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The HDTV Podcast
This review is featured in the latest podcast from The HT Guys

It's pretty clear by now that the Blu-ray format has won the high definition video disk war.  By the end of this year, HD DVD will be a distant memory and those who want to watch high definition movies will need a Blu-ray player.  There are a bunch of options out there for those in the market, and the Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) has been talked about as the most capable player available.  For a long time, it was the least expensive way to get a Blu-ray player.  That isn't true anymore, but it's still close.  It's currently available in two models, a 40 GB model for $399.99 (Buy now) and an 80 GB model for $499.99 (Buy now).  Today, we'll ignore the gaming side for the most part and look at how the device performs as a home theater device.

Sony PS3 in the Home Theater

There are a few differences between the 40 GB and 80 GB models, other than the obvious difference in storage space, but for this discussion they aren't very important.  Both models are High Definition (1080p) capable, have Blu-ray players built in, support HDMI 1.3 and can connect to your network either wired or via Wi-Fi.  For what we need, they both work.  But as an aside, if you own a PS2 and want to play all those existing games, you need to go with the more expensive 80 GB model since it's the only one that supports backward compatibility.  At a glance, the Blu-ray player supports 1080p video and 7.1 channel audio, the HDMI 1.3 connection allows for deep color content and it can upconvert standard DVDs to 1080p as well.

So how about the PS3 as a Blu-ray player?  In a lot of cases the primary motivator for buying a PS3 is to get Blu-ray playback.  In that capacity it does a great job with playback, but may have some usability issues.  First, the playback: The video looks absolutely stunning and the audio quality is amazing.  We haven't seen Blu-ray look or sound any better than on the PS3, nor have we seen it any worse, but that just means it is as good as any Blu-ray player out there.  You do not suffer any quality loss simply because it's intended to be a gaming console and not a dedicated player.

As for usability however, it's not the 100% experience you'd want.  First off, the Blu-ray remote, the one that allows you to control the PS3 as a player instead of using the game controller, is an add-on accessory.  If Sony really wants to market the PS3 as a Blu-ray player, that remote should be bundled in the box.  It's only $24.99, ($19.99 online, Buy now) not a deal breaker by any stretch, but you know what we're saying.  Trying to control a Blu-ray movie with the game controller is possible, but not practical or even really that pleasant.  After you add the remote, you can control the box just like it's a stand-alone Blu-ray player.  It works really well for that.  Unfortunately it doesn't work using IR, it uses Bluetooth.  So your Harmony or other Universal remote can't control it.  There are some adapter devices out there, but they don't get you all the way there ... closer, but not all the way.  We have a listener review of one in Episode 236.

We all know that not all Blu-ray players are created equal.  They support different audio codecs, some support interactivity, others don't, etc.  It's the whole Blu-ray profile 1.0, 1.1., 2.0 mess we've talked about in the past.  One big benefit of the PS3 is that it was designed to be internet connected and upgradable, so it's pretty easy to add new functionality as it gets finalized by the Blu-ray group.  The PS3 will be among the first players to offer support for BDLive, or internet-enabled, interactive Blu-ray content.  The rumor is that a new firmware update will be available for the PS3 as early as May or June of this year, which coincides with the market release of the first stand-alone BDLive-enabled players.  As to audio codecs, the PS3 supports the standard Dolby Digital and DTS, and the new Dolby TrueHD (PCM/onboard decoding, not Bitstream) but not the new DTS HD.  It's unclear whether or not the PS3 will ever support DTS HD, and there are a few players on the market that do, so in that regard you might be missing a little.

But the PS3 can also do a little bit more, it actually has some non-Blu-ray home theater features to consider.  If you buy the PS3 as a Blu-ray player, these are added bonuses, as are the gaming abilities, but they're in there, so we'll talk about them.  First off, the user interface on the PS3 is really slick.  Very easy to navigate and easy to understand.  If you start it up with a disc in the drive, or insert one after starting it up, it will go straight to the disc, bypassing the interface entirely, but if you do need to poke around in there, it's pretty simple.  And while poking around in there you'll find support for media playback.  You can play local content downloaded from the internet or on USB portable storage, or stream from the network.  To stream from the network you need to have a DLNA server to dish out the files, but those are easy to find.  There's a list of a bunch of options here and here.

The PS3 works well as a network player, but the interface isn't all that sexy.  It gets the job done, but without the "wow" factor.  It will playback audio, as MP3 or WMV, photos, and MPEG-4 videos including support for DIVX.  Many DLNA servers will actually transcode video on the fly to match what the PS3 needs, but not all of them, so you may need to do some re-encoding.  We watched I Am ... not going to tell you what we watched, but we did watch a few movies over the network and they looked and sounded fine.  Obviously the better the compression the better they'll look.  As a network based audio/video player, it works.  But don't buy it specifically for that.  Downloaded movie trailers looked absolutely amazing, so the PS3 is certainly capable of some awe inspiring video playback.  There is the option to install another OS on the PS3, but we haven't gotten that deep into it yet to comment on how well it works.  There are differing reports on the internet about it.

Overall the PS3 is a great Blu-ray player and upconverting DVD player, does a solid job playing network content, and is actually a really good game platform as well, if anyone is still interested in that.  For $399 it really makes a lot of sense because of the upgradability and future-proof nature of the architecture.

Posted by The HT Guys, February 29, 2008 8:08 AM

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About The HT Guys

The HT Guys, Ara Derderian and Braden Russell, are Engineers who formerly worked for the Advanced Digital Systems Group (ADSG) of Sony Pictures Entertainment. ADSG was the R&D unit of the sound department producing products for movie theaters and movie studios.

Two of the products they worked on include the DCP-1000 and DADR-5000. The DCP is a digital cinema processor used in movie theaters around the world. The DADR-5000 is a disk-based audio dubber used on Hollywood sound stages.

ADSG was awarded a Technical Academy Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 for the development of the DADR-5000. Ara holds three patents for his development work in Digital Cinema and Digital Audio Recording.

Every week they put together a podcast about High Definition TV and Home Theater. Each episode brings news from the A/V world, helpful product reviews and insights and help in demystifying and simplifying HDTV and home theater.