Handheld video game machines have finally grown up with the PlayStation Portable from Sony Corp.
That's no slight to Nintendo Co., long a purveyor of kid-friendly Game Boys and, more recently, a cleverly interactive and affordable dual-screen model.
The PSP, however, has the edge with its versatility, raw power and chiseled good looks.
Like some diminutive monolith from "2001: A Space Odyssey," the PSP looks as if formed from a single black slab of plastic. And if the sleek design doesn't grab you, wait until you turn it on and see the sharp 4.3-inch liquid crystal screen.
The $250 PSP Value Pack, which goes on sale in North America on March 24, includes the PSP, stereo headphones, a 32-megabyte Memory Stick Duo, battery and charger, a wrist strap and soft carrying case.
Included are two of Sony's proprietary 1.8-gigabyte Universal Media Discs. One is a sampler of music, movies and video games. The other is the movie "Spider-Man 2." The UMDs, about the size of a silver dollar, were a snap to load into the 10-ounce device.
About 24 games, each in the $40 price range, should be available when the PSP launches. UMD movies are expected to cost about as much as DVD movies, though you won't be able to drop a UMD into a DVD player, as the two formats are incompatible.
With a 16:9 aspect ratio (meaning it looks like a movie screen) and a resolution of 480 by 272 pixels, the PSP's crisp, bright graphics are spectacular. Watching "Spider-Man 2," I felt as if I was holding some artifact from the future, amazed I was able to enjoy a feature film on such a small screen without squinting.
Glare was a problem, especially outdoors. Get used to seeing your face on the screen.
There's a cleaning cloth included, and good thing: the glossy black exterior is easily smudged marring the otherwise gorgeous appearance. On such a pristine surface, even tiny bits of dust and grease really stand out.
The PSP has been described as a PlayStation 2 console that fits in your hands, and for the most part it's true. But you can't play PS2 games on the PSP, and vice versa.
It may be the most expensive portable games system available, costing $100 more than the dual-screen Nintendo DS, but it's also by far the most powerful. I played two games from Sony's 989 Sports division, "Gretzky NHL" and "World Tour Soccer." Indeed, they looked almost but not quite as good as similar games I've seen on the PS2.
The buttons will be familiar to anyone who's used a standard PS2 controller. It's a good, clean layout that's easy to hold and use even after several hours. Music and picture viewing options are listed in the easy-to-navigate menu system, but they're definitely not a priority.
Sony doesn't supply the required USB cable to transfer pictures or songs from your computer, nor is there any included software to organize such files. I had to drag and drop individual files, a tedious process. And it didn't take long to fill up the measly 32 megabytes. Saved games also are stored on the memory cards, further pinching their capacity.
To avoid swapping cards or losing them, I bought a more spacious 512-MB card on the Internet for $90.
It was an easy, nearly automatic process to connect to a local Wi-Fi hotspot, which will enable gamers to soon challenge each other across time zones. You can also play against as many as 15 other nearby PSPs on an ad hoc wireless network.
The replaceable lithium-ion battery took over two hours to fully charge. I watched "Spider-Man 2," about an hour and a half long, with the screen brightness and stereo sound maxed.
That drained about half the battery, giving me a few extra hours to play games before I had to recharge.
Sony predicts the battery will last between three and six hours, depending on use. Movies and games are especially power-hungry because they draw information from the spinning UMDs.
The PSP itself is a bit too large to fit in a pants or shirt pocket, and besides, mine already are stuffed with a cell phone, keys and wallet. For true gaming on the go, the PSP's size may be an issue unless you regularly carry a purse or a backpack.
What I really liked about the PSP is that the screen is big enough, and it has the processing power, to deliver not only casual games but deep, engrossing titles with a level of audiovisual fidelity once reserved for consoles and home computers.
It's easy to lose yourself in a PSP game.
I've used many hybrid game handhelds that failed because they tried to do too much: Nokia's NGage was also a cell phone but didn't function particularly well; the Palm OS-powered Zodiac from Tapwave, Inc., meanwhile, married the functionality of a PDA with a game player but suffered from a poor games selection and never really caught on with consumers.
After years of stumbling in a consumer electronics industry it pioneered, Sony may be a bit premature in declaring the PSP a "21st Century Walkman."
But for games, it's an attractive, uncompromising system that successfully takes the true power of video games out of the living room and into your hands.
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