Hands on with PlayStation 3

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Are first impressions meant to last or made to be broken? On Friday I wrote of my first impressions of the PlayStation 3 console. Based on gaming last week, I found the graphics great but otherwise the experience wasn’t much different from other games consoles. I picked up the PlayStation 3 Saturday morning when it launched here in Japan and after a weekend with the device find myself with a new opinion of the industry’s latest hot product.

What my initial review failed to take into account was the machine’s host of non-gaming functions and the network gaming, all of which were not highlighted or available in the demonstrations that I looked at last week. The console has revealed itself to be very flexible when it comes to accessing and playing additional content.

There are several non-gaming functions including a music player, movie player, picture viewer and Internet browser. Unusually for a Sony product, the PlayStation 3 is much more open in terms of the content it can playback and that’s good news.

The PlayStation 3 will playback MPEG1, MPEG2 and MPEG4 video, which means that a lot of the content available on the Internet can be played back on your TV through the PS3. Better yet, you can plug an external hard-disk drive into one of the USB ports on the PS3 and playback videos without having to transfer then to the console’s own hard-disk drive.

That’s pretty cool — who would have thought a Sony product would offer such openness instead of the usual locked-down support users have grown used to?

Last week I touched on the Internet browser. With the extra resolution available on an HDTV it’s quite possible to browse the Web via your television set without all of the scrolling normally required due to the lower resolution of standard definition TV. I discovered that the browser includes Flash support so video from sites such as YouTube can be viewed. Again, another this is a very cool feature and something that’s often missing on browsers for devices other than PCs.

When you switch on the PS3 for the first time you are offered the chance to create a PlayStation Network account. This is Sony’s online gaming network and your ID also gets you access to the online store. Through the store movie trailers and game demos can be downloaded to the PS3. High-def trailers for the new James Bond movie “Casino Royale” and the animated movie “Open Season” were among those on offer at the weekend. There’s also no digital rights management silliness here so the trailers can be saved to an external hard-disk drive and played back on a PC. Fee-based content will likely have some restrictions.

The download was fast too. It felt like Sony’s server was next door to my house. It took about 20 seconds to download an 80MB trailer, which is one of the fastest downloads I’ve experienced.

The PS3’s versatility is just going to grow as other uses are found for the console. Especially intriguing is the “Install other OS” option in the menu.

I also had a chance to try out online gaming with a copy of “Ridge Racer 7.” On launch day afternoon I did a few laps with players identified by their accounts as being in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and found smooth sailing. The game allows users to send fixed-text messages to other players which it automatically translates into the language of the recipient, which is a nice touch.

I do have a few gripes. First of all, why isn’t there a high-definition cable in the box? The PS3 is meant to be all about high-definition gaming, so it seems a little cheap of Sony to ship the consoles without such a cable. Of course users are pushed to buy Sony’s own cable, which costs ¥4,480 (US$38). It would be better to include the HD cable than the Ethernet cable, which a lot of people already have, but I suppose that’s the point. Most people have the Ethernet cable so leaving it out of the box won’t mean an extra sale for Sony.

Also, what’s with the user account setting? When I selected Japan as my country it only allowed me to choose Japanese as my language. The on-screen menu can be set to one of several languages, so why assume in the account settings that Japanese is the only language understood by gamers in Japan?

This story, "Hands on with PlayStation 3" was originally published by PCWorld.

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