Has there been a handheld with a more ominous prologue than the PSPgo? It’s difficult to think of one.

From retailers refusing to stock it to consumers being rushed to hospital at the mention of its price, the perception that the odds are stacked very much against Sony’s latest version of the PlayStation Portable is hard to shake.

Spend some time with it, though, and it’s difficult not to succumb to most of its charms. Significantly smaller than the ‘standard’ model and undeniably more attractive – no small feat – the PSPgo is also more ergonomic. Aside from sitting better in the hands, the placement of the controls feels more natural – the analogue nub, for instance, is now more in line with where you would find its equivalent on a home console controller.

It’s a considerable improvement but other logical re-positioning is evident in the brightness and volume controls, now found along the top edge of the device between the L and R triggers (and accessed without the need to stop controlling the game), while the Start and Select options are intuitively accessed with the right thumb given their closer proximity to the face ‘play’ buttons.

Those buttons, along with the D-pad, offer considerably less travel than on previous PSP models. Whether or not this is good news becomes a personal matter – I prefer the new D-pad, for example, and am delighted to report the triggers have lost the disconcertingly loose feel of their predecessors but have yet to be convinced by the main face buttons, the feedback of which to me is mostly insubstantial. At least the analogue nub is enhanced, with increased resistance and – seemingly – accuracy. Part of this could be due to the new layout, of course (I’ll need to play a wider variety of games to be certain). Update: there is indeed a greater degree of accuracy in the PSPgo's analogue nub.

If the main functions are largely well implemented, the same cannot be said for some the peripheral elements. The plastic WLAN and power switches feel fragile and disappointingly cheap (although the design of the PSPgo does at least prevent accidental shutdown of the unit during frantic play, as could happen with the previous models), while the Memory Stick Micro flap is awful and seems remarkably eager to break itself free.

Diverting your attention from these weaknesses is the screen. Granted, it’s slightly smaller than the standard PSP but in practice it’s simply not something you notice. What you do pick up on is the quality of the image, which features resolution and a level of brightness on par with that of the PSP-3000 display, but is superior in other areas (there’s been no evidence of ghosting yet, for instance).

And backing up the visuals are the speakers. Naturally tinny due to the dimensions of the unit, they nevertheless refuse to distort even when turned up to 11. The bass and an impressive amount of aural detail return the moment you plug headphones into the 3.5mm jack input, but that’s hardly surprising – previous PSP models have normally been more than adequate when it comes to recreating large, convincing soundstages.

Previous PSPs, at least in Piano Black guise, have also suffered from a frustrating keenness to expose fingerprints and the glossy, polished surface on the front and rear casing of the PSPgo do nothing to discourage that trend. At least the ‘inner’ control panel adopts a matt finish, thereby severely reducing the unsightly effect.

Of course, the biggest, bravest move of the PSPgo is to do away with the UMD drive. Aside from no longer having to listen to what sounded (and felt) like an electronic rodent trying to claw its way out of the back of the PSP, the absence of disc-based media should in theory improve the battery life.

I’ve yet to conduct a scientific test but while trying out a couple of games and fooling around with the various functions (brightness, sound, WLAN, the new inclusion of Bluetooth and the very useful Pause Game facility, which allows you to stop and rejoin mid-game at any point) the time between recharges has been noticeably greater than with the accompanying Slim & Lite I used as rough comparison. (Sony quotes three to six hours for the PSPgo, depending on settings – I’d estimate I got somewhere in the region of four to five, which by PSP standards isn’t bad.)

Being disc-free also gives the system a very different, genuinely liberated feel, although the inability to transfer your existing UMD game collection (and the understandable resistance to having to purchase their digital versions) does shorten the honeymoon period.

The availability of Minis may alter that in the near-immediate term as users quickly populate some of their 16GB of storage with cheap and (hopefully) cheerful content, before venturing into the more substantial offerings of digital download versions of UMD releases (assuming Sony prices these correctly), but otherwise the thoughts turn to the system’s shortcomings all too quickly.

Those already highlighted, along with the general clumsiness of the bundled Media Go management software (not to mention its lack of Mac support, although you can also obviously download content straight to PSPgo or via a PlayStation 3), or the potential issue of a non-removable battery (à la iPod, to be fair) are not insurmountable – you could grow to live with them.

What is incontestable is that the price of the unit is way too high.

At £225/€250/$250, regardless of Sony’s argument that it is targeting non-PSP owners first and foremost, it’s impossible to recommend PSPgo without reservations. Not least because regardless of how impressive the handheld looks, too many factors ensure it simply doesn’t feel like a product that belongs in that price range.

Added to this are genuine concerns about whether the content will be there to fully support it. And at the right price. We live in hope because we would genuinely like to see the format succeed but until those elements are in place – and following a significant hardware cost cut – the road ahead doesn’t look a lot brighter than it’s been up to now.

Tempted? Not sure? Check out our handy Should you buy a PSPgo? guide. Alternatively, have a read through the Pocket Gamer PSPgo coverage round-up.