Sony PSP As Personal Media Player - Review

By Richard Menta 5/14/05

The Sony PSP is more than a game player. This may be overstating the obvious, but the half-a-million people who purchased one in its introductory weeks bought it primarily for that purpose.

What Sony is actually achieving with this portable gamer is to simultaneously put a personal media player (PMP) into the hands of millions of users by the end of 2005 (12 million predicted by its 1 year anniversary in March of 2006).

This fact is a significant milestone for the growth and evolution of digital media into the average household, an evolution that has potential to place Sony in the driver's seat over the iPod as the MP3 portable industry grows into a media portable industry. At minimum these numbers make Sony's proprietary Universal Media Disc (UMD) a defacto standard in the PMP market and the Memory Stick Duo a new leader in the flash card wars (against CompactFlash, MMC, SD Cards, etc.).

The French company Archos invented the PMP in 2002, releasing the Archos Jukebox Multimedia the spring of that year. The Archos was the first hard drive-based unit to play digital audio and digital video. Archos owned the market unopposed for two years before competing players from RCA and Creative Technologies appeared. Today there are dozens of PMP units from various manufacturers, but the combined sales of all of these players are dwarfed by the opening sales of the PSP.

Through convergence of music, video and gaming Sony has propelled this market. By opening up the UMD to the Music and Movie industries Sony promotes development of content for the player, a key to driving future sales. It certainly doesn't hurt that the parent company owns record and movie studios to commit to such a format. Disney has already announced they will offer UMD movies and more studios are expected to follow.

Could the Sony PSP be the elusive iPod Killer? First you need to define what that means.

Defining what iPod Killer Means

The term iPod Killer is nothing more than marketing spin that stuck. The problem is the term preceded any device that could even match the iPod in terms of size, convenience and popularity. Today there are a couple of players from Rio, iRiver, Dell and Creative that hold their own quite well against the iPod on a performance level, but as the iPod has escalated to the status of pop icon its momentum grew into something quite powerful. The result is a ubiquity of little white ear buds is schools and subways. No single product comes close.

The sheer volume of sales for the player and its iTunes compatriot set the tone for the market and the real power here lies in the proprietary technology that Apple has foisted upon it. Songs purchased on iTunes, for example, will only play on the iPod, which pushes users to buy an iPod over other manufacturer's digital products. The iTunes/iPod pairing is the only set that effectively does "play for sure" right now in the market.

A more reasonable definition of an iPod Killer is not some proverbial portable that comes from the heavens and slays Apple's player in the electronic stores. Instead it is a player that itself can define proprietary standards that achieve market critical mass. Achieve this and now it is Apple that is forced to adopt (or be cut out) of a standard they themselves did not create. Achieve this and you create a force that balances out Apple's dominating influence on the exponentially growing entertainment portable market.

If 12 million consumers own PSPs by early next year that is 12 million who, by default, invest in Sony's UMD and Memory Stick Duo standards. That is 12 million who possess a wireless entertainment device. That is 12 million who own a player with a cinema display screen. You see my point. It is not just the first to market who wins, but the one who sells enough to define standards and set expectations of what features a product should possess.

Sales are what count and Sony is selling. Right now it is the number one PMP. As the iPod has yet to introduce a unit that plays video, this gives Sony the advantage of a lucrative head start. Finally, to affect Apple the performance of Sony's device as a music player does not have to be equal to the iPod, just good enough.

The Concept of Good Enough

Take all the people who own a Sony PSP, but not an Apple iPod yet (because both can be fairly expensive I'm sure there are a few shoppers who are forced to make a choice between one or the other at first). Now ask them this question "Are the music playing capabilities of the PSP good enough that it is less compelling to purchase an iPod too?

Good enough is the key word here. The Sony PSP does not have to be better than Apple as a music player. It just has to be good enough where it is not worth the added expense of purchasing another unit just to do what the PSP already does, play music.

The PSP is not as small or light as the iPod. It does not have the high end capacity of an iPod or many of its superior navigation features. Still, for PSP owners the acquisition of a separate music player becomes redundant if the PSP can handle basic music delivery in a reasonably good way. If the Sony PSP is good enough as a media player to cause consumers pause when contemplating an iPod then you have a product with market influence. This influence becomes twice as important if the mythical iPod Video is indeed a real product in Apple's future because Sony has already captured many early adopters.

As a gaming device the PSP already has the pop icon potential of the iPod. The question is this; "As a portable music/movie device is the Sony PSP good enough"?

The Player

I won't list the myriad of features like wireless that the PSP offers as they have already been covered by hundreds of other articles. I will say that Sony is definitely looking forward with this device, aimed at capturing a number of constituencies beyond gaming. The wide screen display and the company's commitment to offer movies and record content for the device reveal an ambition that goes beyond this one portable.

I do wish Sony included a USB cable with the unit. I have several different varieties of USB cable in my house and it took me quite a bit of rummaging to find one with the correct Mini-B type connection for the player. It would have annoyed the hell out of me if I had to go buy an additional cable just to do the review. Fortunately, the last one I found was the correct type. if you want to transfer files to the player, you need to acquire this cable.

Control

The control requirements for a game player are much more demanding than for a media player. Games require fast, repetitive key depressions and any numbness in feel or awkward location of buttons seriously affect game play. Over the years gaming manufacturers have refined pad controls and the Sony shows it.

Conceptually, the PSP control pad is the opposite of the iPod's smooth navigation wheel. Keys are distributed throughout the face and sides of the body and are designed for the two-handed use a game device demands. The iPod is designed for thumb control, as is only one thumb. The buttons on the PSP are best served by the up and down battering of thumb and forefinger. The iPod found success through the convenience offered by the slide technique on a touch sensitive panel.

As much as I like the iPod controls I have had a few TV remotes whose plastic pads cracked and bubbled with age and use. Even though I have never heard of this happening to an iPod I always wonder if heavy users will experience this problem down the road. The only trouble I ever have with the iPod's controls is that I am always turning it on by accident, usually after I have turned it off and a stray finger swipe-starts it again. A few times I didn't notice I turned it on as I put the player away, draining the battery. Hard buttons are not only more resistant to long-term use the clean click of the PSP's power switch negates accidentally turning it on.

The question is do the PSP's buttons suffice for the needs of a media player and the answer is clearly yes, this despite the fact that none of the keys are labeled for a music player. There are no icons for play or fast forward or pause on the Sony's panel. Frankly, I didn't need them.

This is because with every game keys take on different roles. The gamer has to learn these roles for each game, which usually require different key sequence sets to perform more complex actions. Gamers - who are the PSP's entire audience - have no problem learning the unique strokes of each game and therefore the lesser demands of a media player will prove a non-issue.

And what about the non-gamer? While I have played various Nintendo and Sony game devices I do not consider myself a gamer (my wife's teenage cousins proved this on several occasions). I had no problem navigating the Sony PSP keys without instructions.

I already knew that the X key is the universal trigger key and so must handle the play and select functionalities. I intuitively guessed that the directional keys served as the fast-forward and rewind, again fairly obvious. The directional buttons do not change tracks I found. That was handled by the left/right buttons, which I found convenient to use.

A simple read of the instructions will clarify this to anyone who has any difficulty, but for those who need more Sony provides an on-screen display that can handle these chores. The display remains hidden until the user depresses the key with a triangle on it. Up appear icons for play, FF, rev, pause and the rest. The directional keys move cursor to the desired icon and the X key activates it.

Navigation

I found negotiating through the PSP's icon menus simple and intuitive. The simplicity of the menu system, combined with the large screen, made everything clear and easy to use, particularly when searching for media on either the UMD or memory stick. Instructions are there if you need them, but you shouldn't.

Display

Maybe the smartest move Sony made with its display was making it widescreen. Utilizing the 16:9 aspect ratio of feature films rather than that of a standard TV balances out the fact that portable also means small. Of course size is relative. Compared with the first PMP, the Archos Jukebox Multimedia, the PSP's 480 x 272 pixel screen is huge. The extra real estate improved both game play and movie watching.

The screen on the Sony PSP is the best I have even encountered. Part of this is probably due in part to the fact that the movies made available for the player are specifically compressed for its display. The PSP came with a copy of Spider-Man 2 and I have tell you I never expected an image so clear and sharp. Color detail was excellent and I encountered no evidence of picture lag. Previously, the screen found on the Archos 300 and 400 series were my favorite. The UMD/MPEG-4 execution of the store bought movies and the player are superior to the Archos. Even viewing the player on its side did not diminish the image greatly, which means the kids in the back seat can actually share a movie. The Sony has external speakers for sound. It's a convenient touch that allows easier sharing of the screen, though the sound is inferior to a set of headphones.

Music

The ability of the Sony PSP to play MP3 and ATRAC3 files is very rudimentary. To be honest, this is not necessarily a bad thing as simplicity works very well for people who only care about listening to a modest group of songs at a time. What is the popular iPod Shuffle, after all, but a USB stick capable of playing music? No display, just music files.

The PSP can read song files from either memory stick or UMD. The PSP user manual states that audio discs will be available in the future, suggesting Sony will sell music on UMD as a new audio format along side CDs on record racks (and competition for the floundering DVD Audio standards). There are no UMD burners or blank UMD discs available from Sony so users are unable to make there own compilations, which I suspect is how Sony wants to keep it.

The 32MB Memory Stick Duo that comes with the PSP is insufficient. We recommend owners upgrade to at least a 512MB. As of this writing Amazon is selling a Sony 512MB Memory Stick Pro Duo for $66.00, $33.00 less than the 512MB iPod Shuffle. Apple is also taking orders for the upcoming 1GB Pro Duo at $154.99. That is $5.00 more that the 1GB iPod Shuffle.

Navigating to music is a straight forward affair. The tracks are all listed in order and by activating the on screen music navigation display (hit the button with the triangle on it) the user can select P Mode and set the player to repeat or shuffle modes with the X trigger key.

Songs are listed linearly on the display. The PSP also can create groups, really just folders where each can represent a single album and the tracks associated with it. The groups can also store singles from different albums serving as a simplistic playlist.

Overall, the PSP did the job fine as a music player, but as it is not the unit's primary purpose it has its limitations. First, the player's 10oz weight and 6.75" x 3" x 1" dimensions are not ideal for jogging on a treadmill whislt one listens to tunes. Second, the PSP does not have the multi-gigabyte capacity of hard drive-based digital audio players. Third, the UMD drive is read only so until someone comes up with a way to burn these things, you can't utilize its 1.8GB capacity to build your own UMD library.

As we said before Sony plans to sell record albums in the UMD format. Those who choose to invest in a UMD collection face the same issue faced by iTunes users. That is that their collection commits them to a proprietary format, which commits them to staying with a particular hardware brand for future purchases. I can think of far worse brands than Sony or Apple, but heavy iTunes users are forever tethered to the iPod. Unless Sony shares it UMD technology UMD records and movies will require a Sony product.

The UMD format is a bit more flexible than FairPlay wrapped AAC song files and its small size offers considerable merit as an audio format for the car. In the end Sony may choose not to keep it all for itself, but license it out as a new standard with the 12 million PSP users expected next year to be just a stepping stone to bigger game. This includes entertainment for the car and home theatre.

Movies

Sony's rendering of the Spider-Man 2 exceeded my expectations. I never counted on the image being so sharp and clear. Widescreen was a big plus as all of my TV sets are of standard definition and aspect ratio. The PSP also utilizes 3D audio effects and an investment in a good set of earphones is recommended to further enhance the experience. To learn how 3D audio works you can read my 1999 MP3 Newswire article (my god has it been that long) on it.

Hey, it is still a small screen so there are limitations. For one the user has to hold the player during the entire running time of the film, meaning regular body shifts to keep limbs from falling asleep. I was never really bothered by this, but others might be.

Thanks to the fact that Sony owns its own movie studio the company has already released dozens of titles in UMD format. Disney has also committed to releasing flicks in UMD and if sales are solid others will follow. As of this writing Amazon has 42 titles on sale in the UMD format. Sites like Games Drive are already renting them. Movie rentals seems the most enticing way for users to view flicks as it reduces the risk that come with committing to UMD media this early. For mass transit commuters, UMD collections of popular TV shows like the Family Guy offer even more compelling content as they offer entertainment in half hour bites.

If UMD proves to be a smash hit one area it can affect is the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD battle going on it Hollywood right now as it would force the studios to commit resources to the smaller UMD format while they hedge on the two larger formats.

The PSP was designed so that users can also play back movies from the Duo card. Software is already available to do this that handles the conversion of existing video files into a format the PSP can read (Sony says it will soon release its own application for doing this). Engadget has a good primer on this that gives incentive to invest in a 1GB card. Expect Connect, Sony's paid download service, to soon offer paid video files that download directly onto the memory stick.

There is no iPod Video yet, so Apple has not yet had the opportunity to impress its own standards on the market (like H.264 video in the QuickTime format). The new version of iTunes does offer video download capability so something will probably appear soon.

An iPod Video will most-likely focus on online delivery of video files rather than a more traditional approach of selling a blister packed encoded disc at stores. The online plan is more modern, but the hard-goods distribution Sony has chosen is more established. Who knows? With Apple's chummy/hate relationship with Sony an iPod Video might even adopt UMD. I doubt it for several reasons (including the fact that just because PSP owners have video ability there is no guarantee most will use it), but if UMD movie and album sales achieve Sony's wildest dreams as a market force it will increase the risk of success for all later formats and delivery schemes. All of this waits to be seen.

Conclusion

Conversion has been the buzz word for the last few years as manufacturers stick cameras in cell phones and MP3 players in PDAs, yadda, yadda. Until the Sony PSP I have yet to see any single product handle everything competently.

The Sony handles it all competently, excelling as a game and movie player and doing a passable job as a music player. As a game player the PSP is phenomenal. But then this is their bread and butter so it has to be great to succeed against with the Nintendo Game Boy monopoly.

So, is the Sony PSP good enough to ward off the need to purchase another digital audio portable like the iPod? If we are just talking a music player here the answer is probably not.

The PSP is too large for the active sets who like to listen to music while they exercise. The PSP also requires the purchase of additional memory cards that are priced around the same as an equivalent capacity iPod Shuffle. If users want more than 1GB of capacity then the hard-drive based music players are better for them. Ultimately, straight digital audio players offer considerably more flexibility for the dollar than the PSP. If you add a 1GB Pro Duo card for reasons other than audio, then the PSP gives you a decent digital music player too. For casual music listeners that may be all they need. Don't buy the card just for audio alone as it is more cost effective to apply that money towards a separate MP3 player.

As a movie player the Sony takes it all a notch above the standard set by the excellent PMPs produced by Archos. Widescreen and superior resolution via UMD are just two major points. I don't know how good video quality can get via the Pro Duo card for those who trade movies, but it is pretty obvious that the quality of the source file may not match what Sony Entertainment is throwing on UMD.

Finally, the UMD format that Sony offers its games in has the potential be quite disruptive in a few other areas. The technology is already in a lot of people's hands, something Sony was unable to do with its mini-disc line. The question is will these people purchase anything other than PSP games in UMD? Sony is betting they will.

With the PSP approaching critical mass, if the content offered in UMD is compelling (and the pricing at least reasonable) the UMD technology will find its way into other products. A UMD burner would clinch it, but I don't think Sony wants anything other that a read-only device.

Many technology pundits predict that Apple will come out with a video playing device by the end of this year. However Apple shapes this device the PSP has made Apple's choices a bit more difficult. In the end the Sony PSP is not an iPod killer, but it might be an iPod Video killer as Apple is the one playing catch up. When and if an iPod Video actually appears it will call on all of the forces of the iPod brand and the company's talent for ingenuity to wrest users away from the PSP.

One more note, home grown solutions and third party applications look to extend what the PSP can do today. That the Sony PSP might have as extensive support as the iPod enjoys today bodes very well for this device's future and how well it works in the practical every day world. I personally am rooting for a UMD burner and cheap 4GB memory cards.

But then, you don't always get what you want.

 


The Sony PSP is available on Amazon

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