I've always been pretty impressed with the Sony PSP overall; brilliant screen, some good gaming options, music and video playing, and even a crappy yet capable web browser. Still, Sony (like Apple and a million other companies) likes to mess with its customers and so to really get the full value of your purchase you have to 'unlock' the device - imagine buying a car that can only fill half a tank of gas except on Fridays, where all you have to do is fiddle with this warranty removing knob to get the full deal. Anyway, planning for a short trip I have been mulling over what gadgetry would be good to bring along.
Ideally I won't need a gadget at all, but should like some options if I find myself bored with a napping baby. You could try for a micro-laptop such as a 'netbook' or UMPC but they tend to be pretty expensive (you'd cry if it were lost, stolen or crushed in transit) and too large for a pocket; a PDA which can excel at internet communications, ebook and multimedia, but tends not to be a solid game machine for long trips; a smartphone, should you wisk to have people bothering you on your vacation. Options options.
Anyway, for a short non-working trip, the things I'd like the option to do are: ebook reading (avoid carrying cumbersome and heavy books), video watching (from video files, not internet streams), some gaming, and idle web browsing. I'm not worried about email or heavy duty activities in this case. (Should you need to do email or document edittig or whatever, then you may want a netbook or whatever.)
Rearding ebooks, I'm not going to go on a tirade about DRM and locked up data and cost versus real hardcover books and so on - I've probably ranted about that before. Suffice to say I only use open formats such as RTF and HTML and textfiles; for the PSP there are few book reader options and no time for me to write a new one so I fretted a touch, though I eventually found the most excellent BookR open source app. Because it is not Sony-blessed you'll need an unlocked PSP (free and legal, if frowned upon by corporate masters.) This is what I meant above -- if theres no sensible book reader, they shouldn't be locking down a perfectly capable device. Likewise with video -- the built in video tools only let you watch low res video except for Sony UMD bought videos. Thats just evil in my opinion -- artificial limits to encourage you to buy their products.. a clear conflict of interest. Anyway I'll go on about that later in this post.
There are some really goofy attempts to do things on the level, such as an app that reads ebooks and spits out a million image files (multiple images per book page) and you use the PSP built in picture viewer to 'read' the book; you thus don't get a memory of which page you've read to, but it sort of works. BookR is a PDF reader - which provided some reservations up front as most ebooks you get in PDF format are DRM'd to heck - but with PDF now being more or less an open format numerous converters now exist. I used the OpenOffice export-to-PDF option to convert RTF files to PDF, and good to go. I don't know if the application can render 'big' PDFs with charts and embedded crazyness but when it came to various ebooks I've bought in unDRMd format or ones I converted myself, it seems to work very well.
Further, with the PSP screen being very high resolution in the landscape orientation (480x272), you can have a full-width comfortable read of most PDFs .. you just have to scroll down the page as you read, no biggy. The application lets you zoom and pan and rotate so you can accomodate most files, but you don't want to do that when reading. If you're converting to PDF yourself you can of course just use a larger font and set the page-width should you wish to make the reading easier on the eyes. All told though, I loaded up a half dozen books onto the memstick, and I think I'll be fine. This is a big one for me, a device-picking deal breaker, so good to know.
For video I thought to bring along some 'rips' of DVDs I own and videos I've downloaded. Sadly, most gadgets require you to 'transcode' a video into a format they can understand. This is pretty annoying, but I appreciate they're doing the playback via built in hardware and thus conserving battery. Doing video playback purely in software is a battery burner, and can be hard to keep up with the full framerate. (Mind you my older Palm and Windows Mobile devices could do it no problem, suggesting the fine TCPMP Core Codec people did good work.) Anyway, I found a bajillion freeware and open source tools to do the work (such as Universal PSP convert, and PSP Video Converter (pspvc), and others), as well as commercial offerings (from Sony and other third parties.) In the end, the freebie guys tend to work pretty well, and sometimes better. The commercial offerings tend to work easier and have better less cheesie UIs, but also tend to conform to the Sony recommended specs. Sony used to (maybe still does?) require video playback to be lower resolution that the PSP can actually show, to 'encourage' consumers to buy UMD videos on disc, which get full resolution playback. This is a dirty dirty maneauver due to conflict of interest for Sony .. selling a PSP, and also selling UMD videos. As I said, its like buying a car with things built in you can see, but are not allowed to use.. but you still pay for them. No way. So you have to unlock your PSP to get full potential - unlock a device you bought - the joy of the tech sector. Still, if you want to buy something that works well, has batch mode and so forth, there is Avex software which can convert to pretty much every device.
For DVD ripping I ended up picking up DVDFab (there is a free trial download as well), though there are dozens of similar products. DVDFab again honours the lower-than-real resolution, but does a pretty nice job of ripping straight from DVD to PSP ready formats. With their mobile option (a bit pricey altogether, but what the hell..) you can select a target device (ipod, PSP, etc) and it knows the appropriate parameters and voodoo.
In the end I carried a mix of videos at full resolution from open source transcoders, and some not-full-res rips from DVD using commercial apps. All told the PSP shows them both very well and the screen is so sharp (PSP original and PSP-2000, I've not seen a PSP-3000 in person). Win.
For gaming it is also worthy to unlock your PSP. (See a trend .. unlock for ebooks, unlock for superior video playback, unlock for gaming.) Carrying a pile of purchased games on UMDs is fine (I picked up little 5-pack carry widgets to keep UMDs stored nicely, cheap as dirt), but I prefer tech to lead to simplicity, not complexity. I don't wear a watch or carry a manpurse, or keep too much crap in my pockets. There are a few tools that 'rip' copies of game UMDs onto your memorystick. Usually this is for piracy, but stay clear. (I'm a software dev; I sell my stuff. It pays the bills, kthanks
Anyway, you can rip your games into raw files or a ".iso" disk image using various tools. Games are pretty big, and some keen folks know about removing unwanted files and so forth, but its a big hastle. In the end, you can pick up 4 gig, 8gig or even 16 gig memory sticks, and put a few games on there pretty easily.
Anyway, I didn't bother with much of that; what I was interested in was the PSP's built in PlaystationOne (PSOne, PSX, whathaveyou) emulator. Naturally, just as with Sony's UMD resolution devilry, made it so the built in emulator is meant to play only specifically authorized PS1 games. On the one hand this is probably because they want to ensure the games play well in the PSP and not give you a bad experience, but its also obviously because they wish to re-sell you games you've already bought for a real PS1, and sell PS1 games to people who never had them before -- leverage old product for new revenue is bling bling to a company, of course. Still, with an unlocked PSP it is trivial to use open source tools to transform your PS1 ".iso" disc images into files the PSP built in PS1 emulator can use. Again you tread dark waters to get these tools sometimes, but they're legal and free, just frowned upon by Sony (of course, they just want your money.) Anyway, using a million variations of POPStation you can ready up any of your old PS1 games. I don't have many, only bought a few of the true classics. but more to point.. I converted Civilization 2.
Sure, in my Atari emulator you can play Civilization 1. But Civilization 2 for PS1 was designed for a handheld controller pad, not a computer keyboard, so works pretty well on the PSP. And I mean, its Civilization 2. A few hundred megabytes ,a fraction of your memstick, and you've got Civ in your pocket. Pretty hot.
Naturally, keep a couple good games in there; I keep Lego Indiana Jones in the UMD slot.
All told, the PSP is pretty inexpensive, yet a very capable device. Just you have to unlock it ('mod' with 'custom firmware' or the like) to get half its potential out there. If only Sony would release an official ebook solution.