Media on the Go: Sony PSP with Neuros Recorder II

The Sony PSP is a very popular gadget this year. Coupling not only 3D gaming but also web, podcast support, mp3, photo and video viewer makes it not only a formidable multimedia device but also a great Christmas present. sent us in a PSP for multimedia testing and we also got the newly-released Neuros Recorder II to test the full capabilities of the device as a multimedia one.

There is a lot to say about the PSP but most reviews on the net have already described everything about it. To sum up, on the Value Pack box you find the PSP itself, an A/C power unit, a wrist wrap, headphones with a wired remote control for music, a 32 MB MemoryStickDuoPro, a sample UMD disk, a removable battery, manuals and a carrying pouch. There was no mini-USB cable included so you will have to buy one extra if you want to sync your PSP with your desktop operating system.

Charging the PSP for the first time will take up to 3 hours. Subsequent charges are faster. We found the battery life of the PSP on the positive side delivering about 4 hours of video playback. Physically the PSP is larger than most mp3 players or even the Gameboy consoles, but it’s overall thinner than all of the dedicated hard-based video PMPs we reviewed the last few months. On the PSP itself you will find the standard Sony gaming button layout as found on the joypads of PS1/PS2. The joystick button has been reworked and it now resembles a mouse-stick as found on some laptops (e.g. IBM’s). The power button also couples as a “hold” button which is very useful when listening to music. The PSP includes WiFi (can be turned off via a slider button too) and Infrared wireless communications. Unfortunately its Infrared stack is proprietary and doesn’t work with other non-PSP devices (e.g. trying to send a file over from a PocketPC won’t work). The PSP supports two kinds of storage, the UMD disks and the MemoryStickDuoPros. UMDs hold up to 1.8GB of data and they are read-only. The MSDuoPro can go up to 4 GB and it’s read/write. An 1 GB MSDuoPro stick costs about $75 these days and it’s the most popular purchase among PSP users (I bought mine for $60 with a mail-in-rebate at Frys). If there is one thing everyone loves the PSP for is its screen. I have not seen a better screen before on any of my PDAs or PMPs. Its speed, angle and colors is excellent: the black color is really black for example. It’s a 16:9 widescreen with a resolution measuring at 480×272 pixels which is far better than most similarly priced PMPs out there.

From the gaming standpoint there is not much to say: we all know that the PSP is the most powerful mobile 3D gaming device. It has about half the power of the PS2 and it’s many times faster than the PS1. We bought 3 games (one 2D, two 3D) to test the unit and they all worked flawlessly as one would expect from a console. There are about 250 games for the PSP today and more are on the way. The device supports over-the-air firmware update and the latest version is v2.60. Users who haven’t upgraded yet from v1.50 can use third party emulators and emulate thousands of old games. Sony removed this ability starting from firmware v2.00.

The user interface of the PSP is another great feature. The user is navigating not only left and right, but also up and down at the same time to get to the desired application, accounting for a very fast navigation among the “applications” and options. When inside an “application” the user can use PSP’s gaming buttons to control it. For example, the o button will exit an application or media file, the x will playback it and the triangle will present an on-screen menu for more options. The PSP has hardware buttons for volume, screen brightness (3 levels) and a “music” button to change the equalizing levels on the fly.

The Photo application shows thumbnails of the pictures stored as .jpg on the memory stick. It can read photos from two different folder names, one inside the “user” folder and from the folder a camera would create for it. Pressing the A and B buttons you can navigate to the next or previous jpeg image and pressing the triangle it will open up a menu to set the current picture as a wallpaper, send it via infrared, change view mode (stretch, original size, zoom etc), rotate, start slideshow etc.

The mp3 playback is pretty good too, allowing creation up to one folder trees inside the main “music” folder. Using PSP’s gaming buttons you can very quickly navigate not only between a different folder or song, but within the same song. It also supports A-B repeat, but I couldn’t find a way to repeat the song or the group itself, neither shuffle them. One nitpick I have about sound on the PSP is that it’s not very loud. I like listening to some of my dance songs very loudly, but the PSP doesn’t do me that favor. Sound quality is very good overall though. PSP’s wired remote control has an audio-out jack so you can use it with your own headphones. The PSP supports 3.5″ audio-out jacks so it’s compatible with all good headphones.

Regarding video the PSP has a bit of a duality in it. You can go the “commercial” route and rent or buy UMD videos of full movies. Every store that carries PSP games usually also carries UMD movies. We bought the movie “Team America” to test the PSP with it and playback quality was amazing. We have a 55″ HDTV here and even when playing the “Daredevil” DVD (which has the best digital transfer to DVD we have ever seen) it doesn’t seem to be as good and crisp as “Team America” is on the PSP. Quality and performance, subtittles and angle choice was perfect when using UMDs.

However, if you want to playback your own videos, the PSP will allow you to do so by re-encoding your videos to Sony’s interpretation of the Mpeg4 h.264 format. Apple’s QuickTime Pro can read these .mp4 videos but it doesn’t seem to be able to encode them. Users have to either buy the Media Manager from Sony or PSPWare, or use the free but user-unfriendly PSPVideo9. I found that the also free 3GP Converter did the same job, much easier, so it’s highly recommended. The 3GP Converter also creates the correct file names (the PSP requires special filenames to recognize video on the MStickDuoPro) and thumbnails for your video that then the PSP can use to visualize its video file listing. From that point on, it’s a simply drag-n-drop to your /MP_ROOT/100MNV01/ folder. We found that video playback is extremely smooth and very pleasurable to watch on the 4.3″ screen. A 1 GB MSDuoPro flash disk can hold up to 3 movies when encoded with a good encoder (stereo audio, QVGA resolution). A 512 MB MSDuoPro stick can hold up to 2 movies if the quality settings when encoding are set to be low. Another way to get video on your PSP is directly from your TV or other video-output device, check my review of the Neuros Recorder II below.

Then, there is of course the web browser, included since firmware version 2.00 and later. The browser is nothing but Netfront, a well-known mobile favorite. Netfront is able to render a lot of web sites and even have some basic support for js and CSS, but you will still prefer to navigate to mobile sites instead (OSNews serves its mobile version to PSP automatically). Slashdot was extremely painful to render though, now that the guys over at /. have made everything CSS-based (took consistently 2 minutes to render it). made the device to run out of memory, even if there’s a whopping 32MB on the device (usually Netfront doesn’t require more than 8 MBs to render most sites). Netfront supports one column, SmartFit and desktop layout rendering. The DesktopLayout rendering algorithm is the default one. Additionally, Netfront has removed its WAP support from this version of its browser, which is a bit disapointing. The other problem is text input which is a bit painful to do when entering URLs or filling up forms. Overall though, as long as you have a set of URLs bookmarked in your device, the PSP is a basic but good-enough quick web surfing device too. It also supports podcasts via its RSS client.

In conclusion, the PSP makes up for a great multimedia device as it also has gaming and web capabilities and a great screen over its competitors. The only disadvantage it has over other PMPs is its measly storage capability with MStickDuoPros and it’s low volume rate. On the other hand it has a whole market of commercial movies in UMD format that no other PMP has, not even the iPod Video (yet). Additionally, if the PSP had a touchscreen it would allow for real applications to be developed that would drive the need for a PDA away. Regardless, the good construction and thought Sony has put into this device, coupled with its very fair price, makes it a great Christmas gift to yourself or to your loved ones. The Sony PSP is a timeless classic in terms of hardware. Get one!

Overall: 9/10

This is the second version of the video Recorder by Neuros Technology that we reviewed a few weeks ago. Physically the device looks exactly the same as its predecessor, but the new version has a completely new user interface, a new remote control and MemoryStickDuo support. It also comes with the TCPMP PDA media player in its CD which supports almost every format under the sun.

The new remote control is very nice and very small. It does the job and it’s very easy to figure it out as it has enough buttons for most actions. The user interface has seen a huge overhaul, to the better. Now there are two levels of interface, the main 5 buttons on the top (photos, music, video, rec, settings, file manager) and their specialized screen below. For photos, music and video there is a listing of the CF’s or MStickDuo’s files and folders where the user can navigate to playback them. For Recording there is a preview pane of the current selected channel on the TV, for the System Settings there a number of available preferences (e.g. time, firmware upgrade, CF/MS format etc) and a dual pane file listing when on FileManager mode.

The Neuros Recorder II can playback mp3, wma audio files, mp4/avi/asf video (with aac encoding no less) and jpeg/bmp/gif with up to 16MP. The music playback engine supports basic tag attributing for the song and artist while it has repeat support. The Photo viewing feature supports zooming, slideshow and background music. It doesn’t seem to support rotation.

The most interesting feature of the Neuros device is not the playback capability though, but the recording. NeurosTechnology believe that Digital Rights are important and they have released a document explaining their position here. When on Recording mode the user is presented with a preview of the current selected TV channel. Hitting “Enter” with the remote control the user can select from various settings (e.g. rec quality and resolution, quick timer recording (starts from 1 hour on) and auto recording which starts automatically when an input video is connected to the device) or by pressing directly the “Rec” button on the remote control recording starts immediately. The timing function is very interesting as it allows the user to program the device for a number of recordings. You can setup the date and time of the start and date and time of the end of the show to be recorded. It even allows you to set up the frequency of the recording: off, once, daily and weekly.

Unfortunately, MP4 videos are not fully optimized to consume less storage space. For example, with QVGA-Normal recording quality, a 20 minute recording video requires 100 MBs of space, while using another encoder (e.g. 3GConverter’s) we could go down to 75 MBs for the same video size and quality settings. At any case, we tested the resulted recorded videos on the SONY PSP and they were playing back incredibly well. No hickups and no weird artifacts. PSP support worked as advertised and it quickly proved this little Neuros gadget to be a great companion for those who use their PSP as a media device as well as a gaming one.

Another thing that ticked me was the fact that Neuros removed the PC functionality (the old device was identifying as a flash reader when connected to a PC) and they also removed SD support. I am pretty unhappy about both these decisions and especially about the removal of the SD support which means that there is no direct Palm support anymore. PalmOS and some PocketPC users now have to separately purchase a USB flash reader to read RecorderII’s CF/MStickDuo flash disks and then manually copy their recorded videos over to an SD card.

Overall, this release is a huge evolution software-and-codec-wise and it also comes with automatic PSP support. If you have a PSP, it’s a must-have gadget! If you have a CF-based PDA, it’s also a must-have gadget. And if you are using an SD-based PDA, it’s still a great device, even if it will require a bit of manual intervention. The Neuros Recorder II is the ultimate hassle-free mobile multimedia creator!

Sample recorded videos for the PSP:
1. QVGA, Economy low quality
2. WVGA 368×208, Normal quality
3. VGA, Superfine quality

Overall: 9/10


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