January 1, 2007
I’ll bet that’s a post title some of you are a bit surprised to see here but as the months have progressed since HD DVD’s launch, it has become increasingly apparent we’re no closer to deciding on the next-generation optical disc format than the day(s) they were originally announced. Just after Christmas I found myself in the interesting position of having several gift cards to a certain retail outlet and said retail outlet having a 60GB PS3 in stock and an increasing desire to view more HD content. That was pretty much all it took.
Quick note right up front, this won’t be a review of the PS3 as a gaming console. That’s not what we do here and to be honest, I’m probably the last person you want reviewing a game console, (the last console I owned prior to the Wii was a Turbo Graffix). What I want to do is focus on the PS3’s Blu-ray and standard definition DVD playback, with a strong emphasis on the former.
Un-boxing and Setup:
As I’m sure many of you have heard by now the PS3 doesn’t come with a HDMI cable, or component cables for that matter, but as HDMI cables (of reasonable length) are easy to come by and the PS3 uses the same A/V component cable as the PS2, connectivity to your display shouldn’t be of great concern. I found the PS3 to offer a slightly better image via HDMI, but this could have been due to the quality of my A/V cable (non-Sony branded), and ultimately settled on HDMI (at both 1080i and 1080p) as my primary connection method.
With all the contents of the box (power cable, controller, literature etc.) spread out around me I began integrating the PS3 into my system. Wow I’m really running out of inputs, those new Denon HDMI receivers can’t come soon enough. Anyway, back to the task at hand. After attaching the cables it was time to fire it up and have at it. As it turned out I had to tweak the settings a bit before I could get underway. Initially I was getting video but no audio, strange occurrence with HDMI but there it wasn’t nonetheless. I thought, hey maybe a firmware upgrade will snap it into shape; this proved to be somewhat of a frustrating experience.
Call me a stickler or just paranoid, but I always like to start off with the latest firmware anytime I’m testing out a new device. So I delved into the PS3’s network settings, punched in my information and hit ‘Test Connection’; nada, not even a peep. As it turns out a router incompatibility was hampering one of the settings I chose but oddly enough the Wii had no such difficulties with the same settings.
Speaking of the Wii, it trumps the PS3 in ease of set-up and by a large margin. Granted the Wii is a much simpler machine but I would have liked to see basic networking work a little smoother out of the box. In the end no harm, no foul once I updated to version 1.3; I immediately got sound, odd that the same settings after the update worked; anyway all’s well that ends well.
I was itching to see some Blu-ray discs but figured as long as I was already in the dashboard XrossMediaBar, I might as well go ahead and set-up my online ID and browse the downloads. I have to say registering the account with the on-screen keyboard was a PITA. Imagine typing in your name, address, date of birth, login and password (twice) with a cell phone and you’ll begin to understand the hell I went though. Ok maybe hell is a bit strong but it sure wasn’t something I’m looking forward to doing again; luckily the PS3 stores your login info for one click login.
About the PS3’s user interface, the XrossMediaBar feels a bit disjointed compared to the Xbox 360’s interface. For example, the Sony store downloads are basically run from the internal browser. No biggie but the overall feel smacks of ‘leaving’ the PS3′s interface and moving to a different application. This is likely something they’ll fine-tune in the coming months/years but I have to say, it didn’t feel as seamless and fluid as my (admittedly limited) experiences with Xbox Live.
DVD Playback and HQV Benchmarks:
I tested several of my favorite DVD’s including Kill Bill Vol. 1 and the Fifth Element. Staring off with Kill Bill, I advanced forward to Chapter 14, “You must be Gogo” scene. The color saturation was acceptable but this was far from the sharpest presentation. Again the overall presentation was acceptable but the image was just a tad soft for my taste.
Moving onto the Fifth Element, I skipped forward to the reconstruction sequence. Again the colors were acceptable and the overall image was certainly adequate but I don’t think I’m ready to retire my HD-XA1 for SD-DVD playback just yet.
•Color Bar/Vertical Detail: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Jaggies Pattern 1: Pass – Score 5 of 5
•Jaggies Pattern 2: Pass – Score 5 of 5
•Flag: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Picture Detail: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Noise Reduction: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Motion Adaptive Noise Reduction: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•3:2 Detection: Fail – Score 0 of 10
•Film Cadence: Pass – Score (Combined) 40 of 40
•Mixed 3:2 Film, Horizontal Text Crawl: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Mixed 3:2 Film, Vertical Text Crawl: Pass – Score 10 of 10
•Total Score:120 out of a possible 130.
Those are pretty impressive numbers for a DVD player, much less a game console. Unfortunately the one area where the PS3 failed with the HQV disc is 3:2 pull-down detection. Shame really, as the PS3 scored surprisingly well in all other areas tested.
Importing CD’s with the PS3:
Importing CD’s was relatively slow but not too far off what I’m used to with other applications. I noticed right away that I was getting multi-channel playback through my system instead of stereo (I’m not a big fan of multi-channel music), so I searched through the settings for a way to select stereo playback for my music files by default. I found no such setting but of course my receiver was able to handle the task with a quick button press. The PS3 defaults to 128k AAC encoding for imported music files, I bumped that up to 192k and found the quality to be on par with similar compression techniques; i.e. acceptable from a convenience standpoint but obviously not as enjoyable as listening to the original disc through a competent CD player.
The most annoying aspect of playing back imported music files with the PS3 is the inability to browse the rest of the XMB while the music plays. Once you leave the music tab, you guessed it, the music stops. Oh well, maybe this is an option Sony could offer in a future firmware update. Overall, I have to say I’m unlikely to use the PS3 for music playback as the interface and options there-in are a bit limiting and offer no advantages over my current playback method. Hey while I’m day dreaming, net radio would be nice…
–Update– As Armen pointed out in a comment below; you can indeed press the PS button and use the XMB without stopping music playback. Now if they’d just let that functionality carry through to the on-line store I’d be set, Thanks again Armen.
The first movie I popped in was ‘Kung Fu Hustle’. Load up time was fast (under 20 seconds). My first impressions were a bit lukewarm but as the opening scenes progressed, I definitely got that “HD” feel. The sound however left me wanting more. The bass was a bit anemic in relation to what I’ve been getting out of my HD-XA1, but curiosity got the best of me before I could view anymore, I wanted to check out X-Men 3.
The opening comic montage was sharp and colorful. As the film progressed I liked what I was seeing but felt the transfer was just a tad soft compared to the best HD DVD’s I’ve viewed. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation and felt that it was an improvement over the SD-DVD but again I was missing that razor sharpness provided by the best HD DVD titles I’ve viewed.
Obviously this was the earliest of observations and trying to compare formats without the benefit of the same titles is an exercise in futility. Nevertheless I couldn’t help but think about the difference in my first impressions between HD DVD and Blu-ray. I remember savoring every pixel displayed on my set and day dreaming about which titles I’d love to see announced next for the format. I didn’t really get that feeling here, but I do have one caveat to that statement, more on that in a minute.
Again (with X-Men3) I was getting the feeling that the bass was a little light so I checked the audio settings in the PS3. Nope no bass or EQ settings to speak of, maybe in a future firmware update. Regardless I can only explain away this phenomenon as a minuscule difference in levels versus my HD-XA1 and the PS3. To test this, the next day I inserted the PS3 into a system capable of significantly higher bass levels than my system and noticed no appreciable difference in bass, versus a Toshiba HD-A2 in the same system.
From there I popped in the included copy of ‘Talladega Nights’, immediately I understood what Peter Bracke was talking about when he described the transfer as having “a very unappealing, flat look that I just really did not like”. My thoughts were pretty much what Peter described, I found it slightly better than the SD version (that we’d seen just days prior) but hardly worth the upgrade.
With my initial curiosity satisfied, I went back to X-Men 3 and picked up at Chapter 3. One of the things I was noticing was an increase in film grain versus the majority of the HD DVD titles I’ve viewed. I don’t say this as a negative, not in the slightest, just as a general observation. In all three titles we viewed that night (two encoded with MPEG-2 and one with AVC/MPEG-4), I noticed substantially more film-grain and rightfully so, if it’s meant to be present then by all means lets see it.
Could HD DVD’s favored codec; VC-1 somehow be responsible for the subtle grain and overall sharper images I’ve grown accustomed to? Obviously without a VC-1 encoded Blu-ray title on hand, any such comparison would be impossible. I just happen to have one en-route via Netflix and I’ll update this post as soon as I’ve seen it.
One of the things that gave me the greatest concern in using the PS3 as a Blu-ray Player was the lack of a traditional remote control. However, now that I’ve used the SIXAXIS controller first hand, much of those concerns have subsided. The controller’s triangle button brings up an on-screen quick menu of transport controls and playback options. It’s not quite the elegant solution as the optional Bluetooth remote, or practical as an infra-red remote, but workable nonetheless.
Now lest I leave you with the impression I didn’t greatly enjoy any of the aforementioned titles, I need to go back to ‘Kung Fu Hustle’. I really enjoyed this title, we’d seen the film before but needless to say the transfer left a lot to be desired. I’m happy to say that wasn’t the case here. Perhaps partially due to my own admittedly low expectations, I was greatly impressed to see a Chinese martial arts picture at this level of image quality. Lesson learned, nation of origin bears little on the potential outcome. While I wouldn’t go as far as describing it as equal to some of the better HD DVD’s I’ve viewed, it was a pleasant surprise nonetheless.
The PS3 is by design a bit of a mixed bag. It’s part game console, part media center and of course part Blu-ray player. I’ve kept this in the forefront of my mind during my review process and I feel that mindset wound up being critical in my overall satisfaction. The PS3′s value is in the sum of its parts, even if some of those individual parts fall a tad short.
I’m relatively confident the software issues will be corrected but at the same time I can’t help but be a bit miffed they’ve dragged on this long in the first place. The ironic part is that HD DVD owners continue to enjoy reference transfer after reference transfer, with less studio and manufacturer support to boot; anyway that’s a discussion for another day.
The real question I wanted to tackle in my summary has to do more with value than performance. Specifically, is the PS3 a good value at $500-600? The answer to that question however is entirely dependant on your specific needs and current equipment. It would be hard for me to recommend a PS3 as a primary Blu-ray playback device; to those with zero interest in gaming. On the other hand for those with at least a passing interest in gaming, multimedia and Blu-ray playback, the PS3 does indeed offer an attractive mix of features.
I’m still a bit taken aback Sony didn’t see fit to offer a non-Bluetooth remote for integration with IR-based universal remotes and no I don’t consider this to be a viable option for the average consumer. Hopefully with enough interest its entirely possible that Sony and or a third-party manufacturer will release an IR based remote control option, so this isn’t of overwhelming concern in the long run.
To wrap-up, no I’m not suffering from buyer’s remorse but at the same time I can’t help but think about the numerous games available for the Xbox360 and how it would be nice to play some of them, but in the end I purchased the PS3 for BD playback not games. Speaking of games, gamers and value, given what I’ve seen from HD DVD (and now Blu-ray with the PS3), if you’re an Xbox360 owner the HD DVD add-on would appear to be a no-brainer of a bargain. Happy New Year and whatever format or hardware decision you make, here’s to happy HD viewing.
–Update– by the way.. Our Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1, Blu-ray player is due in any day. I’ll most definitely do a head-to-head comparison between the two and report back with my findings. That should be one heck of a shootout.