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Review: PS3 pricey but impressive

Story Highlights

• PS3 is a versatile piece of home entertainment equipment
• First games aren't a major improvement over Xbox 360
• PS3 plays almost all PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 1 games
• $600 PS3 is one of cheapest Blu-ray DVD players available
By David Carnoy
CNET.comexternal link
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(CNET.com) -- In the gaming world, being first to market has its advantages, but it also has some downsides. With its Xbox 360, Microsoft has staked itself a year lead over archrival Sony in the next-gen gaming wars and, just as importantly, the battle for living-room dominance--these powerful minicomputers also do double duty as digital media hubs. In those 12 months, Microsoft has managed to sell several million consoles, work through some hardware glitches, upgrade the system's internal software, and bring out a full selection of accessories as well as a few signature games, including the company's own smash hit, Gears of War. But that year has also given Sony time to polish its more ambitious--and pricier--PlayStation 3.

Like the 360, the PS3 is available in two versions. Both feature the brand new Cell processor, a built-in Blu-ray player, and HDMI video output. The baseline 20GB version retails for $500, while the step-up deluxe model--reviewed here--boasts a 60GB hard drive, built-in Wi-Fi, a multiformat memory card reader, and silver trim for $100 more. Even though its original specs included even more features--dual HDMI output, for example--what's left is still a lot to throw into a new system, and the final product, expensive though it is, is quite impressive.

The big question, of course, is whether the PS3 is $100 to $200 better than the Xbox 360. From a pure gaming perspective, the short answer is: no, not today. As with any new gaming system, you're going to have to wait at least a year before you see game developers really start to get the most out of the PS3, and right now, there really isn't a game out there that's able to beat anything on the Xbox 360. However, in terms of design and in-the-box features, the value is here: the two versions of the PS3 are well worth their respective $500 and $600 price tags. Now, the bad news: the system will be in such short supply in the early going, you probably won't be able to get one for a while, even if you wanted to buy one. The good news is by the time you get your hands on one, Sony will have already made some improvements and added new features, and the catalog of games will have begun to be expanded.

Design: back in black

Sony has been showing off prototypes of the PS3 for the last 18 months, and though the exact dimensions of the final unit were in doubt, the PS3's general shape and glossy finish have been set in stone for a while. Though it's been overshadowed in recent years by Apple's leading-edge MP3 players and computers, the PS3's sexy shape and futuristic look is ample evidence that the company's renowned design standards are alive and well. One look at its glossy exterior and touch-sensitive power and eject buttons on its face, and you can see why it might cost what it does.

Like the Xbox 360 (Read reviewexternal link) and Nintendo Wii (Read reviewexternal link), the PS3 can stand vertically or lie horizontally in an A/V rack, though because of its curved top, it's not meant to have any other components resting on top of it. We saw early prototypes in white and silver colors, but at launch, the PS3 will be available only in black--the 20GB version is all black, the 60GB version is highlighted with a chrome trim--and there's no way to customize its look as you can with Xbox 360's interchangeable, if overpriced, faceplates (Top Xbox 360 accessoriesexternal link). Judging from Sony's recent decision to bring out the PSP in more colors, we don't expect the company to stick to the black-only option for too long, especially since this system, like the PSP, is a fingerprint and smudge magnet. If you handle it at all, you'll end up having to wipe it off, so you'll probably just want to stick it in a rack and leave it there.

As for its dimensions, the PS3 measures 12.8 x 3.8 x 10.8 inches (WHL), which is roughly in line with the overall volume of the Xbox 360. That said, the PS3 does weigh a bit more--11 pounds to the 360's 9.9 pounds including power supply--so if you're going by heft alone, you're getting almost 10 percent more console. Most impressively, there's no external power supply for the PS3; you just plug the included power cable--it's the same standard 3-prong style you'll find on most desktop PCs--into the back of the unit and you're good to go. For those of us who own an Xbox 360, and have had to struggle with its massive brick of a power supply, this seems like a remarkable feat on Sony's part.

One obvious difference between the Xbox 360 and the PS3 is the way you load media. As opposed to the more typical tray loader, the PS3 has a front-slot-loading, Blu-ray optical-disc drive, which contributes to the unit's slicker appearance. Discs slide in and eject smoothly enough, so chalk one up for the PS3 here (how the mechanism wears over time, we can't say--but the odds of snapping off or damaging the Xbox 360's disc tray aren't exactly negligible).

Around back is where you'll find ports for Ethernet, HDMI output, optical digital audio output (SPDIF), and the proprietary PlayStation A/V output for analog audio and video. A composite A/V cable ships with the unit, and because it uses the same connector as the PlayStation 2, that system's S-Video and component cables should work with it as well (to get HD video, you'll need component or HDMI). That's all fine, but we would have liked to have seen at least one USB port on the back for peripherals such as a camera (the EyeToy is compatible) that spoil the PS3's otherwise clean lines by sticking obtrusively out of the front. (Early prototypes seemed to have a USB port on the back, but it hasn't made it in the final unit, which is disappointing.) On a more positive note, the internal hard drive is said to be user replaceable (there's a slot on the side of the PS3 that allows you to swap in a new hard drive). However, like the Xbox 360, the PS3 utilizes the smaller 2.5-inch SATA drive that's made for laptops. Alas, those drives are twice--or even close to three times--as expensive as the larger 3.5-inch hard drive that goes into a desktop computer.

Controller makeover

The single controller that comes with the PS3 is very similar looking to the traditional PlayStation 2 Dual Shock gamepad, but there are some notable differences. For starters, it's wireless. You can connect as many as seven (!) controllers via the system's built-in Bluetooth, which Sony's claims offers a 20-meter range (about 65 feet). Recharging the built-in battery simply requires connecting the included USB cable between the console and the controller. You can continue to play as the battery juices up (Sony pledges 30 hours of gameplay between charges), but the cable's somewhat short 5-foot length will put you right on top of the TV. That said, the controller has a standard mini-USB port similar to the one found on many digital cameras and PC peripherals, so swapping in a longer cable--or using a USB extender--shouldn't be a problem.) Unfortunately, the battery isn't removable, which means that if it dies--as inevitably it will someday--you'll have to replace the entire controller ($50) if you want to play wirelessly. By comparison, the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii controllers offer user-replaceable batteries: AAs or proprietary rechargeables for the 360, and AAs for the Wii.

As for the controller's design, Sony has made a few tweaks. The L2 and R2 trigger buttons are a bit bigger, and the increased depth in stroke offers players more subtle game control. Sony has also increased the tilting angle of the analog joysticks to give you more precise control and a wider range of motion. Those analog sticks are more sensitive as well. The PS2's Dual Shock controller had 8-bit sensitivity, while the PS3's controller has 10-bit motion detection. The big omission is force feedback support: the PS3 controller offers no vibration or rumble control, which is a bit of a bummer.

However, you do get something called SixAxis motion sensing, which means the controller's capable of sensing motion in six directions: up, down, left, right, forward, and backward. Game developers have incorporated it many of the new games in one form or another. For example, in 2K Sports' NHL 2K7, a quick thrust of the controller makes your defensive player perform a check. In Tony Hawk's Project 8, you can steer your skater and control his movements by tilting the controller from side to side and forward and back. Sony's NBA '07 also makes interesting use of the tilt feature, allowing you to control a player's moves and jukes on offense.

To be sure, some implementations of the tilt sensitivity are better than others. Furthermore, it's unclear if all the games that utilize motion sensitivity will require it--some are optional and can be switched off, and we could certainly see some folks not wanting to bother with them at all. Clearly, Sony wanted to steal some of Nintendo's thunder, and there's no denying that the Wii's motion-sensitive controllers are more central to that console's DNA. The Wii controllers are also more sophisticated, including the ability to measure actual motion (spatial movement) and acceleration, rather than just tilting--but unlike the Wii, the PS3 doesn't require a motion-sensor bar in front of the TV. (The current Xbox 360 controllers offer no motion sensitivity at all.) It's safe to say we'll see more innovative uses of the tilting sensitivity feature in future games--it definitely added an extra level of control when flying the eponymous attack vehicle in Warhawk (we played an early build at E3 2006, but the game isn't due until sometime in 2007).

Unlike the PS2 controller, the SixAxis controller has a centered Home button, which functions much like its counterpart on the Xbox 360 controller. You use it to return to the console's main menu screen, as well as to sync the controller to the console and start it up or shut it down wirelessly.

Familiar interface If you own a Sony PSP, you'll immediately notice the similarities between the PS3's interface and the PSP's cross media bar-style GUI (graphical user interface). You navigate horizontally through top-level selection categories such as users, system settings, and media options such as photos, music, videos, games, network, and friends. When you select a top-level category, a vertical list of sub options appears, and you can navigate down that list until you find the option you want. The interface is polished and generally user-friendly, but you do have to drill down a few levels to reach certain features, and getting to some functions isn't quite as intuitive as it should be. Still, the overall design is slick enough to be called Mac-like, and--at least from an aesthetic standpoint--is more appealing than the Xbox 360's Dashboard and Nintendo Wii's Channels interfaces.

Digital media hub The PS3's media features are extensive--enough so that the console could be a worthwhile purchase even for people who never deign to even fire up a game. For starters, the PlayStation 3 hits the shelves as the most affordable Blu-ray player you can buy--merely half the price of $1,000 to $1,300 models from the likes of Samsung, Panasonic, Pioneer, Philips, and--ironically--Sony. Before we delve into the PS3's HD movie prowess (see "movie watching," below), let's take a holistic look at the console's multimedia functionality.

In addition to the built-in memory card reader on the 60GB model (we applaud Sony for not subjecting us to a Memory Stick-only environment), the PS3 can read digital photos from a variety of USB-attached devices, including most digital cameras, the PSP, USB flash drives, and home-burned CD-Rs. (One caveat: the images may need to be placed in a special directory, such as DCIM or Picture, if they're not already there.) A few different slide show styles are available, including a unique "photo album" view that splays the images across a white work surface as if you'd dumped them there and spread them out. When stored internally on the hard drive (copying back and forth is easy), photos appear rapidly, and in the basic slide-show mode, you can advance your slides forward by simply pressing on the top-right shoulder button (the left shoulder takes you back a slide). Most JPEG, TIFF, BMP, GIF, and PNG images should work just fine. By contrast, the Xbox 360 lacks both an internal media reader and the impressive photo album viewer, and the Wii--while including some cool and fun photo-viewing and manipulation functionality--includes only a built-in SD card reader.

As for music, the PS3 supports most of the major music-file types, including MP3, ATRAC, AAC, and WAV, and like the Xbox 360, has a built-in music visualizer. As with the photos, you can import songs from a flash memory card or a USB thumbdrive--again, you'll have to create a special Music folder--or rip songs directly to the hard drive from a CD. (Yes, unlike some Blu-ray players on the market, the PS3 can actually recognize and play CDs). While the PS3 even plays Sony's increasingly obscure SACD discs, it cannot play back music from attached iPods, nor can it stream from other music players that incorporate copy-protected music formats. Here, the 360 has a leg-up: it offers some iPod compatibility, and it can play back WMA music files as well.

On the video front, the PS3 plays Blu-ray discs in full high-definition as well as DVD movies. It also supports MPEG1, MPEG2, and MPEG4/h.264 video files from flash, USB, or disc-based media (reading from the "video" directory). If you transfer the videos to the PS3's hard drive, thumbnails on the video menu are shown as 15-second video clips, rather than just as still images of the first frame of the video. You currently can't stream files from your PC or over your LAN (local area network), but you can stream video from your PS3 to your PSP using the PS3's Remote Play feature. Sony hasn't yet provided for a way to convert videos you might download from its PlayStation Store to a portable size that can be automatically be transferred to your PSP. But we've been told to expect tighter--and better--integration with the PSP both offline and online in the future.

Sony's version of Web TV Taking a page out of the PSP's book, the PS3 also has a built-in Web browser, but the nice thing about the PS3 is that if you connect a USB keyboard, you don't have to type in URL addresses using the system's tedious virtual keyboard. Likewise, a USB mouse lets you point and click your way through a Web page, just as if you were on a PC. The system will eventually allow you to pair the PS3 with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, which is probably the ideal setup for living-room use. It's unclear whether all Bluetooth keyboards, past and present, will be compatible, but Sony assures us that many will. (We were able to pair a Plantronics Discovery 655 cellphone headset with no issues, so the Bluetooth function definitely works for third-party products.)

The browser appears to be pretty robust with the requisite Flash support, and it certainly is a nice convenience for those who to browse from their living room couch. That said, the sharpness of Web pages' appearance--and how readable they are-will depend on the quality of your TV and its size. For example, viewing Web pages on a 60-inch DLP set is going to be more of a challenge than say, looking at those same pages over a 20-inch computer monitor. And viewing Web pages on anything less than an HDTV at full resolution (720p, 1080i, or 1080p) will be decidedly eye-straining.

The PlayStation Network As of this writing, Sony hasn't turned on its PlayStation Network, so we can't say a whole lot about it other than it will be similar to Microsoft's Xbox Live service, including typical online gaming features along with community and messaging, as well as voice and video chat further down the road. Xbox Live Silver, Microsoft's free entry-level service, gives you access to some community options but to play online multiplayer games, you have to upgrade to Xbox Live Gold service, which runs $50 per year.

The promise of free online play is obviously a big plus in Sony's favor. That said, Xbox Live has been around for years and has had time to mature, and the majority of Xbox 360 games offer some form of online play. Not all of the initial PS3 titles will offer head-to-head online gameplay, but expect at least some online showcases: Sony's Resistance: Fall of Man is designed to handle online fragfests with as many as 32 players per match. (Nintendo will also offer free online play and communications for the Wii, as it does on the DS, but none of the initial Wii titles feature head-to-head online gameplay.)

Microsoft has its Xbox Live Marketplace, where you can download games, demos, video content--including, as of November 22, full-length movies and TV shows in high-definition--as well as game themes and additional game content. The PlayStation Store will offer similar options and functionality but it will most probably take several months to flush out and reach a level of richness approaching that of Xbox Live.

Also, keep in mind that despite the PS3 online play being ostensibly free, Sony and its third-party publishers--just like Microsoft and Nintendo--will be aggressively pushing "micropayment" transactions (additional levels, in-game extras, retro games, and other goodies) that will cost users. Instead of the points-based payment system found on Microsoft and Nintendo's networks, Sony says it will stick to dollars and cents--users can simply transfer cash to their PlayStation 3 Wallet via credit card or with prepaid gift cards. (International locations will likewise be denominated in their home currency--yen, euros, pounds sterling, Canadian dollars, and so forth.)

Cell inside

When final specs were released for the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, not surprisingly, there was a big debate over which system was technically more powerful. The 360 uses more off-the-shelf PC components while The PlayStation 3's 3.2GHz Cell processor was built from the ground up just for the PS3. It consists of a single PowerPC-based core with seven synergistic processing units and is the result of a joint effort between IBM, Sony, and Toshiba, which is ironic, considering that Sony and Toshiba are in a deathmatch over Blu-ray and HD-DVD.

The key thing to know about the Cell is that it has the juice to run a new class of gameplay physics that will allow developers to create spectacular effects and eventually provide a whole new depth of realism to games. Paired with PlayStation 3's RSX Reality Synthesizer graphics-processing unit, a gargantuan 550MHz, 300-million-transistor graphics chip based on Nvidia's GeForce 7800 GTX graphics technology, and you're looking at a very high-end PC. The only problem, of course, is that it'll take developers years to learn to take full advantage of all that processing power and truly deliver on the graphical promise of the system. The same, of course, is true for the Xbox 360, but we suspect from our talks with developers that the PS3 may ultimately be declared the more powerful system. (Say what you will about increasing development times and rising costs for producing video games, but Blu-ray's 25GB to 50GB storage capacity--as opposed to 8.5GB for the Xbox 360's DVD drive--does give developers the chance to create huge games).

At the end of the day, as Microsoft learned, you can tout all the power you want, but if you can't keep your system cool--and fairly quiet--you're going to have some serious problems on your hands. What's impressive about this PS3, in fact, is that with all this power under the hood, the system runs as quietly as it does. After running for three hours straight, we found that we could still place a hand over the back of the unit and not get scorched--the system runs pretty warm, but not blazingly hot. While the 360's tendency to overheat has been exaggerated, its cooling fan and DVD drive are comparatively far noisier, sometimes to the point of distraction.

Play time The first thing we should be clear on is that for your $600, you don't actually get any games (the first round of systems will ship with a Blu-Ray movie, Talledega Nights). There's also only a single controller. With our review unit, Sony sent over retail copies of Resistance: Fall of Man, a first-person shooter that's arguably the system's most impressive title and Genji, a hack-and-slasher that's garnered only average reviews. At a couple preview events, we also played several other launch titles, the majority of which are also available for the Xbox 360.

In fact, it's very hard to tell the difference between titles that are already available on the 360 and their PS3 counterparts because they're ports of the same game. Where you start to see some of the promise is in Sony's in-house titles, such as Resistance: Fall of Man and NBA 07. The latter may not measure up to 2K Sports' NBA 2K7, but the game looks impressive, with crisp graphics and smooth 60fps high-def gameplay. Formula One Championship Edition is another title that really jumps out at you graphically; the game looks really impressive but won't be out until later next year. We're also waiting to compare the PS3 versions of EA's Fight Night 3 to its Xbox 360 counterpart to see if the company was able to make any improvements.

The long and short of it is that the PS3 clearly measures up to the Xbox 360 in terms of its graphics prowess and the added dimension that the tilt controller offers, is a new twist. That said, there really isn't anything available yet that's too unique or so far beyond what the Xbox 360 offers that you think, "I gotta get this system to play that game." The reality is, as usual, you're going to have to wait for that breakout title. (Konami's Metal Gear Solid 4, due in 2007, is currently getting a lot of buzz and will supposedly be a PS3 exclusive.)

Backward compatibility While you're waiting for that killer PS3 game, you can still fall back on hundreds, if not thousands, of PlayStation catalog titles. The PS3 is fully backward-compatible with nearly all PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 1 games. Just toss in a disc and the PS3 will create a virtual memory card on its hard drive to store saved games and preferences. We had no trouble running PS2 titles such as Shadow of the Colossus and Star Wars Starfigher. While we expect that a handful of older titles won't run on the PS3, Sony deserves kudos for near-universal backward compatibility. By comparison, Xbox 360 support for Xbox1 titles is limited to a set list of games with emulation profiles (Microsoft updates the list periodically, but it's still limited to less than half the number of the games available for the older console). Nintendo does better with the Wii: it plays all GameCube game discs.

Hardware and accessory compatibility is a mixed bag. You can't connect PS2 controllers to the PS3 because the new console lacks the older controller port, but because the PS3 control design is nearly identical, your older games will play just fine. Likewise, games that utilize any unique accessories that must plug into the PS2-style control port--such as Guitar Hero's mighty ax--won't work on the PS3. But USB accessories--such as the EyeToy--should be good to go. Have some old God of War saved games that you just can't part with? Invest $15 in a special card reader, and you can transfer any games from your PS2 memory cards to the PS3's hard drive.

Movie watching Before we got our hands on a retail unit, we'd been able to spend some time previewing the system, and while we had a pretty good picture of what it can do in terms of gaming and multimedia functionality, we hadn't been able to test it as a Blu-ray player. Sony, of course, is taking a big risk by attempting to go out with a new system that not only features a new processor but a new, unproven optical drive format. The company is making a heavy bet on the PS3 as a game machine, but it's also staking its Blu-ray fortunes on the system as well, and we were most curious to see how it delivered as a Blu-ray player.

Because we were more familiar watching Mission: Impossible III on the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player, we decided to do our testing using that disc rather than Talledega Nights. Watching on one of the finest large-screen TVs available, the 60-inch Sony KDS-R60XBR2, we watched several scenes from the movie on the Samsung first, then switched over to the PS3. In case you're wondering, load times for the disc were essentially identical at 40 seconds on each player (we hit stop on our stopwatch when a picture appeared on the screen). That isn't terrible, but this is obviously an area where Sony can make some improvements down the road with a next-generation drive that's faster.

As for the picture, it was quite comparable to what we saw on the Samsung, and navigating the disc was a fairly zippy process. In other words, at first glance, the PS3 seems to stack up fairly well against Blu-ray players costing nearly twice as much ($1,000), which may obviate the need for those players to actually exist.

Furthermore, the PS3 is the first A/V device to hit the market to utilize the HDMI 1.3 specification. That doesn't mean much now--there's no corresponding HDMI 1.3 products to connect it to. But in the future--2007 and beyond--that should enable to PS3 to pass HD video and next-gen surround-sound audio (such as Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD) to compatible A/V receivers via a single HDMI cable. In the meantime, the PS3, like other Blu-ray and HD-DVD players, can pass 1080p HD video and uncompressed LPCM surround soundtracks to compatible A/V receivers and TVs.

If we had one complaint with the PS3, it was that it didn't upscale standard DVDs to HD resolutions, a feature that's standard on other Blu-ray and HD-DVD players. Instead, they default to 480p (progressive-scan). But that's hardly a deal-breaker, especially when you consider the competition: the Xbox 360 requires a clunky add-on drive to play HD-DVD movies (though downloadable high-def movies will soon be available via Xbox Live), and the Nintendo Wii doesn't play back movie discs of any type.

Accessing Blu-ray and DVD menus with the PS3 controller is functional, if awkward. Unfortunately, you won't be able to program a standard universal remote to control your PS3--it lacks an infrared port, so it needs to receive commands via Bluetooth. Not coincidentally, Sony offers a Bluetooth compatible remote for $25.

Conclusion Though not with out a few minor drawbacks--and we'll probably find a few more as we continue testing the system--the PS3 is a versatile and impressive piece of home entertainment equipment that lives up to the hype. As usual, the launch titles don't do all that much to sell the system, but that should start to change within the next six months as more impressive titles come to market. Whether you buy the PS3 today or whenever it becomes available in quantity, you can be sure you'll feel that you got your money's worth--from a gaming and a multimedia perspective.

Editors note: We are continuing to perform ongoing tests on the PlayStation 3's gameplay, online functionality, Blu-ray player, and media compatibility, and will update this review accordingly.


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