With Sony's Playstation Portable (PSP) launching last month in the US, a few more (well, roughly a million) people have got their hands on the hardware and have had a chance to play with it for a while.
Whilst we got our PSPs in from Japan as soon as possible after launch, it's not been until the US launch that games have started to appear in decent quantities (or, perhaps, let's qualify that: games that we can read).
Additionally, with the recent announcement that the PSP won't hit European shores until September, there's renewed interest in this part of the world in the value of importing one.
So, having had a couple of months to settle down with the hardware, and a month or so to get a handle on the new games and the general capabilities of the handheld wonder-console, what do we make of it?
First Impressions last
The first time I picked up the PSP console itself, I was blown away by it. It feels good, it looks good, it has a real quality of... well, quality. Seeing the screen in action for the first time is a mindboggling experience.
Fast forward to today and the console really doesn't feel any different; despite the huge screen, it's difficult to scratch. The buttons have held up to two months of over-exertion, and the console invites you to just hold it every now and again, to remind yourself of how damn good it is.
Of course, one of the highlights of PSP ownership is watching everyone else in the room / on the train turn and focus on you as you whip it out and play a quick game of Lumines. I've been in a restaurant and had kitchen staff come out to see it on the advice of the waiter, and people on the train asking me if I mind them looking over my shoulder. The PSP has a wow factor that most other gadgets can never hope to achieve. (just wait 'til the guy with the knife asks to "borrow" it - Ed)
What about the controls themselves? Well, the D-pad is exactly the same as on the big-daddy PlayStation. Personally, I hate it, but then I thought the original Xbox pad was a nice size. The analogue stick works well for games that support it, and the volume and brightness buttons along the bottom of the unit are well placed and feel good.
The shoulder buttons totally kick butt: I have never liked the Playstation trigger buttons, and these are far nicer. The main joypad buttons on the right of the unit also feel just like their larger equivalents.
The content to console interface
That's the discs, to you and me. UMD discs are cute and small, and reminiscent of Mini-Discs. They are also horrendously slow to access, and overly noisy - the one bugbear I have found with the PSP, to be honest. Putting the Tony Hawks UMD in the drive and switching on, its over a minute before I can actually get skating, as menus and levels cache and load. Once you're in, there's no slow-down, no loading around the level - but getting there can be dog slow.
Game saves are saved to memory stick, and Sony include a 32MB stick with the console. However, if you want your PSP to play movies or music, you're going to need to upgrade it. Right now, you can pick up a 1Gb Sandisk PSP-compatible Memory Stick Duo card for around $100 / £70, which is certainly a lot cheaper than they used to be (though still more than 50% more expensive than other memory card formats). We've read about other brands having iffy PSP compatibility, so there were no chances taken here.
Live in your world, bring your media into ours
One of the much-touted features of the PSP is the ability to play videos, photos and music. After using these features for a couple of months, we have a couple of fairly accurate observations.
Number one is that video playback is great, but crippled. While it's perfectly possible to encode video at the screen's native resolution of 480x272, Sony annoyingly doesn't support reading that resolution from flash memory. Commercial UMD movies, like the bundled Spiderman 2, look incredible, but for home-made stuff, 320x240 still looks pretty damn good.
Music playback is horrendous: the user interface for the playlist system and the music controls is pretty badly thought out, and the lack of support for proper album groupings and the like is just stupid. Don't expect this to replace your iPod.
As for photo viewing... well, there's not a lot to say. Upload JPGs, the PSP scales them to the display. You can pan and zoom... w00t.