There's a general consensus that Sony stalled off the line with the PlayStation 3. Months of intense hype were followed by a late launch (fully a year after the Xbox 360) and a staggering £425 price tag for the deluxe model. Even worse, the PS3 didn't initially have any must-have exclusive titles, and despite the power of its vaunted Cell processor, multiplatform games from third-party developers didn't look appreciably better than they did on the Xbox 360.
Since then, the company's been modifying the PlayStation product line to better fit the competitive market landscape. A new PS3 is available with a larger, 80GB hard drive, and a deluxe model is due this autumn, doubling the capacity to 160GB. Both, however, lack backward compatibility with PS2 games and do not come with flash card readers. If those features are a must, it might be best to pick up an older model on eBay while they're still out there.
If you don't want to wait for the new 160GB (for which prices have yet to be announced), the £300 80GB version reviewed here might leave you short of space. Especially now that you can fill up that hard drive more easily with TV shows, games and movies from the PlayStation Store. Still, for those on a budget, the PS3 ups the hard-drive capacity from the older 40GB model and delivers nearly all the same gaming and home cinema features as its more expensive sibling.
The PS3's game drought has largely evaporated too, with popular titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV, Rock Band, Call of Duty 4 and BioShock all making their way to the console. While these titles are also available on the Xbox 360, the PS3 has exclusive dibs on Metal Gear and Uncharted, as well as the hotly anticipated LittleBigPlanet, Resistance 2 and Killzone 2 due to hit the console in upcoming months.
Yes, the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii also have their own handful of exclusive titles (Halo, Fable and Gears of War on the former, and all of the Mario, Metroid and Zelda games on the latter), but the PS3's HD graphics go far beyond those of the low-resolution Wii, and its stable hardware doesn't suffer from the Xbox 360's notorious red ring of death. Plus, now that Blu-ray Discs have become the de facto standard for high-definition media, the PS3 is still the only console able to play that format, and consequently is the best performing and affordable Blu-ray player on the market -- a great option if you want to introduce yourself to hi-def content.
Like the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, the PS3 can stand vertically or lie horizontally in an AV rack, though because of its curved top, it's not meant to have any other components resting on top of it.
As for its dimensions, the PS3 measures 99 by 325 by 274mm, a similar size to the Xbox 360. The PS3 does weigh more, but there's no external power supply -- you just plug the power cable into the back of the unit and you're good to go. For those of us who own an Xbox 360, and have had to struggle with its massive brick of a power supply, this seems like a remarkable feat on Sony's part.
As opposed to the more typical tray loader, the PS3 has a slot-loading, Blu-ray optical-disc drive on the front, which contributes to the unit's slick appearance. Discs slide in and eject smoothly enough, but how the mechanism wears over time, we can't say -- but the odds of snapping off or damaging the Xbox 360's disc tray aren't exactly negligible.
On the front, you'll find two USB ports for connecting (and charging) controllers and other accessories, including USB keyboards, thumbdrives and the PSP. Unfortunately if you need more than two ports, you're out of luck as only the older versions of the PS3 came with four. This will certainly become an issue if you want to charge your controllers as well as use an accessory such as the PS Eye. The PS3 still doesn't come with USB ports on the back of the unit -- something we've desired for a while. Both new versions of the PS3 also now lack multiple flash card readers. While we could see this feature being dropped for a reduced price, even the 'deluxe' 160GB model will not come with it.
Around the back is where you'll find ports for Ethernet, HDMI output, optical digital audio output (SPDIF), and the proprietary PlayStation AV output for analogue audio and video. A composite AV cable ships with the unit, and because it uses the same connector as the PlayStation 2, that system's S-Video and component cables should work with it as well. To get HD video, you'll need component or HDMI, which leaves us asking why Sony does not ship the console HD Ready out of the box. Unlike the proprietary snap-on hard drive of the Xbox 360, the PS3's internal hard drive is user replaceable with any off-the-shelf laptop drive. The only caveat: it uses the smaller 2.5-inch drive size, which are twice, or even close to three times as expensive as the larger 3.5-inch hard drives that go into a desktop computer.
The Sixaxis DualShock 3 Controller
When the PS3 was first released in spring 2007, gamers gave Sony grief over the included Sixaxis controller lacking rumble (vibration) support -- a feature found on the controllers for the Xbox 360, Wii, and even the older PS2. Sony has since corrected that with the DualShock 3 controller, which is basically just the Sixaxis with rumble. Starting with the new 80GB core system, all new PS3 versions will include a DualShock 3 controller by default.
With the exception of its included rumble support -- and slightly more weight as a result -- the Dual Shock 3 is otherwise pretty much identical to the Sixaxis. Fans of the older Sony consoles will note that it even looks identical to the older PlayStation controllers, but there are some differences. For starters, it's wireless. You can connect as many as seven controllers via the system's built-in Bluetooth, which Sony claims offers a 20m range. Recharging the built-in battery simply requires connecting the included USB cable between the console and the controller. You can continue to play as the battery juices up (Sony pledges 30 hours of gameplay between charges), but the cable's somewhat short 2m length will put you right on top of the TV.
That said, the controller has a standard mini USB port similar to the one found on many digital cameras and PC peripherals, so swapping in a longer cable -- or using a USB extender -- shouldn't be a problem. We should also note that we had some success charging the DualShock 3 on a number of PC USB ports and even the port on a cable box. Unfortunately, the battery isn't removable, which means that if it dies -- as inevitably it will some day -- you'll have to replace the entire £35 controller if you want to play wirelessly. By comparison, the 360 and Wii controllers offer user-replaceable batteries: AAs or proprietary rechargeables for the 360, and AAs for the Wii.
As for the controller's design, Sony has made a few tweaks since the old PS2 version. The L2 and R2 trigger buttons are slightly bigger, and the increased depth in stroke offers players more subtle game control. Sony has also increased the tilting angle of the analogue joysticks to give you more precise control and a wider range of motion. Those analogue sticks are more sensitive as well. The PS2's Dual Shock 2 controller had 8-bit sensitivity, while the PS3's controller has 10-bit motion detection. The Sixaxis and DualShock 3 controllers also have a centred Home button, which functions much like its counterpart on the Xbox 360 controller. You use it to return to the console's main menu screen, as well as to sync the controller to the console and start it up or shut it down wirelessly. In game, the Home button will now bring up the cross-media-bar (XMB).
The other major upgrade on the DualShock 3 (and Sixaxis) from its predecessors is its motion sensitivity. As the name indicates, the controller is capable of sensing motion in six directions: up, down, left, right, forwards and backwards. Game developers have incorporated this technology in many of the new games in one form or another. For example, in Call of Duty 3, you can arm explosives with a twist of the controller. The basketball game NBA 2K8 also makes interesting use of the tilt feature, allowing you shoot free throws by motioning a shot with your controller.
After almost two years of titles, some implementations of the tilt sensitivity are better than others. Some games' use of it are optional and can be switched off, as we can certainly see some people not wanting to bother with it at all. Clearly, Sony wanted to steal some of Nintendo's interactive thunder, and there's no denying that the Wii's motion-sensitive controllers are more central to that console's DNA. The Wii controllers are also more sophisticated, including the capability to measure actual motion (spatial movement) and acceleration, rather than just tilting.
But unlike the Wii, the PS3 doesn't require a motion-sensor bar in front of the TV. (The current Xbox 360 controllers offer no motion sensitivity at all.) It's safe to say we'll see more innovative uses of the tilting sensitivity feature in future games as it definitely adds an extra level of control when flying the eponymous attack vehicle in Warhawk or controlling the trajectory of an arrow in Heavenly Sword. On the other hand, the highly touted Lair is widely considered unplayable, thanks to a poorly implemented Sixaxis control scheme.
If you own a Sony PSP, you'll immediately notice the similarities between the PS3's interface and the PSP's cross media bar-style graphical-user interface (GUI). You navigate horizontally through top-level selection categories such as users, system settings and media options -- photos, music, videos, games, network and friends. When you select a top-level category, a vertical list of sub-options appears.
The interface is polished and generally user-friendly, but you do have to drill down a few levels to reach certain features, and getting to some functions isn't quite as intuitive as it should be. Still, the overall design is slick enough to be called Mac-esque, and -- at least from an aesthetic standpoint -- is more appealing than the Xbox 360's Dashboard and Nintendo Wii's Channels interfaces.
Digital media hub
The PS3's media features are extensive -- so much so that the console could be a worthwhile purchase even for people who never even deign to fire up a game. For starters, the PlayStation 3 is still the most affordable Blu-ray player you can buy.
The PS3 can also read digital photos from a variety of USB devices, although the new 80GB and 160GB versions drops the flash card reader and limits USB slots to just two. A few different slide show styles are available, including a unique 'photo album' view that splays the images across a white work surface as if you'd dumped them there and spread them out.
As for music, the PS3 supports most of the major music formats and like the Xbox 360, has a built-in music visualiser. As with the photos, you can import songs from a flash memory card or a USB drive, or rip songs directly to the hard drive from a CD. It cannot play back music from attached iPods, nor can it stream from other music players that incorporate copy-protected music formats.
On the video front, the PS3 plays 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 flash, USB or discs. 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.
PSP owners will find increasingly close integration with the PS3. Users now have the ability to control their PS3 anywhere in the world using a Wi-Fi connection, thanks to the brilliant Remote Play feature. Photos, music and video can be streamed to the PSP as well.
Since the PS3's debut, we've seen several Blu-ray players from Samsung, Panasonic, Pioneer, LG and Sony itself. 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 as 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 'bit stream' audio output or multichannel analogue connectors -- if either is an issue for you, 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 hi-def format war (thanks, in large part, to the 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 prevalent. In the meantime, the PS3 also plays (and upscales) standard DVDs.
The PS3 is the only console available with the best Blu-ray player on the market. This is yet another reason to consider it not only a gaming console but a fully featured, hi-def media hub that can easily compete with the Xbox 360 in terms of video quality.
Our only real complaint with the PS3's movie playback is the remote control issue. Accessing Blu-ray and DVD menus with the PS3 controller is functional, but rather awkward. Unfortunately, you won't be able to program a standard universal remote to control your PS3, as it lacks an infrared port, but does have Bluetooth. Not coincidentally, Sony offers a Bluetooth compatible remote for around £15. With the console now only offering two USB ports, you'll be down to one should you choose a USB IR solution.
Sony's version of Web TV
Taking a page out of the PSP's book, the PS3 also has a built-in Web browser. 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, 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 convenient for looking at the Web from your sofa. 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
Connecting to Sony's online service is free, as is multiplayer gaming, although downloadable games and other content come at a cost. You can, however, get free demos to most games so that you can try before you buy.
In autumn 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 hip apartment. From Home's interface, you can set up game matches and communicate with friends as well as other gamers. The service also promises to integrate the recently-debuted Trophy System, the PS3 equivalent of Xbox Achievements.
The PSN allows all gamers to play online in multiplayer matches for free. 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 costs about £35 per year.
That said, Xbox Live has been around for years and has had time to mature, plus the majority of Xbox 360 games offer some form of online play. Microsoft also has its Xbox Live Marketplace, where you can download games, demos and video content, as well as game themes and additional game content. As the PSN 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. Sony also recently debuted an entire video section to the PlayStation Store, allowing PS3 owners the same content-on-demand experience Xbox Live users have had for some time now.
Instead of the points-based payment system found on Microsoft and Nintendo's networks, the PlayStation Store sticks to real currency -- users can simply transfer cash to their PlayStation 3 Wallet via credit card or with prepaid gift cards.
Overall, there's a strong and growing list of titles with solid online play primarily composed of first-person-shooters, action games (Resistance: Fall of Man, Warhawk, Call of Duty 4, Unreal Tournament 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV) and sports titles. Pairing 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 Wii -- the few online games the console offers are burdened with Nintendo's 16-digit friend code system, which must be activated on a game-by-game basis.
When final specifications were released for the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 there was, not surprisingly, an epic 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 for the console. It consists of a single PowerPC-based core with seven 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.
From the beginning, we were told that the Cell 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 has taken developers years to learn how to take full advantage of all that processing power and truly deliver on the graphical promise of the system. Titles such as Heavenly Sword 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 realised. To date, the vast majority of 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. Presumably, as games become larger and more complex (Xbox titles could eventually spread to two or three discs, all of which should have no problem fitting on a single Blu-ray), the PS3 still has one annoyance: its Blu-ray drive has a comparatively slow transfer time, which requires most games to utilise a PC-style hard-disk installation. Installs can take up to 20 minutes but only usually need to be done once, but it doesn't exactly scream 'next-generation' from a convenience standpoint.
Those minor gripes notwithstanding, the PS3 delivers excellent 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. 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 far noisier, often to the point of distraction. Also, the PS3 hasn't had any widespread reliability problems, unlike the 'red ring of death' problem that continues to plague the 360.
The PS3 clearly measures up to the Xbox 360 in terms of its graphics prowess, but there are few games available that are good enough to declare them a 'system-seller'. While the argument can be made that Metal Gear Solid 4 is worth buying a PS3 for, other exclusive titles such as LittleBigPlanet, Ratchet & Clank and Uncharted have finally 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. A price cut and the end of the hi-def format war have increased sales, so the number of games should increase to meet demand.
At first, the PS3 came with backward support for a wide range of PS2 games (with the 60GB model), utilising the 'Emotion Engine' chip to provide hardware support. Updates stripped the console of this chip to reduce costs and in its place added a software-emulation solution for PS2 playback. This wasn't ideal, but has gradually improved with periodic software updates. All along Sony has stated that it wanted to eventually shift to developing content exclusively for the PS3, and with the total omission of PS2 support in the new 2008 PS3 models, this is the first indication of that focus.
So, is the PS3 worth the money Sony's asking? Yes, we think it is. The advantages the Xbox 360 had in terms of its exclusive games and superb online service are being caught up by Sony, with games such as LittleBigPlanet and the Home service coming soon. On top of that, it remains the best built, best looking and most reliable of the two. And it's still the best value Blu-ray player on the market. With a bigger hard drive, you're getting slightly more for your £300 than before, and while there's little here to warrant an upgrade from the 40GB version, this is the perfect time to buy your first PS3.
Edited by John P. Falcone
Additional editing by Nick Hide