The wait is over! Actually, let's rephrase: elements of the wait are over! For example, we've got a PlayStation 3. Yes it's quite nice thanks. But what we've actually got is a 'debug' unit, which, while it looks exactly like the 500,000 final units Sony will be shipping out to US and Japanese retailers next month, is designed to let us play unfinished preview code, and at the moment lacks a number of key interface features. Sony would want us to be very specific about that. Otherwise that's what their phone call in half an hour is going to be about.
Arriving in a nondescript cardboard box yesterday, our bundle consists of a PlayStation 3 console (stamped with a hefty "prototype!" sticker on the back), one of the wireless Sixaxis pads, a few cables, and copies of some games in development, including launch titles Resistance: Fall of Man and Genji: Days of the Blade, and Evolution Studios' racing title MotorStorm.
Gawping at the unit
Immediately imposing, very shiny and quite heavy, the consensus first-impression of the PS3 unit is that it looks like an expensive piece of multimedia equipment ought to look, and with respect to our friend the Xbox 360, the comparison is unflattering on Microsoft's toddler; the slick, curved, reflective front of the PS3, with that Spider-Man-font logo, beams at anybody standing next to it, while the silver gleam of the slot-loading Blu-ray disc drive stands out in amongst refined features on the front bezel, including the familiar swivellable little 'PS' logo, and new, touch-sensitive power and eject buttons, located on a sort of glossy mantle beneath the Blu-ray entry point. Interestingly, when illuminated from behind, there's a sort of translucency that's not apparent when it's under the gaze of a strong light source. It's weird and sort of ghoulish. The chunky aesthetics of old are completely gone; this would look at home next to high-end hi-fi equipment or a ludicrously expensive flat-screen television - and that seems to have been the point.
Sticking with the exterior for a bit, and moving down toward where the PS2's controller ports and old-days USB slots used to be, we find four USB 2.0 ports in a column, while above the dividing shelf there's a flap that folds neatly up and sticks in place, revealing slots for Compact Flash and SD cards and, of course, Sony Memory Sticks. The front of the console also sports a couple of LEDs - one for Wi-Fi, since ours is a premium unit, and one for hard disk activity.
Flipping the console over (gently now), the base features the hard disk slot, where the 60GB drive resides, while the reverse is home to the hard on/off power switch, a slot for the PC-style kettle power lead, and video outputs for HDMI, the PS2's traditional Multi-AV-out (we've used existing component and composite cables with no problems), and an optical audio output.
Joy at the pad
So then to the wireless Sixaxis pad, which is extremely light, but doesn't feel flimsy - just a bit weightless. We're not sure what all the "it's too light" fuss is about, actually - at what stage does a pad's lack of mass have a negative effect? And surely if you're trying to play tilt games the lightness is going to be beneficial - I wouldn't have fancied playing a tilt-sensor game with the original Xbox pad. Anyway, for the record, it's a bit lighter than the Dual Shock, much lighter than the Xbox 360 pad, and heavier than a Wii remote. It's solidly constructed, which is surely the important bit.
Many elements - directional pad, analogue sticks, start/select buttons and face buttons - line up much as they used to, although close examination reveals that the plastic base of the d-pad and face buttons is actually slightly translucent. The main aesthetic difference, though, is the inclusion of a 'PS' button in the centre, similar to Microsoft's Xbox 360 'Guide' button, which allows you to turn on the console by tapping it briefly. Press and hold it during a game and it loads a menu that shows you the pad's charge-level (still perfect after several hours of play, incidentally), allows you to quit out of the game, reassign controller points, or turn the pad or the system off completely.
A quick side by side with our old pal the Dual Shock reveals slightly thinner analogue stick trunks, while the reverse of the Sixaxis is flat, rather than indented by the analogue barrels. It's really on the roof of the pad that things change. First of all there's a little row of indicator lights, which show you your player number 1-4 (PS3 supports seven Bluetooth pads at once), along with a little USB connector port for charging, with what looks like a three-metre cable supplied.
Also up top, we find the rejigged shoulder buttons. L1 and R1 appear unchanged, but the L2 and R2 buttons are now hinged triggers much like the 360's, but smaller. They may take some getting used to, and fingers can slip from them when they're hammered, but developers will doubtless adapt - there were similar concerns about the 360's arrangement of bumpers and triggers, I seem to remember. As we'll hear a bit later, using them for analogue acceleration in MotorStorm isn't the least bit awkward, while Resistance uses R1 to fire, which is equally reasonable.
Anyway, let's turn it on.
No more buildings
With touch-sensitive buttons, even the gentlest brush of the finger ejects or turns on the console, with the same on/off behaviour as its predecessor. Naturally we're experts, so we just remained on the sofa and hit the button on the pad (well, I did, but only after waiting for somebody else to get up so I could correct them). Interestingly, inserting a disc will also turn the PS3 on, but sadly you can't delay loading by yelling, "Oi! The next generation starts when we say it does!"
The first thing that you see is a swirl of background colour, and then it all comes into view, with Ellie's podcast prediction of a choral start-up jingle not too far-off - in fact it's more like an orchestra tuning up, and quite serene. Then it's onto the familiar Cross Media Bar (XMB) - familiar to anyone who's ever used a PSP, anyway - where you can do things like manage multiple user accounts, change system settings and, in theory, access networked devices for photos, music and video, go on the Internet, browse the PS3 Store, and access games and game-related stored content.
Even as an unfinished UI though, it's very slick and easy to navigate, thanks in no small part to its similarity to the PSP, from which it borrows things like sound effects and the throbbing aura around each menu-selection. There's none of the clutter and confusing menu navigation of the Xbox 360's dashboard, but then of course there's relatively little to browse yet; it'll be interesting to see whether Sony can keep things this slick a year from now when users are trying to juggle hard disks full of content.
What's there now is responsive, however, and straightforward. Network set-up, for example, simply involved searching for a Wi-Fi access point, inputting some details and saving them. There's a surprising depth of options evident on the configuration side, in fact - for example, you can select keyboard-input language as English (UK) rather than English (US). Obviously that's a reference to the fact you can plug in a USB keyboard to take care of text entry, but you'll also be able to plug in a USB mouse (and select left- or right-handed in the System menu), to aid things like Internet browsing, and to help take advantage of the PS3's upcoming Yellow Dog Linux distribution. There are also camera configuration options evident, and of course the ability to change video resolutions, audio settings and other details in the menus.
For now though not much of the XMB is activated, because our debug unit is very much in a state of active development. Multimedia doesn't work yet (although Sony's explained much of how it will work already, and it's not hard to extrapolate from scouting out the PSP menus), online functionality is limited, and while it can see our PSPs when hooked up via USB, it doesn't know what to talk to them about. Of course, none of this will be true of the retail units - and we'll return to the subject soon to give you a more thorough explanation of what you can do with the finalised interface.
And, just so we're doubly clear, it's important at all times to hold up a big sign in your head bearing that "unfinished hardware" caveat. You might wonder, for example, whether you can use the UI to send those text messages with attachments that we've heard about to people while you're in the middle of a game. You doubtless have lots of questions. For now though, we can't answer all of them.
I think they get it
Good. Back in the lounge, the machine itself gets quite warm as we type, but remains quiet. Far from the wind tunnel roar we perhaps feared, it's actually one of the quietest consoles in the house - second only to the GameCube in the keeping it down stakes, by the sound of things. Another interesting note: our debug units have universal power supplies built in, with no need for a chunky brick hidden behind the scenes. Indeed, on many levels the PS3 is a more auspicious and eye-catching sight than we could have predicted.
More extensive hardware impressions, overviews of multimedia functionality and game impressions will be coming soon, as we get truly stuck into the console and its games. Like MotorStorm, whose wealth of effects as we cut through muddy terrain firing off boosters against backdrops of massive, detailed mountain ranges, certainly impress - and perform much more consistently than they did during E3 and the Tokyo Game Show. And whose tilt controls we still have to master. And like Resistance, whose mixtures of '50s, World War II-style settings and Chimera monster combat purr across the screen at 720p (our plasma, sadly, is unable to handle 1080p), as we struggle to find some health-packs.
Look forward to that, then, as you count down a few more of the days between now and March 2007. It's much too early to give you a verdict, or even a proper first impression, but we can say this: it's shiny, and we're fighting over it. So much so that it's just gone into a sort of screen-dimming power-save mode, which I haven't mentioned, and the only reason it's had a chance to do so is that I'm typing. Bye.
Join us again next week for more on the PS3, which we're never giving back never ever ever, and in the meantime why not check through our handy gallery of freshly snapped pics? We even took some of Rob's friends holding it, and one of them is a girl. Come on Internet, live up to your billing.