Friday, May 8, 2009

Oh, Yeah... And It Plays Games, Too!

Last year about this time, I wrote an article about my Mom getting a Wii, and praised it for being able to appeal to all generations, even those whose most recent video gaming experience was Breakout on an Atari 2600. After a year, she's still playing on occasion. It really is a great little game console. I'm planning on getting Punch-Out!! when it's released in a couple of weeks, so I can let my nephew beat me up.

But as great as the Wii is, I got myself a Playstation3 for Christmas, and I'm in love. Sales for the system lag slightly behind that of the XBox 360, though sales for the Wii are more than double that of the PS3 and XBox 360 combined. But in my humble opinion, the PS3 is much maligned, and I suspect the slower sales may be due to people thinking of it as a game console. "But it is a game console!", you're thinking. Well, yes and no. The PS3 does play games, and some are actually quite good. The Playstation3-exclusive Metal Gear Solid 4, LittleBigPlanet, and Resistance 2 are all excellent, as are the non-exclusive Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and Grand Theft Auto IV. Another PS3 exclusive, Final Fantasy XIII, is set for release late this year, and the previews are fairly impressive.

But the PS3 is much more than just a gaming console. If that's why you're buying it, then it's possible you may be happier with a Wii (for games that bridge the generation gap) or the XBox 360 (for more hard-core and adult-oriented games). But since getting the PS3, I've used it much more as a multimedia entertainment center than a gaming console. For starters, it's one of the better Blu-ray players on the market, at a cost somewhat less than most mid-range standalone players. Regular updates ensure the system is compatible with the latest Blu-ray specification. Further, it supports numerous audio and video formats, allowing you to store your audio and video collections on the hard drive for instant access. (For open-source fans, the PS3 doesn't currently play Ogg Vorbis audio or audio or video in the Matroska container, though the latter may change since the newest version of DivX supports Matroska with h.264 video and AAC audio.) Video file playback is very nice, and I particularly like the video thumbnail search feature with adjustable time increments. The PS3 also supports UPnP media servers, so you can even stream audio and video from a computer on your network.

Downsides? Well, there are a few, though most of them may eventually be rendered moot by future updates, or can be easily bypassed. Subtitle support for video files (not DVD or Blu-ray) is currently fairly poor. If you absolutely must have subtitles in your avi and mp4 videos, you currently have to re-encode the videos to hardcode the subtitles. As previously mentioned, while the PS3 supports the most common audio and video formats, support for open-source formats is currently relatively poor. h.264 video encoding is not currently supported, though this may be corrected in future updates, particularly if PS3 adopts the new DivX standard. Also, files cannot be modified on the PS3 — video titles cannot be changed, ID3 tags on mp3 files cannot be added or modified, etc. This can make managing audio and video collections stored on the PS3 difficult. You can add and delete files, but that's all. Of course, if you already have your collections organized, it's not an issue. And since the PS3 supports UPnP, it's easy enough to simply store your collections on your computer and stream them to the PS3. And speaking of collections, it would be nice if the PS3 supported sub-level grouping, such as by artist then album, though this isn't as much of a deficiency as a potential feature.

As for hardware, I have few complaints. Recent versions of the PS3 use more efficient processors that produce less heat, and so fan noise which was apparently a problem on early versions is practically non-existent. The Bluetooth controllers sync effortlessly with the system, which is one of my primary complaints with the Wii. My one gripe is that newer versions of the system only have two USB ports — older versions had four — though this can be easily overcome with a cheap USB hub.

If you're thinking of getting a PS3, I'd highly suggest buying the cheapest version available. Two versions are currently in production, and are identical except for the size of the hard drive — one is 80GB, and the other 160GB. Assuming you can tell one end of a screwdriver from another, upgrading the hard drive is extremely simple. For the difference in price between the two versions, I bought a 320GB drive and an enclosure, which gives me 5x the storage when the original 80GB drive (now used as an external USB drive) is plugged in, as opposed to the measly 2x storage of the more expensive version of the system.