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.
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.
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.
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.
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.