With the PlayStation Portable now officially available and nearly all of the 200,000-unit Japanese launch allocation already sold, word is getting around about some of the key issues that Sony has been unable or unwilling to address directly in the run-up to its December 12th launch.
Sony has previously said that the battery should last for around six hours while gaming. Having seen the units running at E3 and the Tokyo Game Show, not too many people believed this. Nintendo's various executives have even been taking the Mickey out of it while the rival DS handheld enjoys its moment in the spotlight.
However, with PSP units now in gamers' hands, word is spreading as to what the battery life of the unit is really like, and it's an interesting if somewhat disappointing tale. According to a number of reports from various sources, simple games like Lumines will happily run for several hours, but graphically intensive titles like Ridge Racers will, as had been speculated, rip through the battery in very little time at all. GameSpot has been bandying around a figure of between 90 minutes and three hours, although it's not entirely clear if the figure at the lower end assumes the power-hungry wireless networking functionality is turned on. IGN has a similar piece dissecting battery life in the form of a Battery Journal.
However, as we understand it, in the event that the battery does run down, you won't lose any progress, as the unit is aware of the danger and goes into sleep mode, saving the state of the game as it was.
Media playback, meanwhile, is another issue entirely. While playing back MP3s the PSP blacks out its screen to conserve energy, which is promising, but when it comes to playing back video - understood to be a pretty power-hungry task - there's less evidence to support actual figures because very few people are actually watching videos. Apart from the need to first convert any video files you may have to MPEG-4 format (something you can't easily do unless you go for a third-party transcoding program, or wait around for Sony to release its own version), according to various reports you will also have to create a whole new directory structure on your Memory Stick in order for the PSP to recognise the files.
Moving away from the issue of battery life, there's another PSP specific concern that a number of people are starting to pick up on, and that's loading times in games. Having spent our entire lives fiddling with cartridge-based handhelds, we almost forgot about these completely - but lo, the PSP is a disc-based handheld, and that means load times. As if to punish us, we'll have to sit and think about what we've done - since in some cases the load times are said to be quite long (Ridge Racers apparently takes 15 seconds at first, then 10-15 getting in or out of races), while only simple games like Lumines are speedy. For a more in-depth look at load times on the PSP, Lik-Sang has a nice roundup here.
However most of that you can probably get past. Or at least some of you can. What will be worrying particularly for importers and other early adopters is the volume of anecdotal evidence on forums about dead pixels and other problems. Dead pixels are an inherent risk in certain LCD-based devices (basically one or more of the pixels simply won't do anything, leaving a little black or discoloured spot somewhere on the screen), but since Nintendo has already agreed to replace any DS units with dead pixels in the States we'd imagine Sony will soon pledge to do the same - as soon as it's manufactured some more PSPs, anyway. What's really distressing though is that other more serious problems being also being reported. In some cases, for example, we're told that the UMD (disc) actually pops out of the drive at random, and there's even a small video circulating of this happening, while other users have complained that the analogue nub actually falls off, or that there are air bubbles and even dust trapped under the screen.
All that said, the Internet has always been a wonderful aggregator when it comes to negative feedback, and since we haven't seen 200,000 complaints we're guessing only a small fraction of users are affected. And, since we're reading a lot of this stuff in English, we can only assume most of the PSPs suffering problems also endured the passage to their present homes in the delicate hands of a transpacific courier company. After which you could argue it's lucky that they work at all.
Anyway, we'll be bringing you much more on the PlayStation Portable just as soon as we can convince someone to take our money in exchange for one. In the meantime, here's an example of a test we won't be putting our PSP through when we get hold of it - although admittedly that depends on whether Ridge Racers is as good as it should be.