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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

Sony's PSP Wows, but Only if You Stick to the Games

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page F07

Sony has often won big by thinking small. Portable gizmos such as the Walkman, the Discman and the Handicam helped make this company the consumer electronics power it is today. But until now, it hasn't tried to run that play with its most successful product of the past decade, the PlayStation line of video-game machines.

That changes Thursday, when Sony introduces the PlayStation Portable -- PSP for short. This $250 device is Sony's answer to Nintendo's Game Boy and DS handhelds. It also represents yet another try by Sony to get into the portable-media market Apple's iPod owns.

Rob Pegoraro says the $250 Sony PlayStation Portable is a 'peerless' gaming machine, 'combining sharp graphics, deep game play and easy online connectivity.' (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)

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The PSP does only one of those jobs well, and you can probably guess which one. As a portable game machine, it's a peerless piece of work, combining sharp graphics, deep game play and easy online connectivity. As a multimedia gadget, however, it's a dud.

The PSP's sleek appearance backs up its gaming orientation. This booklet-sized device -- 6 5/8 inches by 2 7/8 inches by 15/16 inches, weighing 11 ounces with headphones and remote control -- carries a similar layout of buttons to that of a PlayStation 2 controller, plus a sharp, wide-format color display. At about 4 1/4 inches wide, with a 480-by-272 resolution, it's larger than other game players' displays and almost as sharp as those on handheld organizers.

The sum of these parts looks just different enough from other portable widgets -- and cool enough in its own right -- to draw reactions from passerby that range from intrigued to awestruck.

The PSP's breakthrough feature, however, can't be seen from outside. Its WiFi receiver allows PSPs to link up for peer-to-peer wireless gaming or, if within range of a separate WiFi access point, competition across the Internet. That second option is absent from the PSP's chief competitor, Nintendo's $150 DS. (Web access would have been a pleasant bonus but there is no browser available on the PSP.)

Setting up a PSP for Internet game play is harder than necessary, thanks to Sony's awkward interface for entering the lengthy alphanumeric encryption key most WiFi access points require.

Otherwise, though, multiplayer mayhem on the PSP is laughably simple. Select "multiplayer" from a game's menu, choose between local or Internet-wide contests (in a fit of jargon, the PSP calls them "ad hoc" and "infrastructure"), then wait for opponents to show up.

In The Post's newsroom, two PSPs joined the same game in seconds and maintained the connection up to about 110 feet away. Two Internet-hosted games were almost as quick to set up and showed no signs of lag, the slow response time that can gum up online games.

You can also play PSP titles solo, of course, but it's just more fun to compete against other people. You don't get the same sublime sense of satisfaction when the car you incinerate with a hail of missiles is driven by the computer instead of your co-worker.

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