With Sony’s handheld set to launch in the US towards the end of the month, the predicted handheld war between the PSP and Nintendo DS is really going to take off. The DS has had a few months to get a head start and has achieved an impressive dent in the market in that time, but the PSP is a seriously impressive piece of kit that’s going to take some beating in a world where aesthetics are everything (just look at how the iPod’s done).
In the inevitable “which is better?” flame wars that accompany any console launch always seem to fall back on an attempt to decide whether the innovative gaming concepts that are possible with the DS’s unique hardware, an idea that is certainly appealing but has yet to prove itself as a financially viable direction for the industry, is going to compete with the PSP’s ability to function as a portable media hub. Indeed, it seems that the PSP comes closer to the concept of being an entertainment hub than Sony originally envisioned for the PS2. While it’s an appealing idea to have your movies, music, and games in one pocket (using the term loosely) machine, available wherever and whenever you want them, is it actually going to be a viable media player?
One of the first pitfalls is storage. Unless Sony come up with a recordable UMD standard – unlikely, considering the piracy implications – all of the non-game content on your PSP has to run from one of Sony’s proprietary Memory Stick Duos. Prices of memory obviously falls over time and with increasing demand (in 2000 a 64MB SD card would set you back £180; I just bought a 1GB card for a little over £40) but even when a $150 1GB Memory Stick Duo falls to a more affordable price, a gig simply isn’t a lot of space when you’re talking about media. Just look at how the once-cavernous 5GB early MP3 jukeboxes are now curiosities, and anything less than 20GB is now considered small. Those don’t even hold video!
It might be adequate as a music player of picture viewer, even if it’s not going to trouble the likes of Apple and iRiver too much, but what is really going to be awkward for the PSP is video. The US version will come with a free copy of Spider-Man 2 on UMD which should look great, but it’s never going to take off when movies are $20-30 each and they only work on the PSP. It’s not like you get a DVD copy with it so that you can watch it on your nice TV and sound system for the 99% of the time when you’re not sitting down with a small screen for two hours. You can’t even output the PSP to a TV to watch the movie.
The PSP can play movies off the Memory Stick, but it only accepts video in its proprietary MPEG-4 format that the user will have to encode themselves and the average person isn’t going to have a clue how to do. Putting DVDs onto the PSP could prove popular, but DVD ripping is illegal in most places, even for DVDs that you own. It will remain that way until DVD is an obsolete format (meaning: when HD-DVD/Blu-Ray is the standard and they no longer make DVDs), which isn’t going to happen in the PSP’s lifespan. Sony aren’t going to be able to advertise this ability and no-one will legally be able to make and market software to do it.
Ultimately, the PSP is going to be another portable games machine. The implementation of music and video playback is just too limited to be anything more than a gimmick. At best it will be used in the same way that a camera phone is used as a quick substitute for a real camera; the PSX CD player function updated for the 21st Century. Like the PS2 DVD player was used as a first player for many people before becoming the basic player for the kids’ bedrooms, the PSP’s multimedia functions will simply pave the way for the next generation of portable jukebox players as video functionality becomes the next big thing.
The early success of the DS has shown that new ideas can be popular, and the PSP is going to need quality software to back it up – not just PS2 ports – if it wants to take Nintendo’s handheld crown.