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Un-gamer, meet PS3

It's PS3 fever in Manhattan, where gamers get to try the console out.

Pod chairs

I've said it here before: I'm not the most hard-core gamer. I've never owned a gaming console, and my only PlayStation-related experience thus far had been Lumines for PSP. (Don't play it. It's like crack.) But I'm willing to be open-minded about video games, especially since not knowing anything about them renders me clueless in many a conversation at our office. And who likes to be left out? Not me.

So this morning, despite the fact that I had never held a PlayStation controller before, I was pretty excited to go and try out Sony's much-anticipated PS3 at a promotional event in which gaming enthusiasts and members of the media were given an opportunity to test-drive the consoles, which hit stores on the 17th of the month. Sony rented out space in a building in Manhattan's chic SoHo neighborhood (for those of you who aren't New Yorkers, it's a post-industrial district known for sky-high ceilings and sky-higher rents) and filled it with PS3s, 40-inch Bravia TVs, and futuristic, uber-comfy pod-shaped chairs.

Basically, it was a couch potato's Valhalla.

I met with Sony public relations rep Sheila Bryson, who gave this non-gamer a lowdown on all the things you can do with the PS3 that don't actually involve playing games. The photo application was particularly cool: the console is equipped with five USB ports (four in the front, one in the back) as well as a memory card reader, so you can load the contents of your digital camera directly onto your PS3. It had one of the most impressive photo slideshow functions I'd ever seen, too. Unfortunately, there's no way to hook it up to a photo printing service, so you probably won't want to use your PS3 as the exclusive storage spot for your pictures. But aside from that drawback, I was pretty much astounded.

The Web browser also looks good: again, it's not a replacement for your computer, but it's high-end enough so that you can pause your game of "Motor Storm" in order to zip over to the browser and keep tabs on your fantasy football stats. The browser speed at today's event was pretty slow, but the Sony reps ensured me that it was because of the number of consoles in the room hogging the local connection. A consumer with a PlayStation 3, Bryson said, should expect its Internet functions to go about as quickly as those on a home PC.

Then I decided to actually try out the games. There were plenty of options: "NHL 2K7," "Resistance: Fall of Man," "Mobile Suit Gundam," "Genji: Days of Blade"...the list goes on. I watched a demo of EA's "Need for Speed: Carbon" and was more or less blown away by the graphics. With a decent speaker system, a game like that played on a high-end TV like the Bravia could really make you feel like you're in a theater.

Hi, Sonic

"Need for Speed" was too daunting, though--I restricted my playing to something a bit cuter and fuzzier, "Sonic the Hedgehog." I'd been skeptical about how well a cartoony, old-school-style video game character like Sonic would translate to a next-generation console and HDTV, but the little blue hedgehog proved me wrong. The game was bright, loud, and fast. I had some trouble getting a hang of the controller at first (which button does barrel rolls?) because of the lightning-fast pace as well as the sensitivity of the joysticks--Sonic definitely plummeted to his death a few times while I was behind the controller. But once I caught onto it, which was sooner than I'd have expected, I was hooked. (See photo at right.) It's pretty much impossible not to like a game that looks this good.

My verdict? Even though I've never been one for video games, the PS3 intrigued me for sure. The digital entertainment functions seemed actually useful--remember, there's a Blu-ray player in there, too--and the quality of the games was tempting enough to lure me in. Is it worth the $599 price tag for a premium console? Yes and no. Yes, I think it's a fair price. But I'm keeping in mind the fact that the graphics will look far less impressive on my TV at home than they did on Sony's swanky Bravia. Then you have to factor in peripherals like speakers. And I definitely don't have a comfy pod chair in my living room.

It's really a toss-up. If you already have adequate TV and speaker equipment, or you're willing to forsake a bit of the "shock and awe" factor, then the $599 PS3 (or $499 for the lower-end model) is probably a worthwhile investment. But otherwise, if you want this sleek gaming console to be as impressive as possible, just remember that you'll probably end up spending more than $599. A lot more.

If you can't get enough of PS3 fever, keep your eyes peeled for Rich DeMuro's video recap of the event on CNET TV. It'll be up soon.

(Photos: Caroline McCarthy/Crave)