Editorial: Sony’s PSP will conquer CES, but not iPod | iLounge Article

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Editorial: Sony’s PSP will conquer CES, but not iPod

Over the course of the last year, iLounge has watched but only infrequently commented on challenges to Apple Computer’s iPod portable digital music platform, as the majority of our readers are not interested in potential competitors unless they offer truly different and worthwhile new features. In recent months, however, we have used iLounge Backstage as a place to discuss and review certain complementary and competing products, in hopes of offering our readers greater perspective on future features that may eventually make their way into the iPod market.

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If you’re not already familiar with Sony’s new PlayStation Portable (PSP), you should be. (We have run extensive coverage of the PSP on Backstage at these links: Initial Preview, Semi-Review, Photo Gallery 1, and Photo Gallery 2.) Released in Japan last month for under $200, the PSP takes one step forward and two steps back from Microsoft’s fall 2004 Portable Media Center devices, offering music (MP3/ATRAC), video (MPEG-4), photo (JPEG/etc.), and game playback capabilities - all in a beautiful, heavily iPod-influenced enclosure.

Sony executives have repeatedly suggested that the PSP will compete against the iPod - initially claiming a direct competition on features, but more recently opting for a less direct competition for luxury spending dollars. Not coincidentally, but oddly, Sony’s official PSP headphones and wrist strap (as shown below) are sold in iPod-signature white, even though the rest of the PSP hardware is jet black. And today, the company has announced that the PSP will “probably” be available in the United States in March of 2005 - sooner than many people expected, likely rushed to fight off growing sales of both Apple and Nintendo portable hardware.

In the articles above, we have strongly praised the PlayStation Portable’s 4.3” widescreen LCD, several of its launch games, and the overall quality of its physical design. We have been testing the PSP hardware and software for three weeks now, and found plenty to love about the new platform. The PSP’s game and video playback are highly impressive, featuring graphics that absolutely humiliate Nintendo’s long running Game Boy platforms and recently released Nintendo DS portable. Sony’s choice to include MPEG-4 video support and MPEG-3 audio support almost make up for the facts that it left out Dolby Surround audio and the ability to connect the PSP to a TV. It is a portable game system without peer.

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Moreover, we strongly believe that Sony’s decision to announce the PSP’s American release at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES) will attract some of the most substantial international media attention the portable consumer electronics market has seen in a decade. As it has now failed with both Walkman- and VAIO-branded products to effectively compete against the iPod, Sony is putting its full force behind the PlayStation brand as a means to take out both gaming rival Nintendo and digital music rival Apple. Because of its mass-market friendly pricing and CES’s traditional focus on far more expensive products, the PSP will stand out - at least until next week’s Macworld Expo - as a relatively affordable and undeniably cool piece of hardware.

But the PlayStation Portable is no iPod, at least, not for the masses. Like so many other Sony products, the initial price tag doesn’t include the proprietary extras you’ll need to really use the device as a movie or music player. And they’re expensive.

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PSPs do not include hard disks, as do today’s iPods and Microsoft’s Portable Media Centers, and instead rely on two proprietary storage media for music/video/photo/game playback. One is Sony’s third-generation MiniDisc, now re-branded as the “Universal Media Disc” (UMD), a 1.8GB dual-layer optical disc. The other is a third-generation Memory Stick called Memory Stick Pro Duo, a more expensive and less available competitor to CompactFlash. In other words, if you want to watch a movie or listen to music on the PSP, you need to buy special pre-recorded discs or separate memory cards, and most likely will need extra software to convert movies you own for PSP viewing. The discs will sell for upwards of $25 a piece, and official Sony Memory Stick Pro Duos sell for more than $300 per 1 Gigabyte card. (Third-parties sell them for a $199 MSRP per Gig.)

The PSP also has comparatively weak battery life. Microsoft’s devices get between 7 and 22 hours of play time for video and audio, and the considerably more pocketable iPods run for between 8 and 17. Sony’s PSP is specced to run for 4 to 10 hours depending on whether it’s playing games, video, or music, and actually gets less than that depending on a number of factors, including UMD drive accessing and use of its built-in wireless game networking features. Under the most demanding circumstances, the PSP may run for under 2 hours on a single battery charge.

Music playback isn’t iPod-caliber impressive, either. We’re not impressed by Sony’s cheap-feeling headphones and remote controls that were custom-made for the PSP, and found the hardware’s lack of a USB cable and easy-to-use music library management software to be sticking points in rendering the device practically useful for MP3 listening. Thankfully, playlists can be made, but they’re nowhere near as easy to transfer to the PSP as in Apple’s iTunes. It also goes without saying that the PSP doesn’t fit into a pocket: as our Photo Galleries show, it’s considerably larger than an iPod, and for that matter, virtually any portable music player currently being sold.

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There have also been concerns about the PSP’s build quality and durability. Numerous reports of PlayStation Portable defects followed within hours of the Japanese launch of the device, with many users reporting screen problems, misaligned components, or that their UMD drives spontaneously popped open during gameplay. These PSP issues follow large numbers of complaints from PlayStation and PlayStation 2 owners regarding CD and DVD drives that die after only six or twelve months of regular use, amongst other problems. Because of its glossy iPod-style casing and questionable durability, it’s fair to assume that you’ll need to handle the PSP with kid gloves (say nothing of protective, anti-shock cases) to prevent it from being damaged.

Sony may be able to partially solve the screen problems. Reports out of Asia suggest that the company is planning to switch LCD screen suppliers from Sharp to Samsung, yielding screens with fewer pixel defects but less accurate color rendition. As it has decided to rush the PSP to Western consumers, though, it is still unclear whether Sony will correct the other hardware problems before the ‘probable’ March 2005 U.S. launch of the platform.

Since so many companies now evoke the iPod’s name just to get media attention, we’ve generally opted not to report on “bandwagon” stories. It’s especially ironic given Sony’s previous Walkman history that the company has needed to use the iPod’s name to tout the PlayStation Portable as more than just a super-expensive Game Boy. But in the absence of a video- and game-playing iPod, the PlayStation Portable definitely merits a look from iLounge readers with interests in those spheres. Just don’t expect a device that’s as elegantly implemented, or completely useful out of the box as the iPod.

Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.

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Comments

1

Do any of these hand-helds do 3D first-person shooters? I’d think they would now have more than enough power to run something equivalent to the original Unreal Tournament. Multiplayer FPS would be enough fun to make my buy a hand-held game device… if my friends had the same.

I don’t pay much attention to consoles (I like my games to have mouse control and free downloadable demos/add-ons, so I game on Mac), but these portable gizmos are actually slightly tempting. Especially if a 2nd-gen PSP fixes some glitches (TV-out!) and costs a bit less.

No offense against iPod Bricks :)

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 5, 2005 at 9:49 PM (CST)

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They’ve been doing rudimentary 3D FPS titles on handhelds for a while, but the PSP has the horsepower to do serious ones - similar (perhaps not identical) to anything you’d see on a PlayStation 2, which is to say equal to or better than Unreal Tournament.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 5, 2005 at 10:06 PM (CST)

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all in a beautiful, heavily iPod-influenced enclosure.

Is it really? It looks like a pretty cheap case with standard cursor buttons. It looks cheap! Sony has done better in the past design-wise - Sony’s VGF-AP1 mp3/video player or HMP-A1 are IMHO exhibits much more “ipod design” influence:

http://reviews.designtechnica.com/images/reviews/sony/hmp-a1/a1_1.jpg
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/05/11/sony_vaio_pocket.jpg
They don’t play video games, of course, but they do look classier and in terms of features they are more ipod-comparable: 20GB drives, 2.2/3.3” color LCDs.

Lukewarm reviews though.

This is where the real threat from Sony lies - by dint of its size Sony can keep bringing out one or two different models a year attempting to build an entire ecology of value-linked machines and pushing them through its vast supply network. Sony is relentless.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 5, 2005 at 10:09 PM (CST)

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Not a single person who has seen the PSP in person would describe it as “cheap” looking in any way, shape or form. Sort of like the iPod, you need to see it for yourself. Look at the photo galleries to get a better idea, if you haven’t already.

Re: those other Sony devices, the only visual similarities they bear to the iPod are the headphones and the fact that they have screens. They’re comparable functionally, but haven’t done well for Sony at all, hence, the push behind the PSP.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 5, 2005 at 10:30 PM (CST)

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Im going to keep it simple. I love my Ipod, but comparing it to Sony’s PSP it’s not wise. They are two completly different systems with different goals. One is MUSIC, the other one is VIDEO GAMES. The only thing they have in common I guess is the fact that they are both targeted to the same audience….human beings :-/.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 5, 2005 at 10:55 PM (CST)

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Future dreaming:

I would love it if these things had a trackpad on the right for aiming and firing, plus a D-pad on the left for moving (plus finger triggers and other functions). It would be REAL FPS aim control at last!

I can’t aim with a trackpad as well as with a mouse, but it’s not half bad. Aiming with a D-pad/stick/buttons… now THAT I can live without. Sure, you can get used to it, but it won’t ever be as easy as point-and-aim. I could NOT play Halo on X-Box for this reason. But I CAN play those games on my PowerBook with trackpad. That would be really cool on a PSP.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 5, 2005 at 11:43 PM (CST)

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Nagromme. Let me introduce you to my friend mr DS.

http://ds.ign.com

Metroid Prime Hunters. Move with arrows, shoot with L, aim gun with touch pad.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 5, 2005 at 11:50 PM (CST)

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To be honest, the PSP is mainly a game console so you cannot really compare it to an ipod as that is not what it is aiming to be

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 6, 2005 at 10:15 AM (CST)

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the only visual similarities they bear to the iPod are the headphones and the fact that they have screens

I’ll take your word for it that the PSP looks and feels a lot classier in person than it does in the photos!

I meant a resemblance to the iPod in those two Sony device because, on first visual inspection, they *look* a lot better designed, they seem to project a greater aesthetic, than the PSP. And that’s also what the iPod does. Neither they, nor the PSP, resemble the iPod in form.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 6, 2005 at 10:38 AM (CST)

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Nice! I never realized the DS’s lower screen was also a touchpad. Sounds like it’s pretty close to working well for FPS games:

http://www.dignews.com/review.php?story_id=6549

Then again, I usually have my PowerBook with me, and every UT 2004 mod known to modern science… But smaller is cooler :)

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 6, 2005 at 11:34 AM (CST)

1

I agree with Demosthenes.  The PSP looks huge, bulky, and it’s black…  It definitely seems to be a competitor of the Nintendo DS, but I don’t think the iPod will have games as advanced as a gameboy anytime in the near future.  After all, it’s a music player!

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 6, 2005 at 12:13 PM (CST)

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i have been a long-time Sony fan; i have probably 50 pieces of Sony gear.  i also have several iPods and Apple computers.  what i don’t get is why it seems so important to Sony and “others” to produce “iPod killers”?  why do all of these other companies seem to think that they’re, somehow, “entitled” to be the industry leader?  Apple has produced a great product in the iPod and iTunes system; they put a lot of research and effort to provide “us” with a product that was sorely needed.  where was Sony and the “others” before?  Sony seems preoccupied with introducing new “standards” that never seem to pan out (anyone remember the Elcassette?).  at this time, the iPod is just simply the best and most user friendly music player available.  no-one seems to be too upset when micro$oft dominates the world; yet, when Apple produces a successfull product, everyone goes crazy.  just get over it; there’s room for all.  if, for some reason, you don’t like Apple products, then don’t use them!  i still enjoy my multitude of Sony products, alongside my Apple products.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 6, 2005 at 12:16 PM (CST)

1

> what i don’t get is why it seems so important to Sony and “others” to produce “iPod killers”?

I suppose CEO egos (say that 10 times fast) may be involved sometimes (Real?), but for the most part I don’t think competitors REALLY care if they “kill” the iPod or not. They want to make a ton of money any way they can, and being the top device would be great. But by playing off the iPod name, they draw press attention. They can leech a little free publicity off of Apple’s success. That’s just smart, really.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 6, 2005 at 4:58 PM (CST)

1

One major failing of the PSP is that there’s not really anything new their - no inovation. Surely its just a shrunk down PS2 with a (very nice) large screen, are you going to buy music and films on UMDs that can’t play on anything else? Or are you going to listen to 1 or 2 albums off of a memory stick. I think it is little comptetion for the iPod. Are the games any good, or are they just PS2 ports? You criticise the Nintendo DS’s graphics but fail to say how Nintendo is inovating with their new console, offering methods of input and ways of playing not seen in mass-market gaming.
I like gadgets and don’t like all this “convergence” putting all the things I like into one gadget. I like lots of gadgets that do things, not a “jack of all trades, master of none” device.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 7, 2005 at 1:31 PM (CST)

1

In my comment i didn’t mean to make out there were no good PS2 games, just that if they’re ports then we’ve seen them before - there’s nothing new….

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 7, 2005 at 1:34 PM (CST)

1

I think the reason people are going after Apple with iPod killers are varied.  One Apple is making a ton of money on the iPod and company’s all want to make a ton of money.  There’s rarely ever a single industry leader in a big market for that long.  Aside from Microsoft in OS there’s nothing really to compare the iPod’s success to.  Imagine if 85% of all cars sold were BMWs, that’s how unlikely this seems to all these music companies.  Lastly everyone remembers what happened with the Apple II and then the Macintosh.  Apple comes out and sets the field and then someone else (Microsoft) takes it over.  Every article we read about iTunes’s AAC files only working on the iPod the pundits bring up the Apple II and Macintosh.  Everyone outside of a few Apple/iPod devotes (like myself) believes that some how within 5 years not only won’t the iPod be the industry leader but Apple will have some how self-destructed its market share and turned it into a niche device ala their PCs.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 8, 2005 at 12:30 AM (CST)

1

In my opinion the PSP will not compete heavily against the iPod. iPod plays music; PSP plays games. PSP is bigger; not gonna be used as a portable MP3 player except by fanatics. Hey, the Playstation2 plays CDs and DVDs but fairly rarely is that a selling point! Similarly with the PSP, it has the capability to play videos and MP3s but thats nothing somebody’s gonna spend a lot of time doing on it. Its for games! I find it weird that people are seeing the PSP as such an “iPod attack” by Sony. Sony want to get some of that iPod market share, naturally, but they’re using their Walkman brand to do this (not very well! They’ve only just got rid of the ATRAC format requirement that was killing them). By the way I think the PSP looks good, and doesnt look anything like the iPod (which also looks good). Just because a product has a good design DOES NOT mean it’s an attempt to copy Apple! Good design is not unique to Apple! Certain iPod fans, in my little opinion, tend to see the world thru iPod-tinted glasses.. Cool yer jets! Thank you, rant over.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 8, 2005 at 10:20 AM (CST)

1

As the article explains, it’s actually Sony, not iPod fans, who has been positioning the PSP against the iPod. That’s why there’s discussion of that. And yes, it’s silly :)

(PS, re people who think iPod will lose its domination of the music market just because the Mac lost its domination of the PC market… The Mac never HAD the PC market. MS was always on top—thanks to MS buying DOS. Just one of many reasons there is no parallel here—this is the OPPOSITE situation. Apple is MS this time—except they’ve done it by quality, not just by being first.)

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 8, 2005 at 12:43 PM (CST)

1

The Mac never HAD the PC market. MS was always on top—thanks to MS buying DOS

But at the time IBM launched the PC, the personal computer market was owned by Apple - to the extent of around 50% - and had been for four years. MS was a programming tools vendor for many platforms, and was much much smaller than the likes of Visicorp and Lotus. IBM launched a new category of computer that soon overtook Apple’s sales and then dwarfed them.

It’s also worth noting that the IBM PC shipped with several choices of operating system: MS-DOS (PC-DOS is you bought it direct from IBM), CP/M-86, and the Java precursor, the UCSD p-system. Nobody was forced to by MS-DOS, at least not initially. MS simply did not have enough market leverage to act like a monopolist it would later become.

MS’s success was by no means assured in the face of fierce competition from other OS vendors. Additionally, the early PC clones had no common BIOS and so “compatibility” between different MS-DOSs running on different machines was dubious at best. MS won that war mainly by its promiscuous and aggressive licensing strategy - they sold MS-DOS to anyone and everyone who wanted it. By comparison, Apple spent much of the 80s suing first the Apple ][ cloners, and then the GUI lookalikes.

IBM actually rewrote MS-DOS to create PC-DOS. The scary thing is that IBM is still selling PC DOS today.

I apologise for this discursion but commercial history is rarely as linear or neat as it is presented in pop histories.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 8, 2005 at 7:29 PM (CST)

1

Check on Versiontracker.  There is already a Mac utility called iPSP that can interface with the PSP and do playlists, etc. and can transfer music, photos, video and more to the PSP!

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on January 9, 2005 at 12:07 PM (CST)

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