|IN THE SPOTLIGHT|
By Peter M. Bracke
Thursday, November 23, 2006 at 3:45PM EST
(Last updated Thursday, December 7 at 12:15AM EST)
As I sit down to write this, it has been only a few days since Sony's highly-anticipated PlayStation 3 next-gen game console was launched here in the U.S. on November 17, 2006. It is a day that will go down in infamy in the history of consumer electronics. Amid a media frenzy and near-riots at stores nationwide, Sony's limited supply of units (some say it was as low as 120,000) sold out in a matter of seconds. Demand was so high that violence broke out at several retail outlets, with one altercation at a Connecticut Wal-mart resulting in a near-fatality. All for a videogame console -- we've come a long way since Atari.
While I can't say I'd kill for a PlayStation 3, I can't help but feel a little bit like I am (as my roommate has dubbed me) "The Luckiest MoFo in the Whole World." For I'm one of the few to have received a brand-new PS3 for review (the ultra-swanky black 60Gb version, no less), courtesy of Sony. Indeed, more than just an updated game console, the PS3 represents a significant milestone in the history of the home video industry -- with a suped-up Blu-ray player inside, the PS3 promises to not only invigorate gaming, but to also bring high-definition disc playback to the masses. Though past game consoles have supported home video formats (both the PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's original Xbox offered DVD playback) the Blu-ray-driven PS3 represents a truly landmark synergy between the gaming industry, major consumer electronics manufacturers and the Hollywood studios.
It is hardly a coincidence that Blu-ray's rival HD DVD also chose to fire its own salvo in the next-gen format war this month via Microsoft's Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on drive. With the Xbox 360 already enjoying a one-year market lead on Sony's console with a hefty installed base, the new HD DVD add-on offers a huge opportunity for gamers to jump into high-definition at a low cost. The hardware was co-developed by primary HD DVD backer Toshiba, and with a wallet-friendly $199 price tag, it is by far the cheapest way to get a high-definition disc player into your home. Of course, you still have to own an Xbox 360 to enjoy the add-on drive, but with the console's list price at about $300, that's still a relatively affordable $500 -- the same price as the entry-level version of the PS3.
So, with two brand new game/high-def combo consoles now available, do each deliver truly kick-ass HD? And how do they stack up in a head-to-head comparison? Though I won't be reviewing either console's game-playing abilities (that's best left for the myriad of fantastic gaming websites out there) I will be putting both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 add-on through their paces to see how much high-def power is really under their well-designed, uber-sleek hoods.
I have to admit to some initial skepticism, but after taking the Xbox 360's HD DVD add-on for a thorough test drive, overall I was quite pleasantly surprised by this powerful and easy-to-use peripheral.
Interface, Ergonomics and Connections
Hooking up the HD DVD drive is a snap. However, the add-on does not have A/V connectors, per se. It connects to the Xbox 360 directly, meaning that you're limited to the console's video and audio output options. And while we originally wrote that the current generation of the Xbox 360 only offers 1080i playback via Component video and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio via optical cable, some readers were quick to point out that (thanks to an Oct 31st dashboard update) the unit can now output HD DVD playback in 1080p via VGA cables, assuming your monitor has a VGA connection. Still, the 360 does not allow for an internal True HD or DTS-HD decoding/analog output, nor HDMI to allow for at least a pass-through of Dolby TrueHD and other high-end audio formats to an outboard decoder/compatible receiver. Certainly, the add-on can still deliver great high-def video, and there continue to be rumblings on the web that future generations of the Xbox 360 will offer HDMI and/or analog outs. We'll just have to wait and see.
After connection, the most readily apparent physical attribute of the add-on is its rather straightforward design. It looks like a book, is pretty compact, and surprisingly free of any frontplate bells and whistles. It also matches nicely in terms of aesthetics with its mother console, so it won't look out of place on your home theater rack. But it certainly won't be winning any Advancements in Add-On Design awards.
Unfortunately, the plain-vanilla look of the add-on also reveals a limitation. Though there is a Universal remote provided with the drive (also available separately for about $30), the add-on itself features only a single button -- Open or Close. That means even basic functions such as Play, Stop, Fast-Forward, etc., are only accessible via remote. So it is a good thing Microsoft created a solid controller. HD DVD users familiar with Toshiba's current HD-A1 and HD-XA1 player models will recognize some similarities between the remote for those decks and this add-on, but the latter fits better in the hand and is also backlit, so (despite the loss of some of the most advanced functioning of the Toshiba remotes) it remains something of an improvement.
One potential drawback, however, is mechanical and not a problem with the actual add-on itself. Having never used the Xbox 360 for anything but gameplaying in the past, the fact that the console has a considerably noisy cooling fan never distracted me before -- the usually loud and bombastic audio of most games drowned it out. But for movie playback, it's a different story. Though not obtrusive during moderate to loud scenes in a movie, the 360's noisy fan was audible when the volume is low or silent. That's not the case with the PlayStation 3, which, with movie playback is about as quiet as any other Blu-ray or HD DVD player on the market that I've heard. Though the Xbox 360's noise level is not a deal-breaker for me, it very well could be for you.
Once you've got an HD DVD disc in the drive and your remote handy, boot-up is quite good. The add-on definitely loads a disc far quicker than any other HD DVD player currently on the market. In fact, I could probably load two or three discs into the add-on in the same amount of time it takes me just to boot-up a single flick on my current Toshiba HD-XA1 (even with the latest firmware upgrade). Not bad at all.
Video and Audio
My first comparison was picture quality. In this category, the HD DVD add-on performed very, very well. This should come as no surprise, since the internal architecture driving the device is the same as is being used by Toshiba for its second-generation stand-alone DVD players (confirmed to us by both Microsoft and Toshiba). Microsoft is bundling Peter Jackson's 'King Kong' with initial shipments of the add-on, and it is the perfect choice -- you'd be hard-pressed to find a better demonstration of high-def video, period.
Note that because the Toshiba also can only output 1080i, and because my monitor does not have a VGA input (which is required for 1080p out of the add-on), it was up to my Sony 70" XBR2 LCoS 1080p monitor to upconvert the 1080i signal to progressive in both cases. The results were that even after multiple direct A/B comparisons of 'Kong' as well as two other HD DVD titles, 'Batman Begins' and 'M:i:III,' the differences between the add-on and my stand-alone Toshiba HD-XA1 were minimal. Overall detail, depth and basic technical attributes (blacks, contrast) were about identical. The add-on drive certainly can deliver fantastic video -- and again, this is without having tested the Xbox 360 using its 1080p-capable VGA outs.
The add-on's audio is more complicated. In one sense, Microsoft's claims that the add-on can deliver Dolby TrueHD audio is somewhat misleading. Yes, the device did decode the Dolby TrueHD soundtracks on such discs as 'Batman Begins' and 'The Perfect Storm,' but because the Xbox 360 can only output Dolby Digital via its optical out, it downconverts any Dolby TrueHD track to a core 1.5mbps DD track. So until Microsoft decides to release a new generation Xbox 360 with HDMI and/or analog audio outputs, Dolby Digital is the best audio you are going to get out of the add-on.
Things are also a bit tricky with DTS soundtracks as well. Though the add-on offers no support for DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio, it should properly decode standard DTS audio. However, I still had problems. I tried about a half dozen different standard-def DVDs, including Paramount's 'Sahara,' Warner's 'Lethal Weapon' and my old Superbit 'Hook' and 'Panic Room,' and the add-on outputted DTS every time. However, on all of my HD DVD discs with DTS tracks, all came out as Dolby Digital. Whether the add-on is properly decoding the DTS and simply flagging it as Dolby Digital, or actually converting internally remains a question mark for me. I hope to get word back from Microsoft soon, and will then update this space accordingly.
These difficulties aside, the results of my audio comparison were surprsingly impressive. Using the Dolby TrueHD tracks on 'Batman Begins' and 'Perfect Storm' as an examples, both sounded better even downconverted by the Xbox -- at least compared to the standard Dolby Digital track on the same disc. That's likely because Dolby TrueHD is encoded at a higher-resolution (if not sourced from a different master, though there's no way of knowing that for sure), so even a downconvert can offer improved fidelity. However, the faux-Dolby TrueHD output of the add-on can't compare with the *true* Dolby TrueHD output of the stand-alone Toshiba. The audio pumped out of the HD-XA1's analog outs was clearly superior, with improved bass response and finer sonic subtleties apparent. So while I have to give the Toshiba the nod for TrueHD, the Xbox add-on still delivers impressive audio that's nothing to scoff at.
The PlayStation 3 has one obvious strength over its competitor, in that it is an all-in-one gaming/high-def solution. No need for add-ons here -- you just plug it in, hook it up, and you've got one great media hub in a shiny little box. That doesn't mean the PS3 is a total home run as a high-def engine, however. Though its connection options are superior to the Xbox, some late-breaking problems with image upconversion may put off those hoping for the ultimate Blu-ray machine -- but more on that later.
Interface, Ergonomics and Connections
Like the Xbox HD DVD add-on, the PS3's faceplate lacks any Blu-ray-playback functions. Only the disc tray, power button and USB controller slots grace the front of the console, along with a flip-up hatch for additional memory cards. Navigating a Blu-ray disc's menus is therefore only possible by using the game controller. Sony plans to release an optional remote control sometime in December for about $25, but as of this writing few details are known about its features. Note also that unlike the Xbox 360, whose internal cooling fan is rather noisy and can distract from movie playback at low volume levels or during quiet scenes, I found the PS3 to be near-silent -- a definite plus for sensitive movie lovers.
Unfortunately, there are some irritating interface issues. If you pop a Blu-ray movie disc in with the power off, the unit lights up immediately and loads the movie in less than four seconds, which is perfect, and what you would expect. But if the unit is already on, it will still suck the disc in and... drumroll please... do absolutely nothing. Instead, you must then manually go to the PS3's main menu and select playback from the options. This is a rather annoying and seemingly unnecessary step -- it would be far preferable (to me, anyway) if the PS3 simply defaulted to playback the minute you stick a Blu-ray movie disc in the drive. I also didn't particularly enjoy navigating menus and such with the controller -- it just feels weird. Good luck trying to figure out how to accurately fast-forward or rewind at various speeds, let alone advance frame-by-frame -- the PS3's manual provides little clues other than how to use the control stick to move up, down, left and right. I can't wait to get a proper remote control for the console, and quite frankly for $600 you'd expect it to be included -- not cost extra. However, I will give the PS3 big points for being far, far faster in terms of menu access times compared to the Samsung BD-P1000, with only big leaps between chapters resulting in a brief (less than one second) pause.
On to the PS3's A/V connections. After much controversy, Sony decided to include HDMI on both the $500 20GB and $600 60GB versions of the PS3. Even better, the PS3 also supports the HDMI 1.3 spec -- the first Blu-ray player on the market to do so. The PS3 also allows for 1080p video output as well as internal decoding of up to 7.1 channels of audio in the Dolby Digital, DTS, SACD and Dolby TrueHD formats. Note that internal decoding of DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio is not yet supported, but I'd be surprised if that didn't come by way of future software upgrade from Sony, especially as major Blu-ray-supporting studio Fox is using DTS-HD almost exclusively on its Blu-ray disc releases. Also, it does appear that the PS3 can "pass through" all of the above supported formats untouched for use with an outboard decoder/compatible receiver, via HDMI or the console's optical "MultiOut" audio output (more on this below).
By the way, big kudos as well to Sony for giving the PS3 such an extensive on-screen pop-up info display screen (you can access it by pressing the "Select" button in the middle of the controller). It is much more comprehensive than the Samsung and likely gives as much info as most technophiles will ever need -- including runtime, chapter, video codec and extensive audio data such as channels of sound, sample frequency in kHz, and bitrate. Sweet.
However, one crucial connection issue is that while you can use any HDMI cable to hook up the PS3 to a HDMI-capable HDTV, the same can't be said for Component or Composite video. That's because the PS3 uses the "one-prong to three-prong" connector method for any output other than HDMI -- meaning a single, flat-ish connector plugs into the PS3, and the other end has either a set of Composite or Component cables. Thus, your average off-the-shelf connector from Best Buy won't work -- you are confined to using Sony's proprietary cables instead. Which really sucks, because aside from a Composite connector, Sony does not include a Component or HDMI cable with the PS3. Kinda chintzy (although it should be noted that similarly, those Xbox 360 owners with VGA-friendly 1080p monitors will need to ante up for a proprietary connector in order to view content in true 1080p).
Video and Audio
Now on to the big question -- video and audio quality. Sony kindly sent along extra copies of 'Click' and 'Black Hawk Down,' so I was able to do head-to-head comparisons between the PS3 and Samsung's BD-P1000 stand-alone Blu-ray player (with firmware upgrade) quite easily. If Samsung had not released their firmware upgrade when they did, the battle would have been over in a heartbeat. But even with the BD-P1000's now-legendary "faulty noise reduction chip" improved, the PS3 displayed subtle upgrades in picture quality.
I connected both the PS3 and the Samsung via HDMI to my Sony 70" XBR2 LCoS HDTV, and immediately found both decks comparable in terms of richness of blacks, purity of color and general level of detail. However, the PS3 was a tad bit sharper. 'Click' showed some slight but noticeably improved delineation to edges -- where light-to-dark contrasts seem to blur or slip into complete black on the Samsung, they appeared more clearly via the PS3. However, the tradeoff is that imperfections, too, came through more clearly . This was more noticeable on 'Black Hawk Down' -- the film is very grainy and overly contrasted, and the improved sharpness of the PS3's output sometimes exacerbated these qualities. Which is not a bad thing, of course -- the source is the source. (And indeed, even the PS3 can't make that dirty print of 'The Fifth Element' look any better.) This may also be why detail seemed more impressive on the PS3 -- I could make out slight imperfections on Adam Sandler's skin during 'Click' that were lost on the Samsung. Are these differences night and day? No. But the larger your screen size and the better your HDTV, these improvements could prove more significant.
Two very important notes about future-proofing your investment. The PS3 offers video playback at 1080p and 60 frames per second (fps) only, which is less desirable than 1080p 24 fps output. Because, though there are a select few displays on the market today that can accept 1080p 24fps inputs, that will likely change in the future. Though 1080 is still 1080 (progressive or interlace, and regardless of frames per second, the base resolution remains unchanged) motion artifacts can be introduced into the image at 60fps on movie-based content, which is filmed at 24fps. Perhaps Sony will release a future-generation PS3 that offers true 1080p 24fps support -- there are already rumblings on the web that a future software upgrade could even do the trick -- but as of now, those desiring the absolute optimum in Blu-ray playback may want to wait for a stand-alone Blu-ray player that can output true 1080p 24fps video.
But perhaps even more significant is that aforementioned late-breaking issue surrounding the PS3's resolution upconvert/downconvert problems. Sony has confirmed that the PS3 has no internal scaler as part of its hardware that can upconvert 480p/i or 720p content (whether a standard-def DVD or a PlayStation game) to 1080p/i. That leads to two separate issues. First, if you have a 1080i-only HDTV, it is up to your monitor to upconvert the 480p/i or 720p output from the PS3 to 1080i. While that puts the PS3 a rung below most next-gen disc players, which usually upconvert lower-res sources to at least 1080i, I don't know if it's a true deal breaker for me. Far more problematic is if you set the PS3 to 1080 mode to interface with your 1080p/i-only monitor, the PS3 can only downconvert 720p content to 480p. This is not a huge problem for owners of 1080p sets, as I can't think of one that doesn't accept a native 720p source and upconvert it to 1080 internally. However, there are a wealth of 1080i sets out there that will not accept a 720p signal, so if you are the owner of one of them, you're going to be confined to 480 downconverts of most PS3 launch games, as the vast majority are 720p only. That's a big drawback for the PS3 right out of the gate. Why Sony just didn't build in 1080 upconversion into the console is a bit of a mystery. We can only hope that a fix is possible via a software update. [UPDATE: (12/07/06) Well, it's not a scaler, but Sony has issued a PS3 update that changes the priority of resolutions, putting 1080i over 720p. The update can be downloaded at Sony's PS3 website.]
As for the audio, like the HD DVD add-on, the PS3's setup can be a bit complicated. The unit's default setting is LPCM (Linear PCM), meaning that it will convert any digital audio signal to uncompressed PCM audio for playback via your receiver/outboard rig. Which is all well and good if you have a higher-end (and right now, pricey) setup that can accept multi-channel 24bit 192khz PCM via HDMI. Otherwise, you have to "pass through" the original soundtrack untouched via either HDMI or optical (aka Sony's "MultiOut"). In this case, you need to go into the PS3's setup menu and select "Bitstream" instead of Linear PCM. This will pass through the original soundtrack format untouched -- be it Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital-Plus and Dolby TrueHD, SACD, or DTS and DTS-HD. From there, it is up to your receiver to decode the audio and reproduce it through your speakers.
Conclusions -- Which One to Buy?
Sorry, I can't tell you which is the best next-gen game console -- that's all about the games. But in terms of high-definition picture and sound quality, ease-of-use and price, both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 with add-on deliver a product that rivals any next-gen player on the market today, regardless of format. That doesn't mean both aren't without their drawbacks. The Xbox 360 add-on suffers from a lack of HDMI and analog outputs, though it still delivers excellent results despite those limitations. The PS3, meanwhile, also lacks analog outs, but it does have HDMI 1.3 support and can decode Dolby TrueHD.
With most stand-alone Blu-ray decks still retailing for about $1000, the PS3 is truly a terrific value by comparison -- even the steeper $600 60Gb model. While Microsoft is heavily touting the Xbox 360's HD DVD add-on price of $199, remember that you still have to buy the console, too. So you're still looking at about $500, which is the same price as the entry-level PS3. The most elite videophile will likely (and rightly) still opt for a stand-alone Blu-ray or HD DVD deck in light of the various issues with each console, but if you do opt for the PS3 and/or the Xbox 360 with add-on as the media hub for your home theater, you certainly could do a hell of a lot worse. Just don't shoot anyone to get your hands on one of 'em, okay?More about our gear.