Disastrous proprietary Universal Media Disc (UMD) format and haphazard software selection aside, we thought that the original PlayStation Portable was pretty terrific, what with its big, sharp LCD screen and noteworthy multimedia prowess. The handheld gaming system’s capable processor and onboard flash memory also made it ripe for the introduction of new features via firmware upgrades, which thankfully remain plentiful.
Of course, we didn’t realize how bulky the PSP-1000 was until we wrapped our collective mitts around last year’s PSP-2000, rightly nicknamed “PSP Slim.” So when recent successor the PSP-3000 (available as part of the Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters PSP Entertainment Pack bundle) was announced, we figured that if we could have it all – and more, including a pleasing tweak to the screen’s contrast level – in a pleasing form factor, why not? With this small, but welcome update, manufacturer Sony Computer Entertainment America further responded to consumer demand by adding video output to a connected TV, and even surprised us with clever hardware tweaks such as relocating the tiny stereo speakers from the bottom edge to the face of the unit.
The PSP 3000 Difference
As a handheld gaming device, the PSP remains extraordinary, freeing console-quality games from the confines of the living room. But who can deny the significance of adding MP3 and WMA music playback plus support for Hollywood feature films? The quality rivals portable DVD players, only in a more convenient package. It is with this video performance in mind especially that the improvements inherent to the new PSP-3000 ultimately prove so impressive, albeit with a couple of caveats.
The PSP-3000 arrives running the version 4.20 firmware, which has since been updated to 5.01, so we immediately set about grabbing it. We needed only a few seconds to configure the device to work with a home WiFi network, a minute-and-a-half to download the patch and another two minutes to install, all wirelessly. (And not even plugged into AC power at that, instead using just the juice that was included on the battery right out of the box.) Since the prior model’s debut, intervening updates have wonderfully exploited the hardware’s many abilities with welcome features like free internet radio powered by SHOUTcast, LocationFree video watching from select Sony electronics, plus Remote Play access to and control of a registered PlayStation 3.
Version 5.0 Firmware
Version 5.0 further brought the PS Store to PSP, with most of the same convenience you might be familiar with from the PS3, while 5.01 addresses an issue with proper recognition of available space on an inserted Memory Stick PRO Duo card. A one-gigabyte card is included in this bundle, a far cry from the 32-megabyte wafer included with the first PSP, with up to a 16GB card available separately. As with preceding models, note that music, videos, and full games are all downloadable straight to the PSP-3000. As part of our testing we snagged a free 60MB game demo, and in less than three minutes we were playing something brand new – always a plus when you’re an attention-span-deprived vidiot.
Since the previous generation, the UMD door around back is manually opened and no longer spring-loaded. These “Universal Media Discs” can carry music (which never caught on with consumers); near PS2-quality games; and movies (another not-so-popular option), in high-efficiency, DRM-encrypted MPEG-4 format. The small, up-to-1.8GB-capacity optical discs are suspended inside a protective plastic shell. This Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters PSP bundle includes, as the name would suggest, the “Greatest Hits” title Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters, plus the recent blockbuster movie (no, we weren’t suckered into seeing this stinker either, but somehow most of America was) National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets from Disney, also on UMD. Found here too is a voucher with redeemable PS Store code for the irresistibly mind-bending, M.C. Escher-inspired game echochrome.
Ultimately though, most of the refinements to the PSP in this recent hardware revision are evident in its screen, which started out as arguably the system’s greatest strength, and has only gotten better over time. With 16:9 widescreen proportions and a generous 4.3-inch diagonal, this full-transparent-type TFT drive LCD can deliver approximately 16.77 million colors, with 480 x 272 pixel resolution. The good news being that the PSP-3000 proves even more vibrant than ever, with a wider color gamut backed by dedicated “Color Space” controls in the system settings. The contrast ratio has been deepened as well, so that images tend to really pop. The screen’s response time has also been doubled over that of the PSP-2000, while the surface of the screen appears to be less reflective. During playtests, we saw less of ourselves (or, more accurately, those reflections we did see were less sharp and therefore less distracting) and more of the game.
Movie and Game Performance
The step up in picture quality is quite simply jaw-dropping. Using two copies of the same UMD (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one of our go-to discs) simultaneously for side-by-side comparison between the PSP-3000 and PSP-2000, we immediately noticed a greater range of colors on the PSP-3000, providing picture quality that’s more true to how the movie is supposed to look, and more lifelike overall. Increased detail is obvious throughout the frame, and text is also crisper than ever. Paired with a well-authored video file, this is one of the best portable video experiences ever, with benefits undeniable for anyone who uses the PSP as a multimedia entertainment player. As for gamers, such superior video performance makes a broad range of hues and fine detail come alive as never before, delivering greater visceral impact.
Even so, we are aware of some grumblings about jaggies and screen lines compromising image caliber. Again, side-by-side with the PSP-2000, we did detect a slight increase in thin horizontal screen lines visible on the PSP-3000, owing to its enhanced sharpness. Similarly, images that were somewhat obscured on the PSP-2000 are now revealed in more detail, and so moving diagonals exhibit a greater instance of jagged, stair-step edges than on the previous model’s screen. Bearing this in mind though, the good still outweighs the bad on the PSP-3000. Sometimes, in the digital realm, you can’t advance one without the other.
A small, but sensitive microphone has also been added to the front of the device, nestled between the Volume Up button and the PSP logo. It’s a definite boon to Skype users (the Internet calling feature was introduced with the v3.90 firmware update), but also handy for any games that involve player speech, as an external microphone is now one less add-on accessory for us to remember, or to fumble with. Other than that, SCEA has further reshaped some of the buttons and renamed “Home” with simply the stylized PlayStation “P.”
Mind you, only a handful of studios continue releasing their movies on UMD. Nonetheless, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is exclusively adding a PSP-compatible Digital Copy option onto more of its DVDs. While Digital Copy is more common on new releases, SPHE has additionally gone back and reissued multiple back-catalog titles with this new bonus PSP feature including Heavy Metal, The Dark Crystal, Donnie Brasco, Talladega Nights and many others. The upcoming Hancock will be the studio’s first Blu-ray to come packaged with Digital Copy features as well. Basically, using a unique code number at the computer, you can authorize transfer of an approximately 700MB “.MGV” file containing the firm directly from the DVD to the Memory Stick PRO Duo inside the USB-connected PSP. These are H.264-encoded MPEG-4 videos at 480×270 resolution, DRM-protected of course, although you can remove the memory card and insert it into the slot on the PS3.
And, though there’s been less of an overwhelming flood of games lately than disappointing trickle, SCEA and third-party publishers are still releasing PSP-exclusive games as well as PSP versions of popular cross-platform titles. Game performance remains unchanged from the previous generation, which advanced significantly from the first with the doubling of system RAM to 64 megabytes. The additional memory enables superior buffering for noticeably faster loading of games from those little optical discs.
Image Courtesy of Sony
For a while now though, the PSP has seemed quite the bargain, especially because it is not reliant solely upon the purchase of games: It can play DRM-free MPEG-4 video as well as MP3 and WMA music too. A $170 hardware-only (with the necessary AC adapter and battery) “Core Pack” is further due before year’s end, with paying $30 more for a popular game, a recent movie and a hot download plus a 1GB memory card an excellent value. It is a significant investment, however, and the device’s lightweight plastic shell makes us a little antsy. We would definitely recommend spending another fifteen bucks for a good case like Logitech’s smartly-designed, heavy duty PlayGear Pocket Slim.
If you’ve resisted the urge to pick up a PlayStation Portable of your own, there’s never been a better time to jump in. Carrying forward everything good about the pocket-ready gaming/multimedia powerhouse and leveraging one of Sony’s greatest strengths (superior video quality), the new PSP-3000 is a handheld marvel. But for a current PSP-2000 owner, you might think twice before stepping up to new hardware, as the changes here are more subtle and understated than drastic or revolutionary.
Similarly, while the system’s full-blown Internet access is a bonus that first-gen users could only dream of in theory, is anyone really a fan of entering information one slow letter/number at a time on the virtual keyboard? While we can only wonder if a touch-screen is the next frontier, and why such incremental updates were introduced versus a sweeping upgrade, take heart in the following at least. One of the best handheld gaming systems on the market, the PSP-3000 still beats the living snot out of most portable entertainment devices, and, of course, your trusty old Game Boy…
• No screen this size has ever looked this good
• Continually upgrading firmware adds new features, makes old ones better
• Built-in microphone for Skype and other applications
• Still no USB cable included
• Entering text is a tedious process
• Modifications from the 2007-model PSP-2000 too minor to warrant a re-buy