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PSP sets new standard for hand-held gaming

Sony's long-awaited unit hits stores this week

By Sid Lipsey
CNN Headline News' Showbiz Tonight

For coverage of the celebrity-filled PSP launch watch  "Showbiz Tonight" on CNN Headline News  Thursday at 7pm, 10pm and midnight E.T.
Video Games
Sony Corporation

NEW YORK (CNN) -- It's the biggest thing to happen to electronic gadgets since the AA battery.

After an extremely successful product launch in Japan, Sony is about to hit the United States with a miniature marvel of engineering that promises to revolutionize the way people amuse themselves while on airplanes, in waiting rooms, or simply walking down the street. Gadget geeks are giddy with anticipation; they know that this $200 tiny trinket from Japan is, without a doubt, the must-have item of -- 1979.

Wait, that should be "2005." Sorry for the temporal typo.

But with Thursday's release of the PlayStation Portable (PSP), Sony's new handheld video game and media player, it's hard not to be reminded of the hoopla that greeted the original Sony Walkman back during the Carter administration.

That hoopla turned out to be justified; the Walkman indeed changed the way people listen to music. And it's clear that the Walkman's corporate grand-nephew, the PSP, aims to similarly change the way people play video games, watch movies, share pictures as well as listen to music. We'll have to wait to see if it succeeds. But one thing is certain: the PSP is a cool toy and a gorgeous one at that.

A gamer's delight

At the center of the smartly-designed PSP is an ample 4.3-inch flat-panel LCD display that's so flawlessly sleek, the first thumbprint it gets will be as aesthetically traumatic to a smitten owner as that first scratch on a shiny new car.

PSP versions of some well-known PlayStation games are now available -- including the addictive drivin'-and-shootin' game "Twisted Metal: Head On" and a new, more strategy-based entry in the "Metal Gear" action series, "Metal Gear Acid."

In those games, as well as in the other new PSP titles, the detailed 3-D graphics represent the closest any portable gaming system has come to matching the clarity of home consoles like the PS2 and Xbox (but "cut scenes" -- those movie-like animated interludes you see on many console games -- don't fare quite as well on the PSP). PlayStation 2 owners will be happy to see that the layout of PSP's buttons is almost identical to that of the PS2 controller.

Also like the PS2 and Xbox, the PSP lets you play online. If you have a wireless access point in your home, you can configure a PSP for multiplayer gaming over the Internet. You and up to 15 other PSP owners within a radius of a few dozen feet can square off via a so-called "ad-hoc" wireless network.

As Sony is fond of pointing out, the PSP is not just for gaming. The gadget plays movies and games on a Universal Media Disc (UMD), a format Sony created for the PSP.

The first million PSPs sold in the United States come with a free UMD version of the movie, "Spider-Man 2." So far only a handful of movies, including "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," will be available on the PSP in the near future. But if enough people buy the PSP and if Sony has learned its lesson about encouraging others to make compatible products for its gadgets, you can expect movie studios to release many more films in the UMD format.

Limited music and movie capability

The PSP can also play music and movie clips as well as store JPEG pictures. But as is the case with many other small, multi-functional gadgets, those capabilities on the PSP are limited -- partly because it has no hard drive and the 32 MB Memory Stick Duo card that comes with it isn't nearly enough to hold any significant amount of media.

While the Apple iPod famously boasts a capacity of 10,000 songs, you'll be lucky to cram half a CD onto the PSP as currently sold.

So if you plan to do any serious music or picture storing on a PSP, you should spring for a bigger memory card. And if you don't have one, you'll also need a USB cable to connect a PSP to your computer. Curiously, a USB cable is not included in Sony's $249 "Value Pack," which includes the PSP and several accessories -- including the memory card, a soft carrying case, remote-controlled headphones, battery pack, AC adapter and soft cleaning cloth.

Because it holds far less music than the iPod and is more expensive than Nintendo's more kid-friendly DS and Game Boy hand-helds, the PSP probably won't be replacing those gadgets just yet.

But the PSP still earns its rep as the year's "it" device -- somewhere in gadget heaven, the old `79 Sony Walkman is beaming with pride.

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