Shootout: 3 Blu-ray Disc Players Page 2


the listFor that subspecies of human that plays videogames, the arrival of the Sony PlayStation 3 console is the electronic equivalent of the Second Coming - or, in the PlayStation's case, the third. Unfortunately, I don't play videogames (spoken in my best grumpy-old-man voice), so you'll have to go read John Sciacca's additional report (coming soon) to get the authoritative take.

One thing I have been known to do is watch movies, an activity that the PS3's built-in Blu-ray Disc drive, which also plays DVDs, CDs, and even multichannel SACDs, readily facilitates. And when you consider that its $599 cost is $400 less than the least expensive standalone Blu-ray player on the market, the PS3 seems well worth checking out, even for a non-gaming geezer like me.

But before we get to into the movie-playing portion of this review, let's look at what else this system gives you for your 600 bucks. The unit I tested came with a 60-GB internal hard drive and built-in 802.11 b/g wireless networking capability, as well as an Ethernet port for plugging into a wired network. The system's network connections are mainly intended for online gaming, or to download data to specific titles such as NBA 07, which can be updated with team and player statistics reflecting the real world.

But beyond that, you can surf the Web using the PS3's onscreen browser or download music, photos, and video clips to the hard disk. You can also rip your CDs to the drive and the system will automatically fetch artist, album, and song title data from the All Music Guide for viewing onscreen. The PS3 displays digital photos (or MPEG-4 video clips) downloaded to its drive or from Compact Flash, SD, or Memory Stick cards plugged into its front-panel card-reader slots. Or you can plug any USB mass-storage device into one of the PS3's four front-panel USB slots and achieve the same end.

It may rock for games, but the PS3 is also equipped to deliver the best possible picture and sound from Blu-ray movie discs. Its HDMI 1.3 jack pumps out video at resolutions ranging from 480p to 1080p (with 60-Hz frame rate), while a supplied breakout cable plugs into the multi-out jack to deliver 480i-rez composite-video and stereo audio. You can buy an optional S-video/stereo audio cable or component-video cable, although the copy protection on Blu-ray Discs may limit resolution over the latter (Sony didn't send one so I wasn't able to check). The PS3 offers built-in decoding for high-rez Dolby TrueHD soundtracks, which it will convert to a multichannel linear PCM signal for output over HDMI. And since we're talking about an HDMI 1.3 connection here, it can also be used to route Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio bitstreams to an outboard receiver or processor equipped with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding, when those products become available. The PS3's optical digital output, meanwhile, conveys standard 5.1-channel Dolby Digital and DTS signals to current receivers and surround processors.

Being a game console, the PS3 comes with a game controller rather than a standard remote control, although an optional remote (shown) should be going on sale for $25 shortly. I'll tell ya, watching a non-gamer like me attempt to navigate Sony's console with the game controller was a sight not to be missed - picture a confused baboon fondling a Rubik's Cube. But once I studied the manual and learned the button functions I was good to go.

The controller's button layout turned out to be fairly intuitive: Trigger buttons that you'd normally use to blow the head off of a demon during gameplay are used to skip chapters, while the ones directly below them are for forward and reverse scanning. Unlike a regular IR remote, the PS3 controller communicates with the console via the Bluetooth wireless protocol - a potential problem if your home theater has an IR-based universal remote. And its battery needs to be recharged after 30 hours of use by plugging into a USB port. Since the PS3 supports up to seven separate controllers for gaming (dude, have a PS3 party with your friends!), it also needs to be "paired" with the unit by selecting a number using a set of indicator lights on its front surface. Once again, these sorts of details will at first seem alien to the non-gamer, but you'll quickly adapt.

SETUP I began my PlayStation 3 adventure by laying it out flat on a shelf in my rack (it can be placed upright as well). With its chrome-accented gloss-black case, the PS3 looked at home there, too - unlike some other game consoles, the PS3 was designed as more of a serious A/V component than a toy. After hooking it up to the Anthem AVM-50 processor via HDMI, I turned it on and was confronted by the main menu interface, a scrolling horizontal row of icons that reminded me of Microsoft's forthcoming Vista interface for home theater PCs.

The first order of business was to create a User Profile, although this step applies mainly to online gaming. My second stop was at the settings submenu, where onscreen prompts helped me configure the PS3's display and audio settings. For HDMI connections, the choices included 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p video output; audio selections ranged from 2-channel/44.1-kHz PCM to 7.1-channel/192-kHz PCM.

All media entering the PS3, be they Blu-ray Discs, games, DVDs, CDs, digital photos, or downloaded music files, automatically find their way to folders labeled Video, Games, Music, and Photos. You just scroll to the folder you want, scan vertically through its contents, and hit the controller's Start or X button to launch an item. Performing these actions requires your TV to be turned on for menu access, of course - you can't just shove a music CD into the PS3's front-loading slot and expect it to play.