As the long wait for the much-anticipated PlayStation 3 game console dragged on, gamers started to joke that Sony stood for Soon, Only Not Yet.

The next-generation console finally goes on sale in the US today, though there probably won't be a large enough supply to meet the demand. Having spent in-depth, quality time with a US$599 shipping version of the PS3, I can tell you this: The system's impressive weaponry makes the wait worthwhile.

Under the hood

Before I drill down to the PS3'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 11 pounds and measuring 12.8 inches wide by 3.86 inches high by 10.89 inches long, the PS3 is certainly larger than the original PS2, the diminutive Wii, or the Xbox 360. Like those consoles, it can be oriented vertically or horizontally. Either way, the PS3's striking design looks right at home in the living room (admittedly, however, its polished top surface is prone to finger marks). The PS3 runs more quietly than the Xbox 360 but is a bit louder than the almost silent Wii. Though 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 model (which I tested) has a 60GB hard disk; built-in 802.11b/g wireless networking; and MemoryStick, SD, and CompactFlash slots. The $499 unit omits Wi-Fi capability and the media card slots, and has a 20GB drive. You can replace the hard drive on either version, and the supplied manual explains how to swap in your own 2.5-inch, serial ATA drive.

The differences between the two PlayStation versions end there; both 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 gamer. This powerful, multicore Cell processor, jointly developed by Sony, Toshiba, and IBM, runs at 3.2 GHz. 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 (based on Rambus RDRAM) and 256MB of GDDR3 video memory.

Getting started
If you're lucky enough to score a PS3, make sure 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 to 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 also spring for the optional $25 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 PS3 uses a standard cord, unlike the external power brick used by the Wii and the Xbox 360).

Most new PS3 owners will fire up the console without looking at the manual – and they probably won't run into any trouble. It's just that easy to hook up.

Once turned on, the PS3 will ask you to choose a language and a time zone, and set the time/date. You then create a user account, sign in, and are presented with a navigation interface that Sony calls the Xross Media Bar (XMB), which closely resembles the interface employed by Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP) 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. The difference was as if I had switched my computer monitor from 640 by 480 (480p) to 1920 by 1080 (1080p high definition).

I couldn't wait to hear what the PlayStation 3 audio sounded like through my pair of high-quality music production monitors. I attached the audio connections on the supplied composite multi audio/video cable to my speakers, and set the PS3 to send audio over that route (while still transmitting video via HDMI). The result: Easy setup and great sound.

In the PS3's system settings, I noticed that my new unit's hard disk had 52GB of its 60GB total available, and that the operating system was version 1.00. Not for long, though. The first game I loaded – NBA 07 – included the 1.02 system update and installed it before I could begin playing. Though the installation took only a few minutes, having to wait at all was still a little frustrating. The PS3 manual says that 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 PS3 games I've played so far have been ridiculously fun. Bearing in mind that I can't test the multiplayer or online functionality until the PS3 officially launches, here are some early thoughts:

NBA 07: 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 like a sweaty (albeit slightly plastic) version of the in-the-flesh Shaq; and the courts seem almost photo-realistic. It's a better game all around than the PS2 version, though 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 PS3's hard disk, times improved dramatically.

Resistance: Fall of Man: This first-person shooter is my favourite PS3 game so far. Levels feel expansive and atmospheric (especially the set pieces), but the graphics, while top-notch, fall somewhere between what a PS2 game and a PS3 game should look like – particularly with regard to the textures of the bad guys. The game plays at a solid 30 fps and supports 720p resolution. Our friends over at GamePro have posted a full review and screenshots.

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 oft-used game data got automatically copied to the hard disk, graphics looked superb, and being able to switch characters instantly or to embark on a matrixlike 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.

Here's a list of all 21 games available at the launch of the PlayStation 3:

-- Blazing Angels Squadrons of WWII
-- Call of Duty 3
-- EA Sports Fight Night Round 3
-- The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
-- F.E.A.R.
-- Full Auto 2: Battlelines
-- Genji: Days of the Blade
-- Madden NFL 07
-- Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
-- Mobile Suit Gundam: Crossfire
-- NBA 07
-- NBA 2K7
-- Need For Speed Carbon
-- NHL 2K7
-- Resistance: Fall of Man
-- Ridge Racer 7
-- Sonic the Hedgehog
-- Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07
-- Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas
-- Tony Hawk's Project 8
-- Untold Legends Dark Kingdom

Wikipedia provides an unconfirmed list of upcoming titles and games in development for the PS3.

The PlayStation 3 is backward-compatible with most PlayStation 1 and 2 games, but to hedge your bets you might want to buy the optional $15 Memory Card Adaptor, which allows you to transfer saved game information from PS1/PS2 memory cards to the PS3'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 PS3.

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 PS3'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. Earlier this year, I played the upcoming game War Hawk at the E3 conference, where the PS3 was shown. 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 65-foot 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 analog sticks) for 2 seconds. You'll then see a battery meter for that controller on screen, plus an option to turn the console off. You also have to press the PS button when you turn the unit on; otherwise, annoyingly enough, the console won't recognize the controller.

A second PlayStation 3 controller costs $50, and the console supports up to seven players at a time. Each controller has four little LEDs on the top; these indicate the number that the console has assigned to that controller. For controllers 5 through 7, two LEDs light up, and you simply add those numbers together.

Xross Media Bar and Web browsing
The Xross Media Bar interface itself is surprisingly responsive, and navigating around it feels snappier than using the Xbox 360 dashboard. Though the XMB lacks the 360's coloured tabs (which serve as quick identifiers of the area of settings you're in), the PS3 interface has a better, less-cluttered layout overall. That said, the XMB also has quite a few unexplained menu options that aren't exactly intuitive. Even a rocket scientist might have trouble deciphering what Key Repeat Interval (a keyboard setting) or UPnP - Enable/Disable? (Universal Plug and Play) mean without a few moments of head scratching.

Small gripes aside, Sony has made the most important features and settings extremely easy to use. The parental controls (to block access to certain games, movies, or online store content) are clear, and configuring a network connection (wireless or wired) is a breeze.

I was pleasantly surprised that you can plug in a USB keyboard (including wireless models equipped with a USB dongle) and thereby avoid the horrid pre-emptive text-entry interface altogether. Bluetooth keyboard/mouse support is supposedly slated for a future system update. I can't overstate how much easier it is to deal with network settings or to browse the Web when you use a dedicated keyboard.

Launched from the XMB, the PS3's Web browser isn't the speediest thing on the planet, but it did load pages (including Flash videos) reasonably promptly. You can set bookmarks, browse through your history, and make text bigger or smaller. I didn't like being asked whether I wanted to load a script on a Web page (seemingly) each time I visited, but I did appreciate how the PS3's controller aided my browsing experience.

For instance, you can use the D-pad to jump the cursor between page links, and one of the analog sticks functions as a mouse. You may open a maximum of six browser windows simultaneously, and the console lets you switch between them in two different ways: Pushing down on a stick enables you to preview and switch between all open windows – it's like a cross between Internet Explorer 7's Quick Tab feature and Mac OS X's Expose functionality – whereas pressing the controller's R2 and L2 buttons lets you switch between browser windows while sliding them across the screen.

The Blu-ray experience

From the outset, Sony intended the PlayStation 3 to serve as an all-purpose entertainment console, with tendrils that extend well beyond the realm of game play. But can the PlayStation 3 hope to compete with standalone Blu-ray players from consumer electronics makers?

The short answer is yes. The PS3's movie playback experience is best if you start from scratch, inserting a disc into the front-loading slot just as you power up the unit. The unit took just 3 seconds to load the movie Underworld Evolution, followed almost immediately by the opening sounds of the PlayStation 3 start-up orchestra. The screen then blacked out and loaded the movie disc; total disc load time, from insertion of disc to start of playback, was nearly 24 seconds.

Matched side-by-side with the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player, the game console delivered noticeably sharper and crisper image quality, with more depth and more detail than were visible on the Samsung.

Sony's decision to omit the remote from its package seems chintzy and inconsistent with its positioning of the premium PS3 as an all-encompassing entertainment device; it's worth noting that Microsoft includes a remote in the competing Xbox 360 box. (Sony will, however, include a Blu-ray movie – Will Farrell's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, with the first 500,000 systems it sends to market.) But even if you pay for the remote to make the PS3 the entertainment-centric package it's designed to be, you'll be spending a total of just $525 or $625, depending upon which version of the player you get. That's far less than you'd pay if you bought a dedicated Blu-ray Disc player today; they range in price from $899 for the Philips BDP9000 to $1,500 for the forthcoming Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1.

Multimedia file playback

Dedicated areas in the PlayStation 3's XMB handle music, videos, and photos. Two things caught my eye: Videos played in thumbnail previews as I quickly flicked through them; and one photo-viewing mode (called Portrait Slideshow) uses real-time-generated graphics to foster the feeling that you are placing photos on a surface for friends and family to thumb through.

The PS3 supports common file formats such as AAC, JPEG, MP3, and MPEG-4 video, but I had no luck with any of the numerous WMV (Windows Media Movie) and WMA (Windows Media Audio) files I tried to play. I'm currently trying to find out from Sony whether these are supported or not. It's an important consideration if you have a massive collection of music files that you've purchased on a service that uses the WMA format.

In all probability, users will be able to play back more multimedia formats than the PS3 supports out of the box if they install Linux. Already, Linux distributor Terra Soft has announced that the PlayStation 3 supports its Yellow Dog distribution.

The PS3 can play music CDs, access song information from AMG (the All Music Guide) and copy/rip songs to its hard disk. By default, it does so in AAC format at 128 kbps, but you can create MP3 and ATRAC files if you prefer.

layStation online store and network

Because Sony won't fully enable the PS3's online features until the official US launch on November 17, I can't yet evaluate how well they work. But that doesn't mean I don't have the latest details for you.

Sony has said that – unlike Xbox Live – the PlayStation Network will be a free service. You'll be able to see when friends are online in order to chat with them by video, voice, or text, or to join multiplayer games. We'd like to confirm this for ourselves, but early feedback following the Japanese launch of the PlayStation 3 is that currently users can leave only text messages for other gamers. Reports further indicate that you can't read messages while in a game; you simply get a pop-up notification. Again, we'll look into this and let you know what we find out.

Regarding the PlayStation Store, Sony has stated that it intends to offer downloadable game demos and movie trailers, and to sell retro games, episodic content, and perhaps eventually even full-length movies. Methods to pay your "electronic wallet" bill will include credit card and special PlayStation cards sold in shops. Downloadable games that Sony has developed will cost less than $15 apiece at launch, and you can expect new titles from a range of developers to appear regularly.

Parting thoughts

So there you have it: the PlayStation 3 in a rather large nutshell. It truly is technologically superior to both the Xbox 360 and the Wii (which isn't really a direct competitor). But to succeed, Sony and its third-party partners must tap into their traditional strength of delivering compelling games for the console. The PS3 looks like an expensive box at first, but seems less so when you compare its cost to the cost of a standalone Blu-ray player, a high-end PC graphics card, the Xbox 360 with its HD-DVD add-on, or even a media center PC.