Monday, 24 September 2007

PS3 Review - this is what you can have...a free PS3

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There’s no denying that Sony is slightly late to the table with its next generation gaming console. With Nintendo launching its fun filled Wii at the beginning of December 2006 and Microsoft unveiling the Xbox 360 almost a year and a half ago, Sony has managed to gift no less than two Christmas periods to Microsoft and one to Nintendo. It’s fair to say that the Wii was the big hit of the recent festive season, while the year before getting your paws on an Xbox 360 was nigh on impossible. But for the launch of the PlayStation 3 there’s no Christmas buying frenzy to help it along, and with much of the gaming public already equipped with an X360 or a Wii, or even both, has the PlayStation 3 got what it takes to make an impact at this stage?
Well first and foremost, it’s clear that the buying public haven’t been rushing to buy Sony’s new machine, no matter how Sony’s PR machine might try to spin things. Just a few days before the launch date, every single high street store that I visited and every online retailer was still promising launch day hardware! That’s about as far removed as you can get from the Xbox 360 and Wii launches, where you couldn’t find a console for love nor money weeks before the actual launch. It’s probably fair to say that the cost of the PlayStation 3 is making prospective buyers think carefully before slapping the plastic on the counter, but we’ll come onto cost a bit later.
One thing that Sony can’t be criticised for is the amount of functionality that the PlayStation 3 offers. It really is so much more than just a games console, which is fine, assuming that you want to do so much more than play games. The PS3 really does have the makings to be the hub of your home entertainment setup, while it also has the potential to expand its capabilities considerably over the months and years. Even though I consider myself a particularly cynical and jaded technology hack, I was pleasantly surprised when I got my paws on a full retail PlayStation 3 a while back. But that’s not to say that I think that Sony is set to blow away the competition, in fact I think that this third generation PlayStation will have a tougher fight than either of its predecessors.
The design of the PlayStation 3 has sparked controversy since it was first unveiled – some think that it looks sleek and futuristic, while others think that it looks oversized and bulbous. I have to say that I was never a fan of the design when I first saw pictures, and I was even less of a fan when I saw it first hand at E3 last year. However, now that I’ve had a PS3 sitting underneath my TV for a couple of months I’ve started to warm to it’s somewhat full figure. It’s also worth remembering that although the PlayStation 3 is significantly larger than the Xbox 360, the latter uses a truly massive external power supply, while the PS3’s PSU is built into the casing.
Standing the PlayStation 3 next to the Xbox 360 and the Wii really highlighted the fact that the X360 looks more like a computer product than a consumer electronics device. Whereas both the PS3 and the Wii are finished in glossy plastic, that will no doubt complement your shiny new high definition TV, the Xbox 360 just looks a bit dull by comparison. Of course the down side of the glossy black finish on the PS3 is that it collects fingerprints at an alarming rate – especially when you have a 14 month old daughter who likes to press buttons! Likewise, the chrome face plate becomes just as grubby in no time at all. In fact even if you can avoid the fingerprint problem, you’ll find that the glossy finish will be marred by excessive layers of dust in a matter of days.
The front of the PS3 is dominated by the slot loading Blu-ray drive with the obligatory PlayStation logo mounted just below the slot. As with the PS2, the logo can be rotated, ensuring the correct orientation whether you opt for horizontal or vertical operation. In front of the drive are touch sensitive eject and power buttons – yes my daughter loves pressing these at every opportunity! To the left of the Blu-ray drive is a hinged door that hides a memory card reader – this accepts CompactFlash, SD, miniSD and MemoryStick formats. Below the card reader are four USB 2.0 ports – these can be used for all manner of accessories as well as charging the controller.
At the rear of the unit you’ll find a three pin power socket that accepts a standard kettle lead. It’s worth noting that the power supply inside my Japanese PS3 is most definitely multi-voltage and is happy with current ranging from 100v up to 240v. I was somewhat nervous about plugging it straight into the mains without a voltage step down unit, but after much finger crossing and breath holding my PS3 didn’t blow up and just dutifully went into standby mode when I flicked the hard power switch.
There’s also a plethora of connectivity at the rear. The familiar PlayStation AV out is present for analogue connection to your TV, while an optical S/PDIF port will let you pump digital audio to your surround sound system. There’s also an Ethernet port for hooking the PS3 up to your home network, and if you’ve really pushed the boat out with your network installation you’ll be able to take advantage of Gigabit speeds. But the jewel in the crown of the PlayStation 3’s connectivity is the HDMI port. Unlike any other games console currently available, the PS3 can connect to your high definition TV via a digital interface, assuring the best possible picture quality. The PS3 is also one of the first devices on the market to sport an HDMI 1.3 port, which means that you’ll be able to take advantage of features like Deep Colour for colour depths up to 48-bit and a wider gamut, assuming that you have a compatible screen of course. HDMI 1.3 also allows the full implementation of the new lossless audio CODECs like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.
With all that high-end connectivity on offer, you’re going to be pretty disappointed when you open up the box and find that Sony is only bundling a composite video cable with the machine! So, not only are you not getting an HDMI cable to get the best possible output, you’re not even getting a component video cable for analogue HD output. OK, so the Wii only ships with a composite cable, but the Wii isn’t a high definition powerhouse, and it’s worth remembering that Microsoft ships a component video cable with the Xbox 360. So, you’re going to have to factor in the cost of a high definition cable when if you’re thinking of buying a PS3.
Of course the really important stuff is going on underneath that glossy black casing, and there’s no denying that there is some pretty serious hardware driving the PS3. The heart of the PlayStation 3 is the Cell Broadband Engine CPU running at 3.2GHz - this was co-developed by Sony, Toshiba and IBM. There are two main elements to the Cell chip, the Power Processing Element (PPE) and the Synergistic Processing Elements (SPEs). The PPE is based on IBM’s established PowerPC architecture and acts as the controller for the SPEs. The SPEs are independent RISC based processors that are used to spread the computational load, much like a multi-threaded environment in modern PCs. Each Cell chip contains eight SPEs, although only six of these are actually accessible. The seventh SPE is dedicated to specific operating system and security duties, while the eighth is locked out in an effort to improve production yield. With the PS3 designed to only need seven out of the eight SPEs, this allows Sony to still utilise chips with one failed core, thus vastly improving the yield. Of course this does imply that some PlayStation 3s will actually have eight functional SPEs, but with one working core locked out. Whether someone will figure out a way to unlock that eighth SPE remains to be seen, although if software is coded only to make use of six SPEs and not dynamically scale the idea of unlocking the eight core could be moot.
Despite being a single core unit, the Power Processing Element can execute two threads simultaneously in a similar fashion to Intel’s Hyper Threading technology that was seen in later Pentium 4 chips. Along with the six accessible SPEs, this allows the Cell chip to execute up to eight threads simultaneously, with the seventh SPE handling any OS overhead. There’s 256MB of XDR DRAM, which is an evolution of RDRAM – RDRAM made a brief appearance as the memory architecture of choice for the Intel Pentium III platform, but prohibitive cost saw it die out in favour of DDR memory. Rambus developed XDR specifically for high bandwidth environments like the PS3.
Whereas ATI developed the graphics processors for both the Xbox 360 and Wii, nVidia is responsible for the RSX Reality Synthesizer chip in the PlayStation 3. It was widely publicised by nVidia back in 2005 that the RSX GPU would be more powerful than two GeForce 6800 Ultras in SLI, but considering that the 6800 Ultra was launched three years ago, that’s nothing to sing and dance about anymore. The RSX GPU is a very close relation to nVidia’s GeForce 7800 GTX PC part, which was a pretty stunning graphics solution in its day. But even the 7800 GTX is almost two years old and has been superseded many times since then. The RSX GPU runs at a core speed of 550MHz and has 256MB of GDDR3 memory supporting it.
By contrast, ATI’s Xenos GPU that’s found in the Xbox 360 was actually far more advanced than any PC based graphics solutions at the time. In fact, the Xenos chip was the first to incorporate a unified shader model, something that didn’t appear in PC graphics until nVidia’s most recent GeForce 8800 chipset! So, despite the fact that the PlayStation 3 is launching well over a year after the Xbox 360, its GPU isn’t as advanced. That said, the Cell Broadband Engine has a huge amount of potential and could easily make up for the dated graphics architecture, especially once developers really start to understand how to code for it.
Storage comes courtesy of a 2.5in internal hard disk, and unlike in Japan and the US, there won’t be two drive capacities offered in Europe. Over here we get a 60GB drive, whereas in other territories consumers have the option of going for a cheaper PS3 with a 20GB drive and a few other features stripped out. To be honest, I’m not really too bothered about the lack of a 20GB option in the UK, since I would have advised anyone to go for the premium configuration, just like with the Xbox 360.
The best thing about the hard disk in the PlayStation 3 is that it’s user upgradable, and I don’t mean that you can crack the machine open, dig around inside it and replace the drive like with a Sky + box. No, Sony actually markets the PS3 as having an upgradable hard drive that’s very easy to replace. You see the hard drive sits in a caddy that slides into the left side of the case – there’s even a removable plastic cover that’s helpfully labelled HDD. If you find that 60GB just isn’t enough storage for you, you can simply replace the drive with any 2.5in SATA hard disk, although I wouldn’t recommend going for a 7,200rpm unit as the PS3 runs pretty hot as it is.
Once you’ve replaced the old drive with a shiny new, say, 160GB unit, you simply slide it back into place, close the flap and power the system on. The PS3 will recognise that there is a new disk inside and will offer to format it, ready for use in your console. You don’t need to worry about the operating system and firmware, since they sit in non volatile storage, so you won’t lose them if you change the drive. If you’ve got enough hard disk space you can even take up Sony’s offer to load another OS – several versions of Linux have already been installed successfully on the PS3, so if you’re the adventurous type, why not give it a try?
As big an issue as the reduced backwards compatibility is, the most significant stumbling block is the price. No matter how you look at it £425 for a games console is a lot of money, and once you’ve added on the cost of a couple of games, a second controller, a Blu-ray remote and an HDMI cable, you’re looking at close to £600!
Of course Sony will tell you that with the Blu-ray functionality and the potential power and versatility of the PS3 it’s still a bargain, and when you look at how much Blu-ray players cost, there’s some substance there. However, when I bought my PlayStation 3 out in Japan in January it cost me around £250, which means that we’re paying over 40 per cent more in the UK. And it’s not even as if we’re paying over 40 per cent more for the same hardware, we’re paying more for LESS hardware, because the PS2 chips are missing from the UK machines.
It’s clear that UK consumers feel that the initial purchase cost is just too high for the PlayStation 3, with most retailers struggling to shift their allocated stock, but that doesn’t mean that I think that the PS3 will fail. Ultimately there are enough PlayStation fans who have been waiting for their next fix. OK, so they may not be able to afford one straight away, but they’ve probably already decided to buy one as soon as the first price drop hits.
It’s a real shame that Sony has managed to mess up the European launch of the PlayStation 3 so badly. We’re getting the console late, we’re paying through the nose for it and we’re not even getting the same hardware as Japan and America – with that in mind it’s tough for me to recommend that anyone buy one at this point in time.
But like I said, it’s a shame, because the PlayStation 3 really is an impressive piece of kit. This really is so much more than just a games console, and it really could be that digital entertainment hub that Sony would have you believe it is. And it really does have the potential to be a truly great gaming platform. As things stand though, Sony has managed to make the PlayStation 3 look like the least attractive next generation console, when it really shouldn’t be.

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