Anyone who watched a news broadcast during the Thanksgiving holiday probably saw stories of people lined up outside stores, waiting for them to open so that they could grab an incredible bargain. This past November, however, those Black Friday stories were like a scene from the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again. In the 10 days prior to the traditional start of the holiday shopping season it seemed as if newscasts ran the same story twice, that of anxious shoppers lined up outside stores waiting to buy limited quantities of something special.
No, it wasnt a movie. It was the news coverage of the release of Sonys PlayStation3 on November 17 and Nintendos Wii on November 19. With these two next-generation game consoles in the market, the trio of competitors is complete, as Microsofts Xbox 360 has now been available for a year. The news coverage had as much to do with the scarcity of the new consoles, particularly the PS3. Popular press coverage has, by now, given you all the basics, as they view the three consoles as the latest installment of yet another consumer electronics industry format war, using the now classic Beta vs. VHS designation to define the more modern-day struggle. With PS3 carrying the flag for Blu-ray disc, Xbox 360 offering an optional, external HD-DVD drive, and Wii sticking to its gaming knitting with no movie playback, there is the added element of this all being part of the related high-definition optical disc format battle, but there is much more to it than that.
Well leave the question of Which is the better game console to others. However, for the residential systems designer/integrator and custom installers, there are numerous other questions raised by the new systems. Few, if any of these questions have been covered in the general press, or even in the enthusiast magazines and blogs. Thanks to Sony, which provided us with a PS3 unit for evaluation starting a few days before the release date, to the envy of many friends, we hopefully have the answers not only to your obvious questions about PS3, but also about situations that PS3 may present that are not immediately apparent. After all, most of the press looks at the PS3 as a standalone product, while the Residential Systems reader needs to treat it as only one part of what is often a complex home theater or integrated systems environment. Along the way, well also remind you of integration issues when there is more than one of the three game consoles in the same system.
Before starting, lets review the PS3 system basics. There are two models, each featuring a Blu-ray drive that plays games, conventional red book CDs, standard DVD discs, and the new Blu-ray discs. Front-panel connections include four USB connectors, while the rear panel has the network connection via an RJ-45 jack, an HDMI connector, an optical connection for digital audio, and the proprietary connector for analog audio/video cable connections. Youll also find a standard IEC power cord connection, as unlike both of its competitors, PS3 has a built-in power supply so that you dont have to worry about where to place the brick that has the actual power supply inside. Both models include Bluetooth connectivity for the controllers and optional headsets, with the capability for up to a total of seven devices including controllers and the optional DVD remote. The controllers give up the shock feature of the PS2 controller in return for six-axis motion sensing. Both models also feature a built-in hard drive, with 20 Gb in the entry model and 60 Gb in the step-up model.
The fun for the custom installer begins with the step-up model where, in addition to the larger hard drive, there is 802.11b/g wireless connectivity and card slots for Memory Stick, SD, and Compact Flash. Note that these are read/write, making it possible to not only playback digital images and other compatible content, but also write back to the cards so they can be used in portable players.
OK, youve found a way to get a unit with the help of a friend in a big box retail outlet, or for a price is not an object, just GET ME ONE! job youve paid an absurd premium to get one via eBay. Now what?
The number of PS3 consoles installed by integrators will likely be a miniscule percentage of the millions that will eventually be sold, so installation is clearly designed for the layman. However, the size and complexity of many of the unique venues where you may be called upon to install the system will present some challenges.
Our first recommendation, as would be the case for any component in a system, is to bench test before you take things to the clients house. It does give the techs the opportunity to play a few rounds of NBA 07, Resistance: Fall of Man, the latest installment of the Madden football franchise, or any of the other games, but more important it gives you a chance to check the system for software updates. Since the products launch there have been three upgrades, and while they are easily done, they do take time. Better to take care of that in the shop rather than disappoint an anxious client. This is particularly important since the most recent (at press time) upgrade to the 1.30 version of the PS3 system software adds key features such as additional compatibility settings for video monitors, and the ability to use legacy PlayStation accessories such as steering wheels and flight sticks.
The upgrade also includes a backup utility that lets you save the systems hard disc data and later restore it as needed. For uniquely configured systems you will want to keep the backup off-site with the clients other system records, just as you would for any device with a hard drive or other storage for settings and parameters. Youll want to do the backup on site, and probably instruct the client on how to do it, which shouldnt take that much time. The download and install of the new system software, however, can take a fair amount of time. For that reason alone it is strongly suggested that you load it before going to the job site.
On a separate, but related upgrade note, Sony also released a major software upgrade for the PSP in recent weeks. Because many users may not take advantage of the wireless or USB connectivity of the PSP, they may not be aware of the upgrade and may be nervous about doing it themselves. You can do it directly to the unit, or if multiple PSPs need the upgrade, we recommend downloading the upgrade file to a computer or memory stick once and then loading it into the PSP. Along with the usual bug fixes and playability improvements, the 3.02 version of the PSP software includes key new elements that let the PSP access music and video content stored on the PS3s hard drive, and as time moves forward it will undoubtedly be key to set-up for PSP to PS3 play. It isnt here yet in a big way, but when the PS3 versions of GT-HD and the SOCOM franchise are released, your clients will want to get them working without waiting for an upgrade or for you to do it for them.
Unlike other equipment that is typically hidden from view in a large-scale installation, game consoles have to be located in the room where they are used, as they are single-slot products and the games (or Blu-ray discs for the PS3) must be inserted in the front of house. More important for PS3, although its controllers are wireless, they must be connected to the console to charge. Unlike the Xbox 360 and Wii remotes, PS3 remotes do not use replaceable batteries, so you must make provision to charge them through a powered USB hub, accessory charger with a USB port, or, least attractively, run long cables across the floor of the theater or media room. Similarly, other USB connected devices, such as an EyeToy camera, a keyboard for data entry or Web surfing, must be tethered via USB, so plan carefully for accessory and cable placement.
Another pre-installation hint is to charge all the controllers before delivering and installing a PS3. The client will likely to be anxiously waiting, so dont disappoint them by making them wait an hour more to get the controllers internal batteries charged.
As for placing the game itself, the powerful Cell Processor and RSX graphics processor throw off a fair amount of heat, so dont scrimp on ventilation room around the unit. This is not only important to maintain proper operation of the PS3, but any other component it might be stacked on when installed in the horizontal position. Better to place it directly on a flat, firm, surface that wont be damaged by heat.
One important consideration for PS3 installations is how to arrange the seating and lighting for those who use it. As noted above, the PS3s controllers include a six-axis motion sensor, which finally brings reality to gamers who put themselves through hilarious gyrations as they move a controller in sync with the game. Now, those gyrations will have a real impact on the game. With NBA 07, you can use the controller to twist and spin the players, with Resistance: Fall of Man you actually row across a stream, and in future games the controller will be used to simulate a wide variety of control actions.
The bottom line here is to make sure that there is enough room between seated gamers so that they dont end up poking one anotheror worse. This is a mild issue with PS3, but as already reported in the popular press, it is a major issue with the controllers used in Nintendos new Wii, but well get to that in depth next month. At the same time, you should consider adjusting the intensity settings for theater lighting for situations when the motion controller is used extensively. Lighting adjustments will also provide a spotlight area for performers when EyeToy games for PS3 are released later in 2007, or when everyone gets into the act with the release of the online version of SingStar, which allows aspiring American Idols compete against one another around the world.
Headphones will present a different installation challenge. On the Xbox 360 they plug into the wireless controller, so no further programming is needed. On the PS3 we suggests using Bluetooth headsets of the type sold for use with cell phones. As part of your setup youll have to pair the headsets, but remember that, if like most such products, they use rechargeable batteries, that is something else youll have to consider in the rooms design and wiring. The concept of a charging bar for all wireless devices in the system isnt a bad idea.
On-site, the basic connections for the PS3 will be reasonably simple: An HDMI jack is preferred for the video connection, although you may also use an optional AV Multi connector (the same one you may be familiar with from the PS2) for Y/Pr/Pb component video connections or, if needed, standard S-Video or composite video. Of course, with those connections you lose the advantage of PS3s stunning high-definition video; a reason to use the PS3 installation, if appropriate, to suggest a display upgrade to the client.
On the audio side of things, if the system has HDMI processing capability for audio you need only make that one connection to take care of audio, as well. However, while this is the first HDMI 1.3 Deep Color source product in the market, we are still waiting for the availability of 1.3-equipped AV receivers or surround processors later this year. Thus, you will have to make do with having high-resolution Dolby Digital+ and DTS-HD tracks converted to the conventional Dolby Digital or DTS codecs even if you use HDMI for audio. If the clients audio system has not yet been upgraded for audio via HDMI, an optical connection is also available. Note that there is no provision for 6.1 analog audio outputs. Thus, even though the unit does playback SACD discs, you cannot take advantage of the DSD-formatted output without a receiver or processor with HDMI Version 1.2 or higher. The final fallback for audio connections is to use the AV Multi adaptor cable packed with the unit that has standard left/right analog audio and composite video connections.
Having already provided for the USB connections to charge the controllers and connect other peripherals, if needed, your final physical connection will be to a broadband network. No, it is not required, but we cant imagine using PS3 without it. With broadband connected you not only have easier access for future system upgrades and the ability to play online games, your clients will also be able to surf the Web, access online manuals, chat, and download free or purchased audio/video content to the systems hard drive.
In addition, the use of a broadband connection allows you to bring to life some PS3 features that have lost visibility in the publicity about the games and Blu-ray player. For example, you can use the PS3s hard drive as a media server, and when the network connection is in place you can program the system to download the standard album/artist/track info your clients are accustomed to with iTunes and other rip-in programs. Then, using the USB port or the card slots on the step-up model, you can select content to burn out to the cards or drives to then use in a portable player or car head unit with card slots.
As with most other PS3 installation steps, managing the broadband connectivity is something designed for consumers to do themselves, but particularly when wireless is used your skill in negotiating security settings will be appreciated by your more technophobic clients. On the wireless side, there is accommodation for all the latest security schemes, and if additional range is required the installation of a PS3 may be yet another chance to suggest an upgrade to a g class access point. For those dabbling in the pre-N wireless systems, an external wireless bridge is needed, as that is one setting PS3 is not equipped for.
If a wired connection is used, be sure to check in advance to see if you will need to add a switch in the installation. Between a previously existing Xbox 360, an HD-DVD player, the PS3 you are installing, and perhaps a Wii that will be added, the single network drop that may already be available is no longer enough. A final alternative is to use a no new wires network option. When the PS3 installation is in an area outside the main theater such as a teenagers room, the guest suite, poolside cabana or office hideaway, you will sometimes find that despite your best skills and efforts, wireless is out of range and running new wires is impossible for even the most proficient installer. Provided that the homes electrical system topology does not prevent any barrier, you may find that the new HomePlug AV powerline products fit the bill in getting the broadband connectivity where it is needed. A particularly thorny wireless range issue in our own personal installation, combined with a system located against a brick wall and above substantial concrete foundation footings led to the use of Netgears new HDX version of the latest iteration of the HomePlug standard, and in conjunction with a five-port switch it provided 200 MHz connectivity; more than enough for HD downloads to both the Xbox 360 and PS3 consoles currently in the system.
After making the needed audio, video and data connections, make any additional setting adjustments for use of a PSP and set the home page for the browser. Youll need the client and any gamers in the family to provide the information for setting up online accounts and player names, but everyone should be used to that sort of regimen by now.
What should you point out for manual impaired clients to avoid a service call in the middle of the night? It may seem obvious, but dont forget to show them where the card slots are, as they are hidden under a hinged cover. A little instruction as to how to use those slots for playback of images from their digital camera is probably in order. The slide show presentation is something that will elicit ohhs and ahhs the first time it is used; its something they probably didnt know the PS3 had!
Its also a good idea to suggest that the controllers PS button be used to turn the system on to avoid having to pair the controller to the system. Remind the users that if they turn the system on and the port indicators on the back of the controller all flash, simply press the PS button to assign a number to it. One cant stress enough that the controllers must be charged via a USB connection. Easy to do when the console is close to the play area, but it is easily forgotten when it is not so close. Facilitating charging will prevent calls about a controller not working when it simply needs to be recharged.
When, at last, its in and done, turn the system on as you show the client how youve integrated it and perhaps offer a friendly wager with something such as a spare controller as the bet. The graphics are stunning, and in many ways the 1080p games present the best way to let a client show off the capabilities of the system. Dont forget to leave business cards that they can give to envious friends who will want to talk to you about putting your expertise to work, and acknowledge the rainmaker client with a PS3 or PSP game as a thank you gesture.
For everything that the unit does, which is more than any game console out there, is there anything it doesnt do? Yes, there are always some potential issues to look out for. For example, since the PS3 doubles as a Blu-ray player we strongly suggest adding the accessory DVD remote to make it easier to play a movie, as opposed to battle aliens or warlords. On the other hand, even with the dedicated function buttons on the DVD remote simplifying operation, remember that it communicates with the console via Bluetooth. Thus, integrating it into a touchpad or IR-based control system is, at least for the moment, a bit problematic. For the audiophile, the requirement that HDMI be used for SACD playback and the lack of 6.1 analog, direct connectivity may be bothersome, but it is certainly not a showstopper. Any other minor quirks are just that: very minor. Through three weeks of use by a college-student son who found it a great diversion from term-end papers and prep for finals, as well as the rest of our family, the initial report is that this is a game console that any significant home entertainment system would want to include.
The true test, however, will come next month when we compare the PS3 to both Wii and Xbox 360 on the basis of installation ease and game play. In the mean time, let the games begin!
Michael Heiss ([email protected]) is an industry consultant in Los Angeles.