/10

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