With the Japanese launch of Sony's PSP (PlayStation Portable) on Sunday, we finally have a chance to put the device through its paces. While it will be some time before all of its features are given a thorough testing and its quirks identified, my initial reaction is positive.
Everything about the PSP indicates quality, solid manufacturing and good value. Analysts have speculated that Sony is losing several hundred dollars on each machine, something that Nintendo has said it is not doing with its recently launched DS (Dual Screen) handheld device.
Even the packaging of the PSP is well designed. An inner cardboard assembly holds the power adapter and cables in separate compartments and unfolds, the way any good present should, to reveal the treasure inside.
The device fits comfortably in the hands – or in my rather large male hands, at least. Its layout, with control buttons on the right and a directional control pad and "analog" pad on the left, means it should be instantly familiar to anyone who has played a PlayStation or PlayStation 2.
The display is sharp and crisp and the handful of games released on Sunday make good use of the bright, 4.3in widescreen LCD, with graphics that sometimes seem to glow. It also responds quickly to commands, and I didn't notice any glitches or problems with the images displayed.
If I had to come up with a criticism of the hardware it would probably be its weight. At almost 10 ounces (including the battery), the device feels a little on the heavy side at first, although during play I didn't notice the weight very much.
One of the most common questions about the device has been about its battery life. This surfaced after representatives at the Sony booth at the Tokyo Game Show said they were getting about 2 hours of use from a full charge. Sony later said the battery life should be between 4 hours and 5 hours.
Based on my early tests, Sony's estimate of 4 to 5 hours seems closer to the mark. With the battery inserted straight out of the box with only its residual charge, the unit easily lasted through 2 hours of game play. After a full charge, the battery meter in the PSP indicated 5 hours and 36 minutes remaining.
The first time you switch on the device it asks for basic information such as the time, date and time zone. The system browser uses Sony's cross-media bar interface, which arranges menu options in rows and columns and is very easy to navigate. A nice feature is that the background of the system browser changes colour with the date. December is red, and in coming months it will cycle through silver, yellow, light green, pink, green, purple, light blue, dark blue, dark purple, dark yellow and brown.
The system settings have their own menu and there are also main menus for games, movies, audio, and photos. Currently, those last three work only with content stored on a Memory Stick, but Sony plans to release audio and video content on discs at a later date.
Music and video can be stored on the memory stick directly or by connecting the PSP to a personal computer and switching the unit to USB mode. The memory stick appears as a USB mass storage device and so should work with almost any modern operating system. Windows identified the device as "PSP Type A," which is sure to lead gamers to speculate on what other types of PSP may be coming in the future.
Six games were launched with the unit on Sunday: "Ridge Racers", a racing game; "Minna no Golf Portable"; "Lumines", a sort of Tetris meets sound and light puzzle game; "Armored Core - Formula Front", a futuristic robot battle game; "Mahjong Fight Club", a Chinese chess game; and "Vampire Chronicles - Chaos Tower", a vampire fighting game.
The games really showed off the PSP's graphics, which appeared better than anything released on a handheld console to date. The LCD screen lent itself well to the games: the widescreen aspect ratio provided enough space for the action in the middle of the display and for various data panels and scores around the edge.
The speakers built into the front of the unit were satisfactory but I found it worth using headphones to get the best from the sound system.
There were no pauses, glitches, or other problems during game play, although a look through the manual raised one question. Sony has said it would not be using region coding for PSP games, but the six games bought Sunday all have a "region 2" logo on the rear. The manual says that the player can be used with games coded for region 2 or those marked "all regions," but does not mention games for region 1, for example. Because there are no PSPs or games for regions other than Japan at present, it's impossible to tell if this is a restriction or simply a recommendation not to use games intended exclusively for other regions.
All in all I have a very favourable impression of Sony's newest baby, although only time will tell whether consumers will prefer the PSP or the Nintendo DS.
The Sony PSP should be launched in the UK and the rest of Europe in the first three months of 2005.