Sunday, June 20, 2010

How Sony nerfed the PSP

I really enjoy my Sony PSP (Playstation Portable), which I've had for two years now. It's a portable game device, but it also acts as a video and MP3 player, and you can connect online through wifi.

Unfortunately, it is a victim of bad timing and some poor decisions by Sony. The timing part can't be helped. Some of the decisions could be changed, but I don't see that happening, and that's a pity.

Stuff That Can't Be Changed: Hardware

Here is a picture of the PSP:

(For what it's worth, mine's silver.)

The PSP's form factor is dictated by the large screen. When I hold it a comfortable distance from my eyes, the screen is larger than a 32" HD TV would be 8 feet from the couch. (After a half hour or more of staring at the screen, I have trouble re-focusing my eyes. It sucks getting old.) To protect such a large screen you need a protective case. The best one I found was by Logitech; it's clear (though you can put a skin on it) and padded. It works very well, but it adds another 1/4" all around, and a little more weight. It has gaps for head phones and controls when sealed, making ideal for playing MP3s.

Games are loaded into a hatch in the back. The games are on an optical disc in a U shaped plastic housing, called a UMD. Sony, ever the fan of proprietary media formats (remember Betamax?), anticipated folks buying movies on UMDs and watching them on their PSPs. (You can get a cable to plug the PSP into a TV, but the image quality is not up to DVD standards.) This never really panned out, so you can pick up a bunch of movie UMDs cheap. I have several. I haven't watched many of them, but they certainly came in handy the last time I had to fly.

The optical disc format allows a good deal of storage, but it adds weight and is cumbersome compared to the Nintendo DS, which uses cartridges.

One very important feature of the PSP is its ability to take flash memory cards. Again, unfortunately, Sony's love affair with its own formats comes into play. It uses Memory Sticks (specifically, Memory Stick Pro Duo). I won't go into the technical aspects (there are web sites claiming Memory Sticks are not as good/fast as SD cards). I can read SD cards in my computer and can use microSD in my phone but can't with the Memory Stick. If you buy a Sony computer, you might be able to read the memory sticks. I think the Memory Sticks can be used in the Playstation 3.

I will note that Memory Sticks are more expensive than similarly priced SD cards. I picked up a couple of 4 GB cards when they were US $18 each. I just checked, and Office Depot has the 4 GB sticks on sale for $18 again. By comparison, they have a 4 GB SDHC card by the same company (Sandisk) for $12.99 and a 16 GB SDHC card for $40. Memory Sticks are still way cheaper than the PS2 memory cartridges, which still sell for the extortionate price of $25 for an 8 MB cartridge.

All of those decisions are understandable. I don't mind the optical drive, though it's a pain having to buy special plastic cases to keep them safe. And Sony can't be faulted for failing to anticipate the rise of downloadable content. In fact, the latest version of the PSP, the PSP Go, doesn't have the discs. It is strictly operated through downloadable content.

Sony can be faulted for the asinine power switch. It's a spring-loaded slide on the side of the device. You flick it up and release to turn on the device. That's okay. To turn it off, you have to flick it up and hold it for about 5 seconds. If you just flick it up briefly, you put the PSP into standby mode. This is so natural a thing to do that for 3 days after getting the thing I thought the battery was bad, as it kept dying on my quickly. Turns out that I kept throwing it into standby instead of shutting off. On standby, it's still using power. I have to double check it every time Logan uses it, to make sure he shut it off. You can't switch the PSP off from Standby. You have to turn it on then turn it off. Annoying.

If you flip the switch down, it puts the program into Hold mode. This stops any of the other keys from working (which is what you want when listening to music). If you aren't careful when turning off the Hold you'll flip it from Hold to Standby, which is also annoying, especially if all you wanted to do was turn on the display to see how much time is left on an audio track.

The battery life kind of sucks on the PSP. You get maybe 3 hours out of playing a game, if that. The display is the culprit. I can go about 10 hours on music alone (which isn't great, but is livable). You can buy a better battery. It's bigger, and comes with a new battery cover due to the bulge it creates. I've thought of picking one up. You can run the PSP from a USB connection to a PC or through a power converter to your car's power outlet. This is ideal for playing music on long trips.

Stuff They Did Right

There is some amazing stuff in the PSP. You can view several video formats, including .avi. You can listen to audio files. You can view images (I know for a fact it handles .png and .jpg). You can install a free file manager, but I just plug it into my computer and treat it like a flash drive. It attaches to the computer through USB.

With the recent upgrade, you can read digital comics. You have to download a reader, though, so I haven't bothered. This is the same issue with the Internet radio, which also requires a downloaded program that is stored on a memory stick.

The PSP has wifi built in. This morning I upgraded the operating system via our wireless router. You can pull down RSS feeds, play internet radio, use built-in Skype (if you get a microphone headset), and use a built in web browser. This is all through a wifi hotspot; it's not an iPhone.

Stuff That Can Be Changed: Software

Two years ago, at GenCon, I tried to use the browser at the Conrad hotel. I couldn't connect due to the log in screen the hotel was connecting through. The PSP ran out of memory. This just happened again this morning, as I tried to read my blog using the browser. It popped up with an out of memory message. I don't know why it ran out of memory, as there is half a gig available on the memory stick that's in it right now. It's safe to say you won't be using the browser for much more than gmail. I need to try it with other free wifi hotspots. I'd still rather use our netbook, as it's a pain to type out even a short e-mail with the PSP. It has a control that's not much different from a regular cell phone.

I use the PSP for music. In fact, I use it more as an MP3 player than as a game player. It plays music. It can run tracks back-to-back without a gap. You can fast forward, reverse, shuffle. You can store music in "groups" (folders).

On the downside, the PSP is missing some pretty basic abilities found in pretty much every MP3 player on the market. I can only assume that this is so that the PSP doesn't cannibalize Sony Walkman sales.

What's missing:

  • You can't play songs by artist. You can save songs from one artist in a folder and play them as a group.
  • You can't play songs by album. You can save the songs from one album in a folder and play them as a group. However, if you do that, you can't play by artist (see last point). You can do it one way or the other.
  • You can't shuffle across all your songs unless all the songs are in a single folder. You can shuffle within a specific group, but not across all groups. So, for instance, if you put all your songs in groups by artist, you can't shuffle among all your songs. You can put all your songs in one single group to allow random shuffling, but now you can't play by album or artist.
  • The PSP doesn't keep track of where you last left off if you turn off the device. It keeps track while on standby, but not if you power down. This is a major pain when playing audiobooks. I had to keep track of where I was when listening to Stephen King's Under The Dome in a little notebook.
  • The PSP isn't loud enough. You have to really crank it up to get decent volume.

Except for perhaps the volume issue, this could all be fixed with a software update. In fact, someone has created a better player for the PSP. Sony doesn't want you to be able to install apps on the PSP, so they locked it out through security. That didn't stop hackers, who figured out how to beat the security system. One way is using something called a "pandora battery". Hackers figured out how to crack security with an alteration of the battery (the battery is queried by the software, so apparently this was the source of a security hole). If you don't upgrade your PSP to to the latest software (and some PSPs come with it already updated enough that you can't use these hacks), you can download apps and run programs. This is how people can run pirated games, which is what Sony is trying hard to stop with their security model. Latest games require the latest upgrade, but some hackers are finding ways around those requirements. Note that hacking the PSP voids the warranty and may "brick" it (i.e. wreck it so that it can only be used as a paperweight).

The fact that the PSP can run apps, that third parties have created a better MP3 player, is the biggest failing of the PSP. Or, rather, Sony's inability to support apps is its biggest failing. Apps are what truly make the iPhone, the Touch, and the Android. Sony isn't interested.

Take PDF viewing, for instance. Reading PDFs on a PSP is a popular request. It has a big colour screen. Reading documents is tempting. Would it kill Sony to develop, with Adobe or someone else, the ability to read a .pdf file? Apparently it will.

[There is a way around the PDF problem. There's a utility that will convert PDFs to .png files. Using another utility, you can convert the .png files into .jpg files (or just leave them as .png files, but the PSP is slow to render big graphics files). Then you can read the PDF as a collection of pictures. It's clunky, but it works if you really need it to.]

The PSP is way behind the Nintendo DS in sales. The games look better on the PSP, but Nintendo has done a better job of producing a wider range of games. The DS is much easier to carry around, as it's smaller.

What could save the PSP is pushing its other abilities: MP3 and video playback, and perhaps adding a wide range of apps. I doubt very much that we will see any movement in that direction. A pity, because the PSP is a really nice device with a lot of unused potential.