PlayStation 3 (PS3) Buyer's Guide
Maybe it was a present. Maybe you bought it for yourself, because of the Blu-ray, because you're a PlayStation loyalist, or because you didn't want to take a chance on the Xbox 360's dreaded Red Ring of Death flashing at you as soon as you got the thing home. Either way, there's a PlayStation 3 in your home now.
Lots of people who know that I'm a game journalist ask me if the PS3 really merits its higher asking price. I honestly think it does. It's the cheapest option for folks who want both a Blu-ray player and a cutting-edge game machine.
- Stability and reliability
- Slick design; runs quietly
- Free online service
- Interoperability with PSP
- Not the lead development platform for many publishers, so PS3 versions of many games come out later, if at all.
- Frequent and mandatory firmware updates
- PlayStation Network doesn't have as varied options or as robust a user base as Xbox Live.
- The Home virtual community, where players can own a customized space and chat with others, is rife with bugs and tends to feel empty and banal.
The PS3 made its debut on store shelves in 2006. It's produced by Sony (all together now: Boo!). It had a rocky launch, owing to a relatively soft library of games -- Sony's consoles have always been notoriously hard to program and develop for -- and an extremely high price point. Hundreds of games and a few price drops later, the PS3 may not exactly be poised to repeat the dominance of its predecessor during the last console cycle, but it's finally a worthy opponent to Microsoft's Xbox 360.
The PlayStation 3 boasts a high-gloss futuristic aesthetic that's all aerodynamic curves in black paint and chrome detailing. It'll look right at home next to a high-definition television and a fancy speaker/AV setup. (And, if you don't have either, it'll make you want to run out and get both. Conveniently, Sony's Consumer Electronics division makes plenty of both. Well-played, Sony?) It's been made available in various limited editions, mostly to coincide with high-profile games exclusive to the console -- like the matte-finish gunmetal gray version that commemorated Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Overall, the PlayStation 3 feels like a high-end, grown-up game console, unlike certain offerings that rhyme with "me." Ahem.
In September 2009, Sony unveiled the long-rumored PS3 redesign at a lower $299 price point. The new unit gives up the shiny finish of its predecessor for a matte black enclosure, but the big news is the difference in size and weight. Where the previous version weighed in at a whopping 11 pounds, the Slim sheds about a third of that girth. The new chipset's more energy-efficient, too.
In the transition to Slim, the hardware only offers two USB ports. Previous versions had offered as many as four, but a cheap USB hub will let you expand to your heart's content. Speaking of expansion, the Slim offers easier access to the hard drive bay. Two screws on the front of the unit are all that stand between you and a luxurious terabyte of storage (once you back up your data, download and install firmware, that is).
PS3 System Update
Firmware updates and game installs. All of the three major consoles require firmware updates to add new features and services, but the PS3's been the most egregious offender when it comes to the sheer number of them. Sometimes it seems like you have to download a System Software Update every time you turn the darn thing on, and they can take a while to load and install, depending on the size. And, remember how we said Sony's consoles have a reputation for being tough to program? The unique processing architecture of the PS3's guts makes it even more esoteric. Well, throw in the huge (and admittedly advantageous) amount of space on a Blu-ray disc (25 GB) and many developers find that they have to store info on the hard drive that helps a game find info it needs on the disc. Sound complicated? Try making it all work right. All you really need to know is that you'll be seeing a progress bar inch along your screen quite often.
Not every PS3 game requires a hard drive install, and months can go by without being prompted to update your system. Yes, it's annoying to read "System Update Required" when all you want to do is feel around the edges of a new game while your girlfriend tries out lipstick and eye shadow combinations before a big night out. Still, it seems pretty reasonable to think that developers will find ways to minimize or eliminate this necessity as the PS3's lifespan continues.
If you're like me, you've still got some old PlayStation 2 games lying around. The PS3 will play some of them; various PS3 models have varying levels of backward compatibility. Thanks to specific hardware, the older 20 GB and 60 GB models had better built-in compatibility, and newer versions require some software to make legacy titles run. If you're looking to fire up a beloved PS2 (or even PlayStation!) game, you can look here to see if it's supported.
The biggest advantage that PlayStation Network has over Xbox Live is that it's free. That means you don't pay for the privilege of playing online with others, which is good. Microsoft gets away with charging owners $5 a month for connectivity features that PC gamers have had for years. What's bad is that many of the stickiest elements of Live -- marking game progress milestones (as Achievements on the 360 or Trophies on the PS3), comparing games or video chat -- came late to Sony's online service. The end result is that while you can play online with others, PSN doesn't quite have the sense of community that Live does.
HDTV = no-brainer
The PS3 looks great next to an HDTV. You need a high-definition television in order to appreciate the capabilities of the PS3. Games like Fallout 3, BioShock and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune fairly sizzle on the screen in 1080p and look sharp enough to draw blood. (Seriously, don't touch the screen. You'll smudge bloody fingerprints all over it.) If you've waited patiently for the price of LCD and plasma flat-screens to drop into your budget range, now is the time for your wallet ninja to strike. Decent HDTVs can be had for as little as $800 without having to donate blood. After all, the digital TV conversion is coming and you don't want to wind up like this old lady, do you?
Home isn't where the heart is
Home, Sony's attempt at creating an immersive 3-D social space for its users, gestated for more than two years before launching its beta build late in 2008. The goal seems to be to replicate the same kind of addictive friend-making and social networking that Xbox 360 users enjoy, but the early going's been very rough. Weird-looking avatars, tackily sponsored areas and spotty server stability have plagued Home's launch. This will likely be a very long beta.
HDMI output has been standard on the PS3 since launch. In layman's terms, the single HDMI connection (as opposed to the hydra-like five-headed component plugs) is the easiest and the most convenient way to get the best-quality audio and video on your HDTV. (HDMI is only now becoming standard on the Xbox 360.) Like the 360, the PS3 lets you wirelessly stream music and photos from a computer on your home network. (If you're a Mac owner like me, you'll need to buy and install additional software like NullRiver's MediaLink.)
Chances are, if you've gotten a PS3, it's because you want to see if Blu-ray home video offerings live up to the hype. The ones I've seen do that and more. Watching the Blu-ray version of "Iron Man" -- a movie I'd seen twice before -- was a hypnotizing experience, and one I'm eager to repeat with movies like "The Dark Knight."
You can also download standard-definition and high-definition content on the PlayStation Store. Lots of movies and TV shows are available to buy or rent. Remote Play lets you access your PS3 content -- including movies, music and photos -- anywhere you can grab Wi-Fi. You can also play certain PS3 games on the PlayStation Portable, too.
Since you're reading this, we can assume that you've got a computer or Internet-enabled device that works for you. It's worth noting, though, that the PS3 packs the most versatile browser of the Big Three consoles. It even supports Adobe's Flash platform, which is something that Apple's vaunted iPhone hasn't yet managed.
Since its launch, the PS3 has shipped with a few different hard drive capacities: 20 GB, 60 GB, 80 GB and (the newest) 160 GB. If that's not enough space for your digital pack-rat complex, you can swap out the built-in drive for something even bigger. You can find instructions on how to do that here.
Blu-ray Remote for PlayStation 3
Blu-ray Remote Control ($25). Sure, the standard game controller will control most of the video playback functions. But, you won't really appreciate how awesome the PS3 is as a disc player until you get this remote.
DUALSHOCK 3 Wireless Controller for PlayStation 3
DualShock 3 Wireless Controller ($55). Playing all by yourself isn't as much fun, and you know it. Get another controller for those co-op sessions.
Wireless Keypad for PlayStation 3
Wireless Keypad ($50). Text entry on the PS3 is an exercise in frustration. Make it easier on your eyes and thumbs by picking up this tiny QWERTY lifesaver.
Any first-party cables. Whether it's an HDMI cable or a USB cable for charging your controllers, any Sony-branded options will likely be way overpriced. A local Best Buy or Radio Shack should be able to meet your cord-based needs just as well, for less dough.
PlayStation 3 Bluetooth Headset ($50). At least one Sony-published game -- Warhawk, if I recall correctly -- has shipped with a Bluetooth headset, and that game cost $50. Why would the standalone headset cost as much as the game?! Bluetooth is Bluetooth, and any headset will do. Pair up one you already own (or a cheaper one) to the PS3 and get ready to frag.
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