Ready to rock, I decided to check out the media options, starting with the camera/photo icon. The PS3 can read photos directly from a CD, memory card, or USB-thumb drive or camera—or you can copy them to the hard drive. Several interesting slideshow options make photo viewing on a big-screen TV a real treat. Music options are basically the same as with photos except you get a sychedelic light show onscreen. The console supports common formats such as MP3, WAV, ATRAC, and AAC but will not play copy-protected files or WMA files (you’ll need Xbox 360 for that). There’s one other feature audiophiles will appreciate: In addition to normal CDs and DVDs, you can play multichannel SACDs. Clicking on the video icon takes you to the Blu-ray player, which plays a variety of discs, including high-def Blu-ray movies (see “It Plays Blu-ray, Too”), as well as videos you’ve downloaded or imported from your camcorder. Videos stored on the hard drive show up on screen as 15-second clips rather than static images—a nice twist. The Internet icon provides access to a Flash-ready browser that will take you wherever you want to go on the World Wide Web—including the PlayStation Network, which we’ll get back to in a moment. One thing I will say here is that a wireless keyboard and mouse will be a worthwhile investment if you plan on doing a lot of Web surfing. Using the onscreen keyboard is a chore.
With a little media hub experience under my belt, it was time to call the controller into action and test out the PS3’s gaming chops. I fired up a variety of games, including Need for Speed:Carbon, Resistance: Fall of Man, and Ridge Racer 7. Many of the titles failed to impress me, offering mainly cosmetic upgrades over their PlayStation 2 predecessors, but the promise of the PS3 was evident in the made-for-PS3 game Resistance, with its constant barrage of effects, including floating debris, crackling flames, and towering explosions of dirt. Also impressive were the subtle lighting effects and reflective surfaces in the vegetationchoked courses of Ridge Racer 7. I especially liked the way the car hoods sparkled and glistened in the sunshine. On the other hand, I’ve discovered that games specifically designed for 720p output are inexplicably (and inexcusably) down-rezzed to standard-definition 480i on 1080i-only HDTVs. What’s up with that? While you’re waiting for more original PS3 titles to hit store shelves, it’s good to know that thousands of PSOne and PS2 games are compatible with PS3—just don’t expect them to look any better than they would on one of the older consoles. And even though most of the PlayStation oldies (titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Black) download and run just fine, a couple hundred of them (including Tekken 5 and Gran Turismo 4) suffer from visual and, in some cases, game-killing glitches. Downloadable software fixes are available but it’s not exactly a seamless experience.
The SIXAXIS controller retains the same basic design as its PS2 predecessor but has slightly larger trigger buttons, a new
center-mounted button for accessing menus and powering down the console, and more responsive joysticks. It’s also wireless and good for up to 30 hours of game play on a single charge; charging is a simple matter of plugging the controller into the console’s USB port (a 5-foot cable is supplied). If you’re into gaming get-togethers, you’ll love the fact that you can have up to seven controllers going at once—talk about insane. Of course, PS3 ships with only one controller so you’ll have to pony up $40 for each additional joystick. But the big news here is the new motion sensor, which detects movement in six directions: up, down, left, right, forward, and backward. It’s not as responsive as the 360-degree sensor in Nintendo’s “Wii-mote,” but it is an excellent addition to the PlayStation arsenal nonetheless. In the acrobaticsheavy samurai adventure Genji, for example, I was able to dodge incoming blows by tilting the controller. Likewise, I was able to steer the mud-spattered vehicles in MotorStorm by turning the controller left or right, just like you would a steering wheel. It’s a shame Sony didn’t carry over the rumble system from PS2. Offering both tactile features would have elevated realism to an even higher level. As you’d expect, Dolby Digital 5.1 sound was generally excellent. Pop in just about any title and you’ll find yourself immersed in a brain-rattling symphony of screeching tires, cackling wizards, and staccato gunfire. No new ground is broken here and won’t be until game developers take advantage of 7.1-channel-capable formats such as Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD. Of course, to capture the glory of 7.1 soundtracks you would need an HDMI connection as well as an extra pair of speakers beyond the six you need for 5.1. So how does PS3 stack up with Xbox 360? In terms of overall audio and video quality, it’s on par with 360 but doesn’t rise above. Still, the potential for bigger and better things is there, given the PS3’s sheer horsepower, the immense 50GB capacity of Blu-ray discs, and the advent of HDMI 1.3 and 7.1-channel sound. With the initial batch of games, developers are just scratching the surface in terms of taking advantage of PS3’s full potential. Forward-thinking adventures such as Indiana Jones and Assassin’s Creed, featuring characters that react differently every time a controller is hoisted (surprising even designers themselves) are coming. I’m especially eager to play Eye of Judgment, which recalls the holographic chess game from Star Wars by letting you employ a USB videocam to summon 3D animated monsters using physical trading cards.