The new Sony (SNE ) PlayStation Portable is a brilliant portable game player with multimedia aspirations. It also manages to collect in one product all the contradictions that cause frustration for Sony customers these days -- and indicate why new CEO Howard Stringer will have his hands full restoring Sony to its past consumer electronics glory.
There are many things to like about the $250 PSP. To start with, it has an attractive design and a shiny black case. It weighs just 10 oz. and sports an outstanding 4.3-in. widescreen display. As a portable game console, it sets a new standard for excellence. Its superb 3-D graphics deliver smooth images in even the fastest-action sequences, and its controls are sure and responsive. Given that the PSP is in the PlayStation family, the availability of games, starting at $40, should be very good.
The PSP is also a fine movie player -- with a catch. The video is as good as I have seen on any portable device. And, as in games, the stereo sound (through earphones) is great. Battery life for games or movies runs up to about five hours. The frustrating part is that the PSP can play movies only from a sort of mini-DVD disk in a proprietary design that Sony calls a Universal Media Disc (UMD). Only a handful of titles, mostly action films such as Sony Pictures' Spider-Man 2, are available initially -- at $20 a pop -- and it's far from clear whether studios will embrace the format. Sony has no plans to offer recordable UMDs, and since the PSP has no hard drive, you're stuck with what is available prerecorded. You can download your own video clips to the memory card, but the capacity is very limited.
THE PSP ALSO INCLUDES WI-FI wireless networking. That means it can connect to nearby PSPs for multiplayer games or to the Internet to obtain software updates or for access to Sony's online gaming service. But it doesn't let you enjoy streaming video or music over Wi-Fi. And the new consoles do not support the best current wireless security standard, Wi-Fi Protected Access, so you will have to relax security on your home network if you want to take full advantage of it.
The PSP also suffers from a problem inherent in multifunction devices. Its specialized design as a game console makes it awkward for other uses. For example, gamers understand the function of the circle, cross, square, and triangle buttons, but their function in, say, controlling the a movie playback, is obscure at best.
Sony has made much of the PSP's music-player abilities. But three years into the iPod era, it's amazing the company got it so wrong. There's no concept of automatic sync, standard on other players for loading songs. Instead, you must find the music files on your computer. Then you copy them onto the PSP's Memory Stick memory card, either by inserting the card in a PC adapter or by connect-ing a USB cable between the PSP and the computer and manually putting the PSP into USB mode.
The PSP supports only MP3 and Sony's own ATRAC formats, so the only purchased music you can play is songs from Sony's Connect music service. Even then, purchased music must be stored on a special type of Memory Stick -- another Sony design -- that includes Sony's MagicGate copy protection.
Fortunately, most of the PSP's worst deficiencies are in software and could be remedied, even on existing units, if Sony chose to take action. It could, for example, add software to allow music transfers from a computer and permit support for standard formats, such as Windows (MSFT ) Media. The PSP would be more useful if the Wi-Fi connection could be used to play online audio and video content -- and not just what Sony chooses to provide.
This will, however, require some attitude adjustment by Sony. Standards rather than proprietary technologies are growing more and more important in a networked world. A continuing insistence on doing everything the Sony way leads only to isolation.
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