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Powerful PlayStation 3 lacks 'wow' factor

Sony sees the PlayStation 3 as the Corvette of the gaming world, a machine with lots of power and speed that leaves you wanting little, if anything, else. But like Corvettes, the PS3 doesn’t come cheap.
Playstation 3
Sony's PlayStation 3 console is packed with powerful features — and a hefty price to match.Lm Otero / AP file
/ Source: contributor

Sony sees the PlayStation 3 as the Corvette of the gaming world, a machine with lots of power and speed that leaves you wanting little, if anything, else. But like Corvettes, the PS3 doesn’t come cheap.

The base model of the PlayStation 3 is $500, and comes with a 20-gigabyte hard drive and one motion-sensitive, wireless controller. If you want the larger 60 GB hard drive, Wi-Fi, and slots for MemoryStick, SD and CompactFlash cards, you'll need to slap down $600. Extra controllers are $50 each. That means serious gamers are going to be shelling out some serious cash.

Both models come with four USB 2.0 ports and a Blu-ray Disc player. Blu-ray is one of two high definition technologies, HD DVD is the other, and both are vying to replace standard DVDs. This is similar to how VHS and Beta battled in the early 1980s to become the standard for watching movies at home. To help whet your appetite for Blu-ray, Sony is packaging “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" in with the first half million PS3s.

However, if you don’t have a HDTV or purchase the HDMI cable for an extra $60, then Blu-ray is a moot point because all you’ll get is standard TV quality. Blu-ray, however, does give the PS3 an advantage due to its larger storage capacity — more than 5 times that of a regular DVD — allowing game makers to write bigger games and put them on a single disc. That keeps down costs while saving the player from having to jostle around discs in the middle of a game.

Sony knows the PlayStation franchise has a following. That’s why the PS3 is backwards-compatible with PS1 and PS2 games (though Sony recently announced that roughly 200 of the more than 1200 games in the PlayStation catalogue won’t work properly) and it has interconnectivity with Sony’s handheld gaming device, the PlayStation Portable.

All PS3s are online capable, and Sony is making their online service free to use, though downloading new games will cost you up to $15.

We invited a group of six gamers to join our test of the PlayStation 3 — and Nintendo's Wii. Here's a look at how the PS3 fared with our playtesters.

What we liked
Our first thought when we saw the PS3 was "this machine is sexy!"

Stand it on end and it looks like it's a blade made from black steel. Lay it flat (the console is playable in either position) and it's reminiscent of the old Sony SuperBeta VCR, which gives this cutting edge machine a cool retro vibe.

Not only is the machine beautiful, it can perform.

Guest gamer Steve Kalning, 35, said it simply: "it's fast."

Evan Boyle, 16, took one look at the pretty pictures and declared the PS3 "the most graphically advanced system" on the market with Kalning pointing out that the graphics "still look good on a regular TV."

The new controller, called the SixAxis, was well-received by the test group, with many of our players liking the updates Sony made to the traditional PlayStation controller.

"It's good they're sticking with the general scheme," said tester Steve Eisner, 35.  "It's like an old friend."

Stefan Schachtell, 33, liked the fact that the SixAxis is wireless and lightweight. In contrast, we felt the controller was too lightweight, and that it felt flimsy in our hands.

Each PS3 can accept up to seven SixAxis controllers at the same time. We're eagerly awaiting the day when a game company makes a racing title that utilizes this feature. We foresee it being a big party hit with players fighting for pole position as well as a spot on the couch.

What we didn’t like
The price! Five hundred dollars for the base model is pretty steep, and $600 for the top line model is almost outrageous. You can get both the premium Xbox 360 and Nintendo's new Wii for roughly that much.

You really have to love playing games to want to put out that kind of money. Add the cost of extra controllers, the HDMI cable, and games that can be up to $60 and you have yourself a very expensive toy.

“That’s not enticing to me,” Boyle said.

Meanwhile, with that big price tag comes a big machine…and not just in playing power but in actual size.

Kalning was "shocked how big and heavy it was" and Eisner joked that he's "had a top-loading VCR that was smaller than this."

A large part of the size and weight (the PS3 weighs in at a hefty 11 pounds) is due to the fact that the PS3's power supply is contained within its walls. Doing this gives the PS3 a cleaner design than the Xbox 360, which has an ugly, brick-sized power supply hanging in the middle of its power cord. But a downside to having the power supply inside is that after being on for a while, the console gets a little hot.

Good vibrations
And as much as our game testers liked the SixAxis controller, they had some issues with it. To start, it doesn't have a rumble pack, a feature that shakes the controller at specific times during game play, usually indicating that you've been attacked. This is a big deal to players who’ve come to expect the rumble as a standard feature. The alternative — having colors flash across the screen to indicate you've been hit — just isn't the same as having your hand shake to high heaven.

"It'd be much more effective if it vibrated," said Schachtell.

Instead, Sony put a motion-sensor inside the SixAxis that lets you occasionally control the action on screen by physically moving the controller itself. This limited use is completely different from the Wii, which relies on the physical movement of its controller as a vital part of the gaming experience.

"It doesn't seem to add much," Eisner said. "It strikes me as a tacked-on feature."

Another problem with the controller: If the battery dies while you’re playing, you have to plug it into the console with a super short cord. It’s not a big deal, but it is annoying.

Download downer
However, before you even get to use the controller, you'll need to download upgrades to your new console  — right out of the box. Additionally, you'll need to set-up your system using a menu termed "a little funky" and "confusing" by our testers.

So be warned: The PS3 isn't exactly plug-and-play. As Eisner tried his hand at setting up the PS3 for the game playtest, he pointed out that, at times, "it's really hard to tell what to do" and that he'd "had nothing but technical problems from the start." And this is a long-time gamer with lots of experience setting up consoles.

But of all these things we didn't like, the one thing stood out the most was the lack of a "wow!" factor. Sure, the PS3 is a great machine with sweet graphics and more, but it feels like it's all been seen before, especially since the Xbox 360 has comparable graphics and was released a year ago.

This feeling was driven home near the end of our play test when the PS3 sat unused, even though it was hooked up to a giant screen TV, because all the testers were crowded around the Wii, having fun with its interactive controllers.

Boyle summed it up best, "so far I've done more interesting things with the Wii."