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 its flash card ports as well as a full array 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 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 the flash card reader, 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 Profile 2.0 Blu-ray Discs in full high-definition as well as DVD movies. It also supports MPEG-1, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4/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 and network attached hard drives.
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. Not all Bluetooth keyboards will pair with the PS3--the Logitech Cordless MediaBoard requires a USB dongle, for instance. But our favorite keyboard for light text entry is the Logitech diNovo Mini, which interfaces directly via the console without monopolizing one of the precious USB ports. (Likewise, most Bluetooth phone headsets should work fine, allowing you to chat with fellow players during online gaming sessions.)
The browser is fairly robust, and even offers limited Flash support. For instance, YouTube videos work fine, but those on ABC.com and Hulu do not. Overall, the browser 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 Fall 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. As the PS3 matures, Sony has been moving more in that direction as well: there are now plenty of free demos for download, as well as dozens of original mini-games and classic PlayStation One games available for purchase. 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.)
Overall, there's a strong and growing list of titles with solid online play--plenty of shooters and action games (Resistance: Fall of Man, Warhawk, Call of Duty 4, Unreal Tournament 3, Grand Theft Auto IV) and most sports titles. Adding a Bluetooth headset will give you chat support in most games as well. While the online multiplayer support isn't quite as robust and widespread on the PS3 as it is on Xbox Live, it's a big notch up from the Nintendo Wii--the few online games on that console are burdened with Nintendo's friend code system, which must be activated on a title-by-title basis.
When final specifications 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 was ironic, considering that Sony and Toshiba were in a deathmatch 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. Titles such as Call of Duty 4 and Metal Gear Solid 4 (as well as previews of 2009's Killzone 2) have shown that developers are finally beginning to tap the full potential of the PS3's power. That said, the hope that the PS3's graphics would run circles around those of the Xbox 360 has yet to be realized--to date, most games that appear on both systems look roughly indistinguishable.
As with the graphics chip, the PS3's Blu-ray drive--which allows for games of 25GB to 50GB in size--has yet to show a big advantage over the 8.5GB limit of the Xbox 360's DVD media. While that will likely change games get larger and more complex (Xbox titles could eventually spread to 2 or 3 discs, all of which should have no problem fitting on a Blu-ray), the PS3 does have one annoyance: its Blu-ray drive has a comparatively slow transfer time, which requires most games to utilize a PC-style hard disk installation. Installs take just a few minutes and only need to be done once, but it doesn't exactly scream "next-generation" from a convenience standpoint.
Those minor gripes notwithstanding, the PS3 delivers an overall level of excellence when it comes to engineering and performance. What's impressive about the PS3, in fact, is that with all this power under the hood, the system runs as quietly as it does. (Some have complained about fan noise, but those problems seem to be few and far between--contact Sony's customer support if your PS3's fan is excessively loud.) 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, often 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.
As mentioned above, 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 are few games available that are unique (Metal Gear Solid 4, being one of them) that makes you think, "I gotta get this system to play that game." 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. Simply put, Sony needs to deliver still more compelling exclusives, as well as multiplatform titles that look and play better on the PS3. But 2008 has certainly seen things looking much better for the console than ever before.
Unlike the 40GB PS3, the 80GB model offers backward compatibility with most PS2 games. (Both consoles can play the older PS1 games.) Compatibility isn't universal: unlike the original 60GB PS3, the 80GB model handles PS2 compatibility with software rather than hardware, so there are some titles that won't work, or will exhibit problems. To see if an individual title works on the 80GB model, go to Sony's PlayStation Web site and plug in the name.
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. Audio support is also top notch: the PS3 decodes Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks internally, outputting them as linear PCM, which should deliver impeccable lossless surround when connected to most HDMI-equipped AV receivers. Sticklers may lament the lack of "bitstream" audio output or multichannel analog connectors--if either is an issue for you, than you're in the small minority who should opt for one of those more expensive standalone Blu-ray players.
With Blu-ray having soundly defeated HD DVD in the high-def format war (thanks, in large part, to the very popularity of the PS3), all major Hollywood studios are now supporting the format, and Blu-ray releases are ramping up as the format slowly but surely becomes more popular. In the meantime, the PS3 also plays (and upconverts) standard DVDs (see detailed analysis).
Our only real complaint with the PS3's movie playback is the remote issue. Accessing Blu-ray and DVD menus with the PS3 controller is functional, if awkward. Unfortunately, you won't be able to program a standard universal remote to control your PS3--it lacks an infrared port, so it needs to receive commands via Bluetooth. Not coincidentally, Sony offers a Bluetooth compatible remote for $25. Other options have surfaced to combat this issue, such as the Playstation 3 Blu Wave Remote and the USBIRX3 from Schmartz.com. But we just wish Sony would've spent a few extra pennies and added a standard infrared receiver to the console.