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Originally published Thursday, March 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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PlayStation Portable: Sony's new handheld does a lot more than play games

The Roman aqueducts. The steam engine. The splitting of the atom. The Sony PSP. The feverish anticipation and boundless hype mark today's...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Roman aqueducts. The steam engine. The splitting of the atom. The Sony PSP.

The feverish anticipation and boundless hype mark today's launch of the latter as a watershed event in human technology — at least for anyone even remotely into video games.

After getting my hands on one, I can tell you that Mario and his posse ought to be sweating. But there are a few things that might give you pause — even if it's just a nanosecond — before you race to buy a PSP. That is, if there are any left to buy.

Shorthand for PlayStation Portable, the PSP is Sony's first crack at the handheld gaming market that Nintendo has owned cold up to now. It's sleek and elegant, about the size of a thick checkbook, slightly longer but with less girth than the Nintendo DS. And it's an utterly nifty grown-up toy that does a lot more than games.

It plays movies as well as the games on small UMDs (Universal Media Discs), a proprietary new medium that Sony's opening up to third parties for content. Slightly less than the diameter of a pop can, they're in plastic cartridges that prevent surface contact. The first million PSPs come with "Spider-Man 2."

The PSP can also play MP3 music files, show digital photos, allow wireless online play, and enable up to 16 players to connect for wireless head-to-head competition.

At $249 for a "value pack" that includes a bunch of accessories, the PSP is way more expensive than Nintendo's Game Boy Advance ($79.99) or DS ($149.99), but it's also that much superior in nearly every respect. (Unlike the DS, it has no touch screen.) As for the hated N-Gage taco-phone game thing, the less said the better.

Before we go any further, an admission: Despite the fact that it tickles me when the doctor on "House" fiddles with his Game Boy Advance while he makes patients wait, I've never been sold on mobile gaming. With generally weak games and graphics, it's something you do when you're bored or waiting, when you don't want to think or read or leer at other people. But the PSP may be the first handheld game device that you pick up on its own merits and not out of boredom.

The 3-D games look every bit as good on the high-resolution 4.3-inch screen as games on your PlayStation 2 and your TV. Retailing at $40-$50 each, though, they aren't cheap (compared with roughly $30-$35 for Game Boy Advance titles). Rent before you buy.

And while Nintendo's handheld titles have been mostly kid-oriented, Sony's planning a more diverse line-up for the PSP, from the "Everyone"-rated "Ape Escape" to the "Mature"-rated espionage of "Metal Gear Acid." The system is launching with 24 titles that include plenty of sports, too.

The rechargeable battery is said to last four to six hours, but I didn't spend that kind of quality time with it in one sitting. If your battery is running low, you can swap it without interrupting a game by plugging in the AC adapter first.

The controls will be familiar to anyone with a PS2, with the exception of a left-thumb pad in place of an analog joystick. It feels vaguely naughty, but operates well. The controls for movie-watching are a little less intuitive — the upper "L" and "R" buttons, for instance, move backward and forward by chapters, while the directional buttons are for visually fast-forwarding and reversing. No biggie once you get used to it.

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Now to the movies: "Spider-Man 2" and the previews with it looked tremendous. They're remarkably clear and vibrant on the PSP's widescreen display, and don't look funky when the angle shifts. Incidentally, don't look for a bunch of Merchant-Ivory in the roster of releases in the near future. They hew to the young-male demo with "Hellboy," "XXX" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."

Sony's UMD movies have lots of potential for the plane, the ferry or your math class, but I'm not sure I'd recommend them in place of a portable DVD player for full-size DVDs. Like a lot of people, I'm not thrilled about shelling out dough on yet another new movie format after bankrupting myself to replace my VHS tapes and laser discs with a library of DVDs. For that matter, I'm still bitter about the whole 8-track tape thing. See, you hit a plunger to change tracks. ... Must try to let that one go.

The UMD movies will cost about $20, which is comparable to most fully-loaded DVDs. But with a capacity of three times or so the data of a CD-ROM, the little discs won't hold much in the way of special features. You're paying for the portability. For these to be a success that lasts beyond the novelty, the price needs to come down, and they need to be easy to rent.

A few other minor complaints:

• The $249 "value pack" with all the accessories — a "sampler" UMD, a Memory Stick duo for downloading music and pictures, earphones, cleaning cloth, protective case. Consumers should have a choice just to buy the basics for less money. Maybe the ones who wait a few months will.

• The sound is weak, whether you're listening to the speaker or through earphones. You won't be able to hear it so well on a plane or ferry. Math classes tend to be quieter.

• The remote control on the earphone wire, about the size of a quarter, looks like a cheapo that won't withstand much.

• The PSP doesn't have a fishing-reel attachment. Arrogant Sony execs could have learned a thing or two from one Mr. Ron Popeil.

Maybe the PSP isn't quite in atom-splitting league, but it's still got enough going for it to be a big crossover success among game geeks and other life forms.

But is Mario shaking in his little boots? I asked George Harrison, Nintendo's senior VP of sales and marketing.

The DS has sold over 4 million units, and the Game Boy Advance/Game Boy Advance SP have sold more than 65.7 million units worldwide. There are 667 titles in the GBA's current library.

So is the PSP really a threat to such an entrenched adversary?

"I absolutely think there's a big enough market for a couple of systems," Harrison said. "In some ways, I think (the competition is) going to make the market grow."

He also talked a little smack: "They're trying to make a multimedia system, and we're trying to make more interesting ways to game."

Nonetheless, Harrison said that Nintendo has released an MP3 player for Game Boy in Japan and will release it stateside before the end of 2005.

At a game-developer's conference earlier this month, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata announced new strategies that include offering free Wi-Fi connection service to DS owners and nontraditional titles such as "Nintendogs" and "Electroplankton," which allow players to nurture pets and pursue harmony through voice recognition and touch-screen action.

Sounds like Sony has gotten everyone's attention, at the very least. I'm betting they keep it.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

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