PS3's got game: plus Blu-ray, MP3 and more

We take an in-depth look at PS3's non-gaming attributes and cover what you need to know about how it handles Blu-ray and DVD movies, music, photos, Internet browsing and more.

Like the PlayStation Portable before it, the sparkling new Sony PlayStation 3 is not quite a console and not quite a media centre. Yet, despite some of the similarities -- the most obvious being the shared Cross Media Bar or XMB -- they are two very different beasts.

The PlayStation 3 or PS3 has so much more riding on it than a machine that can play a few games occasionally -- it has the potential to make and break an entire industry.

There are several reasons why Sony is selling PS3 at a loss just to get it into people's homes. Part of this move is because of Blu-ray ; it is the one killer app that Sony hopes will buoy sales of this machine. Sure, the PS3 will play games, but it offers something much deeper and richer than this -- it will potentially succeed where the media hubs and Media Centers have failed. Besides the addition of Blu-ray, the PS3 can aggregate your multimedia content into a one-stop shop. But how does it work, and is it worth a fortnight's pay?

The PS3 is more than just a games machine, it's also the cheapest Blu-ray player on the market.

Under the hood
For a console, the PS3 has plenty of multimedia muscle -- firstly there's the Cell processor which was developed in conjunction with IBM and Toshiba and runs at 3.2GHz. Most of the delays surrounding the PS3 have been due to problems in manufacturing this new part. But it's also incredibly powerful CPU, and it has enthusiasts wringing their hands at the thought of unleashing it upon the forthcoming Folding@Home application for PS3.

Also, let's not forget it's graphics capabilities: this is a truly powerful HD machine that can replay Blu-ray disks at full 1080p resolution as well as cutting edge games. Sound is also looked after with MP3 and CD playback, as well as Sony's own high-def music format SACD.

Throw in Internet and photo gallery capabilities, including a card reader, and you have a neat little gadget.

Getting started
In order to maximise your PlayStation 3 experience, there's a couple of things you'll need along the way. Given that Sony has cut some corners to keep the price to *ahem* a decent level, you'll need to buy some extras to make the PS3 complete.

    Must haves:
  • A broadband connection, preferably with a high download limit
  • Wireless router
  • Sony PS3 Blu-ray DVD Remote control, especially for BD (Blu-ray disc) and media playback

The remote may cost an extra AU$50, but if you plan on watching a lot of media on this console, it's pretty much mandatory.  Its also a very good remote.

Of course, you'll also need a television, but this should be obvious. Though much has been made of PS3's HD capabilities, you don't necessarily need a HD TV -- though it would of course help for Blu-ray watching. We'd recommend a screen with at least a component input to maximise video quality.

    Nice to haves:
  • A PSP - content sharing features are pretty limited at present but there are plenty planned
  • A USB keyboard and/or mouse - for use with the Internet
  • An existing media collection -- though the PS3 can rip CDs, it's quicker if you do it on PC, as you'll see.
  • Sony Walkman - the combination won't overtake the iPod docks of this world, but there are some nice features.
  • HDMI cable 

So, now that you've got all your extras, what can you expect? Read on to find some of the highlights and pitfalls to owning one of these next-gen consoles.

The Sony BD Remote Control is a must-have for serious home theatre use.

DVD and Blu-ray
As a AU$1000 BD player, the PlayStation is exceptional. Colour is spot on and detail is good. It's more user friendly than the competing Panasonic DMP-BD10 player -- even when using the SIXAXIS controller. It can run in 1.5x mode with audio which is handy. Sound is not as exciting as it could be, and the Panasonic beats it here, but it certainly conveys a lot of the emotion and grit of a film such as Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven.

More and more content is being released in anticipation of the PS3's release. Click here to see a list of currently availble Australian Blu-ray titles .

As a DVD player, the PS3 is also quite good, with little noise or shimmer. It demonstrates lifelike colours and good degree of detail. It's not an upscaling DVD player, but given the lack of digital artefacts, this is not much of an issue. A player such as the Denon DVD 1930 may be able to make images 'pop out' a little more, and at the same time upscale them, but in that case we're talking about a dedicated device. The PS3 is able to do a lot of things very well for a games console.

One of the pitfalls of this player is that it's not as easily to access the setup options as a dedicated Blu-ray machine. For example, you can't alter the video options within the Blu-ray section itself, you need to exit out into PS3 XMB. There you can set the HDMI output to any resolution from 1080p down to 576p.

CD and MP3
The PlayStation 3 is able to rip, store and playback MP3s, as well as playback CD and SACD formats. Using the XMB is quite user friendly and most functions only require a couple of button presses -- as long as you remember to use the green triangle/Options button.

We ripped a 58 minute CD to test how it fared against a PC. Using the default setting of 320kbps AAC -- which is one of the highest quality Sony settings -- the PS3 took six minutes and 28 seconds By contrast, our desktop workstation with a Pentium 4 3GHz processor and 512MB of RAM was able to rip the CD at the same encoding rate at two minutes and 43 seconds. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, we'd recommend using your PC and transferring them. Copying from a memory key was very quick -- it took two seconds to copy a 10MB track across, which was excellent.

For the seven people who bought a Sony Walkman (only joking) you can sync it up to your PS3 and play files from it directly via the menu. Pressing the green triangle (helpfully labelled 'Options' on the remote) activates the context menu and enables you to copy tracks to the PS3 harddrive. Connecting a device does take some time to load all the tracks, and in the meantime, it will display 'no tracks' instead of the more helpful 'loading'.

Connecting a Walkman gives you a 'Copy multiple' menu, and selecting this gives you a greyed out selection of tracks. While selecting 'all' and pressing 'copy' gave us a copying screen nothing actually happened. This is not surprising considering Sony's tight grip on DRM.

Accessing your music via the PlayStation 3's XMB is easy, yet powerful.

We'll throw SACD into the mix here. It's a very niche product, but we have to say that this is one of the easiest to use SACD players we've ever seen.  For mixed mode disks (with both CD and SACD on one platter) you can easily choose whether you want to listen to standard CD playback, stereo or 5.1 SACD courtesy of the XMB drop-down menu. No more changing of obscure settings -- the PS3 lays all the options out in front of you. Spiffing. As an SACD player, it's not bad, but it's not as good as, say, the Denon DV1930.

During music playback, there are only two jukebox animations on the PS3, which is mildly disappointing. One is the Sony ribbon, which doesn't actually react to the music, and a somewhat cooler planetfall/landscape animation.

Photos
One of the niftier features of the PS3 is its gaggle of slideshow options that work in concert with the onboard card reader. Whether you plug in a memory key, compatible MP3 player or SD card, it will install them as options under Photos and let you transfer them to the PS3's drive.

The slideshows available include Normal, Slide (nifty sliding transition effect), Portrait (zooms gently in and out of a photo), and Photo Album.
The Photo Album slideshow is the most interesting one, as it resembles a table or whiteboard which the photos flop onto, alongside some scrawled dates and 'film negatives'.

Internet
The Internet browser is frustrating with the remote, as the shoulder buttons are small and unintuitively placed. It's a much better experience with the SIXAXIS controller. Though you can use the remote or controller to enter text (the Start key brings up a keypad), it's easier to use a USB keyboard. We were unable to get the Microsoft Remote Keyboard for Windows XP Media Center Edition to work -- which would have been handy given that it's wireless and includes a mouse -- but Microsoft's Comfort Curve worked fine.

Using the newly-introduced PlayStation store was a laborious exercise on a slow connection, which was no doubt exacerbated by the fact the store isn't officially opened for another two days, and the barrage of eager early users. We got a lot of dead images and changing pages took at least 10 seconds to register. With a broadband connection, late at night, it was a lot smoother.

Things we'd like to see
Home, the PS3's answer to Second Life is coming. But the virtual bubble is close to bursting, with a lot of companies becoming disenfranchised with the lack of interest in commercial applications for Second Life in particular. Could Home suffer the same fate? One of the strongest aspects of the Xbox 360 is the Xbox Live application, which has over six million users. It remains to be seen if Home, or one of the other planned social aspects of the PS3 catches on so readily.

 

It won't happen, but we would have liked to see RCA jacks or even a headphone jack on the PS3. Though there's a multitude of digital connections, the provision of a non-proprietary analog connection would have been a real time (and hair) saver.

The bottom line
Is it console or it media centre? We are still divided. At present, the lure of Blu-ray is much more compelling to AV enthusiasts than the handful of PS3 games on the market. We think this console will do much to ensure that Blu-ray comes out on top in the so-called 'format wars'. No other competitor comes close to beating its multimedia capabilities -- especially in Blu-ray -- at this price. The lack of full-scale PS2 support is a disappointment , but we feel the PS3 will appeal to people who wouldn't ordinarily buy a console anyway. Plus, the PS2 is currently going for a song if you really must have every game. We'll stop short of saying this is the must-have gadget of 2007, but we think it's a pretty compelling one.

 

 

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