Sony PSP
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PSP

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which McDonald's wouldn't need to go up against Burger King, or Disney against DreamWorks. A world where Professor Charles Xavier and his X-Men could relax without having to worry about what Magneto might be up to next. An alternate reality where Nintendo and its Game Boys – the GBA and DS – would still rule the handheld gaming market unopposed.

Thankfully, fine as those machines are, we live in a world rife with worthy rivals. And in the case of the DS (and the ageing GBA), that adversary is the PSP.

Released in the UK on September 1st, 2005, Sony's sleek machine arrived proclaiming itself an all-in-one portable multimedia solution. It certainly aims higher than traditional such gaming devices by being able to handle music and pictures, playing back video, and connecting to the Internet via wi-fi, but as far as we're concerned the focus remains entirely on the PSP's videogaming abilities.

Out of the box, the PSP looks as desirable as a piece of electronic consumer product can, its elegant, economical design and neat button arrangement framing a huge high resolution LCD screen, which when switched off is as black and as shiny as its surroundings. The buttons – with the exception of the disappointingly loose L/R shoulder counterparts – are firmly set and, combined with the unit's suitable weight, make the PSP feel like a reassuringly expensive piece of kit. Only the cheap plastic used for its back betrays this impression, but this is quickly overlooked once you switch it on and the soon-familiar start-up chime welcomes you to a classy set of clear and user-friendly menus.

In play, you'll still be marveling at the magnificence of the screen (the size of which – the biggest for a handheld unit – creates the illusion of an even larger surface when held just 50cm from your eyes) long after you have got used to the controls. Though seemingly more flimsy than their brethren, the L/R shoulder buttons actually perform flawlessly, as do the other face buttons. Only the lack of pressure sensitivity and the absence of a dual analogue stick set-up (two features now found on most current console joypads) disappoints. They're by no means crucial omissions – just additional methods of interaction that would have proved of great benefit in some games.

One element that is vital, however, is the performance of the sole analogue stick on offer, and while the directional pad will find few critics, its analogue alternative is likely to encounter many. For our part, we found its travel inadequately short and its position on the PSP too low, leading to cramps and discomfort after prolonged play. The design constraints of the machine have obviously played a part in this, but it is nevertheless disappointing to find such a chink in an otherwise very robust armour.

Much more pleasing is the screen's brightness, which can be adjusted to three settings (four if you have it plugged into the mains) in order to deal with the majority of situations you should find yourself interacting with your PSP in. Matching the brilliant image is excellent stereo sound reproduction, the finer qualities of which are best sampled using headphones.

So much for the PSP's exterior, but what kind of power lurks inside? If you believe everything Sony's marketing department says, you might anticipate the PSP's technical performance to rival that of the PlayStation 2. And if you are, then you'll be disappointed. PSP games can boast excellent graphics, true, but a side-by-side comparison with their PS2 equivalent will usually put things into perspective. With time, as developers get used to the hardware, you can expect to see improvement in the PSP's graphical abilities, which even now are the most advanced currently available on a handheld, certainly when it comes to 3D visuals.

A more pressing issue, though, is that of battery life. Sony states an estimated four to six hours of gameplay per charge, depending on the title's technical intensity and other conditions (for instance, headphones on, a particular brightness setting, and wireless functions off). In practice, we've found this to be a little optimistic; the PSP's battery certainly isn't geared up for marathon gaming sessions.

Then again, there's been something of a slow start for PSP software (the release rate is expected to pick up in 2006) so you could spend your battery life exploring some of the PSP's extracurricular functionality that also relates to gaming. For example, wireless Internet access enables you to download additional game content as well as engage in online play or, should you prefer something more confined, create a wireless LAN (local area network) for up to 16 PSPs. The majority of games support the latter feature (though the exact number of players supported differs depending on the game) and, even better, there's usually an (albeit sometimes limited) option where players can join in without owning a copy of the game – an excellent touch.

And excellent is how we'd like to categorise the PSP when it comes to its gaming prowess. In reality, it's still too early to be throwing that kind of superlative around. Sure, the games are bound to come, the technical issues should get resolved – heck, we may even grow to love the analogue stick – and no one can doubt how appealing the package becomes once you consider the multimedia 'extras'. The potential is certainly there, then, and we look forward to seeing it fully realised.

Update October 2008: Sony has upgraded the PSP to the PSP 3000. PSP is on sale now.

Sony PSP

With a dodgy analogue control option and must-do-better battery life balanced by a beautiful screen, the PSP will not disappoint as a gaming platform – and it will only improve with age
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