Will you want to buy a PlayTV? We can't answer that just yet. Although we recently had a first-hand demonstration of Sony's digital TV tuner add-on for PlayStation 3 - and came away impressed - there are still two enormous and probably yellowy-orange question marks hanging over the device's future. How much will it cost? And - crucially - will you be able to play games while it's using the PS3's hard drive to record TV?
The first question is important because you can now go down the shops (well, navigate to your favourite online retailer) and pick up a Freeview tuner/recorder that will do almost everything the PlayTV allows you to do for as little as GBP 100. It probably won't be very good - and Sony's own 80GB recorder costs GBP 180 - but still, an extremely competitive price point is vital for a device that only works in conjunction with a GBP 300 games console. We were pleased to learn that HMV's GBP 99.99 price tag wasn't necessarily accurate, and we think 100 Euros (GBP 70 or thereabouts) is much more likely. But Sony needs to sell PlayTV as cheaply as it can possibly afford if it's to do its job - which is to help make the PS3 a viable multimedia hub, to compete with Media Centre PCs, AppleTV and the like. Sony won't even confirm a ballpark price for the unit at present; we await that announcement with interest.
Another argument for a low price is that - physically at least - PlayTV does not invite aspirational gadget lust. It's a small and unassuming thing, about six inches by two inches in footprint, very light, made of dark grey plastic with a matte finish and a curved top like the PS3's. It's inoffensive to look at and the compact size is definitely welcome, but it looks and feels cheap, and the unsightly USB cable that connects it to the front of the PS3 doesn't help. On the plus side, it draws all the power it needs from that cable, freeing up some no doubt much-needed space on the plug board behind the telly. Its only other features are a power LED and a standard RF connector for your TV aerial.
An answer to the second question - can you record TV while playing games? - is vital because, for all its multimedia affectations, the PS3 is still a games machine, and there's every chance PS3 owners will be looking to record TV because they're playing a game. This is also unconfirmed, but the good news is that Sony understands the importance of this very well, has implemented the feature, and is testing it thoroughly.
"It's no secret that we want to do it, but we can't jeopardise gameplay," says Mark Bunting, a producer at Sony's Cambridge Studio, which is working on the software for the PlayTV device. "Every game known to man is under test. At the moment, out of all the testing we've done, we haven't found anything go wrong." It's no exaggeration to say the fate of PlayTV hangs on the outcome of these tests, but as it stands the signs seem very positive.
If PlayTV can clear these hurdles, though, there's nothing to stop it being a roaring success. Based on our demonstration we would recommend all Freeview-using PS3 owners snap one up. PlayTV is fast, HD-ready, with a slick, attractive and highly usable interface and some powerful features. About the only thing it doesn't offer that a Sky Plus box does is the ability to record two channels simultaneously; although it has two receivers, one is dedicated to recording, and the other to live TV.
However, that does mean that you will always be able to watch one channel while you record another, and even pause the live channel or watch previously recorded programmes while a recording is taking place. Setting recordings is simplicity itself - or you can use Select as a one-touch record button - and there's no need to leave your PS3 on for timed recordings. PlayTV will wake it up from standby just before the appropriate time.
Naturally, PlayTV also offers a couple of features that no standard video recorders do: support for PSP remote play, allowing you to control the device and watch TV anywhere, and the ability to do anything you like with your recordings.
PlayTV installs itself as a new group in the PS3's home menu, and clicking on that instantly brings up a circular menu of the tuner's seven modes: live TV, library (all your recordings), settings, a manual, a TV guide, a schedule of recordings and favourite shows, and the rather nifty find-and-record feature. The latter can search TV titles and descriptions with any keyword - our Kiwi host Bunting demonstrated this by searching for any and all programmes about New Zealand in the coming week. A definite plus over regular tuners, there.
The control scheme with a PS3 pad is sound, if a little fiddly - not the fault of the designers, but an inevitable side effect of using a game controller for something it wasn't designed to do. Sensibly, they've included an on-screen remote keypad that you can bring up at any time and move around with the right stick. Nevertheless, picking up a Blu-ray remote as well would seem like a wise move, and if Sony and/or retailers have any sense, they'll be planning to bundle the two.
True to convention, the Sixaxis' start button acts as a pause button for both recordings and live TV. The default setting of the machine is to only start buffering live TV when you hit pause, although if you think you're likely to want to rewind on a whim, you can set it to keep a buffer at all times - this is only turned off to save strain on the hard drive. (Bunting claims that the vast majority of Sky Plus returns are due to knackered hard drives, and points to the superior reliability of the laptop units used in the PS3.) The buffer holds up to two gigabytes' worth of TV in memory at any time, which is an hour and a half to two hour's viewing, depending on the signal. A progress bar across the top of the information box shows where you are in the show, and how much of it is in memory.
The PS3's processing grunt has been put to good use: the load time for interactive features like news multiscreen is noticeably faster than with a standard tuner, and there's a fancy depth-of-field blur applied when you bring up menus over the picture. In contrast to PlayTV's physical presence, its on-screen interface oozes quality and class, even by Sony's own high standards. Sony's Bravia teams have had a lot of input in PlayTV, and it shows.
Last but by no means least is picture quality. Again, this has been tested against the built-in tuners in Bravia TVs, and is as good as you'd expect, although even a PS3 can't manage to make a compressed standard-definition signal look all that good on a large high-definition screen. That said, one of the most appealing aspects of PlayTV is that its future-proofed for the full HD signals that will eventually come to Freeview and its European equivalents. Bunting says the BBC's test signal looks "incredible", and every one of PlayTV's features works perfectly in high definition. The PS3's power and high-quality HDMI output hand PlayTV a big head-start in this area, and it's comforting to know it won't be outmoded any time soon.
So we're praying as hard as Sony must be that those testers in Liverpool - mucking around in Resistance while their PS3's record hour after endless hour of Fern and Phil - don't find any faults with gameplay during recording. If this last piece falls into place - and if the price is right - PlayTV is looking very tempting indeed.