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We got our dirty mitts on a PlayStation Portable! Read on for a nice long review with plenty of pics:


Introduction

Ever since the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) was announced at E3 in May 2004, we have been eagerly anticipating the hottest console launch (sorry Nintendo DS) this year, even if it is only for the Japanese market right now. We were fortunate enough to get a unit to test a mere five days after the Japanese release date and have been playing with it all weekend. The Sony PSP features a large 4.3-inch 16:9 widescreen LCD TFT screen with a 480x272 resolution, button layout similar to the PlayStation with a digital control pad, an analog stick, circle, square, triangle, x, and 2 shoulder buttons, USB 2.0 connectivity (via mini-USB), a Memory Stick Duo media slot, and 802.11b WiFi support. It uses Sony's proprietary Universal Media Disc, which stores up to 1.8GB in a format reminiscent of MiniDiscs. The Japanese launch release date was December 12th and the first shipment of PSPs quickly sold out. 

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The Box

We got the Standard edition PSP, which comes with the PSP itself, a battery, an AC adapter, and a manual, along with Ridge Racers and Minna No Golf Portable. (The Value Pack adds a 32MB Memory Stick Duo, a soft carrying case, and headphones with an in-line remote.) The box does not come with a sticker seal of any sort, which we weren't quite used to considering anything and everything comes with some sort of factory seal here in the US.

When we shook the product box, we could hear some rattling around. We weren't too thrilled about that, since the unit did come a long ways from Japan. Luckily, when we opened the package, the PSP fits snugly into the surrounding cardboard, the rattling we heard was mostly likely the power adapter cables. We noticed a lack of any type of demo disc included with the unit. Some PSP Value Packs apparently do come with a UMD Demo Disc, but we've also heard from a few people that got Value Packs without any demo discs inside as well.

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The Unit Itself

When you first lay your hands on the PSP, you immediately notice the screen. The 4.3-inch display dominates the device, it looks like it takes up two-thirds of the real estate on the front fascia. In other words, massive. The unit feels expensive, and exudes sexiness, much like Apple's iPods (and you know how big of a fan we are of iPods). The unit feels perfectly balanced when held with both hands. It does not feel like a $200 console (Japan MSRP for console only) at all. We're sure Sony is losing a few hundred bucks off each unit sold as the PSP easily feels like it's worth $400 of gadgetry (when compared to portable video and audio players and the DS). We feel Sony could have gotten away with a $300 sticker price, but in an effort to destroy Nintendo's firm grasp of the handheld gaming market, they've set the price just $50 more than the Nintendo DS (which was released in both Japan and US markets just last month). It feels like an extreme bargain for two bills. The screen is immersive, drawing you in when playing videos or games and so big that you may not need your glasses to play. The black color fits well and matches the Playstation 2's color. The dimples across the top row of the screen reminded us of carbon fiber, currently the rage in import tuner cars.

When you pay for a new console, you expect it to be perfect. Alas, ours was not. We noticed two lit pixels (always-on pixels), one in the middle of the screen, about one-fourth of the way down, and one near the very right edge of the screen. So out of 130,560 pixels on the LCD screen, we got two defective ones. It's actually not too noticeable unless you look for it and we didn't notice until we played with the PSP in pitch black darkness. We could make a big fuss, but we'll just deal with it, and hope that Sony will be as honorable as Nintendo when fixing units with dead pixels for their customers.

Another complaint of the PSP so far has been the ejecting UMD problem in which the user in the video appears to flex the PSP quite a bit to get it to eject spontaneously. We're happy to report that we didn't have such problems with any self-ejecting discs and that our PSP is built rather solidly, though we didn't dare to twist the unit as hard as we could. We initially had some light squeaking noises when we pressed right on the directional pad, but after a weekend of use, the annoying sound has disappeared.

The PSP, with battery, Memory Stick Pro Duo, and UMD inserted, weighs 10.3 ounces, making it fine to put in a jacket pocket (with case or cover of course), but not exactly friendly in a pants pocket with its long form factor. We've heard of some Japanese folks wearing the PSP like a necklace (there is a strap handle at the bottom left section of the PSP), but as cool as that may make them look, we didn't think our necks could take the strain.

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Unfortunately, with the fine glossy screen comes the problem of fingerprints and smudges. While we didn't use latex gloves while handling the unit, we were very careful to try and handle it with the utmost of care. That said, there were smudges around the control buttons within seconds. It's pretty much unavoidable to smudge the smooth front cover, so we recommend a very soft cloth to wipe off smudges and smears, but make sure the cloth doesn't scratch up the LCD. The back of the unit is textured plastic and does not smudge. Within an hour of playing some games on the PSP and constantly wiping off smudges, there were some light scratches on the screen. We're hoping that Sony will sell replacement PSP faceplates at a reasonable price.

The front of the PSP unit has the directional pad on the left side, and the analog thumb stick (looks like speaker mesh) below that. The analog thumb stick is quite a burden to use since it's so far down, as there is no thumb support from the unit when you use it. It was fine to play Ridge Racers with it, but after 15 minutes, we felt as if we were getting thumbitis with a sore thumb joint. To the right of the LCD is the standard circle, square, triangle, and x buttons any Playstation junkie has become accustomed to. The left and right trigger buttons are at the top of the unit and are clear, looking a bit like jewelry. All buttons on our review unit were easy to press and click fast if necessary.

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The bottom edge of the PSP is raised ever so slightly, with buttons for Home, lowering and raising the volume, brightness, sound settings for various music genres, and Select and Start buttons. While Home, Select, and Start are quite easy to press since the size of the buttons are a good size, the volume and brightness and music buttons take quite a bit of effort to depress as the buttons are half the size of the other ones and further away if you use your thumbs to depress. Since you may use the volume buttons quite a bit, it's a bit of a pain and there seems to be enough room on the left bottom side to put in larger buttons for volume. But at least the volume buttons are not essential for quick pressing during gaming. For brightness, there are three settings, from Dim to Bright to Brightest (our wording), we found Bright to be the adequate enough. Since there's still not much sun in Seattle this time of year, we were unable to test the PSP in direct sunlight.

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The left side of the unit has the WiFi switch, a quick flip up and the WiFi mode is set to on.

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At the top edge is an infrared transmitter, a mini-USB connector and the Eject button for loading UMDs. Sony is planning an infrared remote controller for the PSP, and it looks like any future PSP add-ons will be plugged in up top, as there's two locking holes on each side of the mini-USB port.

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The combined power and hold switch is on the lower right side, you can push the switch down for hold, and pushing the slider up turns it on. The button always returns to the middle after pushing it up, which we found a bit annoying. A simple On/Off/Hold switch would have been easier to handle. When you power it on, the PSP returns you to where you left off (like returning from a hibernation state in Windows XP, but without any delays at all). When you toggle hold during a game, the PSP buttons become disabled, and the game just continues. Hold is probably most useful when playing a video or a music album and you don't want any accidental button presses to interfere.

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The bottom right is where the AC adapter plug goes in, which we find is quite an odd placement for it. When gaming with the power line plugged in, your right hand will feel the cord and plug. While it doesn't interfere per se, it would have been much neater if the power port was placed on the top edge of the unit. Not a huge knock, just a slight inconvenience. The left side is where the headphones plug in. When used, the headphone plug doesn't interfere with our movement as much as the AC adapter one because the headphones plug is on the bottom half of the PSP. Also at the bottom edge a sticker in a recessed area, with the product number and serial number in the middle. We don't we see it lasting after a few months of hardcore use nor do we see the point of this sticker, as there is actually an etched serial number in the battery compartment.

USB Connectivity

In USB Mode, if you have a Memory Stick Duo or Pro Duo inserted, you can connect a mini-USB cable to the top of the PSP, and it acts like a USB drive, allowing you to access any folders or content on the Memory Stick. Windows XP immediately recognized the device as a Removable Disk after we plugged in the cable. File transfers both ways were incredibly fast thanks to the USB 2.0 support.

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Universal Media Discs

The Sony PSP uses a proprietary 1.8GB Universal Media Disc (UMD) format, in part an effort to thwart piracy and so they can control what gets released for their system. They are much like MiniDiscs (the actual disc just slightly smaller), but with one serious drawback, a gaping hole in the back of the plastic case (no doubt for the PSP to read in data). While we know some of you are very meticulous and careful when handling your disc-based media, we also know quite a few people that have scratched up DVDs and games. We just don't get why Sony didn't put a metal faceplate over the hole like they do for MiniDiscs.

UMD games are packaged in a plastic section which the UMD fits snugly into. But there is no small plastic case for UMDs (ala Gameboy carts) and one can not reasonably be expected to carry around the full game box when transporting extra games with the system. We're sure third party UMD plastic cases will be out soon enough, but for now, you'll have to resort to carrying the whole game box, as we don't recommend just putting a UMD in your pocket to carry around.

The UMD drive makes a whirring noise at times when loading games or levels (but not while actually playing). It's not too obnoxious and sort of sounds like a hard drive spinning up, but you do hear it. After living with solid state handheld games (cartridges), we had to get used to load times again. The original Playstation 1 had horrid load times for some games, but it did improve over time as programmers got to know the system. We hope the same will be true for the PSP as it took 19 seconds after selecting UMD to get to the Namco logo on Ridge Racers. During the game, it took 10 seconds to load the course after selecting all the options. For Minna No Golf, it took 25 seconds to get to the intro screen and 16 seconds to start playing from the menu. It's tolerable but an aspect that could use some improvement.


Targeting the Adult Market

While kids will surely be begging their parents for the PSP (my 4 year-old nephew asked his father for one immediately after seeing it), Sony is targeting a more mature audience. We don't see younger kids handling the UMDs with the open area well and we can just picture screen scratches within a day after little Jimmy has their hands on one. As a friend pointed out, this system is perfect for the Japanese audience, a country where they are known for cleanliness, neatness, and taking care of their electronics well. That, sadly, can not be said for the American audience (in general), we are just more rough with our gear. It will be interesting to see if Sony changes the PSP at all for the American audience and we're thinking the USA warranty should be at least a year.  This may be one of those times where you will actually want to purchase the extended warranty program.

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First Bootup

At first bootup we were greeted with the option to choose between Japanese and English. Next you can give your PSP a nickname (for network play) via cellphone type text entry (press 2 three times for the letter C, etc). Seeing how the PSP has plenty of room for a keyboard layout on the screen, we would have much preferred that. The Japanese are used to the phone keypad text entry system, so I'm sure it's not a big deal to them, but for the US release, we hope they change it. Another annoying interface aspect was when we entered our IP address for the PSP. We had to scroll up and down through 256 numbers (0 to 255), rather than manually entering numerals. It's not very fun to scroll for 16 sets of numbers.

After setting it to English the menus are pretty self-explanatory, the main options are Settings, Photo, Music, Video, and Game. Some of the options may not be available if you don't have a Memory Stick Pro Duo inserted.


Japanese Differences

As was the case with the Japanese versions of the PlayStation 1 and 2, the button you choose to select with is the Circle button not the X button (like in the US versions). The X button thus becomes the back or cancel option. When you're used to using X to select everything, there will be times you forget and accidentally hit the wrong button. The manual is in Japanese, not that we needed it at all for anything. Other than those two things, the PSP itself is very English-speaker friendly.


Battery Life

The PSP is powered by a 100-240V (5A) universal power adapter, which means you can use it anywhere in the world practically. There have been reports of a weak two hours of battery life when playing complex 3D games. We fully charged up our PSP battery and popped in Ridge Racers for non-stop gaming. We set the brightness to the middle level and set the volume to 15 button presses from 0 (the max volume is 30). That level of brightness and volume is adequate for the average gamer during gameplay. With no breaks in between, we played non-stop for 3 hours and 35 minutes. We also tried another Ridge Racers test, playing one game, then letting the system run through the replay in an infinite loop. That test also resulted in a similar playtime of 3 hours and 31 minutes.

While not superb, 3.5 hours is acceptable and you can always buy a spare battery (~$45) if you need it. Cheaper third party batteries will show up sooner or later as well. We had really hoped the PSP could be charged via mini-USB, but unfortunately Sony did not include that support. But to be fair, our mini-USB cable was not able to charge our Motorola RAZR V3 cellphone either, though the phone is supposedly capable of doing so. So it may be that we have a bunk USB cable. If anyone has gotten their PSP to charge via USB, let us know. We'd also like to see a cigarette lighter power adapter for long road trips.

After 3.5 hours of nonstop gaming, the unit is just barely warm to the touch. I ejected the UMD and the disc felt just the tiniest bit warm too. So hopefully that's a sign of no overheating problems (which plagued the first-generation Sony Playstations, anyone remember turning it upside down to alleviate the problem?).

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Memory Stick Duo

The Sony is hoping that the PSP will help make the Memory Stick Pro Duo a viable memory card format, especially since the PSP does not take any of the older Memory Stick formats like the Memory Stick Pro. It only takes the tiny Duo flash memory card, which is about 85% of the size of a Secure Digital (SD) card. We believe the highest current available size is 512MB, retailing for $130 at stores (or about $85 shipped on eBay), and we have not seen the 1GB version in stock anywhere. You will need a Memory Stick to save your games or if you want to play MP3s or videos on it. The Ridge Racers save game takes up about 700K and Minna No Golf Portable needs about 769K.

After formatting your Memory Stick Duo or Pro Duo in the PSP, you get a PSP directory, and GAME, MUSIC, PHOTO, SAVEDATA folders within that. The game folder will eventually house downloadable games or demos from the Internet, music is for your MP3s, photo for your JPGs, and save data for your saved games. Video files need to go in a different folder which we will get into later this week.


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Photos

For photo viewing, GIF, BMP, and PNG files aren't supported by the PSP, but standard JPG ones are. When you have a full-sized 4 or 5 megapixel JPG file, the PSP takes a bit of time for it to load, about 3 seconds for a 1.8MB JPG file. It automatically crops the photo (most photos are in the 4:3 format), leaving white space on the sides of the picture when it is displayed (see above).

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For photos that you have cropped or Photoshopped to the PSP's native 480x272 resolution (say hi to my Yorkshire terrier, Yoda), the picture loads immediately and looks sharp with excellent detail. You can get file information (filename and file date), do a slideshow, or zoom in to certain parts of the picture. The photo gallery works much like Windows Explorer, showing a thumbnail of the picture, the filename, and date. You can also create folders within the \PSP\Photo directory in Windows Explorer to organize your photos. In the Photo section, when you press the Triangle button, you can delete folders or pictures, or get more information about a picture, including its full resolution and which camera took the shot by accessing the EXIF information within the JPG file itself.


Playing Music

The biggest knock on Sony in the past has been their insistence of using the ATRAC format, forcing you to convert your beloved MP3s to their proprietary format before their players could play it. They have finally listened to their users and done away with ATRAC only with native MP3 support in the PSP. Just drop files into your PSP/Music folder and your PSP can play them directly. The speakers are at the bottom of the unit, and the two little holes on the bottom produce good sound. We played a variety of MP3s just fine, including some variable bit rate ones, but we're sorry to report that we didn't have any ATRAC files to test out.

Playing Videos

Videos look amazing on the widescreen. The picture is sharp and detailed, and colors are vibrant. While it's fine to hold the PSP in your hands when playing games or watching short clips, it gets a bit tiresome if you're watching something an hour or more in length (rest assured that Sony will be putting out a stand for the PSP).

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WiFi Setup

Setting up the 802.11b WiFi is easy. Just name your connection (Home, Work, etc), put in the SSID access point name, a WEP key if any, and then setup IP and DNS addresses (or choose automatic if using DHCP). There's a network test when you are done, telling you your current signal strength and whether your Internet connection succeeded or not. Taking a page from Microsoft, you can also update the PSP OS via a Network Update. Our tech geekiness led us to try to update the system (it's less than a week old) before even playing games. Our system already had the latest version, as there were no updates from Sony.


The PSP in Public

Not that we expected anyone to,  but no one noticed when we whipped out the PSP to wait in line at the post office (for a lousy 30 minutes!) to mail a package. But we were surprised when we started playing while standing in line at Best Buy (to get a Sandisk 512MB Memory Stick Pro Duo for a whopping $130) and got no attention, either (though we were only in line for about 10 minutes). The checkout droids didn't say anything either.

But when we took the PSP to the mall for a little tour (just outside a game shop), it was a different story. Within a few minutes a bunch of kids who looked to be aged 10 to 12 were asking questions about it, mainly where we got ours from and how much. (Kids these days must be on a different allowance scale than when we were kids, because when we said it would be just $200 come March or so, they were all over it and said they were sure that they'd get one.) Within 10 minutes we had gathered a small crowd of ten, all drooling over the gorgeous screen. With the Nintendo DS anyone looking over your shoulder may have a hard time to see what's going on, while the PSP is also a watch-while-I-play kind of system, and the people that were looking over our shoulders at the mall didn't have any problem seeing what was going on. We didn't stay too long, fearing a mob scene as people started calling their friends over.

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PlayStation Portable vs. the Nintendo DS

We love the Nintendo DS, but it is bulky and feels and looks like a child's toy from the 1980s compared to the PSP, which is definitely one well-designed, slick little handheld. The DS weighs exactly 10 ounces with the thumb strap, battery, and DS game inserted (10.4 ounces if you add in a GBA cart), just slightly less than the PSP's 10.3 ounces. But two 3-inch screens does not beat one 4.3-inch one, at least not in this case.

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The DS has a touchscreen on the lower LCD, which makes for more interactivity than the PSP, and the PSP would make for a great PDA if it had touchscreen functionality. While Nintendo is planning to add music and video to the DS for $50, the PSP has both features already, and video just won't be the same on a 3-inch DS screen, especially when compared to the PSP's 4.3-inch one. When we consider that the primary purpose of the PSP is to play games, the graphics of the PSP just blow away the Nintendo offering. The two powerful 32-bit MIPS R4000 CPUs overwhelms the Nintendo DS ARM7 and ARM9 processors. One direct comparison would be Ridge Racer DS vs Ridge Racers for the PSP, both created by Namco. The DS version has some chunky pixelated graphics (see above picture courtesy of GameSpot) and the lower touchscreen looks rather useless in terms of gameplay usage. The PSP's Ridge Racers is Playstation 2-like, with smoother graphics and more detail in the cars. The one redeeming factor of Ridge Racer DS is that only one copy of the game is needed for up to 6-player wireless multiplayer action.

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PlayStation Portable vs. Creative's Zen Portable Media Center

The Creative Zen Portable Media Center (PMC) is a portable media player with a 3.8-inch 4:3 screen and a 20GB hard drive, but beyond the hard drive (and perhaps 7 hour video battery life and TV output), it does not compare too favorably with the PSP. Since we do not yet have the Sony Image Converter software, it is easier to transcode video files to the PMC. But the PMC is a lot thicker and uses the 4:3 screen format, which in the current age of HDTV is going the way of the dodo bird. Interestingly enough the Sony PSP AC adapter can actually charge the PMC as well since the plug fits and both units use the same voltage power. Watching standard 4:3 size videos is okay on the PMC, but when you go to 16:9 format shows or movies, you definitely notice the annoying black bars on the PMC. In direct video comparisons, the PMC picture looks washed out (as you can tell in the pictures) and much grainier. I'm not sure why the 4:3 video on the PSP wasn't bigger, but it's still more clear and detailed. In the 16:9 Shark Tale trailer, I have no idea why the PMC didn't set the video to 16:9 format, as the original source was widescreen, but again, the PSP handily wins that comparo as well. 

The PMC has only one speaker (at the bottom right corner of the screen) for mono sound, whereas the PSP has two little speakers for stereo sound. The PMC has slightly better sound (even with only one speaker) and has a higher maximum volume, but when using a pair of Shure E3C earbuds to listen to some MP3s, we found audio fidelity to be great in both devices, with no noticeable quality difference.


PlayStation Portable vs. Apple's iPod photo

Apple's iPod photo handily beats the PSP in terms of the MP3 interface, ease of use, playlist creation, and storage space. We didn't have an standard iPod or iPod photo to do direct comparisons with, but we did do a listening test with an iPod mini. Again using Shure E3C earbuds, we found no discernable difference in audio quality between the PSP and the iPod mini, as both were equally superb with a variable bit rate MP3. When viewing JPGs, the 2-inch iPod Photo screen size just doesn't bode well for viewing pictures, plus you need to use iTunes to convert any JPGs into a format the iPod Photo can read. The PSP can directly read any JPG file (and fits the JPG onto the screen) and the pictures look gorgeous on the 4.3-inch screen, but the only downside of the PSP is that you can not listen to an MP3 file while browsing photos and it doesn't output the picture to a TV.

Is the PSP an iPod (or iPod Photo) killer? No, but could it be an iPod video killer (when and if that finally comes out)? Perhaps, but only if Memory Stick prices go down in price and storage sizes go way up. Or if Sony opens up the UMD format (we can hope, can't we?) and lets people write to their own 1.8GB UMD discs. We're not sure what Apple has in store in terms of a video iPod player, but obviously they'd have to make the screen at least somewhat comparable to the one on the PSP and loads better than the iPod Photo's 2-inch screen.


Games

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Ridge Racers is definitely a hit, and we've yet to hear anyone buy the PSP without buying RR too. Just like the original Ridge Racer was a success when the Sony PlayStation came out, Ridge Racers is a system seller. The intro CG looks amazing, and when you play the game, you get a sense of speed, which you need in a racing title. There were no graphic pop-ups, but you can notice jagged edges (jaggies) if you look close enough, namely the edge of the course (the bottom of the side walls) as you are driving. It may be a little distracting to some, but we aren't that critical to count it as a major flaw. The game itself has some intentional motion blur (we hope intentional at least) when you see the computer controlled cars turning in corners, their brake lights will blur a bit on the screen. There is some Japanese language in Ridge Racers, but overall, there's plenty of English and one can navigate through it reasonably well without knowledge of Japanese. We had to tear the PSP unit away from our test group of gamers to even try our other game.

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Minna No Golf Portable (Everybody's Golf, or Hot Shots Golf in the US) is a good golf title. The graphics are solid, but it is golf, and we didn't experience anything spectacular from this one. We do find it weird that our character runs at hyperspeed immediately after striking the ball, and waits at the spot for the next swing, even as the ball is rolling to that point. You can put topspin or underspin on the ball, and you can also hook and slice the ball around trees. It uses the familiar old three click method for the golf swing, click once to start your swing, once to set the power, and once for accuracy. It's the same method that's been used since Links for PC has been around. The menus are heavily in Japanese, and while we were able to start a game by pressing the Circle button a few times, we had no idea what we chose. There may be guides or FAQs at GameFAQs by the time you read this.

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Conclusion

The Sony PSP is a great handheld gaming console, one that could prove to be as revolutionary as the original Nintendo Gameboy was, not only because it's basically a handheld PlayStation 2 with powerful graphics, but because of all the other value-added features it comes with, namely the photo viewer, the audio player, and video player. The most amazing thing, hands-down about the PSP is the large 4.3-inch widescreen LCD, which is simply amazing to see in person, and at two hundred bucks retail, it's definitely a good value. There is no handheld gaming competitor that comes close to it right now in terms of gaming power, and if weren't for the low storage capacity and high price of the Memory Stick Pro Duo, it might even hold its own as a portable audio and video player. The photo viewer is superb and sharp and the sound quality of the audio player is at least on par with the iPod mini. The videos when played back from Memory Sticks are superb, there's no doubt that movies on UMD will look just as great on the widescreen.

Now maybe the time to put in your pre-orders for the February or March 2005 US PSP launch, that is if you can resist importing a system (around $500+ right now, check our PSP price watch). We really hope Sony holds to their word of no region coding on PSP games (we don't mind so much if UMD movies are region encoded), because we'd rather not have to rip apart our PSP to install a region-free modchip (which will surely come if there is region coding for games). You will pay a bit of a premium for a PSP now, unless you know someone in Japan that can get you one. The question of worth is of course dependant on what your income level is and how much you value having the latest system.

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Dead or lit pixels will continue to be an issue for any PSP buyer (as it is for any sort of LCD screen) and it's the only main gripe of our system. We're more forgiving than most for the slow load times, as it is the first generation of software, so this should get better over time. The battery life isn't amazing, so another battery is a necessity if you plan on playing the PSP more than four hours a day away from an AC outlet, and we do wish that it could be charged via USB. Other issues: it'd be nice if Sony made text input in the menus a little easier, and we would have loved to have found an Internet browser within the OS, seeing how easy the WiFi was to setup and get working. Greater Memory Stick Pro Duo storage sizes at more affordable rates should come as the system matures, as the PSP would an amazing powerhouse with a cheap 4GB of storage.

A special thanks goes out to Siu-Wai Ho of Kicks Hobby in Seattle, WA for providing the Sony Playstation Portable unit to us a mere 5 days after it's Japanese release. Thanks!

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Dan Wu's personal reviews and commentaries can be read on his personal site, http://www.wooba.com.

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Sony PlayStation Portable/PSP hands-on review