The Good: Blu-ray player, Wi-Fi and Web browsing
The Bad: Games have yet to realize the console's full potential; controller lacks force feedback
The Bottom Line: For now, PS3 is a better entertainment system than game machine
As you unwrap Sony's new PlayStation 3, be prepared. The consumer-electronics giant hasn't done much to make opening the package much of an experience for consumers who will shell out close to $800 for the console and a few games to play on it.
Other electronics companies are bundling products in black boxes with neat stenciling to remind you, indeed, that you've purchased a (product name goes here). All I got when I opened the PS3 box was a view of dull brown cardboard and the standard white shipping wrapper enveloping the shiny black unit.
You can't blame a guy for getting his hopes up. I waited for weeks to get my mitts on a final working unit. I had been fortunate enough to put versions of the PS3 through its paces several times in the past month, and even enjoyed a week with a unit that was used to test game software. But I had yet to sample many of the other features—such as Web browsing and playing movies on Sony's (SNE) new Blu-ray format.
Was it worth the wait? Yes—and no. I spent several days watching movies, surfing the Web, and, yes, playing games, with the more expensive 60GB hard-drive version, which sells for about $600 and includes multiple storage card readers. I liked the PS3, but walked away more impressed with what it could do than with what it curently does.
Setup was fairly easy, though you will have to purchase a separate HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) cable to get the best possible picture. I first hooked up the PS3 to a Samsung plasma that had an effective resolution of 720 progressive, excellent for viewing motion. The console also worked perfectly on a higher-resolution 1080p Sharp LCD TV.
Fans of the PlayStation Portable handheld console will be familiar with the cross-media bar that uses icons and pictures to guide you through all the functions, which include a very nice Web browser that loaded every site I selected on-screen without forcing me to fiddle with settings. After the official Nov. 17 U.S. launch, you also can connect to the online PlayStation Network for multiplayer gaming, but the feature wasn't enabled when I tried it.
Been There Before
Even so, I got the sense right away that this is one seriously cool device, capable of doing just about everything, from watching home videos and photos to streaming media over the Web. It does all of that while remaining incredibly quiet during operation and throwing off far less heat than Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox 360, which warms up a room fast.
But two of the biggest PS3 draws—Blu-ray and games—weren't an immediate knockout.
Don't get me wrong. The games look great. Insomniac's Resistance: Fall of Man had me ducking and wincing in all the right places. Electronic Arts' (ERTS) Need for Speed: Carbon had me cursing with frustration as I plunged to my death off canyon-side roads, and Madden NFL 07 looked pretty realistic as my players raced down the field.
Still, such games designed for this latest generation of consoles felt a little ho-hum. In Resistance, for example, you get more realism, with more characters on-screen that can act independently of each other. Physics are also greatly improved, with glass shattering and bullets flying realistically. But in the end, it still felt like a classic shooter.
Limited Backward Compatibility
My disappointment may stem partly from the fact that I've played most of the new games already on Xbox 360, which also sports incredibly good graphics. But it's also apparent that developers haven't fully plumbed the depths of the PS3's capabilities.
Sure, developers should be applauded for delivering titles to a new platform that look at least as good as those for the Xbox 360, which has been out for a year. But they're still figuring out how far they can go with Sony's powerful Cell processor.
Most took the safe way out and didn't do much to stretch the boundaries of the way you typically play a shoot-'em-up, sports, or racing game.
Some gamers will also be dismayed to learn that not all the games designed for the original PlayStation and PS2 work on the PS3, contrary to Sony's earlier promises (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/14/06, "Sony's PS3 Issues Threaten Revival").
The included SixAxis controller also was both disappointing and promising. It uses the same Dual Shock design as the PS One and PS2, but because of a lawsuit, unfortunately drops the force feedback, or rumble effect, that helps make racing games more realistic.
Spur to Upgrade
Sony only belatedly announced the SixAxis technology that can sense six different directions of movement, and its implementation seems forced in Madden. (War Hawk and Lair, which I've seen use SixAxis more effectively, were not immediately available for review.) When more games use the technology, it could help change the me-too feel of PS3 games.
Blu-ray is the other big selling point for Sony, and movies looked as good on the PS3 as on Samsung's BD-P1000, the only dedicated player that's widely available today. I watched "Kung Fu Hustle," "X-Men: The Last Stand," and "Little Man." On giant-screen TVs, they looked great at both 720p and 1080p.
The downside? Not many people have sets with the best resolution, and fewer still have the really big-screen TVs (50 inches and larger) that truly make Blu-ray stand out.
Of course, including Blu-ray is part of Sony's master plan to get more people to upgrade home theaters and buy more expensive next-generation DVDs. And while Sony plans to begin selling a remote in December, in the meantime non-gamers are likely to find it a bit awkward navigating through DVD menus using the SixAxis controller.
Plug and Play
The PlayStation 3 also supports MPEG-1, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4 video, which means quite a bit of Web content can be played back on your TV, though I sorely missed a full QWERTY keyboard (on-screen or otherwise) when trying to use Sony's on-screen software, which crams letters onto a single key like you see in cell phones. The predictive text software does a good job figuring out what you're trying to type, but some people may get too turned off to stick with it.
Alternatively, Sony says you can use wireless or Bluetooth keyboards and mice from the likes of Logitech (LOGI) through some of the four USB ports (the original specification called for six, but Sony dropped two and a second HDMI in the final high-end unit to save money). You also can plug in an external hard-disk drive or digital video camera on the PS3 and play videos without having to transfer them to the console's own hard-disk drive.
In the end, it may be a good thing that Sony will have limited availability of the PS3 through year's end—indeed, shortages have already emerged in Japan, where the PS3 hit shelves days ago. There will be just enough consoles to satisfy hardcore gamers willing to tolerate early quirks, but not so many that hordes of users will be disappointed by content that doesn't match up with killer hardware.