Gaming Console Round-up II

In my last post on the topic (some time ago!) I talked about what I like in the various gaming consoles on the market -- Sony PS3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii.  In this post, I thought I'd share my impressions on the PS3.

One of the riskier moves Sony made with the PS3 was including a blu-ray player built into the console.  If I remember correctly, this held up the launch of the console and also contributes to the console cost quite a bit, and it's a decision that I thought was a mistake.  Although opinions on this will differ, the delay of the PS3 and the higher cost compared to the Xbox 360 hurt (and continues to hurt) the PS3's market share.

The inclusion of a blu-ray player as a necessity is debatable.  We're starting to see more games that consume a larger footprint than DVD-9 can hold.  Word on the street has it that games like MGS4 required a dual layer blu-ray disc (50gb!) due to the sheer size of the game.   Clearly, even on DVD-9, a game that size would be cumbersome -- I figure a reasonable cut-off point is 3 DVDs before overly-aggravating the end-user, but really more than 1 can  be irritating.  From a business perspective, was the inclusion of blu-ray, at the cost of so much time and expense, worth it?  I'll let you decide.

However, because blu-ray won the high-def format wars relatively quickly, Sony caught a huge break and the PS3 was, at the time, simply one of the best blu-ray players you can get.  It used to be that it was also the cheapest, but that's no longer the case as some blu-ray players are coming in a bit cheaper.  Even so, because the PS3 is sold either at a loss and near manufacturing cost, it's a compelling player for the cost.  Indeed, I've run into a few people who bought a PS3 for home theater high-def usage alone.  And, in my case, that was what led me to purchase.  Almost a year ago, Walmart ran a special that offered $100 off any blu-ray player, including the PS3, which brought the base model price to $299.

The jury is still out on whether or not a blu-ray player will find itself to the Xbox 360 as either a stand-alone player or integrated.  I personally feel it's a worthwhile add-on and certainly hope we pursue it.

What may be a pro or con is the fact that everything is integrated.  No power brick, no external HD-DVD or blu-ray drive, no external wifi module.  If you need all of those things (well, the power brick is obviously non-negotiable), it's great the PS3 has them.  However, I don't need a blu-ray player in most rooms of my house, nor wireless.   Because I can pick up a 360 Arcade for under $200, it's an easy add on for media extending, movies/Netflix watching, and basic gameplay. 

As for downloadable games, I didn't realize how good I had it on Xbox Live Arcade until I loaded up PSN.  First, PSN has a few wonderful games for sure -- PixelJunk Eden, Monsters, Flow, and a couple of others are outstanding.  But, the PSN UI is a bit utilitarian and few games, percentage-wise, offer demos; if I'm not mistaken, every game on Xbox Live Arcade offers a playable demo.   It's an exercise in frustration to browse around and find an interesting looking game, only to find out it's purchase only, or, at best, has only a trailer available. 

Achievements on the 360 has been a tremendous success, and Sony has just recently brought that concept to the PS3 as "trophies."  The problem is that, currently, very few games support trophies, but we'll see where this ends up in another year or so.   This is a concept that Xbox Live got right out of the gate by ensuring demos and achievements are available across the board.  While better than nothing, it's a bit "too little, too late" in this area.

Also, as a developer and one with some business experience, I think not having mandatory demos for downloadable games is a mistake.  Some have tried to argue that it's too much work for the developers -- if that's the case, then the SDK (which I haven't seen for the PS3) is incomplete.   Ideally, it should be very minimal effort to include demo functionality.

One of the biggest pros to the online experience, however, is that it's completely free, as opposed to a silver (free) or gold (paid) membership on the Xbox.  This is a good value add to the system and one that proponents for the system often point out.  However, feature-wise, it's not as expansive as Xbox Live.   So which is better?  From a consumer point of view, it depends.  For me, personally, I'd rather pony up the $3/mo for a better service.   If you're the type who never plays online, you're not going to want to pay for a service you don't use.

From a business perspective, the decision to make online play completely free is one Sony either regrets, will regret, or will change down the road.  Building a large, scalable, online ecosystem cannot be sustained by console sales alone (or without subscriber contribution).  It will either continue to fall further behind (one recent feature, called "Home," has been notoriously delayed month after month), or need to be supplemented by extensive advertising.   Because I wasn't interested in hearing how many subscribers each system claims to have, I looked at the number of online players at any given moment in Call of Duty 4, and Xbox Live typically had double or so the numbers.  Hardly scientific but a good enough for me, if I'm choosing which console to buy a game for.

Media experiences is going to be equally divisive.  Both have similar features that are implemented quite differently, and I won't claim one is better than the other.  You simply have to look at them, try them, and decide for yourself.   For example, the PS3 does offer video rentals/purchases, however, I found it to be fairly expensive, and I'd never buy a movie in this fashion.  In contrast, the Xbox offers Netflix -- which won't typically have new releases, requires a monthly subscription to Netflix, and requires a Gold subscription. 

Music-wise, if you have a Windows PC or event better a Windows Media Center PC, I think the 360 takes the prize for extending music.   The Media Center extender on the Xbox offers the same UI you'd get on the PC, so it's a bit richer than a folder structure.  If you have music that Windows PC can play (including DRM'd music) the extender can generally play it, which is nice especially for subscription-based services like Zune pass.

As a blu-ray player, the PS3 is great.  Because the firmware is easily updatable, it's easy to handle the current formats without much problem, including DTS-MA and Dolby TrueHD over HDMI, and of course Dolby Digtial and stereo over optical.   One point of confusion I initially had was that my receiver was not reporting a TrueHD signal, despite selecting that on the disc's setup menu.  It turns out that the PS3 cannot technically send TrueHD or DTS-MA over HDMI via bitstream, however, it is capable of decoding these formats directly, and then sending the channels via PCM to the receiver.  It's the same information, so there's no loss of signal.

By far, my favorite thing about the PS3 is that it is quiet.  While a standalone blu-ray player would be quieter, there's no denying that it's much quieter than the Xbox.  I like quiet.  Both the cooling fan and the drive ... it's refreshing.  At the very least, the Xbox added a new feature to do local installs for games to at least silence the disc spin noise.

Now, let me get into what annoys me about the PS3.  First thing: charging controllers.   No swappable batteries, not as easy to do play and charge.   The default cables are about 3 feet.  The plug is a mini-USB: a standard, yes, but not as friendly as plugging in controllers and batteries. 

The second thing that annoys me are the touch-sensitive buttons on the front of the console: a decision to favor cool technology over function.  With the unit on the side, hitting eject or even power is just a guess of sliding your finger on the panel.

Moving up the ladder to extreme frustration is the lack of an IR port for remotes.  Defenders of this correctly point out the limitations of IR, "bluetooth is the future," blah, blah, blah.  Fine -- in theory, bluetooth is great -- no line of sight, etc.  But, say goodbye to support for universal remotes and the like.  Sony should have included both.  This would be like putting in Wireless N support with no backward compatibility for G and B, and justify it by saying it's the future.   So, you're stuck using either the controller as a remote, or Sony's blu-ray controller.  Neither of which is all that elegant particularly if you use a Harmony or other universal remote.  (There are some very expensive solutions our there to do IR to bluetooth conversions.)

Last, and this one simply adds to the previous, the PS3 power options are frustrating.  The BD remote has no power on or off switch, but rather any button press on the remote turns on the PS3.  This sounds flexible until any magazine sitting on your coffee table happens to brush the remote... "beep!"  And of course, it doesn't need line of sight, so truly any slight button press turns it on.  This might be somewhat tolerable if there was a button on the remote to turn it off.  But there isn't.  If you want to turn off via the remote or pad, you have to navigate the on-screen menu and select it, and then confirm the action.  Or, you can hold the PS button for 3 seconds, then select X, X to power off and again to confirm.  It won't be long until people simply memorize the button sequences.  Epic fail on Sony's part.

If it sounds like I'm pretty hard on the PS3, it's because I am.  While many of these hardware issues are minor, they are frustrating oversights.  However, I'd love to get my 360 this quiet.  If you're an online gamer, there's no question in my subjective viewpoint that the 360 is the better console.  If you want a blu-ray player with the occasional game play, the PS3 may be the better choice.  From a media point of view, this will be largely dependent on your home network -- if you have the capability to run a Media Center on Vista/XP, it's hard to not feel the extender capabilities of the 360 are a huge value add; and whether or not a Netflix or video rental from PSN is a better (or useful) feature will be up for each person to decide based on their preferences.

Next time, I'll look at the Wii.

Comments (1) -

2/4/2009 5:02:03 AM #

Thanks.  Great article.  I can't wait for the Wii.

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