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PSP go: Tight handheld gaming
PSP go: Tight handheld gaming

Sony’s PlayStation Portable is the most high-powered handheld video-game machine on the market, but it’s usually my third choice when it comes to on-the-road action.

It’s all a matter of size. Apple’s iPhone, which has become a solid casual-gaming platform, slides easily into a pants pocket. Nintendo’s DS fits a little more snugly.

But even the slimmest version of the old PSP is still nearly 7 inches long and too bulky to carry on everyday errands.

The newest model of Sony’s handheld, the PSP go ($250), is less demanding. Only 5 inches long (by 2.75 inches tall by a half-inch thick), it’s just a little bigger than an iPhone.

Sony has accomplished this feat with a number of tricks. The video screen is about a half-inch smaller (diagonally), though it has the same wide-screen ratio and looks as sharp as ever. The controls that were once on the sides of the screen are now on a panel that slides out from under the screen.

Most significantly, there’s no longer a slot or a drive for the Universal Media Discs that contain PSP games and videos. There’s no longer a need to carry a UMD for each game; instead, all your media can be stored on the PSP go’s 16-gigabyte hard drive or on a tiny memory stick.

That also means no more trips to the game store. Instead, you have to download software from Sony’s PlayStation Store — a process that shouldn’t be too alien now that Apple has trained everyone to download media through iTunes. Sony says there are more than 225 games available, as well as 2,300 movies and 13,300 TV episodes.

The game library runs the gamut from elegant puzzlers like “Echochrome” to elaborate role-playing dramas like “Jeanne d’Arc.” There are PSP originals like “Patapon 2” and remakes of PlayStation 1 classics like “Metal Gear Solid.” And there will be a whole section of PSP Minis, inexpensive casual games like “Pac-Man” and “Tetris” that are meant to compete with the offering in Apple’s App Store.

Sony is delivering two full-featured racing games to coincide with the PSP go’s launch. “Gran Turismo” is the show-stopper, delivering the wealth of realistic cars and racetracks we’ve come to expect from the series. It’s missing some features from its home console brethren — most notably, a career mode — but it looks and feels wonderful.

“MotorStorm: Arctic Edge” is less ambitious, although its renderings of snow-packed off-road courses are eye-catching. It’s more of an arcade racer, so you have nitro-boosted engines, ridiculous jumps and the ability to keep racing after crashes that should be debilitating. It’s reckless, fast-paced fun.

Either game takes about 45 minutes to download over a wireless Internet connection. “Gran Turismo” and “MotorStorm” can also be purchased at stores in the old UMD format for PSP owners who don’t want to spring for the new model.

If you do already own a PSP, you’ll want to hold onto it, because there’s no way to transfer your UMD-based games to the PSP go. That and the hefty price tag are the two biggest drawbacks to the new device.

However, I won’t miss the noisy, sometimes sluggish UMD drive, and I like the evolution into a download-only device. It feels sturdier than its predecessors, without the wiggly controls of older PSPs.

And its compact size makes the PSP go, at long last, a worthwhile travel companion.

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