The rumor mill was running rampant. Sony’s new handheld gaming device, the PSP (which stands for PlayStation Portable), has garnered just as much negative hype as it has glowing plaudits: From talk of dead pixels on the breathtaking screen to the springing disc eject that comes from twisting the unit and the half-functioning square button, it seems as if Sony sold its soul to the devil for the chance to sell a product like the PSP, simply because no gadget this beautiful has ever been so well designed.

Sony is selling the PSP as an all-encompassing device, perfect for storing and viewing photos and home movies, for playing games and for listening to music. Nebulous promises to support Internet browsing through the PSP’s WiFi capabilities were also made before its launch. The reality is that the PSP isn’t really as optimal a device for listening to music as Apple’s iPod. The gadget doesn’t feature a convenient method for organizing and categorizing music, and the available space for music is only as much as is on the removable Memory Stick media. Sony only includes a 30 MB stick with purchase; to amass anything close to a sizable music collection (like 1 GB) on the PSP would cost nearly as much as you would pay for an iPod Mini — which is capable of storing five times as much data.

The most talked-about issue related to the PSP concerns Sony’s use of the proprietary UMD (Universal Media Disc) as its removable media. Because the PSP must constantly stream information from this disc, its battery will drain in three to five hours, depending on disc access. While that may not seem like a lot of time, tests revealed that it was more than sufficient for casual gaming during the day, and the power cord can be plugged in at night. With the exception of a long road trip or plane ride, the PSP’s battery is robust enough for most casual gamers.

When players actually get their hands on a PSP — which should be pretty easy to do, despite Sony’s past problems with short product supplies — they’ll find its look and feel unsurpassed in the world of portable gaming. The device’s fit and finish is sleek, with its reflective black plastic casing and massive screen. Its design is functional as well: The buttons are comfortable, noise from the spinning UMD is virtually nonexistent during gameplay and the sliding thumb “nub” serves well as a familiar and natural substitute for the analog control stick.

Every rumor, good and bad, about the PSP’s much-discussed screen is true: It’s gorgeous, bright and expansive — it’s the first thing gamers will notice when they initially pick up a PSP. Sony’s first shipment has had problems with dead pixels and even trapped air bubbles inside the screen, but the company vows to replace any defective model immediately. Besides, there are so many pixels on the screen that a dead one or two isn’t noticeable. The device is also plagued by some chromatic aberrations during movies and some trailing refresh rate problems during games, but both of these glitches could be solved simply with encoding.

Critics who are sounding the death knell for Nintendo’s DS portable system and for the iPod should take note: The PSP should not be compared to the DS and will not dethrone the giant of portable music. Quite simply, the PSP doesn’t handle music well enough to kill the iPod, nor does it present the same caliber of courageous innovation as the DS.

Sony’s new wonder device has its fair share of shortcomings, but the potential of the PlayStation Portable is staggering. It may not slay the iPod or replace televisions, but it certainly redefines the potential of the portable gaming system.

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