TECH & YOU PODCAST
Sony (SNE) took a huge gamble in designing the PlayStation 3 around two untested technologies, the Cell processor and Blu-ray disc storage. The price it paid was long delays in getting the product to market. It will be months before we can tell whether PS3 is a winning business proposition, but technically the results are impressive.
If you or someone on your holiday gift list is counting on seeing a PS3 this year, you probably should forget it. The very limited supply of consoles sold out as soon as they became available on Nov. 17, despite lofty price tags of $500 or $600 (the extra $100 triples hard-drive storage, to 60 gigabytes, and adds wireless networking).
The PS3's appeal hits you right out of the box. It has a curved, shiny black case with no external power brick, and it makes Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox 360 console look positively pedestrian. Another big difference is obvious as soon as you turn it on: The PS3 whispers, while the Xbox's cooling fan emits an ill-mannered roar.
The heart of the PS3 is the Cell Broadband Engine, developed jointly by Sony, Toshiba (TOSBF), and ibm (IBM). It crams nine processors onto a single chip barely a half-inch square. Designed for low-power consumption and primed for computationally intense chores such as high-resolution graphics, the Cell chip will eventually be used for many tasks other than games. ibm is building a supercomputer for the Los Alamos National Laboratory using more than 16,000 Cells.
BLU-RAY HAS BEEN SONY'S ACHILLES' HEEL because it drove the cost of the PS3 up, and a severe shortage of the drives cut the production planned for this year by more than half. But there are two reasons why Sony bet so heavily on it. It can store up to 50 gb, more than five times the capacity of Xbox 360's dvds. That means game designers can create games with the vast amounts of data required to realistically simulate smoke and water and surfaces that do not break up into pixels, no matter how close you get to them. And the sale of millions of PS3s would give the Sony format a big leg up over the rival hd-dvd format for high-definition movies.
I'm not much of a gamer, and about all I could do in the short time I had with the PS3 was to learn how the controls worked in such games as Resistance: Fall of Man, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07, NBA '07, and Genji: Days of the Blade. But I can say the graphic details and effects on a high-def display were by far the best I've seen on a game console, and the play was brisk and smooth.
I was much less impressed with the PS3 as a home entertainment device. It has great potential, looking and sounding like it belongs in a home entertainment system, but Sony has done little to bring it all to life. Its strong point is the ability to play Blu-ray movies as well as conventional dvds, though there are only about 100 Blu-ray titles available.
The PS3 does next to nothing with its network connection. It has a Web browser, but it's really only useful for visiting Sony's online store to purchase accessories and game add-ons, and to download demos. Unlike the Xbox 360, the player cannot play music or show photos stored on the network; to do that, you must first copy the content to a memory card or external hard drive and then transfer it to the PS3. I can only hope that Sony will fix these obvious deficiencies.
In the end, however, most people are going to consider the PS3 primarily as a game console, and the question for them is whether it is worth at least $100 more than an Xbox 360 and more than twice as much as the new Nintendo (NTDOY) Wii, which is basically an updated GameCube.
Here's my answer: The PS3 is clearly the most capable hardware around. It's a bit short on games at launch, but that should change quickly, and it can run most of the hundreds of PlayStation 2 games out there, though some compatibility issues have surfaced. Sony's online game offerings are no match for the $50-a-year Xbox Live, but they are free and should grow. If you have the budget, the PS3 is a winner.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/
By Stephen H. Wildstrom