Portable Positioning

Sony's new PSP will need to dazzle.

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There's little question about which platform holder has the most riding on its E3 performance. Certainly, it will be fascinating to see how Nintendo plans to maintain its success for another year, while Microsoft's rumoured motion controller and future software line-up is of great interest - but it's Sony whose conference will be watched most closely.

The reasons for that are twofold. Firstly, Sony - having led the market for over a decade - is now struggling. The PS3 is in third place behind Nintendo and Microsoft and while it's selling remarkably well considering its high price point, it simply isn't building installed base at the rate it needs to challenge its competitors. The PSP, although a success by many measures, has sold less than half the units of its rival, the DS - a rival it was widely predicted to crush when both devices were announced.

Secondly, and perhaps as a consequence of the first, Sony's intentions at E3 have been widely speculated about. The PSP is seen as a likely candidate for a major hardware overhaul, while the PS3's much-discussed price drop has now been overtaken by rumours of a hardware redesign which would significantly slim down the big black box. Unusually for a mid-cycle E3, the indications are that Sony's conference will be as much about hardware as it is about software.

For my part, I'm extremely dubious that we'll see any immediate change to the PS3 strategy in the coming months. Were I a gambler, I'd place my bet on a price drop to the hardware this autumn, rather than at E3. If a slim PS3 is to be introduced, I'd also expect to see that in autumn - potentially being introduced at a relatively high price point, allowing the existing hardware to remain on the market at a reduced price level. By reshuffling the hardware line-up in autumn, Sony would be able to keep the new system and price points looking fresh as we head into the vital pre-Christmas market.

The PSP, however, looks like a shoo-in for a refresh at E3. Changes to the PS3 at the conference would surprise me - it simply seems too early. However, if the company doesn't announce a change of direction for its handheld console, that'll be an even bigger surprise.

Despite managing to sell around 50 million units to date, the PSP is a console which presently finds itself beset by problems from all sides. While some of those problems relate to the astonishing success of the Nintendo DS, others are of the platform's own making. The system's design, praised for its fantastic screen, suffers from a variety of crippling problems.

It's too big, for a start. Sony would like people to see the PSP as the portable media device of choice, but the form factor - while relatively comfortable for gaming - just doesn't lend itself to being popped into a pocket and carried around as a replacement for an iPod.

Part of the reason for that form factor, and one of the PSP's other huge problems, is the UMD drive. UMD has been, as its critics predicted from the outset, a disaster. UMD movies were overpriced, low quality and unappealing. The drive is noisy and sucks away battery power when in use. The discs are bulky (for a portable device), fragile and slow, contributing to terrible load delays on many PSP titles.

The PSP has piracy problems, the scale of which it's tricky to estimate. Some of those problems simply arise because the pirates can crack the system and get games for free - but Sony hasn't helped matters by designing its hardware and software such that pirates actually get a better, more enjoyable user experience than paying customers.

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