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The PSP revealed: shedding light on gamers' most common questions

Dead batteries? Dead pixels? Loading times? We take your questions on Sony's new handheld game system.


TOKYO--With Sony's new PlayStation Portable officially on shelves, excitement about the system is at an all-time high. With that excitement comes a whole lot of questions. There has never been a handheld platform quite like the PSP, so naturally, there has been a fair amount of confusion about what the system can and can't do. Here, we've attempted to pull some of the most common questions from our message boards to give you a little more insight into what we've noticed about the system so far. Let's start with the most frequently asked question: battery life.

Q: How long does the PSP's battery last?

A: The short answer is that it depends on what you're doing. The longer answer is that Sony has stated that the battery should last around six hours. With simpler-looking games, like Lumines or Mahjong Fight Club, that definitely seems to be the case. But with more graphically intensive games, like Ridge Racers, the battery doesn't last quite as long. Based on our estimates and a few battery-draining tests, Ridge Racers seems to last somewhere between 90 minutes and three hours. Playing with the wireless networking switch flipped on will also further reduce your battery life. The system has an auto-sleep function that stops the wireless drain, but that switch is there for a reason. Turn it off when you're not using it.

Video and audio will likely drain the battery differently, depending on where the content is coming from. It's less power-intensive to read from the memory stick slot than the universal media disc drive, though without any audio discs and only one demo video disc full of short games and movie trailers available now, it's difficult to actually put a number on this. Considering that the screen will black out if left unattended, it seems reasonable that you should get a good amount of battery power out of the system when listening to audio.

Q: How is the system's USB port used?

A: The PSP's USB port is simply used to access the memory stick from a PC. There's a menu option on the unit labeled "USB Connection," and selecting this puts it into connection mode. Hooking it up to a PC causes the system to be recongnized as a PSP, and the memory stick becomes a drive letter, just like it would with a digital camera or other removable memory device. From here, you can drag and drop files on or off the stick, letting you add audio clips, back up (or easily transfer) your game saves, and so on. Getting your own video running on the PSP, however, is a little more difficult.

Q: How do you get the PSP to recognize video files?

A: While formatting a memory stick in the PSP creates folders for audio files, game saves, and actual games themselves, there's no clear path for placing video on the unit. The system supports a specific flavor of mpeg-4 for its video, so you'll need something capable of encoding or transcoding to that format. Sony is supposed to release a downloadable version of its video transcoding software, Image Converter 2, to handle this, but as of yet, we haven't been able to find it. A third party has developed a freely available program called 3GP Converter that will also manage this process. But getting the files into the proper MP4 format is just the beginning.

The PSP reads video files using a directory structure that isn't put on the stick when you initially format it for PSP use. So you'll need to create a root directory called "mp_root" first, then place another directory named "100mnv01" under it. You put your MP4s inside that directory, but they must be named a certain way for the PSP to recognize them. The naming convention is m4vXXXXX.mp4, where "XXXXX" is a series of numbers, such as, say, 00001. Once you've jumped through these hoops--and it's really only a hassle the first time you do it--you'll be watching your own videos on a PSP. Why is it like that, you might ask? We're guessing that it's the same file structure that Sony's video recording memory stick devices use.

Q: Does the PSP heat up when you use it for long periods of time?

A: No, not really. Initial reports out of the Tokyo Game Show stated that the left side of the system seemed to heat up after short periods of time, but the units on display there weren't the final hardware.

Q: Are there long loading times in every game?

A: After years of cartridge-based handhelds, it's a little difficult to accept the concept of loading times on a portable game system. Yes, PSP games need to load, just like any other disc-based system would. Those load times vary. Lumines loads up new graphics and music when you change stages, and during this load, all of the game's audio--all of which is tied to the music--stops. Ridge Racers loads for about 15 seconds up front, and from there, getting into or out of a race takes another 10 to 15 seconds. Vampire Chronicle seems to be the worst offender so far, as it has 15- to 20-second load times when you get into or out of a match. In the game's tower mode, where you only fight for one round, this becomes pretty noticeable. But for the most part, the loading times aren't that prominent. When you put a number on them, it sounds worse than it actually is. Ridge Racers doesn't feel like it takes forever to load. Vampire Chronicle can be a little frustrating, but that's about it.

Q: Does the screen smudge easily?

A: Yes. Don't play PSP games and eat french fries at the same time. It's only noticeable when you catch a bit of glare from the system's usually shiny face, but, yeah, the front of the system picks up fingerprints rather easily. The slip case that comes with the PSP value pack (and is also sold separately) seems to clean off the face of the system just fine.

Q: Will the screen scratch easily?

A: We haven't exactly gone out of our way to test this out, but the screen feels pretty thick, like it might resist a scratch or two. We recommend keeping it in some kind of case. The slip case that Sony is selling seems like it'll be perfect for keeping the screen safe from keys or other sharp items in your pocket, but it might also be worth investing in a larger, more shockproof case for the system, as well as some clear film to go over the screen, which will add another layer of protection.

Q: Are dead pixels a problem with the PSP screen?

A: We've seen several PSPs since the system's Japanese release, and one system in that batch has a few dead pixels on the screen. Just as they are with any other screen, dead pixels are a real bummer. The short supply currently available in Japan means that people getting screens with dead pixels might not be able to exchange their PSPs right away. We've heard a few anecdotal reports about how widespread the PSP dead pixel problem is, and it seems like the exception rather than the norm.

Q: What's the deal with the PSP's control disc? Is it analog or not?

A: We've heard reports from the development side of things that the control disc on the PSP isn't a "true" analog device. After playing a few games that use it, it's difficult to tell the difference. The disc definitely allows for more than eight directions of motion, and works fine for, say, making slight turns in Ridge Racers. That said, the disc seems to have a fairly large dead zone, and it's difficult to get very slight movements out of it. But above all, it seems to work well for driving games at least, and it shouldn't be a problem, regardless of how, exactly, it works under the hood.

Q: Will the PSP be a region-free device?

A: Reports from Sony claim that games, at least, will be region-free. So in theory, you could buy a Japanese PSP and play US releases on it. Video (and probably audio) discs, however, will be region-locked. The trouble with region encoding is that you never really know how it's going to work out until the system is out in at least two territories. Reports so far give it the green light, but we can't be 100 percent sure until we see US games running on a Japanese PSP for ourselves.

Q: When will the PSP be out in my neck of the woods? How much will it cost?

A: Sony hasn't announced specifics for any region other than Japan at this time. The PSP is expected to hit North America sometime during the first quarter of the year, and signs seem to be pointing to March. Prices for hardware and software have not been announced, but it's expected that Sony will announce details about the North American launch plans in early January.

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