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Living with the PS3: spotty software drags down Sony's killer HD library

ecosystems sony deep dive

Sony and the PlayStation brand have gotten a bit of a bad reputation in recent years. The PlayStation 3 was extremely expensive when it launched, the company infamously removed features from the console after the fact, and a massive hack job brought Sony’s online infrastructure to its knees and revealed consumers’ private info in the process. Most of these issues have been remedied, but Sony's damaged reputation has made the PlayStation brand a bit of a tough sell.

However, Sony's also done a lot right in the nearly six years since the PS3 launched. Back in 2006, it was an overpriced Hulk of a machine, but revisions and refinements over the ensuing years turned it into an attractive, reasonably priced, jack-of-all-trades living room component. Even when it launched, the PS3 was more than just a game console; after all, it was one of the first and most affordable Blu-ray players. Now, your PS3 can serve as a one-stop shop for a wide variety of music, movies, TV shows, and games (naturally).

I’ve owned a PS3 since 2009, and have used it primarily for gaming, with occasional forays into the media ecosystem that Sony has built up over the years. To get the full experience as Sony envisions it, though, I spent the last month using the PS3 and Vita for all of my video, music, and gaming needs. It’s been a month of mixed experiences — it’s a strong contender for your living room with an excellent content selection, but poor software, cluttered interfaces, and weak cloud support marred the experience. If you’re a gamer, or someone who still finds value in physical media, it’s a particularly good choice — but if those points don’t matter to you, other options can get you much of the same content for less money than the PS3’s $269.99 starting price.

Movie and TV selection

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The PlayStation Store is Sony’s first-party source for getting content from the PS3 to your TV, and it features a strong selection of TV shows and movies from all of the major studios and networks. TV shows can be purchased a la carte only, while movies can be purchased or rented — though it’s not uncommon to find movies restricted to purchase only. Sony’s biggest strength is probably its content selection: out of the 25 recent blockbusters I searched for, 21 were available to own and 17 were available for rental. A quick search on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play revealed that many of these titles were similarly unavailable, so I can’t ding Sony too hard for these omissions. Unfortunately, its selection of classic films was lacking — only five of the top 25 movies on Sight & Sound’s 2012 critics list were available.

Sony's biggest strength is probably its content selection

The TV selection is similarly well-stocked, with a few occasional missing pieces — there are plenty of current comedies and dramas from the major broadcast networks, cable stations, and premium channels. Most shows are posted the day after they air, though premium cable shows like Game of Thrones and Dexter hold their current season until they are available on DVD or Blu-ray, making Sony’s service a poor choice if you want to stay current or cut cable entirely. While you could conceivably stay caught up with most of your favorite network shows through Sony’s service, chances are good you’ll eventually run into an unexpected omission, like the fact that CBS thriller Person of Interest only had episodes from last season available. Overall, the content selection was a major high point — I rarely found myself searching for a show or movie and not finding it. As always, you’re at the mercy of the studios.

Fortunately, if the PlayStation Store doesn’t meet your needs, the PS3 and PS Vita are both compatible with a wide variety of third-party video services. Usual suspects like Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video are all available, as well as less prominent options like Walmart’s Vudu and Best Buy’s CinemaNow. There’s at least one big omission though — there’s no HBO Go app, and there’s no word on whether that may change in the future. For the sports fans out there, you can subscribe to packages from the NFL, NHL, and MLB — though it’s worth noting that your local teams are generally subject to strict blackout rules that prevent those games from being seen over these services. These services are also rather pricey, but big fans of these sports will likely get their money’s worth.

Software / UI

Ps3storesearch

The actual browsing and shopping experience on the PS3 has just received a major, and much-needed, facelift. The PlayStation Store hadn’t been redesigned in years, and it was really showing its age. The new interface focuses on simplification, with a nice "left-to-right" interface that lets you quickly drill down from a top level (like movies, TV shows, or games) into a more specific genre or category (like content on sale, or new releases). Search has also been significantly improved; instead of using your PS3 controller or remote to hunt and peck letters using an on-screen keyboard, the results list gets updated with every letter you add to your search term.

The new store does show some graphical lag, perhaps the only place where the PS3 has a hard time keeping up with the UI, but overall it’s a strong shopping experience that’s well-suited to browsing from the couch. I used to only be able to browse at length in the PlayStation Store while using a Bluetooth keyboard, but now I’m happily flying through the store with my PS3 remote.

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Once you find the content you’re looking for, you’ll run up against rather expensive a la carte pricing similar to what you’ll find from Amazon or Apple. Movie rentals are fairly reasonable, with newer movies generally going for $4.99 (in HD), with some older HD titles coming in at $3.99. However, a few brand-new movies were priced at $5.99, though I’ve seen new rentals hit this price point on iTunes as well. Purchasing movies outright can also be a costly venture, with the majority of HD films coming in at $19.99.

While Blu-ray discs are certainly feeling antiquated these days, the value proposition of a $20 movie tied to one device is a bit of a hard sell. Single episodes of TV shows at $2.99 (HD) are similarly pricey (though that’s the standard going rate on iTunes as well), and Sony doesn’t offer any "season pass" options like iTunes does. If you’re looking to build up a digital TV collection, this is not an economical way to do it.

Apple TV may be better for browsing, but Sony’s HD content is a real visual treat

Quality was another high point in Sony’s favor — all of these recent films were available in 1080p HD, and most HD purchases also come with an SD copy if you want to move the file to a PlayStation Portable or PS Vita device. Compared to my usual movie-watching habits (which primarily consist of 720p movies rented from my Apple TV and content streamed from Netflix through the PS3), Sony’s 1080p movie downloads were noticeably better. It’s gotten to the point where I’m actively willing to rent from Sony if I know exactly which movie I’m after — Apple TV may be better for browsing, but Sony’s HD content is a real visual treat.

Unfortunately, Sony’s cloud implementation of purchased content is lacking. If you download a purchased movie or TV show to your PS3, you can’t get the same content on a PS Vita unless you plug your portable into the console and transfer the file over. It’s a clunky and unnecessary restriction and seems to only be in place so users can’t view the content in multiple locations simultaneously.

Sony’s also added streaming movie rentals in addition to downloads, a much-needed update to a service that previously required you to download massive, multi-gigabyte video files. Downloads do offer higher, more consistent quality, but streaming meets the all-important instant gratification need. With a reasonably fast connection (I typically get about 25Mbps down at home), streaming HD video looked excellent, and a 5.7GB download of Prometheus took just over an hour. Unless you’re a real quality fanatic, though, I’d recommend just choosing the streaming option — quality shouldn’t be a concern as long as you have solid internet service.

Music

6323221726_8556e48172_z-1iTunes feels like the epitome of functionality and usability after my time with Music Unlimited

For the music lovers out there, Sony offers its own streaming music service known as Music Unlimited. Unlike Sony’s video options, I haven’t found any compelling reason to use this over options like Spotify or Rdio. At $9.99 a month, Music Unlimited subscriptions offers an excellent selection of current and classic albums that you can play back on a variety of hardware. You can stream through your browser, on iOS and Android devices, and on the PS3 and PS Vita. Unfortunately, the service’s excellent catalog can’t make up for hideous software and a user experience that makes Music Unlimited a complete non-starter. People may complain that iTunes has become rather bloated over the years, or that Spotify and Rdio’s mobile apps are lacking in functionality or polish — but those apps felt like the epitome of functionality and usability after my time with Music Unlimited.

While all of the expected options and controls are present, navigation, search, and adding songs to your library or playlist is more of a chore than it has to be. The mobile implementations are particularly lacking — unsurprisingly, the best experience is on the PS Vita, while the iOS app fails to include offline storage of music. There’s just no reason I can discern to pay Sony $10 every month when you get a similar content selection and much improved software with options like Spotify, Rdio, or MOG. I’d even prefer managing files and syncing through iTunes — Apple’s music management software may be showing its age, but it still works better than Sony’s option.

Gaming

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Of course, we can’t talk about Sony’s ecosystem without mentioning gaming. While Sony may trail Microsoft and Nintendo for home and portable console dominance, the PS3 now has a very mature software lineup full of high quality exclusives (like the Infamous, Uncharted, and LittleBigPlanet series), good cross-platform ports, and less conventional downloadable titles (like the critically-acclaimed Journey and Everyday Shooter). Sure, I can’t play Halo 4, but the PS3 offers more than enough excellent choices to keep me busy for years at this point. The Xbox 360 has some major points in its favor (like the aforementioned Halo franchise, the Kinect, and better online play), but I’m perfectly happy to live in Sony’s gaming world. And while the Vita’s software lineup is still fairly small, the system still has a lot of potential for those looking for in-depth gaming on the go. For gamers who prefer the PlayStation brand, the rest of Sony’s media ecosystem is certainly a positive.

Wrap-up

The prospect of living entirely in Sony’s world feels like a hard sell

Despite its content strengths including a massive gaming library and plenty of third-party options like Netflix, the prospect of living entirely in Sony’s world feels like a hard sell. A big part of that is the steep cost of entry — the PS3’s $269 price tag is significantly higher than options like the Apple TV or the new Boxee TV, and that’s for a six-year-old machine. Sony’s hardware redesigns have reduced power consumption and size and added storage space, and it’s still a snappy and graphically excellent game console — but it’s bound to start showing its age sooner or later.

Sony’s ecosystem isn’t that great for those on the go. The PS Vita is an extremely capable device, but again, much of its value is tied up in gaming. It’s hard to recommend it over something like a Nexus 7 or an iPod touch — both of which can tie into a wide variety of streaming music video services along with Google and Apple’s a la carte stores — unless you’re really interested in engrossing and console-quality portable games.

It’s a compelling candidate for the center of your living room, with a huge selection of video content that rivals the other ecosystems we’ve tested. It’s an even better choice if you’re a gamer or interested in Blu-ray, and the quality of Sony’s video downloads are another notable strength. If you’re not interested in gaming, however, I’d have a hard time recommend Sony’s ecosystem over the multitude of less expensive options that offer a similarly excellent selection of video content.

Explore the ecosystems

This week we're taking a close look at the future of TV and the living room — the great unclaimed space of the technology world. Check back each day for a close look at all the major players, along with a full range of interviews with industry players and reports on everything from the state of remote controls to the future of gaming. Tune in all week for the rest. Here’s a sampling:

Tuesday:
Google, Microsoft, Aereo, Boxee CEO Avner Ronen
Wednesday: Amazon, Sony, live sports, TV apps, Condé Nast’s Dawn Ostroff, NBC's Vivian Schiller
Thursday: Apple, the state of remotes, Vizio CTO Matt McRae
Friday: Independents, New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, Valve

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