PSP's Cross Media Bar (XMB) Navigation


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So, one of the first things that you see when you start using your PSP is the new Sony XMB (Cross Media Bar) interface. You see it immediately because you have to set up your name, date/time, etc. At first like all new user interfaces it's a bit strange, but once you get the idea it's pretty nice and relatively simple to use. (If Walt Mossberg reports using it without problems, you know it must be idiot-proof.) I've done a video overview of the UI with my 6630 so you can see what I'm talking about.

Having used it for a bit, I took a step back and tried to grok what it was doing right and wrong. That's when I groked what exactly it is - it's a hierarchy on its side! Here is the list of UI options in a normal list:

  • Settings
    • Network Update
    • USB Connection
    • Video Settings
    • Photo Settings
    • System Settings
    • Date & Time Settings
    • Power Save Settings
    • Sound Settings
    • Security Settings
    • Network Settings
  • Photo
    • UMD
    • Memory Stick
  • Music
    • UMD
    • Memory Stick
  • Video
    • UMD
    • Memory Stick
      • Video 1
      • Video 2
  • Game
    • Game Sharing
    • Saved Data Utility
    • UMD
    • Memory Stick

So that's what it'd look like if it was all sprawled out in a normal list. But that's pretty boring and to some people it can be a bit non-intuitive or cumbersome. However, if you look at the iPod and TiVo, that's how "easy to use" CE products have organized themselves. What Sony has done is flip this on its side, and most importantly, made sure you *never* move your context. The highlighted selection always stays in the center of the screen, and the navigation elements move around it! I'm not sure if it's been done before, but it's the first time I've really ever seen it and I think it's pretty brilliant.

The great thing about this is that it allows Sony to play with the UI without breaking the navigation context. When you pause on the UMD option above - a preview comes up for that option, sometimes taking over the entire screen - but the navigation elements stay in place - if you decide not to activate that option, you aren't lost in some sub-menu or other screen. For a CE device, that's a pretty neat innovation as I think most of us will agree that context-switching is thing that consumers just don't get.

I do have a complaint that the options that aren't in the active area aren't de-highlighted enough, or vice versa that the active element isn't in a bright box or something. At first I wanted to navigate up and down because I saw the options above the bar - it took me a minute to realize that the options *came to me* I didn't have to navigate to them. This could easily be solved with a brighter selection area.

Now, that's just the main navigation element, and I've heard complaints that it doesn't really work well if you start having multiple folders of media content, etc. Well considering that there's ony 1GB of space available max, right now and Apple has been able to launch a product that uses that much space without any UI at all, I don't think this is much of an issue. I think that the PSP will be a great Podcasting device as copying large files to the PSP is easy (it looks like another drive) and navigating around from music to these files is a breeze. I tried it yesterday witha couple of Podcasts and was pleasantly surprised. I think ease of doing the same with video content will make this a killer Video Podcast player as well. Look for whole video businesses to rise up around the PSP platform based on this - seriously.

Once you get into the menus to enter information and choose options, the XMB interface still does pretty well, though the "wizard" interface in the Network settings could've used another round of testing - navigating next and back was easy, but many times instead of going to the next option, I would enter the "data entry mode" again by accident. This is the problem with too many buttons to use on the device. Everyone in the U.S. that's still complaining about the phone keypad as a information entry device must be completely amazed at the fact that when you go into screens meant to enter names and numbers, the UI is a Phone-like keypad!!! That's because Sony realizes that this is the most popular form of communication device on the planet and aren't fighting it with a less-popular QWERTY style keypad. I love it - but I have to admit it did slow down data entry a bit as it's not like there was a *real* keypad for me to triple-tap, there was no predictive text, and pausing after entering a letter didn't move you to the next spot (like on a phone) in case I needed to enter a double letter (my name has a few of them) I had to actually move the cursor over myself.

All in all, I'd say it's a pretty great job on Sony's part to make a whole new navigation paradigm that they can apply to various new devices. I can't wait to see the update for the PSP that includes a web browser - it seems a no-brainer that this device would have one. With WiFi support, a great screen, lots of memory and a decent processor this thing could handle a browser with no problems at all. It'll be interesting to see how the XMB UI applies to more traditional apps, or whether the browser will jump into its own UI like most of the games and videos do (videos have their own navigation like DVDs). The analog joystick will make a great mouse control if they just decide to do it that way.

I think the mobile industry could learn a lot from this. Or actually, maybe sony learned a lot from the phoen industry as - if you think about it - the "active choice" way of navigating the UI is very similar to what Nokia has done for years on its Series 40 phones - though obviously the S40 loses context as you move from screen to screen. Also Justin was in my cube yesterday fondling the PSP and noted that the analog stick would be really nice on a phone and I agreed. It's flat and non-obtrusive, but really quite functional (and would make games really rock). If they could make into a five-way (i.e. click in to select) it could really be quite something.

Neat - I love that Sony really made an effort here to perfect this UI and didn't just throw Yet Another UI out there. This is what separates companies like Apple and Sony from the iRivers and Creative's out there. Yeah, a gadget is a gadget, but the other companies willingness to launch products with insanely user-hostile UIs really shows, especially when you compare it to something so well thought out as the XMB.


(Photo above by Monkey Zombie - found on Flickr tagged with PSP, CC some rights reserved).

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