Following Sony's release of a 2.0 firmware upgrade to its PlayStation Portable (PSP) in Japan, the company has announced plans to release that software in North America on August 12 -- and it should ship as standard with PSPs launched in Europe on September 1. The update adds a Web browser, photo sharing options and more to the handheld gaming console and media player. The update will be available through the "Network Update" feature on the PSP, and will be available for download from Sony's Web site.

After a successful December launch in Japan, Sony introduced the PSP in North America in March, 2005. Through its Universal Media Disc (UMD) player, the device can play games and movies. What's more, it can easily connect to a Macintosh or PC and exchange data on its Memory Stick Pro Duo flash media card using a built-in USB 2.0 interface -- several third-party utilities have emerged to simplify this process, like iPSP and PSPWare.

Third firmware update

Sony has released two minor firmware updates since the PSP first launched earlier this year. Both updates were mainly "security" changes. Early adopters discovered they could run "homebrew" software and emulators on their PSP; the updates have prevented that software form working.

The PSP features built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking capabilities, but up to now North American users have only been able to use this functionality to find online games or to download updates or content for their games. Sony hasn't officially supported other uses. That changes with the 2.0 update, which finally adds Web browsing capabilities.

A recent Japanese 2.0 firmware update has also been installed by some North American users. Although the functionality of the update is the same as the forthcoming US release, Sony doesn't support this practice and urges North American PSP users to install the official release when it comes out, lest they void their warranties.

Other changes in 2.0

This firmware update will also provide users with a Wallpaper feature that lets use any image on your Memory Stick Pro Duo as a background image, instead of the cycling monthly colors that now serve as your PSP's backdrop.

New graphic format support has been added with this release, as well as support for unprotected AAC (MP4) audio and WAV audio formats. That's a step in the right direction for iTunes users who have converted their music connections to AAC format, though the PSP still can't play FairPlay-encrypted songs downloaded from the iTunes Music Store. No portable music player can, except for Apple's line of iPods.

The PSP can already play back video encoded in .MP4 format, and this release finally enables the PSP to play back H.264-encoded video. The PSP's H.264 support is hobbled, however, and requires special converters to work. Sources report that QuickTime 7 users need more than just Apple's software to produce H.264 video that can play on a PSP -- it appears that developers of PSP sync software need to do some more work to get their apps to support H.264 on the PSP.

PSP users can transfer pictures via a wireless connection (not music or video, unfortunately). Other changes include improved wireless security -- WPA-PSK is now supported. Sources also report that the PSP's "under the hood" security is better than before, which will make it more difficult for hackers and homebrew application developers to get the PSP to work in ways that Sony doesn't authorize.