Sony PlayStation 3
It's just so beautiful. I realize that's a pretty shallow initial evaluation of Sony's much-hyped super-fun-happy-smile machine, the PlayStation 3. But the lines are so bold, the shape is so commanding, and it's all just so. . .shiny. Of course, it's what's inside that counts, and, in this case, that would be the imposing new Cell Broadband Engine, which Sony developed in collaboration with IBM and Toshiba. The Cell engine features a mind-blowing eight processors working in parallel—a main CPU, plus seven Synergistic Processing Units. It's 40 times as powerful as the PlayStation 2's processor, performing 208 billion floating-point calculations per second. This translates to highly detailed, highly interactive environments, complex effects, and bigger battles with a greater number of enemies. Backing this is the RSX graphics-processing unit, which is capable of 4X antialiasing. This can be a real boon in the large-format high-definition universe. The games themselves spin on the PS3's Blu-ray drive and arrive on high-capacity BD-ROM discs.
The PS3 is the very first device to support the recent HDMI 1.3 standard. So, in addition to its superior 10-bit Deep Color technology, it will also pass a multichannel SACD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital True HD, or DTS-HD signal to a home theater receiver equipped with a like HDMI input. Sony does not include an HDMI cable, so, for my review, I hooked up the PS3 via Monster's GameLink HDMI Digital Video/Audio cable and their Fiber Optic Digital Audio cable ($100 and $30, respectively). Monster also sells component video kits with either analog stereo or digital audio options, which connect to the PS3's proprietary Multi A/V output.
"Honey, Where's My Keyboard?"
USB mice and keyboards are plug-and-play, and I highly recommend that you use them, especially during the data-entry-intensive system setup. They'll also come in handy when you name new characters within a game. Otherwise, you can use the new SIXAXIS controller. It's virtually identical to the classic PlayStation controller in terms of its dense, ergonomic layout. But it weighs less and has two other key differences. It's wireless, and it uses Bluetooth technology, which gives it a much greater range than other wireless controllers. At the same time, you won't need to maintain a line of sight between the controller and the PS3. The SIXAXIS also comes with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Oh, and it's motion sensitive, so you can interact with a game by tilting and otherwise moving the controller, without even pressing any buttons.
The onscreen setup utilizes a big-screen version of SCEA's XMB (XrossMediaBar, pronounced "cross media bar") user interface. The PS3 detected the attached HDMI cable and asked me if I would like to use that for audio/video output. Thanks to the first of three firmware upgrades I undertook, the PS3 also supports full 1080p. Although this 60-gigabyte unit includes integrated 802.11g Wi-Fi, I used a wired broadband connection in deference to the speed needed for such large downloads. This meant that I'd need another broadband connection in my home theater. Thankfully, Belkin makes a 5-Port Network Switch ($40), which is perfect for such heavily populated rooms. I also used Belkin's remote-controlled HDMI Interface 3-to-1 Video Switch ($200) since my HDTV has just one HDMI input, which was already occupied.
One of my first tests was to copy a 78-minute compact disc to the hard drive. The PS3 completed the rip in about three minutes, with track and overall-status bars. The Internet provided metadata but no cover art, although the PS3 can display cover art when it's provided. Eventually, though, the PS3 stumbled and was unable to read, let alone copy, the innermost tracks. I successfully ripped these individually later. Somewhat surprisingly, the PS3 does not offer home networking to your PC. When it later offered to copy content not just to my PlayStation Portable but to a removable memory card, the reality dawned on me: This gleaming ebony beast wants to be the center of our entertainment universe, not a satellite.
When I uploaded a folder of family pictures from my connected PSP, I quickly clicked my way to the Photo Album option. (Noncopyrighted material seems to be a two-way street between the PSP and the PS3.) Now, I don't generally get excited about features like slide shows and such, but this was something special. In a matter of seconds, the PS3 compiled an animation of my photos as prints and Polaroids strewn across a soft-white background with simulated handwritten dates. At one point, a virtual block of negatives flopped onto the screen, so I leaned in for a closer look. It was a row of shots of my kids re-created as a brown filmstrip. Martha Stewart would surely approve.
For even more content (or so I thought), I headed to the beckoning online PlayStation Store. Sony has conglomerated with movie and game studios, plus a music label. Still, as of press time, the store barely had any content available for download. There were just a few free trailers, some demos, and a few classic PlayStation games repurposed for play on the PSP at $6 a pop. Similarly, the PlayStation 3 Portal that I accessed via the system's Internet Browser had a "coming soon" feel to it. You can open up to six browser windows at once, including streaming audio and video. The XMB displayed the few files I downloaded with a very home theater–ish notation of the file format next to each.The Underworld: Evolution trailer was in AVC, for example.
Blu-ray: It's Not Just for Movies Anymore
Genji: Days of the Blade (720p) has a breathtaking palette and an ethereal placement of singing voices in individual speakers. When you insert this game, the PS3 offers to copy almost 3.5 GB of data from the optical disc onto its hard drive to shorten the loading time. In a game like Resistance: Fall of Man (720p), the increased level of detail really pays off. I could accurately target and hit enemies from greater distances than ever before. The dynamic range of the aggressive, on-the-fly 5.1-channel mix also struck me. At times, it rivaled the clarity of the best movie soundtracks. The THX-certified NBA 07, meanwhile, offers amazingly realistic lighting and depth of focus. Even the draping of the jerseys looked believable in "Full HD 1080p" at 60 frames per second. The motion-sensitive controller takes a little getting used to, but then it becomes pretty darned neat. Move the device, and your character moves accordingly, bringing you one step closer to where the movie Tron tried to take us: inside the game.
Blu-ray movies on the PS3 offer video nirvana with a pure, nearly perfect picture bursting with previously impossible color. Color banding on a killer title like Superman was greatly reduced compared with its DVD counterpart, as was the visible compression artifacting on smoke and fine textures. There was thankfully less noise than the Samsung Blu-ray player, and it loads faster. Even with the seamless, next-generation menus, I missed a CE-style remote control, which was unavailable at press time. As it performed the most demanding functions, and during the quietest movie scenes, the PS3 was nearly silent in my home theater. An efficient fan ushers out the heat with a gentle whooshing from the right side when the console is laid flat, as mine was. After days of nonstop movies, music, photo exhibitions, and gaming so extraordinary, only the underside of the console grew tepid. I, on the other hand, was left wallowing in the grip of full-blown PS3 fever.
• True next-generation gaming—plus Blu-ray
• Supports 1080p video, SACD, and new audio formats over HDMI 1.3
• Wired and wireless Internet, plus impressive tandem feats with the PSP