Sony's PSP2 Is a Game-Changer—But You Can't Have It for Months


Sony revealed its PSP2 handheld games console this morning, and among the interesting innovations among its technical specs is the real secret to its success—a chipset that beats almost everything else out there this year. The problem is, the company's timing may be way off—the new console won't be available for several months, at the earliest.

The PlayStation Portable 2 has now had its official reveal, and it's packed full of high-tech novelties. There's a 5-inch touchscreen with 960 by 544 pixels (four times the resolution of the PSP) powered by OLED technology, one of the hottest, most eye-pleasing display systems out there. There's a rear-face touchpad which matches the front screen in size and positioning, twin analog control sticks that match the PS3's and beat the current PSP's single "nub," twin cameras, GPS, 3G connectivity, and the same gyro and motion sensors as in the PlayStation Move peripheral.

But the real secret inside the PSP2 is the chipset. The unit's main powerhouse is an ARM-based CPU—like many other portable devices, leveraging ARM's power-sipping skills—but it's based on an ARM Cortex A9 model, better than the more usual A8 chips. Sony's utilizing a quad-core architecture, and this gives the PSP2 an enormous amount of raw processing power that easily beats the current generation of smartphones, tablets, and other systems that use single or double-core ARM chips. The four cores also enable some multitasking skills, and indeed Sony's suggested you'll be able to activate the PSP2's wireless social sharing powers at the same time as playing a game.

And then there's the other chip, the GPU—absolutely key for driving a games console. Sony's chosen a PowerVR SGX543MP4+ unit for the job. It's another quad-core system, and PowerVR list its specs (when clocked at 200MHz core frequency, a stat we don't yet know for the PSP2) as delivering "133 million polygons per second, and fill rates in excess of 4 Gpixels/sec." That places this chip's powers slightly better than the first-gen Xbox desktop console, and four times better than the original PSP.

Combined, these two chips with eight cores turn the PSP2 into the most powerful handheld games console there's ever been. Sony's touting its skills as on a par with the almost supercomputer powers of the PS3. A PS3 in your pocket, with 3G connection, could easily transform the entire handheld games market.

If it had to transform its fortunes in the portable games market, this is exactly what Sony needed to do—lead by example, with a rocket-powered beast of a new PSP. One that easily trounces the powers being offered by the hottest smartphones and tablets of this year—because its these devices that are threatening the core market for handheld games, with their multi-purpose abilities, carrier-subsidized pricing and app stores offering access to thousands upon thousands of games that vary from inexpensive casual fun ones to full-experience games developed by the same game houses that write code for Sony and its peers.

It all looks good then for Sony, which seems to have made a clever technical move with the PSP2's hardware and backed it up with neat software that even embraces the current vogue for social sharing.

But here's the problem: The PSP2 isn't due until the "holiday season" this year—if all goes well.

Before then the iPhone 5 will arrive, with expected specs that include a larger screen and its own Apple-branded multi-core ARM Cortex A9 CPU aboard (alongside a better graphics chip). Apple's App Store is still growing fast, and recently passed the 10 billion app download mark. It's enervated the mobile games market like no other system has, attracting the attention of big-name games writers and even boosting the games market on Apple's Mac platform. The iPad 2 is also imminent, following on the heels of the iPad 1, which basically invented the new tablet PC category, bringing a whole new large-screen mobile games experience with it. The iPad 2 is expected to have a better screen than the first-gen device, and to come with a two-core (at least) ARM A9-based CPU. Some commenters are expecting Apple to jam four times as many RAM bytes onto this chip as in the current Apple A4 silicon...and this will boost the units graphics processing powers.

Then there's the wave of Android-powered tablet PCs and smartphones—many of which approach the PSP2 in terms of size—which seem to be getting ever more powerful. By the end of the year it's possible we'll see quad-core Android devices, either in smartphones or tablets, and they may challenge the PSP2's power specs too. There's even the Nintendo 3DS, coming in just a few months, and though in terms of computing power it can't rival the PSP2, it has those 3-D display tricks that will entice many gamers.

Basically the PSP2 can beat the current generation of its peer devices, but it will arrive just about the time, or even after the time, that Sony's competitors are releasing devices that are as powerful—or possibly even more so. It's too late. And if Sony gets its pricing wrong (a big risk, given the amount of novel tech inside the device and remembering Sony's historic high pricing habits), it'll also price itself out of the market. The one saving grace may be the Android games market Sony's building up—to support its new mobile game hardware (which includes the upcoming PlayStation Phone, an Android-powered device). This could keep Sony relevant, even if its hardware sales don't prove all that good.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.