There's general agreement that Sony stumbled out of the gate with the PlayStation 3. Months of intense hype were followed by a late launch (fully a year after the Xbox 360) and a staggering $600 price tag for the deluxe model. Even worse, the PS3 initially didn't have any real must-have exclusive titles, and despite the power of its vaunted Cell processor, multiplatform games from third-party developers didn't look appreciably better than the respective titles on the 360.
Since then, the company's been modifying the PlayStation product line to better fit the competitive market landscape. As of November 2007, a "bargain" PlayStation 3 can be had for a mere $400--but that model lacks the ability to play older PS2 games. In addition to backward compatibility with many PS2 games, the $500 PS3 also includes more USB ports, a built-in flash media reader, a larger 80GB hard drive, and the DualShock 3 rumble controller.
If those extras weren't enough, the 80GB version available as of June 2008 also includes Metal Gear Solid 4, the long-anticipated and PS3 exclusive that's debuted to near universal acclaim. As such, the 80GB version is easily worth the extra $100 over the 40GB model reviewed here. Still, for those on a budget, the $400 PS3 delivers nearly all the same gaming and home theater features as its more expensive sibling. The PS3's game drought has largely evaporated, with popular titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV, Rock Band, Call of Duty 4, and Assassin's Creed. Those titles are also available on the Xbox 360, but--like Metal Gear--the PS3's got exclusive dibs on Uncharted and MLB 08, as well as the hotly anticipated Resistance 2 and Killzone 2 due to hit in upcoming months. Yes, the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii also have their own handful of exclusive titles (Halo and Gears of War on the former, and all of the Mario, Metroid, and Zelda games on the latter), but the PS3's HD graphics goes far beyond those of the low-res Wii and its stable hardware doesn't suffer from the Xbox 360's notorious red ring of death. Oh, and the PS3 is also a full-on Blu-ray player and network media hub--not too shabby for $400.
PlayStation 3 models compared:*
|Model||PS3 40GB||PS3 80GB|
|Hard disk size||40GB||80GB|
|Network compatibility||Ethernet and Wi-Fi||Ethernet and Wi-Fi|
|Plays PS2 games?||No||Yes [software support for many PS2 games]|
|Flash memory compatibility||None||CompactFlash, SD Memory Card and Memory Stick Duo card slots|
|Unique bundled items||None||Currently ships with Metal Gear Solid 4 game and the DualShock 3 controller|
* Sony has since discontinued the 20GB and 60GB PlayStation 3 models.
Like the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, the PlayStation 3 can stand vertically or lie horizontally in an AV rack, though because of its curved top, it's not meant to have any other components resting on top of it. Early prototypes were shown in white and silver, but the PS3 is currently available only in black. There's no way to customize its look as you can with Xbox 360's interchangeable, if overpriced, face plates. Judging from Sony's recent decision to bring out the PSP in more colors, we don't expect the company to stick to the black-only option for too long, especially since this system, like the PSP, is a fingerprint- and smudge-magnet.
As for its dimensions, the PS3 measures 12.8 inches wide by 3.8 inches high by 10.8 inches long, which is roughly in line with the overall volume of the Xbox 360. That said, the PS3 does weigh a bit more--11 pounds to the 360's 9.9 pounds including power supply--so if you're going by heft alone, you're getting almost 10 percent more console. Most impressively, there's no external power supply for the PS3; you just plug the included power cable--it's the same standard three-prong style you'll find on most desktop PCs--into the back of the unit and you're good to go. For those of us who own an Xbox 360, and have had to struggle with its massive brick of a power supply, this seems like a remarkable feat on Sony's part.
One obvious difference between the Xbox 360 and the PS3 is the way you load media. As opposed to the more typical tray loader, the PS3 has a front-slot-loading, Blu-ray optical-disc drive, which contributes to the unit's slicker appearance. Discs slide in and eject smoothly enough, so chalk one up for the PS3 here.
On the front, you'll find two USB ports for connecting (and charging) controllers and other accessories, including USB keyboards, thumbdrives, and the PSP. The fact that it's half as many USB ports as on earlier models is more curious than annoying, but we would have liked to have seen at least one USB port on the back for connecting peripherals such as a camera (the PS Eye) that spoil the PS3's otherwise clean lines by sticking obtrusively out of the front.
Around back is where you'll find ports for Ethernet, HDMI output, optical digital audio output (SPDIF), and the proprietary PlayStation AV output for analog audio and video. A composite AV cable ships with the unit, and because it uses the same connector as the PlayStation 2, that system's S-Video and component cables should work with it, as well (to get HD video, you'll need component or HDMI). Unlike the proprietary snap-on hard drive of the Xbox 360, the PS3's 40GB internal hard drive is user replaceable with any off-the-shelf laptop drive. The only caveat: it uses the smaller 2.5-inch drive size, which are twice--or even close to three times--as expensive as the larger 3.5-inch hard drive that goes into a desktop computer.
The Sixaxis controller
When the PS3 was first released in the fall of 2006, gamers gave Sony a lot of grief that the included Sixaxis controller lacked rumble (vibration) support--a feature found on the controllers for the Xbox 360, Wii, and even the older PlayStation 2. Sony has since corrected that with the DualShock 3 controller--which is basically just the Sixaxis with rumble. The problem is that the 40GB PS3 is still bundled with the older non-rumble Sixaxis controller. You can buy the DualShock 3 separately for $55, but it's bundled with the 80GB PS3--another reason why the step-up model is a better overall deal.
With the exception of its dearth of rumble support--and a bit less weight as a result--the Sixaxis is pretty much identical to the DualShock 3. Fans of the older Sony game consoles will note that it even looks identical to the older PlayStation controllers, but there are some differences. For starters, it's wireless. You can connect as many as seven (!) controllers via the system's built-in Bluetooth, which Sony claims offers a 20-meter range (about 65 feet). Recharging the built-in battery simply requires connecting the included USB cable between the console and the controller. You can continue to play as the battery juices up (Sony pledges 30 hours of gameplay between charges), but the cable's somewhat short 5-foot length will put you right on top of the TV. That said, the controller has a standard mini-USB port similar to the one found on many digital cameras and PC peripherals, so swapping in a longer cable--or using a USB extender--shouldn't be a problem.) Unfortunately, the battery isn't removable, which means that if it dies--as inevitably it will someday--you'll have to replace the entire controller ($50) if you want to play wirelessly. By comparison, the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii controllers offer user-replaceable batteries: AAs or proprietary rechargeables for the 360, and AAs for the Wii.
As for the controller's design, Sony has made a few tweaks. The L2 and R2 trigger buttons are a bit bigger, and the increased depth in stroke offers players more subtle game control. Sony has also increased the tilting angle of the analog joysticks to give you more precise control and a wider range of motion. Those analog sticks are more sensitive as well. The PS2's Dual Shock controller had 8-bit sensitivity, while the PS3's controller has 10-bit motion detection. The Sixaxis and DualShock 3 controllers also have a centered Home button, which functions much like its counterpart on the Xbox 360 controller. You use it to return to the console's main menu screen, as well as to sync the controller to the console and start it up or shut it down wirelessly.
The other big upgrade on the Sixaxis from its predecessors is motion sensitivity. As the name indicates, the controller is capable of sensing motion in six directions: up, down, left, right, forward, and backward. Game developers have incorporated it in many of the new games in one form or another. For example, in Call of Duty 3, you can arm explosives with a twist of the controller. 2K's NBA 2K8 also makes interesting use of the tilt feature, allowing you shoot free throws by motioning a shot with your controller.
To be sure, some implementations of the tilt sensitivity are better than others. Some games' use of it are optional and can be switched off, as we can certainly see some folks not wanting to bother with it at all. Clearly, Sony wanted to steal some of Nintendo's thunder, and there's no denying that the Wii's motion-sensitive controllers are more central to that console's DNA. The Wii controllers are also more sophisticated, including the ability to measure actual motion (spatial movement) and acceleration, rather than just tilting--but unlike the Wii, the PS3 doesn't require a motion-sensor bar in front of the TV. (The current Xbox 360 controllers offer no motion sensitivity at all.) It's safe to say we'll see more innovative uses of the tilting sensitivity feature in future games--it definitely adds an extra level of control when flying the eponymous attack vehicle in Warhawk. On the other hand, the highly touted Lair, is widely considered unplayable, thanks to a poorly implemented Sixaxis control scheme.
If you own a Sony PSP, you'll immediately notice the similarities between the PS3's interface and the PSP's cross media bar-style GUI (graphical user interface). You navigate horizontally through top-level selection categories such as users, system settings, and media options such as photos, music, videos, games, network, and friends. When you select a top-level category, a vertical list of sub options appears, and you can navigate down that list until you find the option you want. The interface is polished and generally wasy to use, but you do have to drill down a few levels to reach certain features, and getting to some functions isn't quite as intuitive as it should be. Still, the overall design is slick enough to be called Mac-like, and--at least from an aesthetic standpoint--is more appealing than the Xbox 360's Dashboard and Nintendo Wii's Channels interfaces.
Since the release of the PlayStation 3, Sony has continued to release newer versions of the embedded firmware. These updates usually address bugs and other glitches and even add features as well. DVD upscaling, Blu-ray improvements, and an improved interface for the PlayStation Store were all added via free downloadable firmware updates. And just recently, force vibration capability was added with the release of the DualShock 3 controller.
Digital media hub
Before we delve into the PS3's HD movie prowess (see Movie Watching, below), let's take a holistic look at the console's multimedia functionality.
The PS3 can read digital photos from a variety of USB-attached devices, including most digital cameras, the PSP, USB flash drives, and home-burned CD-Rs. (One caveat: the images may need to be placed in a special directory, such as DCIM or Picture, if they're not already there.) A few different slide-show styles are available, including a unique "photo album" view that displays the images across a white work surface as if you'd dumped them there and spread them out. When stored internally on the hard drive (copying back and forth is easy), photos appear rapidly, and in the basic slide-show mode, you can advance your slides forward by simply pressing on the top-right shoulder button (the left shoulder takes you back a slide). Most JPEG, TIFF, BMP, GIF, and PNG images should work just fine. By contrast, the Xbox 360 lacks the impressive photo album viewer, and the Wii--while including some cool and fun photo-viewing and manipulation functionality--includes only a built-in SD card reader.