I think it’s safe to say that there is an undercurrent of condescension against using a games console to play back Blu-ray Discs in a “serious” home cinema environment. The thinking, I suppose, goes that a games machine couldn’t possibly compete with “real” high end players. In reality, this theoretical argument doesn't really hold any water: the CPU inside the Playstation3 is far more powerful than the chips inside standalone machines, and like every other dedicated BD player, can easily decode all of BD’s supported video and audio formats without cutting corners. And although it was designed for playing games, there’s no reason whatsoever why the PS3’s processor shouldn't be able to deliver high quality BD playback. With that said, processing power alone doesn't guarantee high quality output, but we'll examine this thoroughly in the review.
Of course, there have been real reasons in the past to look down on the PS3, but Sony Computer Entertainment has addressed most of them with this new hardware revision. The first annoyance from the original model was the slightly loud fan noise, which could impinge upon the soundtrack of whatever tense or tender scene you were watching. This has now been quietened. The system also doesn’t come with a remote control, and when you purchase the £19.99 BD Remote Accessory, you’re buying a Bluetooth remote rather than an infra-red one, which means you can’t use it with whatever all-in-one remote control you own (if you own one - I don’t see the point). Finally, a hardware limitation of the original Playstation3 console meant that Bitstream audio output of HD soundtracks wasn't possible (you were forced into having the machine decode to Multichannel PCM for output over HDMI 1.3). This limitation is now gone, too - bitstreaming is an option with the new, slim PS3.
The biggest potential ding in the PS3 Slim's appeal is likely to be the fact that, like the older version, it has no on-board Deinterlacing for High Def video. This is a non-issue for most Blu-ray software which is encoded at 1080p/24, but it does mean that 1080i content – which is simply output as-is by the machine – is at the mercy of whatever processing comes next in the chain. Quite often, that will be a display device that does a less-than-perfect job of handling that content. Of course, this is only an issue for 1080i, and there's still not very much of that on BD. Let's see if the PS3 can deliver the goods for 1080p and SD DVD material.
Like the old PS3, the new revision retains the slot-loading disc mechanism. During the review process, I didn't catch it scuffing any discs that it sucked in. Directly below the disc slot is a strip of reflective plastic, with two buttons (Eject and Power), which are now fortunately actual buttons instead of touch-sensitive zones (call me old fashioned, but buttons add some much-needed feedback to interacting with the machine).
On the back, we have a limited selection of ports: an ethernet port for connecting to the internet (although the machine has a built-in wireless receiver, so I didn't bother connecting it), the all-important HDMI 1.3 AV output, an optical digital output for standard definition audio signals, and a Sony Computer Entertainment proprietary AV MULTI OUT port, which you can connect a Playstation-to-Component, Playstation-to-SCART, or Playstation-to-Composite cable to. There's also a figure-8 style power connector, and two USB 2.0 ports on the front. Users who want to connect the PS3 using analogue surround audio are out of luck, unfortunately – if you have an older amplifier, then you'll be limited to standard-def audio via the Optical output port.
Setup menus and Processing Adjustments
The PS3 uses a very slick implementation of Sony's Xross Media Bar interface. I've been critical of this interface when I've used it on BRAVIA TVs, because it tends to be a little slow and therefore not really worthwhile there. On a machine as powerful as the PS3 though, the menus are good to look at and also fast to respond to user input. The user can also download new themes from the Playstation Network to change the appearance of the menus.
All of the settings relevant to BD/DVD playback are found in the Settings column. The first of these is “Accessory Settings”, which you'll need to select once with the included game controller, before you can use the BD Remote with the machine. “Display Settings” houses the Video Output Settings option, which allows you to select an output resolution and connector. There's also an option for a “Cross Color Reduction Filter”, which only affects Composite video output (and nobody should be using this!) Finally, there's a setting to select between Video Levels and PC Levels for RGB video output (the correct setting depends on your display, if you're using RGB output mode), as well as a “Super-White” setting for Digital Component output, which relates to how below-black and above-white tones are handled.
The “Sound Settings” screen allows you to configure audio output in much the same way, selecting which formats other components in your AV system are capable of decoding.
There are other settings that can be accessed during playback by pressing OPTIONS on the remote, and then selecting “AV Settings”. The available controls depend on the application format of the disc you're playing back. For DVD-Video and BDAV (typically Blu-ray recorded from a broadcast source directly to disc, and not very common here in the West), we're given access to Frame Noise Reduction, Block Noise Reduction, and Mosquito Noise Reduction filters. These have three levels of strength, and even at full power, they're pretty subtle, but effective. I never had any need for the Frame Noise Reduction (which is a very subtle temporal filter) with DVD software, but poor quality compression and incorrect encoder setup are common issues with DVD mastering, so I sometimes used the latter two options (especially the Mosquito Noise filter). It's really no big loss that these filters can't be turned up to extremes, because aggressive compression artefact removal creates more problems than it solves.
For BDMV (pre-recorded Blu-ray Disc Movie software), the three noise reduction controls are unavailable. Part of me wonders if this is a political decision from Sony to protect sales of standalone machines that offer similar functions to these, or perhaps a quality-centric decision designed to leave movie content untouched. The availability of these controls for discs arranged in BDAV mode shows the machine has the necessary processing power to perform video processing on high-def content, but in any case, these are the first controls that I always turn off on standalones, anyway. Good riddance.
Dynamic Range Compression for audio is enabled by default; you can disable it in this menu to gain maximum delight from movie soundtracks.
1080p Disc Playback
People are still wary of using a games console to play back movies, though – after all, the machine could be tinkering with the video to give it a specific “look”. Fortunately, it seems that Sony Computer Entertainment understands that a hands-off approach is best when it comes to films. When the PS3 detects the presence of a BDMV-formatted disc, not only are noise reduction controls made unavailable, but a different chroma filtering method is used, according to Sony's official documentation. It appears that every effort has gone to preserve the image as intended by the director. I made sure to measure the output of the machine on our reference Plasma display, the Pioneer KURO PDP-LX5090 (which has perfectly flat Greyscale and Gamma tracking), and confirmed that no gamma alteration or colour “enhancement” was going on.
We can't really ask for (much) more than a machine that decodes video and plays it back as-is, and that's exactly what the Playstation3 does, which means that it scores as “Excellent” for HD image quality. To obtain “Reference” status according to our review criteria, a player must do all of the above AND give the user the option of turning on effective anti-banding filtering, to remove the damage done to smooth gradients by 8-bit video compression. So far, no BD player has gone this extra few percent, but this is really the hypothetical icing on the cake – so I'm more than happy to wait.
1080i Disc Playback
480i/576i SD DVD Playback
One of the key factors in determining the picture quality of standard-def content is the quality of the Deinterlacing, and also of the Film Mode detection. If a player can't accurately detect the motion characteristics of the material it's processing, then it won't do an optimal job, and the resulting flaws will only be exacerbated when the image is later scaled (upconverted) to high definition resolution.
To test Deinterlacing and Film Mode detection, I used both the NTSC (US/Japanese standard) and PAL (European standard) versions of the Silicon Optix HQV test disc. Because most of what we watch ends up being Film sourced, I ran the Film Mode detection tests first. Starting with the NTSC test disc, I was impressed to see the 2-2, 5-5, 6-4, 8-7, and the all-important 3-2 test all passing, with a few less common ones failing. What this means is that a very wide variety of Region 1, Japanese Region 2, and other NTSC-centric film content will display jaggy-free, with as much resolution as is possible. The 5-5, 6-4 and 8-7 cadences are related to low-frame-rate Japanese animation, so otakus rejoice – your collection of rare anime DVDs should play back correctly on this machine.
Of course, I get the US/Japanese-centric format out of the way first because it's usually handled fairly well. More importantly for us here in the UK, how does the PS3 do with PAL film DVDs? I was disappointed when it failed to pass the 2-2 test on the HQV test disc, displaying jagginess and flickering where there should be none - but fortunately, this was non-existent with most real-world content. In fact, every single PAL film DVD I played on the PS3 played back correctly, usually only dropping back to Video mode and displaying jagginess during the scrolling end credits. Although the HQV test reveals that the PS3 isn't infallible in this regard, I could still use one as my primary DVD player, but if your main mode of consumption is still PAL DVD, you might want to look elsewhere.
For video content (or content that the PS3 thinks is video!), I tested the console's diagonal interpolation capabilities, the purpose of which are to avoid creating jagged edges after interlaced video content has been converted to progressive. The PS3 did about as well as most other players in its price range, being able to conceal jaggies on the top two rotating bars, but not the third, which indicates that like most other affordable machines, it can't smooth jaggies at the most extreme angles.
Lastly, scaling. This is where the PS3 really makes an impression. The console's DVD playback software uses an edge-adaptive scaling process. This lends scaled SD video a very different appearance to the vast majority of DVD players and video processors, which are using non-adaptive (linear) resizing methods. These scalers essentially walk a fine line between over-emphasising certain details (causing aliasing and ringing), and not paying enough attention to them (causing things to look blurry). Edge-adaptive scaling essentially allows the best of both: edges are smoothed, and you can no longer see the remains of individual pixel edges to the same extent, but areas of detail remain present.
This process works wonders with synthetic content like hand-drawn art (see the above example). For photorealistic content, whether or not you like the look of it is really down to you. Ultimately, I felt that it gave things a slightly processed appearance, but this is probably just because I'm so used to most other scalers. And, let's face it – scaling a low-res source up to HD, regardless of how its done, won't really show you the film exactly the way it's supposed to look, anyway.
Disc Load Times
- Untampered-with 1080p output means video quality from 1080p BDs is nearly as good as we could hope for
- Incredibly responsive to user input
- Edge adaptive upscaling of SD content can produce distinctively superior results, depending on the content
- Extensive media playback capabilities that you'll actually want to use, because of the responsiveness and slick presentation
- PAL Film Mode detection is not infallible - jaggies can rarely occur with PAL movie content
- No on-board deinterlacing of (rare) 1080i content
- Remote control accessory is an optional extra, as this is a games console
Sony Playstation 3 Slim Blu-ray Disc Player Review
The Playstation 3 is a very unusual product. Unlike the consumer electronics industry, the technologically competitive games industry sells powerful videogame consoles at a loss and attempts to profit on software and accessories. In this context, the PS3's speed and cutting-edge scaling are still surprising (because we don't normally associate attention to detail like this in a non-AV product), but not inexplicable. It's an unusually powerful piece of AV hardware hiding in a plastic shell, made affordable by the financial differences between the gaming and AV industries. And, moreso than ever now thanks to its slim revision, it's a perfectly good Blu-ray Disc player as far as the majority of film titles are concerned.
Its appeal with the AV crowd will be fading now that standalone players are getting cheaper, faster, as well as better at playing back DVD-Video and 1080i Blu-ray content, but to the best of my knowledge, the PS3 is still the fastest overall player in terms of disc loading and operation – and let's also not forget about its media playback capabilities, which could be an article in itself. If you’re into gaming and high-def movies, it's an absolutely excellent proposition: it's as good a BD player as any other for the vast majority of titles, and its unique scaling algorithm means it delivers a nice image from SD DVD, too. On the other hand, if you don't care for games, then you can save some money by choosing one of the many excellent budget BD players out there.
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