2009-11-02

Review: PS3

The day Netflix and Sony announced Netflix streaming videos were coming to the PS3, my 360 died. Not metaphorically; it hung while playing a DVD, and power-cycling got me the red ring of death I thought I'd escaped.

So, after requesting my free repair, in a small act of consumer retaliation, I bought a PS3. I also bought a couple of games: "Prince of Persia", which I'd been considering getting for the 360, and "Uncharted", one of the few PS3 exclusives I could muster any enthusiasm for. (The 360's exclusives are much more my taste; it's no coincidence I bought a 360 shortly after "Halo 3" came out.)

Unboxing
The PS3 slim is much nicer-looking than its "fat" predecessors. It beats the 360 on looks too, mainly because it's just a small black box that you don't really notice. The 360 is a large white box that's pretty hard to ignore. It's slot-loading rather than tray-loading, which I don't really like, but having suffered a flaky tray loader on my original Xbox (Microsoft's hardware screw-up for that generation), maybe it's a blessing. The power and eject buttons are fine; I mention this because the power button on the 360 is mushy and unconvincing, and coupled with the console's slow reaction to a press, happens to be one of the 360's minor annoyances.

The box contains a composite video cable, which is tres fucking lame in 2009. The back of the console does have completely standard HDMI video and TOSLINK audio ports, though, which is a step up from the 360's proprietary crap. There's an ethernet port too; no cable in the box, but the system (unlike the 360) has built in WiFi, so it's perhaps not unreasonable to assume that the kind of old-timers like me who're going to connect a cable already have a house full of the stuff.

The controller connects via USB, but it's wireless, so that's mainly useful for charging. Personally, I'd rather have the 360's non-rechargeable controllers and pay $5/year for a bulk pack of batteries.

There's no power brick. Unlike the 360 and original PS3, both of which really guzzled power, the PS3 slim stays under 100W.

Installation
PS3 installation is the worst consumer electronics installation experience I've had in years. Sony's on-screen keyboard is bad enough (much more fiddly than Microsoft's), but having to use it the first time I turn the device on is worse. (I gave in and connected one of the USB keyboards I had lying around, but the fact I can do that in no way makes up for the fact I felt compelled to.)

If you think the days of being asked to set the date and time were long gone, think again. The PS3 can set the time from the internet, but it won't by default, and even when it does it won't get DST right ("do it manually").

If you think seeing your ethernet interface's MTU is an integral part of setting up any game console, you'll absolutely love the PS3. If you're a general consumer, you'll probably just keep hitting "OK" until it stops pestering you with trivia it should just sort out for itself. If you're in-between, the installer is like something from a UI hall of shame. (Including Sony's own cover of the ever-popular "this setting will take effect after the next reboot".)

Reboot
The console reboots a lot, actually. Or seems to. If you play a DVD, there's a visible "reboot" you don't get with a 360. Luckily, the PS3 does whatever it's doing quicker than the 360 reboots. The orchestra-tuning-up sound that accompanies the "full" reboots is very classy, much nicer than the 360's beeps. (I'd recognize the 360 start-up sound if you played it, but I couldn't sing it. It's totally non-memorable.)

UI
Anyway, when you're finally through the installation torture, you're looking at an Ubuntu-like turd-brown screen. I shit you not. Sure, there are some bits of ash or something drifting across the screen and there's some kind of horizontal brown flow that gives the overall air of a shampoo commercial's "pseudo-science bit". The UI is very much like an uglier version of the PSP interface (which is purple). Where that interface works well on a small screen, I'm unconvinced it scales. Just like the Mac's screen menu bar being genius on small laptop screens but awkwardly distant on a dual-30" setup, Sony's UI works well on a small display where you can take everything in at a glance, but is much less convincing on a huge modern TV, where you feel like you're constantly having to move your eyes.

Poor "dialog" design exacerbates this. Coming from the original Xbox to the 360, I thought this was something that had been solved by the current generation of consoles, but it seems not. The 360 associates actions with buttons, and since each relevant button has a distinct color, the mapping from action to button is easily and clearly signaled by use of a little colored blob representing the button. (That's what it looks like on an SD screen. On an HD screen, you can clearly see the letter, but that's superfluous for anyone with normal color vision.)

Sony's buttons each have a different color, but they seem to be paired: the two horizontal buttons (light pink and dark pink) and the two vertical buttons (pastel blue and pastel green) are quite similar to one another, and it's only the outline of the symbol (circle, square, triangle, and cross) that's colored, rather than the entire button. They're not even filled symbols.

The most distracting part for an outsider, though, is that each dialog's explanation of the buttons is shown in the bottom corners of the (huge!) screen, miles away from where you want to focus your attention. Presumably the habitual PS3 user's response is to tune out this noise, but as a beginner it means I'm slowed down on every decision to confirm that, yes, cross means "OK" and circle means "Cancel". (Though that "OK" might actually mean "Cancel" if you've selected a negative option first, for example in a "quit?" dialog with "yes" and "no" selected by position and "OK" and "Cancel" selected by choice of button.)

The Sony store is a lot less polished than Microsoft's. The front page of PlayStation Home has the overall aesthetic of a C64 bulletin board: a cluttered mess in 8-bit color (the 8-bit blues and yellows really do it).

Why do I mention the store? Readers with long memories will remember that one thing I don't like about the 360 is that it acts like a dipshit compared to the original Xbox. Put in a DVD and the Xbox would play it. Put in a game and the Xbox would play it. The 360 takes you to a screen where you have to press "green" ("A", for black and white viewers, "OK" for users with remotes) to actually play the DVD or game.

By default, the PS3 assumes you want PlayStation Home. That is, you want to see scrolling ads for games you don't have. Great.

Pop in a DVD, and the PS3 will start playing it. Just what I wanted, right? Well, no. Not what I've (for my sins) just popped in a "Star Trek: DS9" or "Battlestar Galactica" DVD, with multiple episodes. If you watch one episode per night, it's annoying having the console start playing the first episode on the disc every night. It wouldn't kill it to remember where I left off.

I have the 360 remote, so it's not fair to compare that aspect of using the PS3 as a DVD player, but I read that the PS3 remote doesn't have backlit buttons, and eats batteries, which isn't encouraging. (I haven't had to change the batteries in the 360 remote yet, and it does have backlit buttons, which is useful when you're watching DVDs in the dark.)

The stupid behavior with multi-episode discs is probably going to keep the PS3 from becoming my default DVD player.

Actually, there's one positive thing I can say about the PS3 as a DVD player. It's well known that the 360 uses a lot of power, and power means heat, and heat means fan noise. I'd stopped noticing the noise the 360 makes, without even realizing. It took me several minutes to work out what I found unnerving about watching a DVD on the PS3: it's too quiet. I can't hear the console at all. As a long-term 360 user, my subconscious conclusion was "something must be wrong".

Games
I forgot to mention how things play out immediately after the device installation. You've been through all this unnecessary bullshit, and you pop your game disc in and... you're told you need to download an update. Okay, that's not too different from the 360, except the updates seem much bigger. So you have the "downloading" progress bar and then the "installing" progress bar, and then the game starts... and you get another progress bar. Another long one. My assumption, having read reviews back when the PS3 first came out, is that this is something to do with caching stuff onto hard disk. But there's nothing to tell you what's going on, not even "loading...", and it's slow. When it finishes, comically enough, then you get "loading..." and another progress bar.

I'd be curious to know why they didn't just implement a regular cache, or even background prefetching during play, instead of this weird pre-play stop-the-world prefetching. (Start Halo after spending different amounts of time at the loading screen after boot to see masters at work.)

Games look about the same as 360 games. "Prince of Persia" looks exactly like a 360 game, and "Uncharted" looks kind of crappy by 2009's standards, but okay for a 2007 game, which is fair enough, because that's exactly what it is.

Games also have a bizarre habit of starting by telling you that a particular icon means "saving progress" and that you shouldn't turn your console off. The two I have actually wait for you to acknowledge this "helpful" tip, and they're not doing anything useful while they wait. The "loading..." progress bar comes after you acknowledge. (The 360 solves this by using text instead of an icon, and saying something like "Saving progress. Do not turn off console." Sometimes a few words are worth a lot more than an icon no-one recognizes.)

Controller
The controller is too small. It's like a miniature controller for tiny little girl hands. "Uncharted" uses what 360 users would call the bumpers as triggers, perhaps because the PS3 controller doesn't really have triggers. It has buttons where the triggers should be, but they're not long enough, and they curve the wrong way: they're convex rather than concave! That neither of the two games in my extensive survey really use the triggers for anything suggests that everyone knows the controller's triggers are fucked beyond repair. (Sony even calls them L2 and R2, the bumper buttons being L1 and R1.)

I find the analog sticks harder to use too, but I'm not sure if that's lack of practice, or that one of them is in the wrong place (the left analog stick is swapped with the d-pad), or that the controller as a whole is too small, or that the analog sticks aren't as good.

Microsoft (or Sony) could sell me a 360-like controller for the PS3 in a flash. Japanese miniaturization is all well and good, but I need a full-sized controller. With proper bloody triggers.

How can they sell a game like "Rainbow Six" on this platform without including a custom controller? Or is there some secret about plugging in a keyboard and mouse and pretending you're a PC gamer no-one's told me about?

Summary
The PS3 is more invisible than the 360 (both in appearance and noise), games seem about the same (though the 360 has better exclusives), the 360 is a better DVD player and has a better controller.

I was hoping to be more won over by the PS3. I'd have liked to relegate the 360 to "second console", brought out only for future 360 exclusives. (Assuming there are any more interesting ones before it's time for the next generation.) As it is, I don't think the 360 will find it hard to retake its place, though it's weak that my main problems could be fixed in software (UI fiddliness, DVD retardation) and by selling optional better peripherals (controller and remote).

As for the games, "Prince of Persia" is great fun if you liked collecting orbs in "Crackdown", the middle-east theme of "Assassin's Creed", and the improbable momentum-defying acrobatics of both. Don't tell Sgt. Johnson, but I'm actually enjoying spending my time with a frigging fairy princess. "Uncharted", well, it's okay, but there's nothing in the first hour to make me want to play any more until I've finished "Prince of Persia".