PlayStation 3 review


Editors’ note: The PS3 60GB model has been discontinued for quite some time now. We highly recommend checking out the newly designed PlayStation 3 Slim, as it offers a 120GB hard drive and a slimmer, lighter design.

Please check out our PlayStation 3 resource guide for all of your PS3 gaming news and needs.

There’s general agreement that Sony stumbled out of the gate with the PlayStation 3. Months of intense hype were followed by a late launch (fully a year after the Xbox 360) and a staggering $600 price tag for the deluxe model. Even worse, the PS3 didn’t have any real must-have exclusive titles, and despite the power of its vaunted Cell processor, multiplatform games from third-party developers didn’t look appreciably better than the respective titles on the 360.

Since then, the company’s been modifying the PlayStation product line to better fit the competitive market landscape. As of November 2007, a “bargain” PlayStation 3 can be had for a mere $400–but that model lacks the ability to play older PS2 games. If that feature is important to you, you’ll need to shell out an additional $100 for the “deluxe” 80GB PlayStation 3 model–or if you’re lucky enough to find a 60GB version, the one reviewed here, we’d highly recommend jumping on that as well. While the 60GB version of the PlayStation 3 is currently being phased out of production by Sony, the differences between it and the 80GB model are minimal. Owners of PS2 games may prefer the 60GB model because of its greater compatibility with that system’s games due to its internal hardware emulation instead of the 80GB’s software emulation. In addition to backward compatibility with many PS2 games, the $500 PS3s include more USB ports and a built-in flash media reader.

Unfortunately however, the 60GB version still suffers from the same problem currently afflicting this entire generation of PlayStation hardware: a dearth of compelling games. While the console offers a handful of great exclusives (Warhawk, Resistance: Fall of Man, and Heavenly Sword), it doesn’t look like the PS3 will have some real system-sellers until 2008 and beyond, when Metal Gear Solid 4, Killzone 2, Gran Turismo 5, and God of War III eventually arrive. Plenty of excellent third-party titles exist–from Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty 4–but they’re also available on the Xbox 360, which in turn has a cadre of must-have titles (Halo 3, Mass Effect, Gears of War) that aren’t on the PS3. Likewise, the Nintendo Wii continues to draw away potential PS3 buyers with its cheaper hardware and more casual and broad-based approach to gaming. Put another way, the PlayStation 3 still feels more like a work in progress than do the rival Wii and Xbox 360. Still, if you want to go beyond the low-res graphics on the Wii and avoid the Xbox 360’s notorious red ring of death, the Sony PS3 delivers a full-on Blu-ray player, network media hub, and HD gaming console with a rapidly growing library of impressive titles.

Prizefight: Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3 Play CNET Video

PlayStation 3 models compared:

Model PS3 20GB* PS3 40GB PS3 60GB^ PS3 80GB
MSRP n/a $400 $500 $500
Hard disk size 20GB 40GB 60GB 80GB
Network compatibility Ethernet only Ethernet and Wi-Fi Ethernet and Wi-Fi Ethernet and Wi-Fi
Plays PS2 games? Yes [hardware support for most PS2 games] No Yes [hardware support for most PS2 games] Yes [software support for many PS2 games]
Flash memory compatibility None None CompactFlash, SD Memory Card and Memory Stick Duo card slots CompactFlash, SD Memory Card and Memory Stick Duo card slots
USB ports 4 2 4 4
Unique bundled items Currently ships with Spider-Man 3 Blu-ray movie Currently ships with Motorstorm game

* Sony has since discontinued the 20GB PlayStation 3 model.

^ While the 60GB version of the PlayStation 3 remains available, Sony has begun phasing it out of their product line.

Design
Like the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, the PlayStation 3 can stand vertically or lie horizontally in an AV rack, though because of its curved top, it’s not meant to have any other components resting on top of it. Early prototypes were shown in white and silver, but the PS3 is currently available only in black. The 20GB version (now discontinued) was all black, but the larger capacity models are 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. 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 inches wide by 3.8 inches high by 10.8 inches long, 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 three-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.

On the front, you’ll find four USB ports for connecting (and charging) controllers and other accessories, including USB keyboards, thumbdrives, and the PSP. Four ports are nice, but we would have liked to have seen at least one USB port on the back for connecting peripherals such as a camera (the PS Eye) that spoil the PS3’s otherwise clean lines by sticking obtrusively out of the front. Rounding out the front panel is a built-in memory card reader behind a door that supports not only memory cards from Sony’s entire Memory Stick family, but Compact Flash and SD/MMC cards as well. (Sorry, Olympus fans–there’s no built-in xD support, but you can still hook up your camera–or an external card reader–via USB.)

Around back is where you’ll find ports for Ethernet, HDMI output, optical digital audio output (SPDIF), and the proprietary PlayStation AV output for analog audio and video. A composite AV 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). Unlike the proprietary snap-on hard drive of the Xbox 360, the PS3’s 60GB internal hard drive is user replaceable with any off-the-shelf laptop drive. The only caveat: It uses the smaller 2.5-inch drive size, which 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 SixAxis controller also 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.

The other big upgrade on the SixAxis controller is motion sensitivity. As the name indicates, the controller’s capable of sensing motion in six directions: up, down, left, right, forward, and backward. Game developers have incorporated it in many of the new games in one form or another. For example, in Call of Duty 3, you can arm explosives with a twist of the controller. 2K’s NBA 2K8 also makes interesting use of the tilt feature, allowing you shoot free throws by motioning a shot with your controller.

To be sure, some implementations of the tilt sensitivity are better than others. Some games’ use of it are optional and can be switched off, as we can certainly see some folks not wanting to bother with it 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 adds an extra level of control when flying the eponymous attack vehicle in Warhawk. On the other hand, the highly touted Lair, is widely considered unplayable, thanks to a poorly implemented Sixaxis control scheme.

The big omission is force feedback support: The current iteration of the PS3 controller offers no vibration or rumble control. However, Sony recently announced that a new, rumbling Dual Shock 3 controller will be available in early 2008. In addition, a large portion of existing games will be able to make use of the force feedback simply by downloading a patch. Sounds great–until you realize that you’ll have to shell out more dough for that controller once it eventually becomes available.

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.

Since the release of the PlayStation 3, Sony has continued to release newer versions of the embedded firmware. These updates usually address bugs and other glitches and even add features as well. DVD upscaling was added with a firmware update as was extended support for the PlayStation Network and Store.

Digital media hub
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.

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 displays 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 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 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). 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 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. The PS3 can act as a digital media hub, with the ability to stream content from any DLNA-compatible network device, including PCs.

PSP owners will find increasingly close integration between Sony’s portable and the PS3. Users now have the ability to control their PS3 anywhere in the world using a Wi-Fi connection, thanks to the Remote Play feature. Digital media, including photos, music, and video can be streamed to the PSP, as well.

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. While the system is expected to eventually allow you to pair the PS3 with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, at least one third-party solution–Logitech’s Cordless MediaBoard–uses a wireless USB dongle instead. We had better luck with Bluetooth headsets: a Plantronics Discovery 655 worked perfectly, and allowed us to chat with fellow players during online gaming sessions.

The browser appears to be pretty robust with the requisite Flash support, and it certainly is a nice convenience for those who want 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
While the PlayStation Network did not launch simultaneously with the PlayStation 3, it has since opened up to the public and with it, many games and services are now available. Connecting to the PlayStation Network is free, as is multiplayer gaming, although downloadable games and other content come at a cost.

In early 2008, the PlayStation Network will launch PlayStation Home. Home is an online virtual world, somewhat in the vein of Second Life, where gamers can have their avatars interact with one another in addition to the ability to virtually create your own “home.” From Home’s interface, you can set up game matches and communicate with friends as well as other gamers. An achievement-based system has also been promised, but early signs show that it will be molded around a trophy system.

By contrast, 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.

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. Microsoft has its Xbox Live Marketplace, where you can download games, demos, video content, full-length movies and TV shows in high-definition–as well as game themes and additional game content.

Not all of the initial PS3 titles 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 also offers free online play and communications for the Wii, as it does on the DS. Right now only a handful of games support this feature, but Nintendo promises more online gaming in the future.)

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, the PlayStation Store sticks 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 death match 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. However, an entire year has passed since the release of the PlayStation 3, and the general consensus seems to agree that this level of sophistication has yet to be tapped.

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–although this conflict has yet to directly affect the release of any game. On the contrary, Rockstar Games claims that the complicated programming involved with Grand Theft Auto IV on the PlayStation 3 is what actually delayed the game’s multiplatform release into 2008.

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 several 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. Meanwhile, the Xbox 360 cooling fan and DVD drive are comparatively far noisier, sometimes to the point of distraction. And the PS3 hasn’t had any widespread reliability problems, unlike the “red ring of death” problem that continues to dog the 360. That console’s high failure rate–at least on models produced early on in its life cycle–has made for customer service headaches (and a billion dollar liability for Microsoft) as frustrated Xbox gamers exchange dead consoles.

Play time
Despite all of the vaunted “power” of the PS3’s unique Cell processor, games appearing on both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 tend to look all but identical on both consoles. The PS3 clearly measures up to the Xbox 360 in terms of its graphics prowess, but 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.” Even as it passes its first birthday, the PS3 still seems in search of a breakout title. (Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4, due in 2008, is currently getting a lot of buzz and will supposedly be a PS3 exclusive.) However, other exclusive titles such as Heavenly Sword, Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune have given PlayStation 3 owners something to cheer about.

As we stated earlier, this 60GB model is the one you want to opt for if backward compatibility is your top priority. The similarly priced 80GB PS3 eliminates the Emotion Engine hardware found in this model and the original 20GB PlayStation 3 . That means compatibility with PS2 games is handled via software emulation. As such, the 80GB PS3 will still play the vast majority of PS2 games (as well as games designed for the original mid-1990s PlayStation), but won’t approach the near 100 percent compatibility offered by the older PS3 models. (Check out the PlayStation Web site to check the title-by-title compatibility.)

Movie watching
Since the PS3’s debut, we’ve seen several Blu-ray players from Samsung, Panasonic, LG, and Sony itself. And none of them generally perform any better than the PS3, even though they cost more (twice as much or more in some cases). HD movies look superb on the PS3, which can output video at full 1080p resolution via its HDMI 1.3 port. The only slight downside to the PS3’s Blu-ray performance is the audio: While the PS3 can decode Dolby TrueHD and pass along PCM output via HDMI, it cannot decode DTS-HD Master Audio and currently lacks bitstream output (for external AV receivers to handle the Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio decoding) which is available on newer standalone Blu-ray players like the Panasonic DMP-BD30 and Samsung BD-P1400. It’s currently unclear whether Sony will be able to enable internal DTS-HD Master Audio decoding or bitstream output with a firmware update. The other disadvantage compared with standalone Blu-ray players is the lack of multichannel analog outputs, which means you’ll need to have an HDMI-capable receiver to take advantage of high-resolution audio.

The PS3 also plays (and upconverts) standard DVDs (see detailed analysis). Of course, Blu-ray’s archrival, HD DVD discs, won’t work on the PS3. At the current time, that means you won’t be able to get high-def movies from Paramount or Universal (the two HD DVD exclusive studios) for your PS3–but films from Blu-ray backers Fox, Disney, and Sony studios (MGM, Columbia, Tri-Star) won’t be a problem. (Warner publishes on both formats.)

For a more in-depth comparison of Blu-ray vs. HD DVD, please see our guide.

If HD DVD is more your liking, the Xbox 360 requires a clunky add-on drive to play HD DVD movies (though downloadable high-def movies are available via Xbox Live), and the Nintendo Wii doesn’t play back movie discs of any type. Of course, with HD DVD player prices plunging below $200, you can have Blu-ray (PS3) and HD DVD (a cheap Toshiba player) in your home theater for less than $600–which is less than either format’s players were going for just a few months ago.

Our only real complaint with the PS3’s movie playback is the remote issue. 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. Other options have surfaced to combat this issue, such as the PlayStation 3 Blu Wave Remote and the USBIRX3 from Schmartz.com. But we just wish Sony would’ve spent a few extra pennies and added a standard infrared receiver to the console.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: