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Console browsing: Not there yet

Is it possible to have a positive Webware experience on something besides a PC? We put the PS3 and the Wii to the test to find out.

Is it possible to have a positive Webware experience on something besides a PC? Cell phones and small handheld Internet devices don't cut it with their tiny screens and awful browsers (at least until the iPhone arrives). So what if you could use that nice bandwidth you get at home and combine it with that large HDTV sitting in your living room? That question has recently been answered with Nintendo and Sony's more recent gaming consoles: the Wii and the PS3, respectively. Microsoft's Xbox 360 doesn't have a browser, likely because of the company's failure with MSN TV several years ago. So which of these two rules the roost, and more importantly, is worth using over your three-year old PC?

The short answer is that the PS3 blows the Wii out of the water, and it offers a decent Web experience for casual browsing. Want more detail? Read on.

Before you do read more, though, note that my test setup was a 37-inch LCD HDTV that I fed with component cabling. Running either system on a standard-definition TV that's less than a 30-incher results in tiny, blurry text. And neither system comes with component cables--you must purchase them separately.

Test 1: Speed
Speed is a combination of application start-up time, page rendering, and text input.

The Wii's bookmark manager CNET Networks

The PS3's browser starts up almost instantly, unlike the Wii's, which takes about 30 seconds to load up from the Wii home menu. Both browsers render pages at about the same speed, although from a user standpoint, I give a nod to the Wii's status bar, which is much more useful than the PS3's water-droplet status icon. Text input on the PS3 is cumbersome, no thanks to clumsy predictive text and a cell phone-like onscreen keypad. The saving grace is that you can use a USB or Bluetooth keyboard. The Wii has an onscreen QWERTY keyboard, which, compared to using a PS3 controller, is incredibly fast.

Winner: PS3. Waiting for a browser to load is so '90s. Nintendo missed the boat by not letting you plug a real keyboard into one of its USB ports.

Test 2: Browsing
Browsing is a combination of multiple window management, pop-up control, file format compatibility, and page navigation.

The PS3 is very nearly a tabbed browser (like Firefox and IE 7), thanks to its window mode where you can view thumbnails of all the open windows at once. The Wii has only a single-window browser, similar to Internet Explorer before version 7. What's worse, on the Wii, a rogue pop-up will take over the window, forcing you to hit the Back button, which takes you back to the page with the pop-up. This creates an endless loop that can make for controller-throwing frustration. Pop-ups on the PS3 browser show up as separate windows, which can easily be closed.

The PS3's 'window mode' Sony Computer Entertainment

But as far as file formats go, the Wii has the edge. My test machine loaded up Flash 7 videos much faster than the PS3 did, but I found both to be choppy, which interfered with my enjoyment of YouTube. The Wii also displays RSS feeds, complete with pictures, whereas the PS3 just doesn't recognize them.

Navigation on the PS3 isn't as easy as it is on the Wii, but it's much more powerful. Its controller has more buttons, which makes doing several things at once much easier. And with the PS3, you can plug in a USB mouse and zip around the page as you would on your PC. However, the Wii's remote has a zoom feature and a laser pointer feel, which makes browsing from the couch easy.

Winner: PS3. It may not understand RSS feeds, but for most users, an actual RSS reader is more useful anyway. Since you can't install one, you can use a Web-based one, such as Google Reader.

Test 3: Advanced options
This category covers bookmarks, passwords, history, and settings management.

The Wii's bookmark manager is very limited. In fact, navigating to your bookmarks requires you to leave whatever page you're on just to bring up the menu. There are some neat icon previews of what each page looks like, but they take up space and force you to scroll down to find all your entries. The PS3 has a bookmarks menu that can be toggled by pressing the select button. This brings up an overlay to the page you're currently on, giving you a simple list of pages you've bookmarked. To bookmark the page you're currently on, you click the "Add page to bookmarks" option while in the bookmarks overlay.

Neither system saves usernames or passwords. This is a pain if you intend to use either browser extensively.

The PS3 has a history and settings manager that's about on a par with what you'd find on a mobile phone browser. It's not quite up to spec with a desktop-class browsing app, such as Firefox, but there are a ton of options on there. One of the most important ones is a browsing history, which the Wii doesn't even keep track of.

Winner: The PS3 wipes the floor with the Wii in this category. Most importantly, the Wii makes opening up a bookmarked page a lengthy process.

Conclusion: The PS3 wins in all three tests. But the Wii is half the price of a PS3, so if you're matching these two up dollar for dollar, it's an unfair fight. The Wii's Opera-based browser is also a trial version, which means there will definitely be a more full-featured iteration later on. In the meantime, your best bet is to use these consoles for what they were meant for, which is watching Blu-ray movies and swinging your arms around like an idiot. For real browsing, stick to your PC.