Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Getting to Know Mr. P. Espee

Imagine that you meet someone new. You've seen him hanging out at parties and concerts, and your at-a-distance impression is that he's a shallow, flashy trendsetter. But when you actually talk with him, you're not only struck by how pleasant he is but by his talent and brains. You two start playing games and going to concerts and horror movies together. You go on a couple of road trips and have a great time -- you couldn't ask for a cooler travel companion.

You'd really like this new guy to become a real friend, a real part of your life, but there's a problem. Games and movies and music are awesome, but you're a horror writer ... and he won't read. You can (with difficulty) get him to thumb through a comic book, but anything else, even your own stuff -- forget about it.

You've had casual "fun friends" before, but you see such tremendous potential in this guy that his steadfast illiteracy baffles you. Furthermore, his witty, insightful commentary on movies and music has convinced you that he would be an excellent co-writer ... if he would only try. But so far, he just shrugs off your suggestions. As a consequence, your friends and family think you're completely wasting your time when they see you with him.

How frustrated would you be with a guy like this? At least a little, I bet.

And that's how I feel about my PlayStation Portable.

Okay, stop rolling your eyes. You knew I was a geek when you came in here.

My husband got me a PSP last Christmas, knowing I'd never get it for myself no matter how much I kept eyeing it in the store. It was just for gamers, and I don't game, I insisted. It's for kids, not adults: the goofy TV ads ("It's cheese you can listen to outside! Hells Yeah!" says the cartoon rat) aren't directed at thirtysomething me, surely.

Well, the kids certainly do love it (my 9-year-old niece covets mine terribly), and it's great for games, even though the title availability is still limited compared to regular PlayStations. However, now that I've gotten over my Lumines addiction, I actually use it for games only occasionally.

So what's a PSP good for if you don't play games on it? Plenty. So what good is it to a writer? I'll get to that in a minute.

When I first took my new PSP out of the box, I was impressed with how small, light, and intelligently-designed it is. It fits very nicely in your hands (unless you're built like Andre the Giant, at least) and the buttons have a good feel to them.

As nice and small as the body of the PSP is, it's the screen that attracted my attention in the first place. I may be a lukewarm gamer, but I'm a movie fanatic. The PSP's screen is wide, clear, bright, and sharp. When I'm holding it in my hands, I get the same kind of view of the movie that I do when I'm watching our widescreen TV from the couch.

So, the heck with watching video on an iPod or cell phone -- the PSP's viewing experience has them beat, hands-down, and unlike a portable DVD player the PSP will fit neatly in my purse.

You can buy movies on UMD format or rip them to your computer and store them on Pro Duo memory sticks, which are roughly the size of postage stamps. You can get the entire Evil Dead trilogy onto a 1GB memory stick with room left over for an episode of the Twilight Zone, although the quality won't be as good as you'd get on a UMD. 2GB sticks recently entered the market -- that's enough room for Shaun of the Dead, Dead Alive, and Bubba Ho-Tep on top of the trilogy.

That's not as much video as you can get onto an iPod, but it's still respectable. 4GB and 6GB sticks are supposed to come available in the near future. Add in the availability of VCR-style recorders that save directly to Pro Duo cards and the ever-increasing availability of UMD movies, and you've got a gadget guaranteed to entertain any horror movie fan, even if he or she has zero interest in games.

The UMD format may prove to be a serious challenger to the DVD format. The UMD looks like a tiny DVD in a rounded teardrop plastic housing -- if you ever saw the old magneto-optical disks, it's the same general idea. The downside is that if the outer housing gets damaged, the disk may be unable to spin and the UMD becomes useless. The upside is the size: you can keep 5 UMDs in a round Altoids Sours tin (minus the candies, of course).

I've geeked enough about movies. What else does a PSP do? Well, it plays MP3s and other audio files; the sound quality isn't quite as nice as that of an iPod, but it's very decent. It lets you store and view photos. And every PSP comes with built-in WiFi, so in addition to playing games against others you can surf the web down at your local Starbucks (the current incarnation of the web browser isn't great, but it's functional).

And now we get to what the PSP -- frustratingly and unreasonably -- doesn't do out of the box.

It doesn't have a single built-in PDA function. No calendar, no calculator, nothing.

With its gorgeous screen, it would make the world's nicest small ebook reader ... but it has no native functionality for reading even text files, much less PDFs and other ebook formats. Even the first-generation iPods with their little black-and-white screens let you read a calendar and basic text files. There is no good reason Sony couldn't have integrated a basic text reader and calendar into the PSP.

You can work around this fairly easily by using a free program called PDF 2 PSP, which will convert PDFs to image files and upload them to your PSP's memory card. I tried converting and uploading my copy of Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. A crisp, clear, easy-to-read 600KB ebook became a series
of fuzzy, memory-hogging images, over 100MB total. And that's just painful, even with a spacious memory card and nice screen.

And that easy-on-the-eyes screen of the PSP makes me yearn for even more. I want to be able to write on the thing. When people see my PSP and say, "Oh, you're taking a break to play a game?" I want to be able to toss my hair back and say, "I'm working on a story. Wanna read it?"

The PSP comes with a built-in software keyboard for inputting text for web pages and such -- unfortunately, it's desperately bad. Take the text input on your cell phone and make it suck so hard you want to give it cab fare -- that's how godawful the built-in text entry function is.

However, there's a tantalizing USB port right on the top of the PSP, just waiting for someone to develop an external portable keyboard that will work with it.

Logic 3 tried and failed to develop an external keyboard for the PSP because Sony wouldn't provide the company with the necessary command protocols. This seemed like stupid stonewalling on Sony's part until rumor sites revealed that Sony has filed a patent for a keyboard add-on for the PSP.

So, PSP owners should be able to get functional text input Real Soon, but for now businesslike functionality is just a dream for writers, right?

Not so fast. If you're willing to venture into the shadowy world of hackerdom, you can run a variety of "homebrew" applications to serve your readerly needs.

I should warn you: hacking your PSP is a tricky business (you'll need to get a copy of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, and then you can take the red pill). Any recently-purchased PSP will come with version 2.X of its operating system, which was largely released to foil hackers who'd managed to figure out how to modify OS1.52. Admittedly, a portion of the homebrew community is focused on illegal game cracks, but there are plenty of PSP hackers who just want a fully-featured device.

So what will running homebrew applications on your PSP get you? Aside from DOOM and expanded audio and video players, you can get your coveted text and PDF readers along with calculators and calendars. There's even a basic painting program for creating graphics. Not bad for a bunch of unpaid PSP hobbyists.

In short, the PSP has all the potential to be a horror writer's favorite portable electronic device. We've just got to wait for Sony to get with the program and admit their device isn't just kids' stuff.