Editor's note: This review is based on the 60GB SKU of the PlayStation 3. The 40GB model has had the following removed: Multimedia card reader, PS2 backwards compatibility, two USB ports, and 20GB of hard drive space.
For a comprehensive look at PS3's Blu-ray and multimedia capabilities, see our feature
Measuring in at 325mm by 98mm by 274mm (WxHxD) and clocking in at a hefty 5kg the PS3 towers over the Xbox 360 and positively dwarfs the Nintendo Wii. Just like those two consoles (and the PlayStation 2 previously), the PS3 can be stored either flat or upright. Personally, we preferred the look of the PS3 while upright, as it better shows off the console's gently curving face and shiny black plastic casing. You're also better able to see the silver trim around the console's front, as well as its face-wide logo. But be warned - just as the shiny black of the Sony PSP was (and is) a fingerprint magnet, so is the PS3's outer covering. This may not be as much of a problem, however, as the PS3 isn't really meant to be handled too much once it's plonked in the middle of your living room set-up.
The front of the console is minimal to the extreme. The PS3's slot loading disc drive is set recessed on the unit's right hand side, and is surrounded by metallic silver. The flat space in front of the drive has two touch sensitive buttons - one for power and the other for ejecting a disc. A small plastic cover can be found on the PS3's left side - flip it open and it reveals the console's memory card slots (Compact Flash, SD/Mini SD and Memory Stick). Directly below are four USB ports which can be used to connect and charge the PS3's wireless controllers, or plug in USB based accessories or peripherals. The back of the unit is similarly clutter-free. Apart from a power slot and AV-Multi-out connector, the unit's rear also sports an HDMI slot, digital out and Ethernet port. Unlike the Xbox 360, the PS3 doesn't come with a bulky power brick, meaning it should be fairly easy to hide the power cable. But speaking of cables, the PS3 only comes only with composite cables as standard - for an HD gaming and multimedia machine like this, it's an extremely disappointing move on Sony's part.
As for the PS3's brand new controllers (one of which comes bundled with all retail boxes), Sony has stuck with its tried and tested design for PS2 controllers. The PS3 controllers look and feel exactly the same as old PlayStation ones, with a couple of key differences. The first is that the new controllers are wireless. Rechargeable batteries are built-in, and the PS3 comes pre-packaged with a USB wire for charging the controllers (a big plus over the 360, with which you have to buy the recharge kit separately). The second major difference is that the rumble feature - which shook the controller in time with on-screen events - has been taken out of the PS3 version. In its place is Sixaxis, a new motion sensitive technology that allows gamers to control play by moving the controller in their hand. It's not as robust a motion-sensitive system as the Nintendo Wii's, however, as the PS3 controllers can only detect movements in six axes (hence the name). The lack of rumble functionality had also made the PS3 controller much lighter - those used to the PS2 controller's weight will find it initially surprising. The final differences are cosmetic - the new PS3 controllers have a clear PlayStation button in the centre (which acts as a method to quit games or turn off the system), and the L2 and R2 buttons have been reshaped to be more trigger-like.
Sony wants the world to recognise the PS3 as more than just a games system, and it's clear from when you first turn on the machine that this system has been built for more than just play. The PS3's interface is far removed from the PS2's fairly spartan dashboard, and has been modelled after the PSP's media interface. All of the console's various functions are arrayed in what Sony has dubbed the Cross Media Bar, or XMB. Users navigate different functions which are arrayed on a horizontal axis, where each heading opens up sub-headings on a vertical axis. The main headings are Users, Settings, Photo, Music, Video, Game, Network and Friends. Going to the Video heading on the horizontal plane, for example, will unveil all of a user's video options displayed vertically underneath the heading (such as play a BR/DVD or video clips). Going to game will give users the option of playing a disc-based game or any game demos previously loaded. The XMB is fairly intuitive to use, even for those not used to the PSP system.
Things get decidedly more complex any time you have to enter data, however (such as when first creating log-ins for the PS3, or when signing up for the PlayStation Store, or even just entering Web addresses in the PS3's browser). The PS3 uses a keypad for data entry, similar to how mobile phone users enter text messages. It's an extremely fiddly process which will no doubt frustrate, particularly after extended use. Thankfully, the PS3 is compatible with USB or Bluetooth keyboards, so if you have a spare one handy, we highly recommend plugging that in any time data needs to be entered.
The PlayStation 3 is a technical behemoth underneath its cool black exterior-it is, in essence, a high-end PC capable of a wide array of multimedia features. At its heart is the Cell processor, a chip developed specifically for the PlayStation 3 which features a PowerPC-based core with seven different processing units. This allows the Cell to perform insanely complex equations which should result in vastly improved graphics and more realistic physics within games. We say "should", because the drawback of having a specially built processor means game developers have to learn from scratch how to program for the system (as opposed to the Xbox 360, which uses mainly off-the-shelf components). So while the graphics of current-gen PS3 games are on par with the Xbox 360's, we're expecting significant improvements in the years to come.
The PS3 is compatible out of the box with any new PS3 games - even ones from overseas. Sony has (at this stage) put no region locks on games, which means that any title purchased from around the world should work on an Australian PS3. Sony has left it to publishers to implement their own region locks should they wish, however, so this situation may change in the future. Old PS1 and PS2 games are still region locked. And speaking of old PlayStation games, the Australian version of the PS3 is different from US ones in that backwards compatibility with old PS2 games is software instead of hardware emulated. This means Aussie PS3 owners will need to update their machine to the latest firmware version as soon as they unpack it if they want to play old PS2 games. The list of PS2 games currently playable on the PS3 is roughly 1700, compared to the close to 2500 titles available for the old system. Click here for the full list.
It would hardly be a multimedia machine if all it did was play games, however. The PS3 features a long list of hardware extras, the most significant of which is probably the inclusion of a 60GB hard drive. As well as being the main repository to store game saves, the large drive can also be used to store game and video demos, music and digital photos. And in the first of Sony's moves to make the PS3 more compatibility-friendly, the drive is a serial ATA: this means users can easily upgrade the drive at a later date should they run out of space.
When it comes to connectivity, the PS3 is no slouch. The Ethernet port makes it a cinch to connect to a wired home network, while the unit also ships with Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g) built in. The PS3 also features Bluetooth 2.0 for connection with other compatible devices. As mentioned earlier, the PS3 also sports four USB 2.0 slots at the front, which can accommodate devices such as keyboards and even existing PS2 peripherals (SingStar microphones, anyone?). And in another particularly generous act of open standards, the PS3 comes with slots for Memory Stick (including Pro), Compact Flash (Type I and II) and SD. This should make uploading pictures or other data to the PS3 a breeze.