Sneak peek at the PSP

Auction looses a few systems into the world ahead of schedule; one lands in our capable hands.

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TOKYO--The official Japanese launch for Sony's PlayStation Portable is still a week away, but we got ahold of a retail unit--the value pack--today through a prerelease auction conducted by Sony. While we haven't gotten hold of any games yet, Sony's versatile portable unit does a lot more than just play games. As a result, we've started putting the anticipated portable system through its paces with an included demo disc full of media (the highlights of which you can see on our "all updates" page).

The first impression that we got from actually holding the PSP outside of the dimly lit showrooms where we've previously seen it was that the handheld is slick and well designed. The most unique thing about the PSP's body design is that there are no separations between the plastic panel used on the LCD screen and the rest of the handheld's front surface. That is, the PSP's front surface is simply one huge plastic panel. Therefore, the screen cover is transparent, and the rest of the area is black. Complementing the PSP's front surface are its buttons, which are actually transparent if you take a look at them from the side of the handheld.

The PSP uses a proprietary 3.6V (1800mAh) lithium ion battery that fits into the back of the handheld. Weighing around 40 grams, the battery is light and doesn't affect the overall weight of the system. Unlike with general alkaline or nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) batteries, you won't have a problem inserting the PSP's battery, because it's keyed to prevent you from orienting it improperly. This notch also works as the battery's connection to the system, and you can see three metallic connectors if you check the place where the battery fits into the PSP. Though it's been previously reported that the PSP would charge up by being placed on a special charger rack (like with some digital cameras and shavers), the package came with a standard AC adapter. Charging the battery completely took two hours and 24 minutes. (Please note: We'll have an additional report on overall battery life soon.)

To turn the PSP's power on, you'll slide a switch on the right side of the handheld. You can put the handheld into sleep mode at any time by sliding this switch again. To turn off the PSP's power completely, you'll need to hold the switch for about 10 seconds. The power switch also features a hold mode that allows you to lock the buttons on the PSP so that you don't accidentally press them while watching a movie or listening to music.

According to our calculations, the unit weighs in at 282 grams (around 10 ounces), with its battery and Memory Stick Duo. By comparison, the Nintendo DS weighs 276 grams (9.7 ounces). The two handhelds seemed to weigh about the same when we compared them side by side, although the PSP seemed to be a little lighter because you hold it with both hands versus holding it with one hand, which is the case with the Nintendo DS. (The opposite hand is used to employ the stylus for the DS).

The booting process for the PSP is similar to the PlayStation 2. You'll first be greeted by a Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. logo, and if you have a Universal Media Disc inserted, you'll see a PSP logo immediately thereafter, in addition to hearing a boot-up sound. When we checked the booting time for our PSP using the demo UMD disk that came with our package, we saw that the handheld took about 25 seconds to get to the disc's menu screen. The booting time was shortened to eight seconds when we tried launching the PSP with no UMD. The PSP goes directly to its user menu when there's no UMD inside, which is similar in behavior to the PS2. When we inserted the UMD after the PSP was already powered on, it took five seconds for a UMD icon to appear on the games menu, and it took 20 seconds for the game to load when we selected this icon. Meanwhile, loading a UMD movie took less time. Consequently, it took around six seconds before the screen appeared.

The regular PSP package contains the battery and AC adapter, but the value pack comes with a few additional goodies, such as a carrying case, a strap band, a 32MB Memory Stick Duo, and an earphone with remote control.

The PSP's carrying case is made of a soft polyester fabric. The case is slim, and its left side is open so you can easily take the PSP in and out, making it convenient for casual use. However, while it seems useful enough to protect the PSP from day-to-day scratches, it's not the type of carrying case that will save the handheld from a fall to the ground while you're walking around with it out on the street. If you're thinking of mainly using the PSP outside of your house, it might be a good idea to invest in a carrying case with a thicker layer of protection.

The stylish earphones that are included in the value pack let you to listen to your PSP's clear sounds via the built-in headphone jack. The earphones come with a convenient remote control that gives you basic control over the PSP without having to touch the device itself. You can pause or resume the playback of music or movies, fast-forward, rewind, go back and forth between tracks or chapters, and change the volume. You can't control anything while you're playing games with this remote, although you can, of course, enjoy your games with great sound. One issue we noticed is that we could hear some static from the earphones whenever the access lamp for the Memory Stick Duo lit up. However, the static isn't audible when you're playing the sound from the PSP's internal speakers.

Sony's Memory Stick Duo is extremely small when compared to the old type of memory sticks. In fact, it's actually about half the size. The Memory Stick Duo is even smaller than the games for the Nintendo DS. You stick the Memory Stick Duo into the PSP by opening a small cover located on the left side of the handheld. Pressing the Memory Stick in will make it snap into place, which is very similar to the way that you snap games into the Nintendo DS. You also remove the Memory Stick in a similar fashion to removing DS games in that you must push it down a little bit to make it pop out by spring action.

The PSP's main media is the UMD, a 60mm disk that can contain up to 1.8GB of data on dual layers. At the current time, we've seen that the disk can hold games, movies, and music videos (which might seem no different from movies, but these are launched from the music submenu on the PSP's user menu screen rather than from the movie submenu).

You insert UMDs into the PSP by sliding a switch on top of the handheld and making the UMD lid pop out from the back of the device. You'll know if you've inserted the UMD all the way, because it'll snap into place when it reaches the bottom. The UMD will be locked into the lid, and it won't fall out even if you turn the PSP upside down and shake it around. You're ready to play games and movies once you've inserted the disk all the way and have pushed the lid shut. If you want to take out the UMD, all you have to do is open the lid again, which will automatically free the UMD from its locked position.

If you open up the UMD lid while a game is playing, you'll be prompted by a screen that asks you whether you want to stop playing or not. If you select yes, you'll be taken to the PSP user menu, and if you select no, you can close the lid and resume your game. We noticed we could actually choose to continue our game and keep playing while we still had the lid popped open, which is kind of like playing a PS2 game with the tray ejected. While that's a practice we normally wouldn't recommend, we tried doing it with the demo disk just to see the results.

With the demo disk, the game's movie ran for about three seconds from the cache left remaining inside the PSP. Then we were taken back to the demo's title screen. The title screen functioned normally, with smooth video playing in its small submenus, which came to show the strength of the PSP's 32MB of internal memory. We also tried popping the UMD lid open while we were playing a movie trailer from the PSP's movie playback function. Here, the screen just returned to the PSP user menu without any prompting.

The UMD comes in a plastic case that protects its surface from scratches, and you can't take the disk out of the case. So when you insert the UMD into the PSP, you'll be sticking it in with its whole plastic case...altogether. One thing you'll have to be careful about, though, is that there's a gap on the case so that the PSP can read the optical disk inside. You can damage your disk if you scratch it from that opening.

When the PSP is heavily accessing the UMD disk, you can hear a similar motor noise to the PS2 (except that it's a bit quieter). It's not something too noticeable if you're used to the PS2. Additionally, there's no vibration.

All the buttons used for the PSP are located on the front of the handheld, with the only exceptions being the L and R buttons, which are located on the top. The button alignment on the PSP is pretty much identical to a PlayStation 2 controller, so if you're used to the console, you'll have no issues playing games on the PSP. There's an analog disc located at the bottom of the D pad, but it feels quite a bit different from the sticks featured on the PS2's Dual Shock controller and might take some getting used to. Instead of tilting, the analog stick slides in whatever direction you push it. The surface of the analog button is a bit rough so that it won't slip while you're using it.

The start and select buttons are located at the bottom of the LCD screen, and you can push them with your right thumb, since they're both on the right side. Also located underneath the LCD on the right side is the brightness adjustment button and the sound effects button. By pressing the brightness button, you can switch the luminosity of the LCD screen up three levels, plus one more extremely bright level that is only available when you've got the handheld plugged into the AC adapter. You can also turn off the LCD's backlight if you hold on to the button for more than a second. However, it's impossible to see the screen without the backlight, even in bright daylight or with a flashlight.

The sound effects button allows you to listen to your music in five different sound qualities: heavy, which puts emphasis on low-pitched sounds; pops, which strengthens middle-pitched sounds and is perfect for vocal music; jazz, which puts emphasis on both low- and high-pitched sounds; and unique, which strengthens sounds in low and high pitches as well as a little bit in the midrange. However, these sound filters only work when you're in the music or movie mode, so you can't use them when you're playing games.

Another nifty feature using the sound effects button is that you can mute the PSP by holding it for one second, which works for the game mode as well as music and movie modes. The speakers on the PSP are two little holes, each located on the lower left and right sides of the LCD screen. There are also two holes on the bottom of the handheld. Strangely, most of the sound actually comes out from the bottom holes rather than from the ones near the screen. If you want to adjust the volume on the PSP, you can do so with the two buttons located on the left side and underneath the LCD screen.

Also located on the left side, underneath the LCD screen, is a "home" button that allows you to return to the PSP user menu at any time. When you hit the button while you're playing a game, you'll get a screen that asks whether or not you actually want to stop playing. If you press the button while you're watching a movie or listening to music, you'll be directly taken to the PSP user menu without a prompt.

To use the PSP's wireless connection (which communicates through a transmitter on top of the system), you need to slide a switch located on the left side of the handheld. This will enable the wireless LAN hardware, and you can use your PSP user menu to switch between two connection modes: ad-hoc mode, which allows you to connect with other PSPs, and infrastructure mode, which allows you to connect to the Internet via LAN hotspots. We know so far that with ad-hoc mode, you'll be able to play with other users who own a PSP. Meanwhile, with infrastructure mode, you'll be able to get firmware updates for the PSP.

Also located on the top side of the handheld is the USB port that allows you to transfer Atrac3plus (a proprietary audio format invented by Sony), MP3, JPEG, and MPEG-4 files to your PSP's Memory Stick Duo, which can then be viewed on your PSP. If you have Windows XP or any other OS that can recognize USB mass storage devices, you can connect the PSP to your PC and download whatever you want to play directly to your PSP. You'll also need to purchase a Mini-B USB cable to connect your PSP to your computer, because the package doesn't come with one (even in the value pack).

For managing files, the PSP supports a folder structure like mid- or high-class MP3 players. For example, you can throw a bunch of classical tunes into a folder named "classical," and you can also throw in a library of rock tracks in another folder named "rock." You can then switch between playlists at will. The PSP also supports m3u playlists, so you can arrange your tracks in the order you prefer.

The capability to watch movies on a 16:9 ratio screen is one of the strong points of the PSP, and we were able to check out seven movie trailers that came with the UMD demo disk, including Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Hitch, White Lies, Spanglish, Kung-Fu Hustle, Gekijou-ban Naruto, and a sample movie featuring a scene with dolphins. The fine print written on the small piece of paper that was included with the UMD made sure to note that the trailers featured in the demo were not movies decided for release on UMD media, which is understandable considering that three of them (Hitch, Spanglish, and Kung-Fu Hustle) were for films that haven't even hit theaters in Japan yet. It is also worth noting that when you press the triangle button while you're watching movies on the PSP, you'll get the same navigation menu as the DVD menu on the PlayStation 2.

In terms of its MP3 support, the PSP features most of the standard functions that you'd expect from an MP3 player, such as shuffle and repeat. Furthermore, it lets you fast-forward and fast-backward as well. The PSP's MP3 playback also has a feature called the A-B repeat function that's found on some MP3 players. This feature lets you select a specific section of a track so you can loop it. The function comes in handy at times, such as when there's just one part of a song that you really like or when you want to keep listening to one section of a language lesson. Surprisingly, the PSP doesn't have any visual effect options that you can run on its screen while the music is playing, which is a bit unfortunate, because the PSP has such a high-quality screen.

We tried running some MP3 files in different qualities, such as a 22KHz mono file at 40kb/sec and a 44KHz stereo file at 160kb/sec, and the PSP had no problems in playing either of them back. Pressing the triangle button while you've got a music track selected will display information on it, such as its creation date and bit rate.

We noticed that there was no static noise coming out of the speaker while we played back MP3s (or displayed photos), although the PSP would constantly access the Memory Stick Duo. There might be some additional factor that causes the static noise to present itself when the Memory Stick gets read during the PSP's boot-up and other instances. Another thing we noticed is that the 32MB Memory Stick that comes with the value pack may be good enough for saving game data, but it's way too small for MP3 playback. At standard CD quality sound (44KHz stereo at 128kb/s), the Memory Stick can only hold about a half an hour of music.

The PSP's photo-displaying function is relatively standard. You can display your JPEG to fit the PSP screen, and any blank spaces are filled by white background. You can also choose to display your picture so that it completely fills the screen, but with some area cropped from display. You can scroll the screen vertically or horizontally if your picture is cropped, though. You can also zoom in, zoom out, and rotate your picture around in 90-degree increments. Similarly to the MP3 playback function, you can hit the triangle button to check the data from your JPEG file, such as its file size, date of creation, and resolution.

The PSP's user menu adopts the XMB (Cross Media Bar), which is a graphical user interface that's being used by Sony on a number of recent products, such as its high-end TV monitors. The XMB originated from Sony's PSX, which is a PS2 with HDD-DVD recording capabilities that was released last holiday season. The PSP, in a way, can be considered as a successor to the PSX because it's the second gaming machine from Sony that's adopted the XMB menu. Additionally, it has a lot of multimedia playback functionality, just like the PSX, so it's being anticipated as the big seller for this holiday season, much like its PSX relative was last year.

The XMB gets its name because its menus crosses over. Basically, you move left and right through the main categories--such as game, movies, music, and settings--and subcategories, which you can select by moving up and down; then they will appear onscreen. For example, if you stop on the settings category, its subcategories, such as time setting, sound setting, energy preservation setting, network setting, and security setting, will appear on the screen. You'll also be using the XMB when you check out photos and listen to MP3s on your Memory Stick Duo.

Below is an overview of the menu categories and subcategories. To note a few points in particular, the games category has an option that lets you play games on your Memory Stick, which wasn't a feature that was officially announced by Sony up until now (although its developers have hinted at this functionality in the past). You can connect your PSP to your computer by hooking it up with a Mini-B-type USB cable, but you can only access your Memory Stick Duo, and you can't access data on your UMD. The backlight conservation and sleep modes won't go into effect when you're watching movies, so you won't have to worry about changing the settings every time you want to see a UMD movie, and you won't have to hit a button every few minutes to make sure the light stays on.

We haven't been able to try out MPEG-4 videos on the PSP yet, since Sony hasn't released the encoding application, but we'll bring you more information on this and all other things PSP throughout the coming days as the system's Japanese launch approaches. In the meantime, don't forget to check out our slew of new gameplay movies from the system's included demo disk.

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