Hardware review: PSPgo

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Sony’s latest stab at a portable handheld, the PSPgo, hits shelves tomorrow. Are you excited? It’s so small and cute!

The sexy unit landed in the Destructoid Baltimore offices this week, and I spent many hours putting it through its paces. But at $249.99, is this all-digital software sexy piece of hardware worth the cash? Should existing PSP owners trade in their older model for the new hotness? Thinking about buying a PSP and want to start with the PSPgo? Should you? OMG! So much pressure!

The answers — or at least my version of those answers — after the jump.

For starters, when PSPgo is in its closed position, it’s small. Under five inches wide, about two and half inches in height, and a little under two inches deep, this is easily to smallest and lightest gaming system outside of the iPhone. This thing will easily slip into the pockets of tight-pants wearing hipster, and its weight makes the feeling of dragging down in your pockets negligible.

Adding to the compact size is the fact that the system’s controls are hidden beneath the screen which slides up on hinges. You can flip this baby open with one hand, gently sliding your thumb up and below the screen. It snaps up and into place quickly and smoothly. Unlike earlier test models I had gotten my hands on, it actually seems like the hinges and the screen are held tightly in place. Only long-term rigorous testing will tell for sure, but it’s unlikely that it’ll break off or get loose with regular usage.

Much noise has been made about the PSPgo’s screen size — yes, it’s slightly smaller than the original PSP models — but I only noticed it when it was placed side-by-side with the older units. In all, the smaller screen size shouldn’t worry those looking to pick up the PSPgo. The screen looks crystal clear, and appears brighter with visuals that pop more than the fatter models.

The controls themselves are smaller as well, and while they may feel a bit cramped at first, after a few minutes of usage it’s easy to adapt. For someone who has average-sized hands, I found that all of the buttons were right where I wanted them to be. In fact, more than ever the PSPgo’s controls and button position is right in line with that of the popular DualShock. While that nub so many complain about is still there (although slighter recessed), the analog stick is in the perfect position for your left thumb, making it easier to navigate than ever. The right and left buttons also feel nice, with your fingers resting on the back of the flipped-up screen for a more snug fit. I also found that the “start,” “select,” and Home (now placed to the left of the screen, at a thumbs reach) buttons are also easier to find and more distinguishable from other buttons on the portable.

On the other hand, the volume and screen brightness buttons are in a bit of an odd spot, placed right behind the screen when it’s flipped up, flush with the unit’s top. While after some use you get to know where the buttons are by memory, it’s a bit awkward to have to turn the unit downward to make sure you’re tapping the button you’re looking for.

The PSPgo also has a bevy of new features not found in older models. For starters, Bluetooth support for all manner of devices — including headsets — is included. This also means that a standard PlayStation 3 DualShock controller can be used with the system, although the set up is a bit on the annoying side. Rather than simply locating and registering the device, you’re required to connect the PSPgo to your PlayStation 3 and go through a number of steps before you can link the devices. Once you do, however, it’s nice to be able to use a full-sized controller to operate the system, although some might find the option useless. Others who plan to use the PSPgo charging dock or a video output cable (both sold separately) will welcome this option.

The PSPgo also features 16 gigs of internal memory, 14 of which are usable after you crack the package and start fresh. Where the additional two gigs goes is anyone’s guess; the 44 meg interactive ESRB ratings guide can be deleted, but the rest of the space looks like it’s being used up by system software, including Skype which can’t be deleted. As to whether or not this is enough memory, you have to take a few things into consideration. Outside of the fact that the memory is upgradable by using a Memory Stick Micro (M2), if you’re using the PSP simply to play games it’s important to keep in mind that sizes will vary. For example, Pixel Junk Monsters Deluxe only 69 megs, and with PSP Mini titles being no larger than 100 megs, you’re looking at loading a bunch of games onto this before ever reaching the breaking point. As far as movies and audio goes, your mileage is going to vary, but between the internal memory and Memory Stick Micro, you should have plenty of wiggle room for your entertainment.

It’s easy to miss (I almost did during my testing), but the PSPgo also features a built in microphone. This is useful for titles that support in-game chat, but I did my testing using the built-in Skype software. In a call to my wife, she reported decent sound quality, with any complaints (echo in her voice, for example) the same as what you’d get if you were using Skype on your PC. This, of course, requires a Wi-Fi connection, and the quality of your calls will vary based on your connection speed. It’s unfortunate that the PSPgo doesn’t feature any kind of voice memo functionality, which would be the perfect addition the software; it’s definitely something I hope is added in future firmware updates.

What the PSP does lack is support for the Universal Media Disc format, which of course lends to the system’s smaller form factor. What this means is that if you already own a PSP and a collection and games (or an ill-fated movie collection), you’re going to have to start from square one. All of the software you’ll be playing on the PSPgo will be software you’ll download from the PlayStation Network — there is no physical media here. Period. It’s an interesting experiment for Sony, as this is the first dedicated game’s console to ditch the physical format — it also has its ups and its downs.

Not having to carry around a bunch of UMDs (not exactly the most sturdy format; I’ve broken more than one myself) is definitely a plus. It’s possible to have dozens of games, movies, and audio files right in the unit itself. This lends itself to portability, and for some it’ll be nice to leave the mess of discs behind when traveling. On the other hand, this is going to be a huge hurdle for owners of the original PSP to get past. With no support for UMDs, you may be left with a handful of useless media, which is understandably frustrating. While some people had thought Sony would implement some kind of “trade in” program or software that would allow you to transfer your physical media to the PSPgo, it’s obvious why that’s not happening. Simply put, it would be a legal and logistical nightmare, not even taking into account the piracy issues that could open up. (As if Sony doesn’t already have it bad enough with current PSP models.)

But even for new PSP adopters, this may also be an issue — while Sony has promised that it will offer hundreds of “legacy” PSP titles on PSN, that simply might not be enough. Right now, it’s possible to buy used and cheap UMD games at various retailers, for one. Additionally, while publishers have already committed to offering new PSP titles at both retail and on PSN, retail still has the edge. Some of the first PSN/retail releases — Rockstar’s Beaterator and Sony’s own MotorStorm: Arctic Edge — hit stores on Tuesday; those wanting digital versions would have to wait an additional two days for Sony to do its weekly Thursday PSN updates. While they say patience is a virtue, considering that digital versions of physical games share the same price, this could be frustrating for gamers. Whether Sony plans to bring these digital release in line with retail remains to be seen.

While it’s possible to download games and the like directly from the PSPgo and PSN, transferring other types of media can be done using Sony’s proprietary software, Media Go. By linking your PSPgo to your computer via an included USB cable (which now connects to a proprietary port on the bottom of the PSP) you can transfer movies, music, games (and more) right to the system. In most ways, this works just like iTunes, and mimics Apple’s software in a lot of ways as well. On my PC the software ran smoothly, finding and organizing music and video files for easy transfer. Media Go will also convert video files for use on the PSP; while it took a bit of time, I was able to convert an hour DIVX video without a problem… and it looked great on the PSP screen. Of course, it would be better if the PSP would support DIVX natively, but Sony offering the tools to convert files is a nice option.

As far as the built-in software is concerned, the PSPgo is nearly identical to the original PSP with a few exceptions. The system now features an “analog” clock that displays when the system is in its “closed” state and you’re browsing the home screen. While this is displayed, you can press the left and right buttons to bring up a calendar. As is stands now, this feature is “neat,” but mostly useless; the PSPgo doesn’t feature any kind of planner or calendar than can be used for anything other than viewing.

The other software feature unique to the PSPgo are game save states. This isn’t to be confused with the ability to put your PSP into a sleep mode while playing a game and then resuming it. Instead, when playing any game you can press the home button and are given the option to create a save state or quit. After choosing to save your state, the PSP will quickly create a back-up of exactly where in a game you are. This allows you to back out to the home screen and use your PSP for music, video, browsing the web, or whatever it is you kids do with PSPs when not playing games. It’s a nice feature, and I didn’t have any problem with the functionality across a number of games when I tested it.

On the whole, Sony has designed a solid, impressive piece of hardware that it should be proud of. However, it’s biggest problem will be the PSP’s legacy — simply put, if the fatter, physical media PSP’s didn’t exist, the PSPgo would be a more attractive option for gamers. As it stands, it’s a hard sell, despite the quality of the hardware. It’s likely going to be hard for some to swallow the unit’s $249.99 price tag, especially when you can pick up the PSP “slim” model with a game for fifty dollars less. Hell, Sony are still set to release a few of these bundles with new games in the coming months, which acts as an odd competition for its own system.

For now, if you’re looking to get into the PSP game for the first time, the PSPgo probably isn’t your best option. While all digital media may be the future of the industry (and by all means, I personally welcome it with open arms), the fact that there’s already a huge back catalog of PSP software on disc makes earlier models the more attractive option. For those interested only in digital downloads, keep this in mind — all of the software you can download for the PSPgo (including the new Minis) can also be downloaded to any existing PSP, provided you have a Memory Stick Pro Duo (which can be cheaply purchased at any retailer). As it stands, the PSPgo is probably best-suited for technophiles who simply must have the latest hardware, regardless of price.

For everyone else, there are still better (and cheaper) options available. With Sony’s digital software push spurred by the release of this all-digital model, now’s never been a better time to look into getting a PSP… it just shouldn’t necessarily be the PSPgo.

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Nick Chester
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