& SINCE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF NEWS…

Sony PlayStation 3 (60GB) 

The next-generation Sony PlayStation 3 is a graphical powerhouse and Blu-ray movie player with an impressive array of extra features.

 Even by the considerable standards of past next-generation consoles, the Sony PlayStation 3 has been subject to almost ludicrous levels of prerelease hype and hyperbole. The system was unveiled at E3 2005, where it faced derision for having a glut of unsubstantiated CGI demos of games that weren’t running on any specific hardware. Information trickled out over the course of the next year until the company’s press conference at E3 2006, where Sony presented the system’s final design, release date and price, and first wave of titles–to once again face derision. The PlayStation 3 is due out November 17, 2006 in North America (Japan gets it about a week earlier, while Europe and Australia won’t see it until March 2007) in two different configurations: a $600 model with a 60GB hard drive and built-in wireless networking and a $500 version with a 20GB hard drive but no Wi-Fi–HDMI was originally absent from this model but was added in September. Based on the PS3’s launch details and our own hands-on experience with the console, we’ve collected the positive and negative points for Sony’s third stab at console dominance.Upside: Like the PS2 did for DVDs, the PS3 hopes to give a boost to the nascent Blu-ray movie format. The console’s built-in Blu-ray drive allows it to double as a high-def movie player, making its otherwise hefty $500-to-$600 price tag seem like a bargain compared to that of dedicated stand-alone Blu-ray players, which bottom out at $1,000. Every PlayStation 3 will come with an HDMI port, which guarantees high-def playback of Blu-Ray movies and PS3 games. Blu-ray will be the format of choice for PS3 games, and the high-density discs offer much more storage space than those of Sony’s competitors; Blu-ray discs max out at 50GB and can theoretically go to 100GB or 200GB, while the Microsoft Xbox 360 and (as far as we can determine) Nintendo Wii use standard DVDs, which top out at a comparatively cramped 8.5GB. The end result? The PS3 has the potential to offer more expansive games, with better graphical textures, more full-motion HD video, and plenty of extra content. Sony is also planning to do away with region coding for games, partly because multiterritory releases (with region-specific languages, for instance) will fit all the versions on one disc. The PlayStation 3 will be the first commercial device powered by the ballyhooed Cell processor, a 3.2GHz chip that Sony developed with help from IBM and Toshiba. The chip’s seven synergistic processing elements (SPEs) will work in parallel to churn out a staggering 218 gigaflops, or 218 billion floating point operations per second. In practice, that should make the PS3 especially adept at such processor-intensive activities as upconverting video and emulating past PlayStation games. You’ll be able to play your PlayStation and PlayStation 2 games, right out of the box, on the PlayStation 3. Even though it seems as though every household on the planet owns a PS1 or PS2, it’s still a pretty big coup for the system to have such an extensive backlog available from the start; comparatively, the Xbox 360’s backward-compatibility list is being built from the ground up in a piecemeal fashion, and Nintendo is offering GameCube disc playback but will likely charge for downloading games from the company’s earlier consoles, including the Nintendo 64 and Super Nintendo systems.

Like the Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii, the PS3 supports multiple wireless controllers. Sony gets props for supporting up to seven simultaneous gamepads, as well as the Bluetooth wireless standard; the controllers will likely employ an internal battery that can be charged via mini-USB cable. The controllers use the same Dual Shock design as the company’s customary PS1 and PS2 controllers, with a few notable differences–the PS3 controllers utilize motion-sensitive movement as a method of control, much like the Nintendo Wii, while the force-feedback rumble technology has been removed. There will be some connectivity between the PS3 and Sony’s PlayStation Portable handheld system via USB (and possible Wi-Fi). The most novel usage shown so far was for F1 06, a racing title where the PSP acted as an external real-time rearview mirror.

 Downside: As great as a price of $500 or $600 will be for a Blu-ray player, it’s awfully high for a console. It’s twice the price that the PS2 was at launch in 2000, and it’s $200 more than the core and high-end Xbox 360 models. Another pricing flub that Sony’s been fleeced for was the decision to include a neutered PS3 for $500. While the company originally explained the difference as a simple memory disparity, further research has uncovered that the $500 model will lack built-in Wi-Fi and a built-in flash-memory reader. Microsoft caught some flak for releasing a bare-bones Xbox 360 Core System, a version that was easily upgradable to the exact same specs as the more expensive deluxe version with the purchase of a few expensive accessories. The PS3 should be able to do the same, though the upgrade path for the hard drive, the flash-memory reader, and Wi-Fi compatibility remains vague. While the six-direction motion sensitivity of the PS3 controller worked well when we tried it, it pales in comparison to the Wii’s more fully realized 3D motion control. It probably didn’t help that Sony announced the PS3’s new controller the day before the Wii’s playable debut. Moreover, Sony’s Warhawk was the only motion-based game on display at its E3 booth, compared to the two dozen or so Nintendo games that utilized the Wii remote. The PS3 games shown at E3 2006 looked really good, but quite frankly, we expected better. Perhaps it’s a case of the overambitious prerendered videos from last year’s show coming back to haunt the company, but none of the dozen or so PS3 games showcased looked much better than second-generation Xbox 360 titles. Granted, that system is hitting its stride while this one’s still incubating, and the PS3 should be capable of much better visuals further down the line.With nearly all of the specs and release info nailed down, Sony’s been relatively quiet about the PS3’s online functionality, specifically the available downloadable content. Sony will be joining Nintendo and Microsoft in the microtransaction market, but the company’s entire backlog is already playable on the system in its current form. Nintendo’s Virtual Console has garnered an unprecedented amount of hype, and the Xbox Live Marketplace is one of the surprise success stories of the Xbox 360. If Sony’s last in implementing it, the company may have a difficult time establishing an online economy. On the plus side, unlike Microsoft, Sony has indicated that its online service will be free for online competition (Xbox Live requires a $50-per-year fee for Gold membership to play games head-to-head). Once again, launch allocations will be a major problem for a Sony console launch. The company set a precedent by chopping initial shipments of the PlayStation 2 in half roughly a month before the console’s release, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 faced similar shortages. Sony’s PlayStation 3 debut looks to be on par with both botched launches, as the company drastically reduced launch quantities of the PlayStation 3 to 400,000 units. Even more distressing is the attitude Sony has taken post-E3. In what may be the worst case of damage control ever, Sony Computer Entertainment president Ken Kutaragi has made many a distressing prognostication regarding the PS3–one of the more poorly received ones being that he believes the system will undergo evolving specifications. Other execs haven’t been immune either; Sony Computer Entertainment Europe CEO David Reeves claimed that the PS3 will sell out on brand recognition alone, and Sony CEO Howard Stringer assured gamers that their $600 was “paying for potential.” This odd blend of bizarre business practices and cockiness in the face of tough competition could sour the public’s image of the current king of console development.

Outlook: Last time around, the original Xbox came out later than the PS2 and, thus, wielded a significant hardware advantage. This time, PS3 seems to have the technological edge, but Xbox 360 will have a 12-month head start in the marketplace. But the release dates, gigahertz comparisons, and Blu-ray boasts will likely take a backseat to the two most important factors: games and pricing. The Xbox 360 is slowly but surely amassing a roster of impressive titles and will have even more when the PS3 becomes available. Furthermore, the 360 will also be priced at least $200 less than the high-end PS3. The burden is now on Sony to justify the massive price tag (for a gaming console) while it captures an exclusive, must-have freshman title that sells the system. The most likely candidate for that honor lies with Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4. The company didn’t do itself any favors by drawing undue comparisons with the half-as-expensive Wii when it incorporated less impressive motion-sensitive technology in the controller. Sony’s betting that hard-core gamers–and high-def fanatics looking for a sub-$1,000 Blu-ray player–will be happy to run up their credit card debt come November 17. But for parents searching for a holiday gift, the cheaper Xbox 360 and Wii will be tough competition, indeed.

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