Any day now, Gamestop and EB Games will start accepting preorders on the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii, both of which are due to hit just before Thanksgiving. Supplies of both systems will be limited, with the PS3 being in particularly short supply, as Sony currently plans to ship only 400,000 units to North America. There will be plenty of press along with the usual midnight launch events that feature a couple of guys at the front of the line who've camped out for two days on the street to secure their spots. And CNET will probably have to fight to get review units in time to have reviews posted on the day each system hits stores.
That's all a given. But so, too, is the ugly fact there's a reasonable chance that some of the early units may not be glitch-free or, more probably, could end up with shorter life expectancy rates than, well, expected.
Early Xbox 360
models had a high failure rate.
Take the Xbox 360. Just in the last couple of months, I've spoken to several people who were among the first to purchase the 360 and have now had to send their units back to Microsoft for repair. Because it was outside the warranty, and they hadn't bothered to purchase an extended service agreement, the cost for the fix was $150--until Microsoft recently agreed to make repairs for free on any units manufactured before January 1, 2006. (If you shelled out money for a fix, you can, in theory, get a refund.) As Tor Thorsen writes in his news piece for Gamespot, "Microsoft has now apparently admitted that the initial shipments of Xbox 360s were failing at a greater than normal rate."
No one's releasing any hard numbers, but in my little informal poll, three out of the six people I know who got an early Xbox 360 have had their systems fail. That's not good. Sony, too, faced some negative publicity when it had problems with dead pixels on the screens of its early PSP units. And there was also an issue with the button response on some systems. On a personal level, my early PSP unit, while it does have three dead pixels, is still working fine. But I use it only a few hours a week.
These type of first-gen kinks are de rigueur across the electronics industry. Toshiba's first-gen HD-DVD players are notoriously slow and have gone through multiple firmware upgrades to rid them of certain bugs. Samsung's BD-P1000 Blu-ray player is still awaiting a promised firmware upgrade to correct a chip flaw that delivers overly soft image quality. Sony, meanwhile, offered a service solution for owners of early KDS-60A2000 HDTVs that shipped with settings that didn't maximize the set's native 1080p resolution. And Apple began bundling its first-generation iPod Nanos with a cheap but effective slip case, but only after several weeks of mounting complaints that the player was overly prone to scratching.
Ideally, companies should try to isolate software issues from the hardware. It's hard to expect a major manufacturer such as Toshiba or Sony to say, essentially, "hey, you're buying a beta product today, but we're going to be regularly improving it with software upgrades." While Philips doesn't advertise it, the internal firmware of its new generation of flat-panels TVs can be upgraded with a USB thumbdrive. And we've seen manufacturers such as Slingbox, TiVo, and Sonos offer subtle to dramatic improvements over time with software updates.
Are you going to buy a PS3 or a Wii at launch, or will you wait a few months?
One problem, of course, is that the average consumer isn't necessarily prepared--or is intimidated by the idea of having to upgrade a product with a file he or she needs to find on the Internet and either burn to a DVD or CD or download to some sort of flash memory. The best possible scenario is for products to have more transparent Internet connections and update themselves without any assistance from their owners. This is essentially what happens with devices that are always online. Cable and satellite companies, for instance, are always pushing new software updates to their set-top boxes and DVRs. The same is true for the Xbox 360, via its Xbox Live service. It's also what will happen with the PS3 and the Wii, both of which are touting more robust online connectivity than previous Sony and Nintendo consoles. And that's yet another reason to consider both of them to be beta products when they launch in November.
The bigger problem is that, if the hardware itself is flawed, as is the case with the early Xbox 360 units and their overheating problems (it remains to be seen whether later units will also fail at alarmingly high rates). I'm not suggesting it's a sure bet that Sony's going to have issues with the PS3, but I'd feel comfortable wagering a small amount of money that, with a product this advanced that's crammed into a small box that also features a new chip, you may have a few too many lemons in its early crop. In other words, I'm in no hurry to buy a PS3, even if I could somehow make sure I was near the top of the preorder list.
To make a high-tech omelette, you're bound to break a few eggs.
Yeah, I know an admonition to steer clear of first-generation products is hardly a revelation for tech heads. But for everyone prepared to berate me for stating the obvious, consider how many tens of thousands (or more?) of eager gaming fans--or indulgent parents--will be paying double, triple, or even higher multiples on eBay to secure one of these potentially dicey boxes before December 25.
Of course, if you're worried about buying a lemon, the simplest thing to do is buy an extended warranty. But when you're already paying $600 for a game console--which doesn't even include a game--tacking on anything extra just seems too painful. With a more affordable console like the Wii, which will start at $250, I can see taking a chance on an early unit, especially if you're a Nintendo fan boy--or girl--who needs a Zelda fix or a parent who has to endure the incessant whines of your children begging for a new system. But I wouldn't buy a Wii anywhere near launch either. Heck, half of its appeal is that it can play old games from other Nintendo systems. And they're not going anywhere.
So when will it be safe to buy a PS3? I say by the middle of '07. Give Sony six months to get the factories humming and the bugs sorted out, and for a compelling game or two to arrive. Or, if you're really smart, wait for the price drop $100 and for Blu-ray discs to cost the same as DVDs. But that might not be until 2008.
Are you going to buy a PS3 or Wii at launch, or wait a few months? Click the talk back button to get your two cents in.