Review: Sony PlayStation 3 Worth the Wait -- and Price

The PlayStation 3 is, quite possibly, the biggest console gaming system ever.

At twice the size — and price — of its predecessor, the PS3 makes Sony's lofty ambitions pretty clear: This is much more than a gaming system.

Sure, playing games is still the primary function — and drifting around corners in "Ridge Racer 7" at 1080p is heart-stopping — but this system is clearly designed to do more than that.

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From replacing your DVD player to enabling you to view pictures, play music and watch YouTube videos on your TV easily, this is a set-top-box for the next generation.

The PS3 comes in two varieties, neither of them cheap.

A basic model costs $499.99 (direct) and comes with an upgradeable 20 GB hard drive, Gigabit Ethernet, Blu-ray drive, four USB 2.0 ports, optical digital audio output (SPDIF) and an HDMI 1.3 port.

The premium version is even pricier, at $599.99, but it uses a 60 GB hard drive and adds built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi plus card readers that support SD, Compact Flash and, you guessed it, Memory Stick.

Neither of these systems come with an HDMI cable, so if you have an HDTV, you'll want to make sure you buy one of those as well.

Thing is, it will probably be hard to get your hands on a PlayStation 3, at any price. Sony planned to have 400,000 units for sale in the U.S. on launch date, but most analysts say the actual number was closer to 200,000.

Despite the hefty price tag, years of pent-up demand and relatively short supply could make the PlayStation 3 the hottest console money can't buy.

Fortunately, PC Magazine has one set up in the lab and can tell you if it is worth trying to hunt one down.

The answer? Better start looking.

I connected the PS3 via HDMI to the HP Pavilion md5880n and the results were impressive.

The system offered to choose the best possible setting for the TV and then automatically set itself for 1080p. The whole process took less than ten minutes.

Once you start it up, you will find a gaming console with a host of improvements that's designed for the ultimate gaming experience, and a whole lot more.

A Sharper Controller

At first glance, the PS3's "SIXAXIS" controller looks just like the previous generation, but Sony has made a number of small improvements.

First of all, you can connect as many as seven controllers to the system, although it only ships with one. Although you can use the controller with a cable, it also uses Bluetooth to connect wirelessly to the console.

Attaching via cable charges the controller's non-removeable battery. Sony claims about 30 hours of gameplay on a single change. I have been playing all week and haven't had to reconnect yet.

Unfortunately this cable is only about 4 feet long, so you are on a pretty short leash while charging.

The controller also includes motion-sensing technology — that's the SIXAXIS part. It can detect motion in up, down, right, left, forward and backwards directions. Not all games support this yet, but some do.

When testing out the controller with "NBA Live 07," I found that a quick twist of the controller puts a spin move on the competition. It isn't as dramatic as the Nintendo Wii's wand-waving, but is it a welcome addition.

Sony claims it has expanded the tilting angle and increased the sensitivity of the analog controllers too, but it was hard for me to tell the difference.

Much more dramatic in terms of design is that the L2/R2 buttons have been reshaped a bit so that they have a deeper stroke — now they are more trigger-like than button-like.

That's a nice touch. I do miss the absent dual-shock, but I guess I can live without it.

Boot up the PS3 and you will see an interface that looks remarkably like that of the PlayStation Portable. This is the so-called "Xross Media Bar," which includes icons for Music, Photos, Games, Settings and Network Gaming.

You can also set up multiple users on the device, complete with profiles and even photos of individual users. The Web browser and networking options were disabled on the unit we tested.

After loading in a game disc and navigating to the proper icon, you get a thumbnail preview of it before it loads, complete with a video.

Nonetheless, the interface overall is very text-and-icon–driven. For a device powered by a 3.2-GHz Cell processor capable of 208 billion floating-point operations per second, this interface seems a little Spartan.

Still, it is simple and easy to navigate. And the clock cycles are certainly not wasted on the games.

The first time you insert a game, files are loaded onto the hard drive to increase performance. When I slipped in "Resistance: Fall of Man" for the first time, the process took several minutes. Once completed, though, games load relatively quickly.

But before we get to that, lets just take a look all the things the PS3 does in addition to playing games.

Much More Than Gaming

Sony designed the PlayStation 3 to be a media center in the living room; it lets you do everything from surf the net to view video slideshows directly from your digital camera.

Perhaps the most interesting non-gaming feature of the PS3 is that is a full-fledged Blu-ray player, and a darn cheap one.

Stand-alone players such as the Samsung BD-P1000 sell for around $1,000. Buy the PS3 and you get a Blu-ray player for nearly half the price, with a gaming platform thrown in for free.

The initial batch of PS3s that went on sale came with a Blu-ray Disc of "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," but we were able to try it out with a variety of discs, including "Aeon Flux," "The Italian Job" and even U2's "Rattle and Hum" concert disc.

Although the load times were pretty slow, averaging about 45 seconds, that is true of all high-def players, including units the Samsung BP-P1000 and the Toshiba HD-A1.

The picture quality was stunning. Navigating with the game controller is a bit awkward, but Sony sells a Bluetooth remote that makes it a lot easier.

You can also play video and view pictures directly from a media card or a camera . Just plug in the card and the photos or video appear under the relevant category in the menu system.

Although viewing photos isn't about scrolling through files, the slideshow interface is very cool. It takes your pictures, sorts them by date, and then turns them into virtual prints which cascade across the screen like leaves blown on a windy day.

The PS3 can also play CDs and even rip them to the hard drive in an AAC or MP3 formats at bit rates as high as 320Kbps.

Connect your PS3 to the Internet and you can use it to surf the Web as well. In this case you will really want to connect a USB keyboard for typing in URLs.

The browser isn't as slick as Firefox or Internet Explorer, but it works for basic surfing. On the 58-inch HDTV we tested it on the text was pretty small, but it will do for casual browsing.

But How Does It Play?

I got five titles with the debug unit: "Resistance: Fall of Man," "NBA 07," "Mobile Suit Gundam: Crossfire," "Genji: Days of the Blade" and "Ridge Racer 7."

In the short time the PS3 has been in the PC Mag Labs, I have played every game. Honestly, the sacrifices I make!

In every game, graphics were nothing short of amazing. Granted, most games played on an HP Pavilion md5880n will look pretty good, but playing in HD adds a lot of eye candy to these games.

"Resistance" looks as if it is going to be the must-have game for the new platform. The game can be played in single-player, double-player or four-player co-op mode.

The PS3 ships with just one controller, but because we have two systems in-house we were able test out the two-player mode. With a wide range of weapons and super-fast gameplay, this should keep fraggers happy for a long time to come.

The premise of "Resistance" is pretty standard; you are the lone survivor fighting off an invasion by the Chimera, a species of "unknown origin" that just happens to be particularly well-armed.

The time is set in an alternate 20th century, but that doesn't stop you from nabbing and wielding the Chimera's futuristic weapons yourself. The graphics here are extraordinarily realistic, but given the game's dark, somber color palette, realism is sometimes underwhelming.

To appreciate the scenes properly, though, I found myself pausing mid-game to take in all the detail. Big mistake! Turns out that's a great way of inviting a mutated Chimera to pounce — not a pretty sight, believe me.

The artificial intelligence is clever as well. After the first few levels, I noticed my Chimera opponents were ducking and strafing, just the way I do.

Also, when I attacked the bastards at close range, the Chimera literally got in my character's face — trying to eat it — and I had to shake them off before they did too much damage.

You do this by jerking the motion-sensitive controller vigorously. Very cool. If you are into first-person shooters, this game certainly won't disappoint.

The other standout game, in my humble opinion, is "Ridge Racer 7," the venerable title that incorporates trendy "drift racing." With 160 races, 40 cars and countless customization options, this is a racing game with depth.

Expect "Ridge Racer" to play a big role in Sony's upcoming online-gaming plans, too. The company is working on a networking gaming mode that will support as races with as many as 14 players.

In the short time I had to play it, I wasn't able to win many races, but that didn't matter. Drifting through turns at 150 mph was reward enough.

Again, this is where the big screen and 1080p resolution really set these games apart from previous generations — and just may give weaker players motion sickness.

To see what the PS3 can do visually, check out the opening scenes of "Genji: Days of the Blade." As the story opens, you need to charge into a burning temple, and the screen is alive with fire. You couldn't ask for a biggest contrast to the gray and green tones of "Resistance."

The game play itself, however, got a little tiresome. Although you can switch among multiple characters and weapons, the enemies seem pretty slow and plodding, nothing like the Chimera's duplicity and deceptiveness. Still, I will reserve judgment until I can log a few more hours with this game.

Perhaps the greatest resource the PS3 has is the vast number of existing PS1 and PS2 titles already on the market. Sony says the PS3 is completely compatible with older titles.

Although there have been reports from Japan that some titles wouldn't work properly, the PS3 played every title we threw at it, including "Jaws Unleashed," "Call of Duty 2," "KillZone," "Colosseum: Road to Freedom," "Gun," "Shadow of Rome" and "Midnight Club3: Dub Edition Remix."

Access to the PlayStation store is built right into the PS3's interface. Once you've created a profile, you will be able to create an account to purchase games and other content directly from the store. According to Sony, users should be able to log on and download games for about $15.

Unfortunately the store, and the entire Sony online network, wasn't to be turned on until launch date, after we'd finished reviewing the unit.

Surely $600 is too much to pay for just a game system. But when you throw in network support, storage readers, and the ability to play Blu-ray movies, the value increases substantially.

Gamers will surely drive initial sales, but don't be surprised if the PS3 finds a much wider audience — at least when there are more systems available on store shelves.

BOTTOM LINE: By combining a great gaming platform with a high-definition Blu-ray player and a host of other features, the Sony PlayStation 3 makes a welcome addition to any living room.

PROS: Killer gaming performance. Blu-ray player. Media card reader. HDMI out with 1080p. Works with PS1/PS2 titles.

CONS: Expensive. HDMI cable sold separately. No more vibrating controller. Hard to find on store shelves.

COMPANY: Sony Corporation of America

EDITOR RATING: Four and a half out of five stars.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.