PS3 makes firm progress
Six and a half months ago, I was standing on a cold Shinjuku street with my brand new Playstation 3 while Ken Kutaragi posed for photographs behind me. Much has changed since then. Two weeks later, Ken Kutaragi was no longer President of Sony Computer Entertainment, and as of last month, was effectively retired (becoming an Honorary Chairman).
The "father of Playstation" may have left the game, but his final product, the PS3, has continued growing and evolving. There have been eleven firmware updates since the Japanese launch, with the latest, version 1.8, going live late last week.
This has proven to be a very impressive update. Several gripes I've had with the system since day one have finally been resolved by this firmware, and many nifty new features have been added. Some of the changes are quite obvious, others not so much. Let's take a look some of the improvements that the latest firmware update has delivered.
The new scaling options are the most talked about feature of this firmware update. Until now, the PS3 could not output Blu-ray movies at 720p resolution. Given that most HD sets in homes today have a native vertical resolution of 768 pixels, the PS3's remarkable inability to downscale Blu-ray movies to 720p (due to it's limited hardware scaling capabilities) was a real problem for it's credibility as a Blu-ray player. Not anymore. As well as supporting 720p, the PS3 now also supports 24 fps playback (to match the framerate of the original film), making it one of the more fully featured Blu-ray players available.
DVDs can be upscaled now. The PS3 can upscale DVDs to 720p or 1080i/p, and the resulting visuals are fantastic. The catch here is that DVD upscaling is only supported via HDMI cable. When using component cable, DVD upscaling is disabled. Well, it's almost always disabled. It will be disabled when watching any copy-protected (ie. commercial) DVDs via component. As a copy prevention measure, the MPAA insists that DVD players must not upscale to HD resolutions without implementing the HDCP protocol (that HDMI supports, but component doesn't).
Scaling has also been added to the PS3's backward compatibility. PSone and PS2 games, which were originally displayed only in standard definition, can now be displayed at resolutions up to 1080p. Additional options are available to apply a smoothing filter to the upscaled content and automatically "pillarbox" 4:3 games on widescreen displays. These are nice features, but you shouldn't expect a huge visual improvement. The games are not being rendered at a higher resolution, they're just being resized. Having said that, the smoothing option does make PSone games much easier on the eyes, without dramatically changing their look.
I've created some comparisons below of Metal Gear Solid in it's original 480 state and upscaled to 1080p with smoothing (click for larger versions).
The new scaling options apply not only to games on physical discs, but also to PSone games bought and downloaded from the Playstation Store. Until recently, these downloaded PSone games were only playable on PSP systems, but can now be directly played on the PS3 too. (Unfortunately, Sony have not yet made any PSone games available through the Australian or European Playstation Stores.)
Interestingly, it seems downloading PSone games is a viable way to bypass the region restrictions still enforced on PSone software. My Japanese PS3 won't play US PSone discs, but will happily play downloaded US PSone games.
Speaking of backward compatibility, support for the memory card adaptor has also improved immensely. Prior to firmware 1.8, this adaptor was essentially a one-way device for one-time usage. It's only capability was copying the content of PSone & PS2 memory cards to the PS3's hard drive. You couldn't even check what was on the cards first. The implementation of the legacy memory card system was extremely limited and frustrating.
Under firmware 1.8, you can finally write files back to your memory cards as required. You can directly browse the contents of any connected memory cards and "copy-protected" save files which were previously not transferable, now are. If you're playing PSone games downloaded from the Store, you can now move their save files seamlessly back and forth between your original memory cards, the PS3's HDD and your PSP's memory stick. The entire legacy memory card system is now as flexible as it always should have been.
The PS3's Remote Play system, which allows a PS3 system to be remotely accessed and controlled by a PSP, has been greatly expanded upon in firmware 1.8. In addition to the Music, Video and Photo sections which were available before, the Friends list, Game menu and even the Playstation Store are now accessible. You can see which of your friends are online, check what game they're playing, and even engage them in chat sessions via your PSP. As you can see below, the Playstation Store interface is optimized for viewing on the PSP screen.
While you can now browse the Game menu (above), you still can't actually play any PS3 games via Remote Play. The only parts of the PS3 interface that remain inaccessible via Remote Play are now Settings, Users, the Folding@Home client, and actual gameplay.
There's one more change to Remote Play that needs to be mentioned. A change that really makes the Remote Play feature deliver on it's potential. Before firmware 1.8, Remote Play was little more than a clever gimmick. It's usefulness was limited by the fact that both the PSP and the PS3 had to be within direct wireless range of each other (essentially using an "Ad Hoc" connection like two PSPs connecting for local multiplayer). Firmware 1.8 adds support for Remote Play across the internet. This means you can use your PSP to access your PS3 when you're away from home. No matter where you are, if you've got your PSP and wireless internet access, you can connect to your PS3 and utilize whatever resources you have on it.
How well this works will be reliant on network conditions of course, and you'll need to sign in on your PSP using the same email address and password you use to sign into your PSN account. Remote Play across the internet won't actually be possible until PSP firmware 3.5 is released (later this week?). This feature has enormous potential and I can't wait to try it out.
UPDATE - (1/6/07)
PSP firmware 3.5 was released yesterday, and I tested the Remote Play via Internet feature last night. I'm pleased to report that all the features of local Remote Play are still available across the internet. Using the default settings, the picture quality was visibly more compressed than using local Remote Play and there was some skipping and input lag, but all in all, it worked a lot better than I'd expected.
If the "tunnel" between the PSP and PS3 has sufficient bandwidth, you can change the settings on the PSP to improve the picture quality and response time, making the experience much the same as local Remote Play. Colour me impressed.
This was an unexpected and pleasant surprise. DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) compatibility was added in firmware 1.8. It's a set of standards allowing media (like videos, music and photos) to be shared between networked devices. Unfortunately, hardware with native DLNA support isn't very common right now. Some VAIO laptops support it and some high-end digital media recorders do too. That's great if you've got one, but what if you don't? Well, chances are you can easily get your PC to play along.
Windows Vista supports DLNA, but you needn't upgrade just yet. XP users can get set up in seconds flat. Just switch on Sharing in Windows Media Player 11 , and after allowing sharing to the PS3 (which will appear in WMP as an "Unknown Device") , your PS3 can access music, pictures and video stored on your PC. You can stream and play it directly across the network, or copy it to your PS3's hard drive.
Of course, your PS3 can't handle all media formats. PS3 only handles MPEG videos, for example. If you want to be able to stream all your videos (regardless of format), you'll need to do a bit more work on the PC side. There are numerous DLNA media-streaming apps available; some free, some commercial. Right now, the latest release of Nero Media Home looks like the most versatile option, as it does on-the-fly transcoding of other video formats into PS3-friendly MPEG-2.
When watching videos streamed across the network, you have the same options as you do when watching videos off the PS3's internal hard drive. You can stop watching a video mid-way through and resume it from the exact same point later. The 1.5x fast forward option is still available too, allowing you to watch videos at 150% normal speed with audio at the normal pitch. The network media streaming features all work via Remote Play too, so you can wirelessly access media stored on your PC (or any other DLNA device) via your PSP, as illustrated in the photos below.
Full Range HDMI
For folks with HDMI displays (or HDCP-compliant DVI displays), the new Full Range HDMI display option is well worth checking out. Until now, the contrast range of PS3's HDMI output has been consistent with TV standards. TV signals are contrast-compressed so that in the full 0-255 range (where zero is true black and 255 is absolute white), all picture brightness is rendered within the 16-235 range.
Many TVs can't adequately display tones darker than 16 or brighter than 235. Even if a TV can support it, it's chipset may have been configured to drop tones below 16 to black and push all those above 235 to full white. For TV, that's ideal. For PS3, these sets are best left at the default "Limited" range setting, as enabling "Full Range" will actually lead to loss of detail at the top and bottom ends.
As the name suggests, the "Full Range" option will open up the contrast spectrum to the full 0-255 range, producing deeper blacks, whiter whites and overall better contrast on displays that will support it. Monitors are built for this range, and some TVs will handle it well too. On the Samsung monitor I'm using, Full Range HDMI produces a much better picture.
There are a few other noteworthy changes:
Printing support has been added, but at this stage, only a select range of Epson printers connected via USB will work.
A new Slideshow mode called "Photo Album 2" has been added to the Photo viewer. This displays virtual prints, like the original Photo Album mode, but arranges them neatly in a grid instead of randomly scattering them. Zooming and cropping functionality have also been added (finally!).
CD information is now editable. After the PS3 automatically retrieves information about audio CDs from the internet, you can now manually edit the information.
Background downloads are now supported from within a greater range of games and applications (including Folding@Home), and can be manually paused from within the XMB.
On Australian/European PS3s (that don't contain the PS2 chipset) software emulation of PS2 games has improved. A greater number of games are now compatible.
The only downside of firmware 1.8 seems to be that the PS3 arcade sticks that worked on PSone/PS2 games under firmware 1.7 no longer work under 1.8. With so many improvements, I guess they had to break something.
Considering that all this was bundled into firmware 1.8, it should be interesting to see what Sony have planned for firmware 2.0. This may co-incide with the public release of Sony's innovative Home online interface. Home is currently in a closed beta phase, and while I've been fortunate enough to have a thorough play around with it, unfortunately I'm not allowed to disclose any details about it.