PS3--The Blu-ray movie experience

High-def Blu-ray alternative to a stand-alone home-theater-style device

From the outset, Sony has considered the PlayStation 3 an all-around entertainment console, with tendrils that extend well beyond the realm of game play. Perhaps chief among these is its support for the Blu-ray Disc format, which lets you play high-definition movies. But can the PS3 perform competitively with stand-alone Blu-ray players from consumer electronics makers?

The short answer is yes. In my initial hands-on tests, the PS3's Blu-ray Disc playback was very good--even better than I'd anticipated. (If you're impatient to read my first impressions of the PS3's image quality for Blu-ray Discs, skip ahead to "Sublime Video," past the interface discussion.) However, this is not an unqualified endorsement; in fact, I found several drawbacks that may give audio-visual enthusiasts pause.

PS3 movie theater

The PS3's movie playback experience is best if you start from scratch, inserting a disc into the front-loading slot as soon as you power up the unit. It took just 3 seconds for our Underworld Evolution disc to physically load into the unit itself, followed almost immediately by the PlayStation 3 startup music. The screen then blacked out, and the movie came up on screen. Total elapsed time from disc insertion to the start of the program (in this case, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's opening splash screen) was a respectable 24 seconds.

If you want to play a movie with the PS3 unit already on, the experience differs. You insert the disc and wait for something to happen, except nothing happens. The issue--one of several that keep the PS3 from being a killer Blu-ray Disc player--is that, if already turned on, the machine does not automatically start the movie disc. Furthermore, after detecting the presence of the BD-ROM, the PS3 doesn't automatically highlight that new video option so that you can select it, let alone properly identify the BD-ROM movie on the disc--as Black Hawk Down or The Phantom of the Opera, for example.

Instead, the newly inserted BD-ROM appears as an option above the Video menu index (in contrast with the other video content that we had loaded on the PS3's hard drive, which appears below the Video menu listing). You have to manually select the BD-ROM by scrolling up to that spot, and then select it by pressing the X button on the controller. The movie disc is still not identified by name, only as a BD-ROM.

Once I had the movie loaded, I discovered the next irksome hurdle to using the PS3 as a home entertainment console. Since it doesn't come with a separate remote control for video playback, I had to use the game controller to navigate through movies, and that required two hands.

Two-handed navigation for entertainment players is not unheard of--several high-end remote controls from Harmony, Philips, and others require two hands--but it is unusual, and certainly a departure from the more commonplace and ergonomic single-handed clicker. I adapted to the PS3 controller, but ultimately, though elegant for game play, it proved kludgy as a BD remote. Using two hands to control basic functions like play, fast forward, and rewind was both ungainly and imprecise; I missed not having dedicated buttons for such common features.

Sony says a dedicated remote control will be available in December for US$25. (I'll post some thoughts on our blog when I have a chance to try the remote control.) The decision to leave the remote out of the PS3's bundle seems chintzy and odd to me, especially given that Sony is positioning the premium-priced PS3 as an all-purpose entertainment device. After all, Microsoft includes a remote with the premium bundle of the competing Xbox 360. (Sony does include a Blu-ray movie, the Will Farrell hit Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, with the first 500,000 systems--another clear indicator of the company's positioning of the PS3 as a Blu-ray player, too.)

Nonetheless, even with the added cost of the remote, the high-end PS3 still costs significantly less than stand-alone BD players, which range in price from US$899 for the Philips BDP9000 to US$1500 for the forthcoming Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1. If you buy the high-end PS3 with the remote, you'll spend about US$625 (the standard console costs US$100 less), making the PS3 an attractive option for high-def movie playback.

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