With its Cell processor engine, Blu-Ray DVD drive and beefy hard drive, the PlayStation 3 is unquestionably a powerhouse of a video game system. And forget about Elmo, this is the item that consumers will be sparring over as the holidays get closer.
But cut through the hype, and the desire for the newest, flashiest gadget and the product is not as compelling as it might seem. The PS3, for all its power, feels incomplete at launch. And that could leave some consumers, who have shelled out $500 or $600 for the system, depending on the configuration they choose, feeling put out.
The potential for greatness is certainly there, but there are fundamental mistakes in execution that prove annoying. Take the initial user experience, for example: When you bought a PlayStation 2, it was a pretty simple process. You paid the store, took the PS2 home, plugged it in and started playing. Things aren't so simple this time.
Once you've plugged in and configured your PS3, you'll have to update the system software. Some (but not all) launch games will include that system update, which means the process will take 5 minutes or so. If not, you'll download and install the upgrade from the internet (as I did). This method takes more than 10 minutes. It's frustrating, especially having spent this much.
The money does buy something: The PS3 is the first system to fulfill the promise of being a true digital centerpiece of the living room. There's little you can't do with it. Watch high-definition movies. Listen to music. Surf the Internet. Chat with friends. And, naturally, play games.
Those system updates allow Sony (Charts) to add functionality down the road. The PSP portable gaming system Sony introduced last year has benefited greatly from system upgrades and there's every reason to believe the PS3 will as well. (But they're still a pain for day one users.)
The dashboard menu structure is similar to the PSP's. Navigating between the areas that let you launch a game, movie or music, along with the Sony Network (the online service which allows you to download trailers and buy add-ons for games) is all pretty easy.
The only part that could cause confusion for some is the settings field. If nothing else, Sony is thorough in letting you choose how you want to set up your PS3 -- but there's such a thing as TOO thorough. Quick: do you want your audio CD output frequency to be 48 kHz or 44.1 kHz? You get the point.
Graphically, the PS3 is a tour de force. No, not better than Microsoft's Xbox --yet. But you quickly sense the greater potential of the PS3. It will ultimately be a question of how long it takes developers to learn to exploit what the system has to offer.
If you've got a high definition set, you're certainly in for a treat. And if you're one of the few to have a TV with 1080p high-def resolution, you'll be in heaven. 1080p is the PS3's sweet spot. It's the most detailed video available today -- and PS3 games plan to make the most of it. Launch title "NBA 07" is the best initial example, with detail as fine as the pores on player's skin. But expect no visual detail to be too minor.
For the majority of owners, though - those who only have a regular TV set - it's a slightly different story. The PS3 still looks good, but not awe-inspiring. Ultimately, it's a matter of the software. "Resistance: Fall of Man," for instance, looks fine in regular resolution. Electronic Arts' (Charts) "Need for Speed: Carbon"? Not so much.
Controlling games is pretty close to what PlayStation veterans are used to. The major shift this time is Sony has included a motion sensor in its controller (which has been redubbed the Sixaxis). In "NBA 07," for instance, twisting the controller will let you juke around an opposing player.
The problem is that the motion doesn't feel natural here, as it does with the Nintendo Wii. Perhaps as developers get more used to the feature, they'll be better able to incorporate it into their games. Initially, though, you get the impression they were caught off guard when the feature was announced -- and rushed to find some way to include it.
Gone also is the rumble effect from the controller -- an omission that has upset many Sony loyalists. Personally, I miss the shaking. The feeling of a slight rumble in your hands as you fired a virtual weapon added to the fun.
As for the much-touted Blu-Ray disc player, it's a nice addition, but it's almost immaterial if you don't have a top-of-the-line television set. For standard TV owners, it's just a player for more expensive movies -- and likely won't appeal. But it could be an ace up the PS3's sleeve in the years to come.
Online gaming, a big battleground for the current generation, unfortunately couldn't be tested yet. Microsoft (Charts) has big momentum with its widely celebrated "Xbox Live" system, which could be difficult to overtake -- even though the PS3 will not charge users for online play, as Microsoft does.
Compounding these shortcomings has been the PS3's unimpressive launch, including a tepid lineup of games and an embarrassing snafu that caused problems with its much-touted "backward compatibility," or the ability to play old games.
But the PS3 is far from a bad machine. It has the potential to be all the PS2 was and more. And remember: the console wars aren't won or lost at launch. They're marathons that usually don't start to shake out for two or three years after all the new systems are on the market. To count Sony out this early would be foolish.
The question is: If you're somehow able to find a PlayStation 3 on a store shelf this year, is it worth buying one? Sadly, the answer is not yet. The system is too expensive for what most people will get out of it -- and the initial slate of games don't offer enough innovation or thrills to justify the purchase.
Wait until prices drop $100 or even $200 -- and until there are a few more good games available - before you consider making the plunge.