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Sony PlayStation 3 (as a Living Room Set-Top Box)

Sony's powerful PlayStation 3 doesn't get a lot of respect 'round these parts, mostly because I'm a dedicated Xbox 360 fan boy. I did purchase the original generation PS3 when it first came out in late 2006, however, and I'm not sure why I never got around to reviewing it as a video game console, but I can tell you this now: Forget the Microsoft bias, if you can, because this is one serious console, every bit as powerful as--and in some ways more powerful than--the Xbox 360.

The hardware itself is gorgeous and almost intimidatingly powerful, as futuristic and next-generation as it was the day it was released over four years ago. A few things have changed since the 2006-era, first-gen PS3, however: It's smaller and sleeker than before (a move Microsoft copied with the Xbox 360 in mid-2010), it has a better matte finish (the first-gen console's slick finish was a fingerprint magnet), and it foregoes a lot of the PS2 backwards compatibility stuff--which seemed like a big deal years ago but draws mostly yawns today--and the multi-format media card reader.

The important bits, of course, are still there: the Blu-ray drive, providing PS3 users with the only pure 1080p HD movie solution out there and a real differentiator with the competition. The 3.2 GHz Cell processor (enhanced to a smaller, cooler 45nm version in the current versions of the console). A voluminous hard drive: 120 or 320 GB today, up from 60 GB in the original. 256 MB of RAM, and 256 MB of video RAM tied to an NVIDIA RSX graphics chip. The PS3 is near-silent, but then, it's always been like that. (Unlike the Xbox 360, which only very recently achieved this very important milestone.)

As a pure video game machine, the PS3 is hard to beat, and while a general comparison between this device and the Xbox 360 may be interesting, that's not why we're here today. Instead, I'd like to examine whether the PS3 makes sense as a living room-based, digital media-oriented set-top box. Something you'd use instead of a Roku device, an Apple TV, or a WD TV Live Hub. Or, for that matter, an Xbox 360. (Which I'll be reviewing in a similar manner soon.)

Up front, I can tell you that you should skip the PS3 if digital media is all you're interested in. Starting at $300 for a base model with a single wireless controller and a 160 GB hard drive, the PS3 isn't cheap, and for the best digital media experience on the device, you'll want the optional remote control, which adds an additional $25 to the price. For that much money, you could buy an Apple TV and a WD TV Live Hub and have change left over, and between those two boxes, you'd pretty much be covered.

(At least the PS3's remote is decent; the Xbox 360 remote, also optional and extra cost, is horrible looking and cheaply made. With either console, using the bundled controller is sub-optimal, and much more so with the Xbox 360, where I somehow keep inadvertently hitting a button, disrupting media playback.)

OK, but maybe you're interested in video gaming as well, and aren't necessarily lured by the advantages of the Xbox 360 (mostly game exclusives) and Xbox LIVE. If the cost doesn't scare you off, and you're looking for one box that does it all, the PS3 and Xbox 360 are pretty much your only choices. And the PS3 acquits itself well.

From an interface perspective, the PS3 utilizes a UI called the XrossMediaBar ("cross media bar", or XMB), which works like Microsoft's Media Center/Zune interfaces in that it lets you easily navigate both left and right and up and down through menus. XMB has been around for a while and is in use on various Sony devices, but on the PS3 it's particularly nice looking and well-suited to HDTVs, and as you highlight certain icons, the entire screen changes in a customized display that really highlights the item. It's pretty terrific, especially when you consider that Sony tends to overdue UIs. (Just look at the Google TV-based Sony Internet TV remote control for a typical example.)

The XMB has three main entries related to digital media content: Photo, Music, and Video. These may seem self-explanatory, but there's a bit more going on here than is obvious, and you can add to the PS3's capabilities by browsing around in the PlayStation Store, described below.

Photo, Music, and Video all work in similar ways, and each provides interfaces for navigating any DLNA-compliant media shares you may have on your home network. In my case, that's all of my Windows 7-based PCs, my Windows Home Server, and the WD TV Live Hub, which you may recall is both a media streamer and a media hub. You can also search for media servers if you're expecting to see a server that's not automatically showing up for some reason.

These three entries also provide similar interfaces for diving into the various content types on those media servers. That is, you can navigate by albums, keywords, rating, folders, or other choices, depending on the content type. I generally find that navigating by folder makes the most sense, but there are a lot of choices here, which is nice.

The interface multitasks, if you will, so you can start a music playlist going, navigate back up the XMB, and then trigger a photo slideshow to go along with it. (You'd be surprised how often that doesn't work.) You can even navigate back to the XMB from there, and navigate around the UI while the slideshow plays underneath, with music. That's pretty nice.

The Video entry works just like Photo and Music from a media share perspective, but it also provides access to Netflix and the PlayStation Store, from which you can find additional media applications (and games, and game-related downloads, of course). I used the store to install the Vudu HD Movies service, for example. Through the "Media" section of the store, you can also download and install apps for such services as Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, and PlayMemories, a photo viewer. It's not a huge selection, but Sony at least has the basics covered and it could, of course, get better over time. (You can also utilize a third party application like PlayOn to bypass this limitation and access more services via the PS3.)

You can interact with some media devices through the PS3's USB ports. USB memory keys work fine, for example, but like the Xbox 360, the PS3 can't read NTFS-formatted hard drives, rendering my portable movie collection worthless. It didn't recognize an iPod touch (late 2010) either.

With 160 (or 320) GB of onboard storage, it makes sense that you'd want to use the PS3 as a media hub, as you can with the WD TV Live Hub. The question, of course, is how you go about copying media to the device. It doesn't appear in Windows 7's Network interface (as does the WD TV Live Hub), so you can't simply copy content that way. (Likewise, you can't use the PS3 with Windows Media Player's Play To feature.) So unless I'm mistaken, you basically have to use a storage device the PS3 understands, copy the media to that first, and then sneakernet it over to the PS3 and copy it, again. To copy media from attached storage to the PS3, simply select it in XMB, tap the triangle button on the controller, and choose Copy. It's a pretty tedious process, unfortunately, and being able to drag and drop from Windows would be vastly superior. Best still would be something like the WD TV Live Hub's automatic aggregation functionality.

So the PS3 works very well as a media streamer, but it cannot be used as a media hub. If you're an ardent Sony fan, however, you may be interested to know about a feature called Remote Play that lets you pair the PS3 with a PSP and then remotely access the PS3 user interface using the PSP. That's a bit beyond the scope of this review, but it's a unique feature and worth looking into separately.

Overall, my verdict on the PS3 as a set-top box is simple: It's capable and powerful, but not as full-featured as some of the other, dedicated set-top boxes. My favorite choice so far is still the WD TV Live Hub, but the PS3 has its advantages, and if you're looking for a high-end video game console as well, the PS3 is a great choice. Put simply, don't get the PS3 if you're only looking for a digital media solution for the living room. But if you've already gone the PS3 route for video gaming, do take the time to see what's possible on the digital media side as well. 

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