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Sony's PlayStation 3 Plays Much More Than Video Games

For two years, Sony's fabled PlayStation 3 lurked in the shadows of the gaming world.

Constantly changing its capabilities, appearance and price tag, the machine took on a mythical quality.

After all the speculation, rumors, faked photos and pre-order panics, the world's most powerful video-game system finally arrives in stores on Friday.

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But there's more to the PS3 than being able to see minute flecks of sweat flying off the hard-dunking hoopsters in "NBA 07" or dust particles glinting in the moonlight of "Genji: Days of the Blade."

Turns out the PS3 is actually a digital Swiss army knife, Sony's attempt to take over your living room and turn it into a one-stop shop for games, movies, music, pictures and Web surfing.

In fact, it's possible that once the PS3 is fully operational, people may want to buy it even if they never plan to play a single game.

Those who take full advantage of the machine's capabilities can toss out their telephone, DVD player, instant-messaging system, Web browser, digital photo viewer, CD player and MP3 player. They'll also be able to video-chat and watch movies in ultra-high definition.

All of which doesn't come cheap: $499 for the base model and $599 for one with a bigger hard drive and wireless Internet capability.

In anticipation of the day when the PS3 crosses your threshold, here's a guide to everything the PlayStation 3 can do.

Yes, you can let your children play with it — but you may not want to leave them alone.

1. It surfs the Web

With the PS3, navigating the 'Net is as simple as plugging in a keyboard and mouse — or going wireless with onboard Bluetooth. Sony's proprietary Web browser lets you stay couch-bound while checking e-mail or catching up on the news.

It can't print or run programs, so the PS3 isn't going to replace your home computer, but you can use it for all your basic browsing needs.

Splurge on the 60 GB version and you'll get a built-in Wi-Fi receiver to tap into your Internet service and wirelessly sync to your PlayStation Portable. Otherwise you'll have to (gasp!) actually plug it into your modem.

2. It's a shopping mall

With the PS3, Sony also unveils its PlayStation store — which will ultimately look something like the iTunes store, with movies, music and games.

While it won't be operating at full capacity this week, you will be able to download free movie trailers and purchase versions of arcade-style games — all under $15.

Parents can control their kids' online habits by restricting the kind of content that can be downloaded. They can also choose between storing credit-card information for unrestricted buying, using a wallet system with set spending limits or using pre-paid gift cards.

Those who have been burned by iTunes after computer crashes and other iPod mishaps will find comfort. Once you pay for a game, it's yours forever — even if you delete it, lose it or watch it vanish in a digital puff of smoke.

3. It plays everything

Who among us hasn't tried to plug a digital camera into the TV for an impromptu family slideshow — and been bitterly embarrassed by his or her inability to overcome the Byzantine rules that govern this arcane exchange of data?

The PS3 lets you plug in a camera or a memory card into its USB ports for super-simplified picture viewing. Go with the 60 GB model and you'll get a built-in card reader.

Sony's picture viewer offers traditional slideshows, digital photo albums and a funky "scrapbook" feature that displays pictures as if they were being tossed onto the dinner table. Once you load your pix onto the PS3, you can re-save them back to your camera.

The PS3 does moving pictures, too. You can watch Flash and MPEG files, downloaded from the Net, your video camera or hard drive. Since thumbnails of the videos are constantly in motion — not just a still photo — it's a cinch to find what you're looking for.

Finally, the PS3 plays music. You can pop in a CD, or load MP3 or WAV files. Since you'll be listening to the music through your TV, you'll get nice stereo (or even surround) sound. There's even a visualizer to amuse you when there isn't anything else on the screen.

4. It lets you talk to nana

Buy Grandma a PS3 and she can have daily video conferences with the grandkids. Sony's free online service takes the guesswork out of text, voice and video chats. Dial up a screen name and you're connected in no time. All you need for the PS3 is a $30 PlayStation EyeToy.

For audio, any Bluetooth-enabled headset works. You can make "calls" to your friends as if you were on an Internet phone service like Skype. You can go old school, too, with real-time text chats.

Of course, it all syncs up with the game world, too. Stay in touch with your comrades as you assault a bunker, talk smack to a rival skater in "Tony Hawk's Project 8" or beam yourself right into the game with titles such as "EyeToy: Kinetic."

5. It makes you hi-def

As part of Sony's bid to make its Blu-ray Disc the ultimate in digital video, it includes a player in every PS3. You even get the first movie in your Blu-ray library for free: Will Ferrell's "Talladega Nights."

Blu-ray uses the cutting-edge 1080p format, which is so advanced that most hi-def TVs don't even use it yet. It'll look great no matter what kind of TV you've got, but to take full advantage, get yourself a hi-def monitor with 720p or 1080i.

You won't have to replace your DVD library. The PS3 is backwards compatible with all DVDs, as well as PS1 and PS2 games. You can navigate the Blu-ray player with the game controller, but you may want to spring for a $25 PS3 remote.

6. It's got "body English"

Old-timers will recall the days when pinball wizards twisted themselves into pretzels trying to influence the ball's path.

With the PS3, the SIXAXIS controller senses how you move it — in addition to which buttons you push — through three-dimensional space. Tilt the handheld unit in "Tony Hawk's Project 8" and your skater's suddenly made a sweeping turn, without the usual thumbing of the joystick.

The PS3 also frees you from wires. All controllers are Bluetooth-enabled, but you only get one with the machine. Extras are $50 each.

Too bad all that new technology squeezed out a favorite feature from the PS2 — the DualShock effect that rumbled through your hands when situations got tricky.

7. It kicks bootie

The PS3 is big, curvaceous and comes in a glossy black finish reminiscent of Darth Vader's helmet.

It's also crazy powerful. Under the hood, Sony rigged a 3.2 GHz Cell processor that links seven chips. It runs 208 billion floating-point calculations every second.

Translation: It's 10 times faster than your home computer. And it handles the most sophisticated, highest-resolution games ever made.

8. It plays games

Oh yeah, the PS3 also plays games. Retailing at around $60 each, there'll be 19 titles available on Friday. Five more will arrive before Christmas.

Sony rarely gives anything away, but this time they've done a blessed thing: the PlayStation Network is free, unlike the monthly fee for Xbox Live. And you can assemble a gang of up to 40 people for titles like "Resistance:Fall of Man."

For now, the PS3 doesn't come with any games. No wonder, since even with the huge price tag, there's so much technology packed in that Sony is believed to be losing lots of money on every unit it sells.