Before I drill down to the PlayStation 3's various features, I should mention the technology that has gone into the console. It may not entirely justify the controversial pricing, but it does explain the graphical appeal, not to mention the vastly improved physics and environmental (including lighting) effects.
Weighing about 11lbs and measuring 12.8inx3.9inx10.9in, the PlayStation 3 is certainly larger than the PlayStation 2, the diminutive Wii, or the Xbox 360. As with those consoles, the PlayStation 3 can be oriented vertically or horizontally. Either way, the PlayStation 3's striking design looks right at home in the living room although its polished top surface is prone to finger marks. The PlayStation 3 runs more quietly than the Xbox 360, but is a bit louder than the almost silent Wii. Although the unit itself doesn't get too toasty, the air around it tends to feel warm after a few hours of continuous play.
The PlayStation 3 comes in two versions. The $599 (£317) model has a 60GB hard disk, built-in 802.11b/g wireless networking and MemoryStick, SD, and CompactFlash slots. The $499 (£264) unit omits Wi-Fi capability, media card slots and it has a 20GB drive. You can replace the hard drive on either version.
But the differences end there. Both PlayStation 3 versions provide a Blu-ray slot drive, HDMI-output, gigabit networking, four USB 2.0 ports, and built-in Bluetooth 2.0 support.
At the heart of the PlayStation 3 lies a CPU that'll impress even the most hardcore PC gamer. This powerful, multicore cell processor, jointly developed by Sony, Toshiba and IBM, runs at 3.2GHz. An RSX Reality Synthesizer graphics engine, based on nVidia's G70 architecture, delivers the graphics. Working alongside these chips are 256MB of high-performance XDR main memory.
If you're lucky enough to score a PlayStation 3, ensure that you come home with all of the cables you'll need. To fully experience the console's graphics capabilities - that is, to play supported games or watch Blu-ray movies in 1080p high-definition - you'll have to purchase your own HDMI cable (and own an HDCP-compliant 1080p television). Two extras that you might consider buying are Sony's proprietary component video output cable and the optical digital audio cable required for 7.1-channel audio. For optimum Blu-ray or DVD-movie playback, you could spring for the optional remote control.
The standard package includes basic cords: a USB mini cable for the bundled Bluetooth wireless controller, an ethernet cable, a multi audio/video cable with composite connections and an AC power cord. The PlayStation 3 uses a standard cord, unlike the external power brick used by the Wii and the Xbox 360. Most PlayStation 3 owners will fire up the console without looking at the manual - and they probably won't run into any trouble. It's that easy to hook up.
Once turned on, the PlayStation 3 will ask you to choose a language and a time zone and set the time and date. You then create a user account, sign in and are presented with a navigation interface that Sony calls the XMB (Xross Media Bar), which closely resembles the interface employed by Sony's PSP (PlayStation Portable) handheld.
My first priority was to properly configure the high-definition output. I accomplished this by navigating to the video settings and changing the unit's output to 1080p over HDMI.
I couldn't wait to hear how the PlayStation 3 audio sounded through my high-quality music production monitors. I attached the audio connections on the supplied composite multi audio/video cable to my speakers, then set the PlayStation 3 to send audio over that route. The result: easy setup and great sound.
In the PlayStation 3's system settings, I noticed that my new unit's hard disk had 52GB of its 60GB total available, while that the operating system was version 1.00. However, the first game I loaded - NBA 07 - included the 1.02 system update and installed it before I could begin playing. Although the installation took only a few minutes, having to wait was a little frustrating. The PlayStation 3 manual says some games have their required updates built-in to help you avoid having to patch via the internet.
Let the games begin
Internet connectivity and high-definition movie playback aside, consoles are all about the games. And massive exclusive franchises such as Halo (Xbox), Metal Gear Solid (PlayStation) and Zelda (Nintendo) promote gamers' allegiance to a single console. Whether a PlayStation 3 launch title such as Resistance: Fall of Man becomes such a classic remains to be seen. But the PlayStation 3 games that I've played so far have been ridiculously fun. Bearing in mind that I can't test the multiplayer or online functionality until the PlayStation 3 officially launches, here are some early thoughts:
This addictive basketball game runs in 1080p resolution at an incredibly smooth 60 frames per second. The players' movements are responsive and fluid, the digital Shaq looks similar to a sweaty version of the in-the-flesh Shaq, while the courts seem almost photo-realistic. It's a better game all around than the PlayStation 2 version, although regrettably there still isn't any commentary. Load times were pretty slow - about 15 to 20 seconds - to begin with, but once the game automatically copied information to the PlayStation 3's hard disk, times improved dramatically.
Resistance: Fall of Man
This first-person shooter is my favourite PlayStation 3 game so far. Levels feel expansive and atmospheric, but the graphics, while top-notch, fall somewhere between how a PlayStation 2 game and a PlayStation 3 game should look - particularly with regard to the textures of the bad guys. The game plays at a solid 30fps (frames per second) and supports 720p resolution.
Genji: Days of the Blade
This was my least favourite title, even though I'm a fan of slash-/beat-'em-ups. Load times improved once frequently used game data was automatically copied to the hard disk. The graphics looked superb and being able to switch characters instantly or to embark on a matrix-style slow-motion killing spree in midfight was great. Nevertheless, the gameplay as a whole felt a little tired, as though I'd played the same game too many times before.
The PlayStation 3 is backward-compatible with most PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 games, but to hedge your bets you might want to buy the optional Memory Card Adaptor, which allows you to transfer saved game information from PlayStation 1/PlayStation 2 memory cards to the PlayStation 3's hard disk. Even then, early reports indicate that various problems have plagued a bunch of games. Tekken 5, for instance, is said to lose background music on the PlayStation 3.
The PlayStation 3 controller
The new wireless, motion-sensitive SixAxis controller lacks force feedback, but it's lighter than the PlayStation 2's controller and has larger L2 and R2 triggers. And because the PlayStation 3's controller can sense motion along six axes, you can turn and tilt in three-dimensional space to steer in driving or flying games. I've had limited opportunity to test the controller's motion aspects so far. But a few of the launch games, such as Ridge Racer 7, should invite extensive use of the motion-sensing capability.
The controller connects to the PlayStation 3 wirelessly via Bluetooth - within a 65ft range - and can recharge its batteries, which Sony says will last for 30 hours, when plugged in via the supplied USB cable. To check the controller's remaining battery life, you hold the PS button - located between the analogue sticks - for two seconds. You'll then see a battery meter for that controller on screen, plus an option to turn the console off. You have to press the PS button when you turn the unit on; otherwise, annoyingly, the console won't recognise the controller.
A second PlayStation 3 controller costs $50 (£26) and the console supports up to seven players at a time. Each controller has four little LEDs on the top, which indicate the number that the console has assigned to that controller.