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With a year's head start on Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube, the PS2 platform has one big advantage over the competition: a greater selection of quality games, though the gap is quickly narrowing, particularly with the Xbox. On top of that, it doubles as a DVD player right out of the box and offers online gaming to both broadband and dial-up users via its Online Adaptor accessory. So while it may not be the newest or the most powerful system, it's certainly a safe bet.
The PlayStation 2 can stand on its side or lie flat to fit any space. And once it is installed into your home theater, you'll be treated to a reasonably sharp picture and high-quality sound. The PlayStation 2, like every other console, has a composite A/V cord in the box, which you use to connect the console to your TV. However, S-Video and component-video connectors are also available separately if you'd like to improve the picture quality. For surround-sound audio, there's a built-in optical digital audio jack. With recent graphics library updates, the PS2 will soon support HDTV resolutions and 16:9 wide-screen setting as the Xbox does. One of the first games to take advantage of this higher resolution: Namco's Tekken 4, which looks utterly amazing. Its graphics are even a worthy rival to those of the Xbox's Dead or Alive 3.
When compared directly to the Xbox, the PS2's 128-bit Emotion Engine yields in-game graphics with more jagged edges. People playing on an ordinary TV aren't too likely to notice those flaws. But if you compare the two systems on a high-resolution, HD-ready set, the edges in Xbox games look significantly smoother. In some ways, even the little Nintendo GameCube graphically surpasses the PS2. Luigi's Mansion and Rogue Leader look exceedingly crisp on the 'Cube, and the animation in Batman Vengeance is smoother than it is in the PS2 version.
As noted, the PS2 can play DVDs out of the box. The GameCube's disc drive won't accommodate five-inch discs, and the Xbox requires the purchase of a DVD kit to unlock its DVD-playing potential. But while Sony makes some fine DVD players, the PS2 is not a very good DVD movie machine. The video image quality is passable, but it has almost no picture adjustments and only rudimentary playback controls. A $20 DVD remote-control kit adds many of the missing playback features.
Beyond home-theater integration, you'll find two USB plugs and one IEEE 1394 (a.k.a. FireWire and iLink) port on the front, as well as a port on the back for plugging in the Online Adaptor. Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec lets you connect up to six PS2s to an IEEE 1394 hub for head-to-head racing. There are also plans to support digital cameras, keyboards, and mice. We plugged in a USB keyboard, and it worked fine to input our registration info for online play. However, we can't say that all USB keybaords are compatible.
On a critical note, the PS2 has only two controller ports, while the Xbox and the GameCube have four. You'll need to spend additional money on a four-player Multitap to get all your friends in the game. We also would've liked to see a Memory Stick slot on the front, considering this is a Sony product. Memory Sticks can hold much more data and cost less per megabyte than the PS2 memory cards that you need to buy separately.
While the online service has finally launched, we're still waiting for the impending arrival of the optional hard drive. The company still won't say when it will be available, but its addition would allow for significantly more storage space for updates to existing games. For example, you could download whole new levels for adventure and action games.
The PS2 has a great and ever widening stable of games available, including such PS2-exclusive titles as Grand Theft Auto Vice City. That, along with a competitive $199 price tag (the same as the Xbox and only $50 more than the GameCube) and a robust-looking online option, makes this a compelling purchase. Just bear in mind that the Xbox offers more horsepower and features, most notably a built-in 8GB hard drive. But if your biggest priority right now is the widest selection of games rather than hardware bells and whistles, the PlayStation 2 is still a solid choice.