Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

PSP Media Manager

The XBox 360 is a great networked media client for Windows XP regardless of whether its host is running Media Center software, but it is surprisingly poor at handling such media on its own. The 360's hard drive can not be used for storing content other than the same ripped CDs the original XBox allowed, and Microsoft's "integration" with iPods and PSPs is limited to playing content from these devices.

This represents a partial retreat from the last media-savvy game device launched from a major manufacturer. Perhaps because the PSP is less likely to be connected to a fast and reliable network and because Sony has a vested interest in Memory Stock Duo purchases, the PlayStation purveyors have so far favored local storage to network streaming for the PSP (although the latest firmware does enable it to stream video across a network using Sony's Location-Free TV system).

Sony took another step toward bolstering the PSP's media features recently with the release of its PSP Media Manager. Available for just under $20 online or $30 in a box (which also includes a USB cable and five free songs from the Connect music service), the offering attempts to bring Sony closer to the tight integration of hardware and software that Apple has benefited from with the iPod and iTunes. Sony's decision to charge for the software seems short-sighted compared to Apple's approach with iTunes. Unlike iTunes, which is a useful music jukebox even to those without iPods, PSP Media Manager has almost no incremental value to anyone but PSP owners.


In addition to replicating several features that have been available from third-party offerings, such as transferring and transcoding several formats for photos, music and video and backing up saved game files, PSP Media Manager includes a media-focused Web feed reader that enables the downloading of podcasted music, photos and videos. And, for those challenged by other ways to get their CDs into digital form, the software can handle the process itself, although I wonder if it would work with Sony-BMG?s XCP copy-protected CDs that were recently pulled from the market.

Speaking of which, it?s encouraging to see that PSP Media Manager pulls no funny business. While the software will transcode ATRAC, it converts the Sony-developed compression codec and other formats into standard MP3 files at a choice of bitrates (although it doesn?t offer variable bitrate transcoding). In terms of podcasts, the software is a bit ahead of the PSP itself as audio podcasts are dumped into the same folder as other music, instead of a separate menu branch like on the iPod.

PSP Media Manager did not start out endearing itself to me due to a forced registration process that took two attempts to communicate all the ?required? data that I needed to send to Sony. However, from there it soon proved itself to be a welcome improvement from previous maligned media manipulators such as SonicStage and Connect. For example, in contrast to RnSK Softronics? iPSP, which costs the same as Sony?s downloadable program, PSP Media Manager didn?t hit me with a string of error messages when launched without the PSP connected.

Also unlike iPSP, which assumes you want to send folders whole-hog to the often space-constrained PSP, Sony?s software uses an easy browsing model based on a two-pane view to transfer from your PC to your PSP. You can also drag files directly from Windows explorer to the PSP pane to have them transferred. User interface niceties include photo thumbnails that get larger when you mouse over them and universal preview for any media using its default application.

The one difficulty I encountered was getting PSP Media Manager to recognize the Motion-JPEG AVI files taken by my Canon digital camera. However, other PSP transcoding tools I tried failed at this as well. iPSP froze when I chose such a file. PSP Video 9 got the furthest with it, but would up converting only the audio from the movie.

Alas, also unlike iPSP, PSP Media Manager has no Mac version available. For Windows users, though, Sony?s software is a polished companion to its namesake hardware, one that would likely return its development costs in higher-capacity Memory Stick Duo card sales if Sony made it freely available. It makes content easy to grab for that shiny black slab.



Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.