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 user-friendly, 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 was added with a firmware update as was extended support for the PlayStation Network and Store.
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.
As for music, the PS3 supports most of the major music-file types, including MP3, ATRAC, AAC, and WAV, and like the Xbox 360, has a built-in music visualizer. As with the photos, you can import songs from a USB thumbdrive--again, you'll have to create a special Music folder--or rip songs directly to the hard drive from a CD. (Yes, unlike some Blu-ray players on the market, the PS3 can actually recognize and play CDs). It cannot play back music from attached iPods, nor can it stream from other music players that incorporate copy-protected music formats. Here, the 360 has a leg up: It offers some iPod compatibility, and it can play back WMA music files, as well.
On the video front, the PS3 plays Blu-ray discs in full high-definition as well as DVD movies. It also supports MPEG1, MPEG2, and MPEG4/h.264 video files from USB or disc-based media (reading from the "video" directory). If you transfer the videos to the PS3's hard drive, thumbnails on the video menu are shown as 15-second video clips, rather than just as still images of the first frame of the video. The PS3 can act as a digital media hub, with the ability to stream content from any DLNA-compatible network device, including PCs.
PSP owners will find increasingly close integration between Sony's portable and the PS3. Users now have the ability to control their PS3 anywhere in the world using a Wi-Fi connection, thanks to the Remote Play feature. Digital media, including photos, music, and video can be streamed to the PSP, as well.
Sony's version of Web TV
Taking a page out of the PSP's book, the PS3 also has a built-in Web browser, but the nice thing about the PS3 is that if you connect a USB keyboard, you don't have to type in URL addresses using the system's tedious virtual keyboard. Likewise, a USB mouse lets you point and click your way through a Web page, just as if you were on a PC. While the system is expected to eventually allow you to pair the PS3 with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, at least one third-party solution--Logitech's Cordless MediaBoard--uses a wireless USB dongle instead. We had better luck with Bluetooth headsets: a Plantronics Discovery 655 worked perfectly, and allowed us to chat with fellow players during online gaming sessions.
The browser appears to be pretty robust with the requisite Flash support, and it certainly is a nice convenience for those who want to browse from their living room couch. That said, the sharpness of Web pages' appearance--and how readable they are--will depend on the quality of your TV and its size. For example, viewing Web pages on a 60-inch DLP set is going to be more of a challenge than say, looking at those same pages over a 20-inch computer monitor. And viewing Web pages on anything less than an HDTV at full resolution (720p, 1080i, or 1080p) will be decidedly eye-straining.
The PlayStation Network
While the PlayStation Network did not launch simultaneously with the PlayStation 3, it has since opened up to the public and with it, many games and services are now available. Connecting to the PlayStation Network is free, as is multiplayer gaming, although downloadable games and other content come at a cost.
In early 2008, the PlayStation Network will launch PlayStation Home. Home is an online virtual world, somewhat in the vein of Second Life, where gamers can have their avatars interact with one another in addition to the ability to virtually create your own "home." From Home's interface, you can set up game matches and communicate with friends as well as other gamers. An achievement-based system has also been promised, but early signs show that it will be molded around a trophy system.
By contrast, Xbox Live Silver, Microsoft's free, entry-level service, gives you access to some community options but to play online multiplayer games, you have to upgrade to Xbox Live Gold service, which runs $50 per year.
Free online play is obviously a big plus in Sony's favor. That said, Xbox Live has been around for years and has had time to mature, and the majority of Xbox 360 games offer some form of online play. Microsoft has its Xbox Live Marketplace, where you can download games, demos, video content, full-length movies and TV shows in high-definition--as well as game themes and additional game content.
Not all of the initial PS3 titles offer head-to-head online gameplay, but expect at least some online showcases: Sony's Resistance: Fall of Man is designed to handle online fragfests with as many as 32 players per match. (Nintendo also offers free online play and communications for the Wii, as it does on the DS. Right now only a handful of games support this feature, but Nintendo promises more online gaming in the future.)
Also, keep in mind that despite the PS3 online play being ostensibly free, Sony and its third-party publishers--just like Microsoft and Nintendo--will be aggressively pushing "micropayment" transactions (additional levels, in-game extras, retro games, and other goodies) that will cost users. Instead of the points-based payment system found on Microsoft and Nintendo's networks, the PlayStation Store sticks to dollars and cents--users can simply transfer cash to their PlayStation 3 Wallet via credit card or with prepaid gift cards. (International locations will likewise be denominated in their home currency--yen, euros, pounds sterling, Canadian dollars, and so forth.)
When final specs were released for the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, not surprisingly, there was a big debate over which system was technically more powerful. The 360 uses more off-the-shelf PC components, while the PlayStation 3's 3.2GHz Cell processor was built from the ground up just for the PS3. It consists of a single PowerPC-based core with seven synergistic processing units and is the result of a joint effort between IBM, Sony, and Toshiba, which is ironic, considering that Sony and Toshiba are in a death match over Blu-ray and HD DVD.
The key thing to know about the Cell is that it has the juice to run a new class of gameplay physics that will allow developers to create spectacular effects and eventually provide a whole new depth of realism to games. Paired with PlayStation 3's RSX Reality Synthesizer graphics-processing unit, a gargantuan 550MHz, 300-million-transistor graphics chip based on Nvidia's GeForce 7800 GTX graphics technology, and you're looking at a very high-end PC. The only problem, of course, is that it'll take developers years to learn to take full advantage of all that processing power and truly deliver on the graphical promise of the system. However, an entire year has passed since the release of the PlayStation 3, and the general consensus seems to agree that this level of sophistication has yet to be tapped.
Say what you will about increasing development times and rising costs for producing video games, but Blu-ray's 25GB to 50GB storage capacity--as opposed to 8.5GB for the Xbox 360's DVD drive--does give developers the chance to create huge games--although this conflict has yet to directly affect the release of any game. On the contrary, Rockstar Games claims that the complicated programming involved with Grand Theft Auto IV on the PlayStation 3 is what actually delayed the game's multiplatform release into 2008.
At the end of the day, as Microsoft learned, you can tout all the power you want, but if you can't keep your system cool--and fairly quiet--you're going to have some serious problems on your hands. What's impressive about this PS3, in fact, is that with all this power under the hood, the system runs as quietly as it does. After running for several hours straight, we found that we could still place a hand over the back of the unit and not get scorched--the system runs pretty warm, but not blazingly hot. Meanwhile, the Xbox 360 cooling fan and DVD drive are comparatively far noisier, sometimes to the point of distraction. And the PS3 hasn't had any widespread reliability problems, unlike the "red ring of death" problem that continues to dog the 360. That console's high failure rate--at least on models produced early on in its life cycle--has made for customer service headaches (and a billion dollar liability for Microsoft) as frustrated Xbox gamers exchange dead consoles.
Despite all of the vaunted "power" of the PS3's unique Cell processor, games appearing on both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 tend to look all but identical on both consoles. The PS3 clearly measures up to the Xbox 360 in terms of its graphics prowess, but there really isn't anything available yet that's too unique or so far beyond what the Xbox 360 offers that you think, "I gotta get this system to play that game." Even as it passes its first birthday, the PS3 still seems in search of a breakout title. (Konami's Metal Gear Solid 4, due in 2008, is currently getting a lot of buzz and will supposedly be a PS3 exclusive.) However, other exclusive titles such as Heavenly Sword, Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune have given PlayStation 3 owners something to cheer about.
As we stated earlier, this 60GB model is the one you want to opt for if backward compatibility is your top priority. The similarly priced 80GB PS3 eliminates the Emotion Engine hardware found in this model and the original 20GB PlayStation 3 . That means compatibility with PS2 games is handled via software emulation. As such, the 80GB PS3 will still play the vast majority of PS2 games (as well as games designed for the original mid-1990s PlayStation), but won't approach the near 100 percent compatibility offered by the older PS3 models. (Check out the PlayStation Web site to check the title-by-title compatibility.)
Since the PS3's debut, we've seen several Blu-ray players from Samsung, Panasonic, LG, and Sony itself. And none of them generally perform any better than the PS3, even though they cost more (twice as much or more in some cases). HD movies look superb on the PS3, which can output video at full 1080p resolution via its HDMI 1.3 port. The only slight downside to the PS3's Blu-ray performance is the audio: While the PS3 can decode Dolby TrueHD and pass along PCM output