These days, it seems like every hot new portable
entertainment gadget gets compared to the iPod
, so it's no surprise that columns and blog entries are already pitting Sony's PlayStation Portable, the PSP
, against the iPod, even before the PSP comes ashore in North America. Some would argue, of course, that it's not--excuse the pun--an apples-to-apples comparison. But ever since Sony, after years of MP3 ineptitude, started talking up the PSP as much more than a gaming device--complete with rumors
of rolling out an accompanying iTunes-like music service of its own--the whole iPod vs. PSP thing has taken on epic, Ali-Frazier-like proportions. OK, maybe that's a little over the top. But it is Think Different vs. Like No Other. It is the Current Purveyor of Cool vs. Once and Future Purveyor. It is Company Savior vs. Company Savior. And in gadget land, that all adds up to something moderately epic.
Sony's PSP: coming
March 24 for $249
So what will happen on March 24 when the Value Pack bundle of the PSP hits stores for $249, the same price as an iPod Mini? No, Apple won't suddenly have a hard time selling iPods (partly because the PSP will initially be in short supply). But for the first time in some time, Steve Jobs will be confronted with a product that's cooler than his, including the just-released (and massively overhyped) Mac Mini and iPod Shuffle.
I've had a chance to play with the PSP a few times over the last few months, but I got a more extensive tryout a couple of weeks ago with EA's launch titles, which include NBA Street Showdown, FIFA 2005, Tiger Woods 2005, MVP Baseball, NFL Street 2 Unleashed, and Need For Speed Rivals. The presentation and graphics aren't quite up to PlayStation 2 levels, but they're darn close, and if you're a fan of any of these titles--and other PS2 games coming to the platform (24 titles will be available at launch)--having them in a portable format is about as killer as it gets. For now, Nintendo DS games--graphically anyway--just aren't in the same league. Frankly, they almost seem retro in comparison.
EA's FIFA 2005 for the PSP
I've seen video on the PSP--the first million who buy the Value Pack will receive Spider-Man 2 (on the PSP's proprietary UMD optical-disc format)--and it also looks good. So do digital images, which can be served up from a Memory Stick Pro Duo memory card. The device comes with a 32MB card, but you'll want to opt for an extra 512MB or higher-capacity card if you're going to keep a library of music, images, and videos on the machine. And music fans will be particularly happy to hear that Sony has finally wised up and included native MP3 support on the PSP--no more arduous transcoding to the company's proprietary ATRAC3 format.
As slick as it is, the PSP does have some downsides. Using an optical, spinning disc format has created a challenge for game makers to keep load times down--I experienced 10-to-20-second load times between levels on some games, but these were admittedly nonoptimized, prerelease versions. More critical, however, is the battery-life issue: initial reports have the PSP pooping out after 3.5 to 4 hours of playtime. Turn on the built-in Wi-Fi (EA's sports titles offer peer-to-peer wireless gaming, but no online gaming--yet), and the battery life will undoubtedly suffer even more. The user interface, meanwhile, seems pretty good--it's been refined for the U.S. version of the device--but I have my doubts Sony can deliver an iTunes-like experience with its rumored music service and any other PSP-related software it creates. And lastly, the games are expensive--premium titles will go for $40.
Though it hasn't given any official word on what PSP add-on accessories and applications are in the works, Sony's definitely indicated that its device is more than a gaming machine. Web browsing, word processing, PDA functionality, and even VoIP have been rumored and seem like plausible extensions, along with keyboard, camera, and GPS attachments. However, how you'll get programs--or use them on the PSP (UMD? Wi-Fi download? USB-connected accessory? Memory card?)--is still very much up in the air. But the point is the PSP is a minicomputer with some powerful graphics capabilities and a sharp wide-screen display (480x272; 4.3 inches diagonal) that is priced pretty affordably in its base configuration. Yes, your standard iPod is smaller and has far greater storage capacity, but even the $500 iPod Photo's color screen is tiny and lackluster by comparison.
Namco's PSP-optimized Ridge Racer
Don't get me wrong, the iPod is great, but the PSP is about to show that the iPod is played out in its current form. Apple can make some tweaks to the iPod's design, it can strip out features and make a flash player (the Shuffle), but as a music player, it's basically cooked, there isn't really anywhere to go except down in price. A few features could be added, but they'd largely be internalizing many of the more popular iPod accessories, such as a voice recorder or a transmitter for wirelessly streaming your tunes onto an FM tuner. To get to the next level, to make something as insanely cool as the PSP, Apple will have to make some major changes. Yeah, there've been rumors of a home unit for streaming iTunes to the living room. I've also read some posts about a portable or home unit with satellite-radio capabilities. But while those are nice dreams, they're not next-gen iPod material.
Mr. Jobs has famously said he will not make a video iPod, something I pleaded for him to do a while back. He also famously said he wouldn't do a flash-based iPod or a supercheap Mac--so believe what you will. But I have a feeling that this summer, if Mr. Jobs were to get on a New York City subway or ride up from Sunnyvale to San Fran on a Caltrain, he'd be seeing a lot of guys (and quite a few gals) listening to--and watching--their PSPs instead of their iPods. I'll probably be one of them.
Do you think the PSP is going to steal mindshare and market share from the iPod? What should Apple do? And what kind of features would you like to see in a next-gen iPod? Get your two cents in by clicking the TalkBack button now.
David Carnoy is an executive editor for CNET Reviews.