First look: the Sony PlayStation 3

A lot can happen in six years. Think back to 2000: we'd just finished dealing with the Y2K bug, Intel was rolling out its Pentium 4 chip and broadband users were starting to plug in to 1M bps (bits per second) Internet access. Today processors are many times more powerful and the best broadband is a hundred times faster. Compared to all these obvious changes in IT, changes in Sony's gaming products have been happening behind the scenes ... until today! The PlayStation 2 was launched in 2000, and sales are still at respectable levels -- but a whole lot of new technology has been crammed into its successor, the PlayStation 3, which goes on sale in Japan on Saturday.

Over the past few days I've had the good fortune to enjoy some quality time with the console, first on demo machines in Sony's central Tokyo showroom and then with some launch titles at Sony's offices. While my total gaming time will quickly be overtaken by anyone who manages to snap up a console on launch day, I've come away with enough of an impression to know that I want one – but perhaps not immediately.

The most obvious and biggest difference between the new console and its predecessor is in the graphics. The PlayStation 3 supports high-definition, which brings a new feeling to computer gaming. Well, new as long as you haven't played Microsoft's Xbox 360 or a PC game: They also offer HD gaming although aren't nearly as popular as Sony's PlayStation.

With HD the colours are richer, the graphics crisper and the overall experience better.

But I don't want to get too carried away. While the graphics are indeed much better, the games themselves aren't so different. Sure, there are new race tracks, characters or challenges, but you'll still end up frantically pressing buttons to steer cars around corners, cross swords with bad guys or get your golf swing just right for that hole-in-one.

In a sense it's very similar to upgrading to HDTV. You get the same shows and movies but just enjoy them more until the novelty of HD wears off and the picture quality becomes your new measure of what's "normal."

Right now I'm used to the PlayStation 2's graphics but those HD graphics will likely stick in my head and eventually push me to buy a new console – but not immediately. While I enjoyed the new games, they're just not sufficiently different from the old ones for a casual gamer like myself to rush out and buy the PS3 on launch.

Away from games, the console offers a whole lot more than the PS2. The main menu uses Sony's cross-media bar, "XMB," which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used the PlayStation Portable. Nestled within the menu is a Web browser that does a pretty good job of displaying Internet sites on the TV screen. Also new is function that shows when your friends are online and allows you to send them short messages, in much the same way that PC instant messaging applications do.

Plus of course there's the Blu-ray Disc player. Sony has high hopes that its inclusion in the PlayStation 3 will give the HD movie format a needed boost – and it might just work with some users. With the console hooked up to an HDTV, why not pick up a Blu-ray Disc instead of a DVD? Unfortunately, the selection of titles available on Blu-ray Disc and the competing HD DVD format is pretty thin right now, although that could change.

Physically, it's a monster of a machine. At 5 kilograms the console is pretty heavy, perhaps heavier than you'd imagine when you see it. It's also very, very shiny: it collects fingerprints like crazy, perhaps even beating the iPod's ability to do so. Make sure you add a soft cloth to your launch day shopping list otherwise you'll be smudging and scratching it up in no time.

The gaming, network functions and Blu-ray Disc player all add up to living room fun but only if you're got an HDTV. Consumers with standard definition sets might do well to sit tight until they have a TV that does the PS3's picture quality justice, because there just doesn't seem to be enough to justify the hefty price tag if you won't be getting the full effect of the graphics.

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