Version tested: PlayStation 3
As we're frequently told, we ain't seen nothing yet. PlayStation 3 (and Xbox 360) can go a lot further than the pictures and sounds we're seeing and hearing in even the very best games. Never mind Killzone 2 and LittleBigPlanet, says Sony, just you wait for the games released in the two years after that.
If you find that difficult to believe, just pick up PlayTV, which acts as a Freeview box and personal video recorder (PVR), but also allows you to schedule TV recordings and then go back to gaming, watching a Blu-ray, or staring forlornly at the PlayStation Store shelves. Perhaps not the most demanding bit of multitasking ever, but a useful, invisible friend if ever you want one.
Setup is simple: plug the aerial cable into the PlayTV box and run the supplied USB cable to the PS3, then insert the disc. This installs the software to the hard disk so you can bin the Blu-ray afterwards (updates will be provided by PSN, presumably), hiding the three-minute process behind an unskippable rendition of the "how it works" video you may already have seen on Eurogamer TV.
Once you're actually in, the software scans the aerial input for channels, which it then remembers. We've done this several times and it always takes about 90 seconds. Then it's into the programme guide (EPG), and you're away.
EPGs are typically slow and cumbersome in our experience, but PlayTV's is slick and responsive, with good visual cues to help guide you around: there's a throbbing timeline to highlight programmes in progress, with the date and half-hour markers along the top. When you highlight a programme, details appear in a separate window beneath the guide, showing you how much time has elapsed since the scheduled start, as well as programme info beamed down from the sky.
To record something, you just hit the Select button, or you can scroll through a week's worth of listings to schedule recordings. When you've programmed in an item, the relevant time period is highlighted red at the top of the EPG, which is useful for two reasons: because your target programme may be higher or lower on the channel list and therefore out of sight, and because you can only record one thing at a time. To overcome the first part of that, you can create a favourites list that only tracks the best channels (More4 represent).
This being a PVR, you can also multitask; watching another channel at the same time, or exiting the software and doing something else on the PS3. The XMB is available within the PlayTV software at a push of the Home button, with the same degree of functionality you get from games: messaging and friends management are active, but to switch to other activities you need to exit PlayTV. If you do, though, the software keeps running invisibly in the background, keeping you abreast of recording activities with Trophy-style notification: "Recording: Property Ladder." Win!
From XMB to live TV, booting PlayTV up takes about 30 seconds, and the main menu - accessible by hitting the triangle button when you're watching TV - is the carousel you've probably seen in screenshots, allowing you to switch between live TV, the EPG (and a handy search tool for the same), your library of recordings and the future schedule.
The library lists each recording, and the interface is consistent with the EPG, although you can also opt to view thumbnail icons, which encompass a tiny playback window so you can see what Sarah Beeny's up to this week before deciding to watch Judge Judy instead. The interface also shows programmes currently recording, and there's nothing to stop you watching the first part while the tail end is concluding.
As with the EPG, there's also a constant reminder of how much hard disk space you have remaining in the bottom-left, and our sample downloads suggest you need about 500MB of space for 30 minutes. If you do need to free up space by deleting game demos and other files, you have to exit the PlayTV software to do it (the in-game XMB showing its limitations again), but you can always set up a recording schedule and then exit to clear out some room; the software doesn't prevent you from cashing cheques your hard disk won't yet honour. If you can make the space by deleting programmes, you can do that within PlayTV.
Whether it's playback or live TV, PlayTV shrugs and takes it, and while the image your box is receiving may not be HD, the PS3 certainly is, so the EPG and playback controls, which also come into play if you pause live TV and need to resume, are clear and easy to use, with all sorts of helpful subtleties: indicators to show where you are in any given programme, how much is buffered and how much remains, and easily accessed subtitle, aspect radio and audio option screens.
And while PlayTV ships with a sturdy adhesive overlay for the BD remote control, should you have it, you can also use a Sixaxis or DualShock 3 if not, and the effect isn't so dreadful. If you're used to navigating video or audio recordings played through the XMB, or watching Blu-ray or DVD films, you already know roughly how it works.
Sometimes, though, you can't be watching S Club 7 videos in the lounge, and so PlayTV also supports Remote Play via PSP. We usually scorn Remote Play, and the PSP in general if we're honest, but we may be latter-day converts after we synched up over the internet and started watching TMF between meetings.
As with any Remote Play, you just need to switch on your PS3 locally or remotely and have a Wi-Fi access point wherever you are with the PSP. Providing the connection's reasonable you can operate PlayTV as if you were in the same room - watching TV, watching recordings, or scheduling stuff for later. You can do it over a local wireless network too, of course, so if you want to sit in bed and watch Grand Designs, get in there. Signal strength is important, and artefacting can be a problem, but it's at least acceptable in most cases.
What you're not able to do, despite early promises, is export your videos from the PlayTV software and immediately watch them on the PSP. You can move (not copy) videos from the PlayTV library to the XMB, which allows you to watch them without loading the PlayTV software (or even having PlayTV plugged in), and back them up to Memory Stick, but if you copy them onto PSP even the latest firmware doesn't know what to do with it. A source close to the project tells us that with fiddling you can get PSP Video 9 to convert the files to a usable format, but we haven't been able to replicate this just yet.
The big question, though, is how games perform with recording going on in the background - particularly after the setup procedure advises, "This may affect gameplay or the quality of recordings that take place. Recording is not possible during PlayStation 2 format discs." Eek!
However, our immensely scientific testing procedure couldn't fault it. We played Ridge Racer 7 while PlayTV recorded Deal or No Deal and didn't notice any difference. We played Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and made sure we were doing that graphically gruelling bit with the submarine in the jungle just as Man City started to embarrass themselves against some unpronounceable Danes: not the slightest shudder as the recording started.
As with backwards compatibility and other all-encompassing software solutions, the proof of PlayTV's invisibility will be better known once it's been subjected to the masses, but given that it was held up for ages while Sony tested it with every PS3 game ever, you have to hope our experience with Ridge Racer 7, Uncharted and others was representative.
In fact, it seems as though the PS3 does more to piss off PlayTV than the other way around, judging by the slight crinkles in one of our Relocation, Relocation videos, which seemed to correspond pretty exactly to the points we initiated and exited Remote Play.
There were other minor issues, too, but these are mostly incidental, and potentially patchable if anyone moans enough. Probably the most irritating is the absence of information on what PlayTV's doing when you're not in the PlayTV software itself. Exit to the XMB, go into a game or load a Blu-ray and you'll be notified in the top-right when recordings begin or end, but there's no XMB-level access to schedules.
We also have a few wishlist items for the engineers at Sony Cambridge and Sony London, if anyone's twiddling their thumbs. How about picture-in-picture playback of live TV while gaming? And we could do with an alternative hardware model including a Conditional Access Module (CAM) for people with Setanta cards and similar before we can ditch our rubbish old Freeview boxes.
That said, we suspect most of the team's time, at least for the moment, will be taken up by trying to get rid of the software crashes we experienced.
While it should be noted that our PlayTV review copy comes with the standard disclaimer that it "may not be representative of the final build", it's clearly finished in most areas (right down to the inclusion of promotional sample videos and compatibility with retail PS3s - rare among unfinished PS3 review builds), and it did crash half a dozen times, usually while trying to watch a channel with poor signal strength. Worst of all, it's a hard lock that necessitates a reboot, busting any ongoing recordings until the power's back on.
And finally, did anyone at Sony notice that the physical PlayTV unit is a bit, well, ugly? It's a light, cheap-looking bit of plastic with a PS logo on it and an LED. And it may only be as big as a sunglasses case, as David Reeves once explained, but no amount of artfully premeditated lifestyle photography can disguise the fact that it has to plug into the front of the PS3, where the USB ports are, and hang around messily on the floor.
It's not as aspirational as an iPhone or Razr, then, but apart from a few glitches PlayTV does its job: you can watch, pause and record live TV, or record things in the background while you do other things. The PS3's ability to wake up when it's needed also means that you can leave the machine on standby and return home later to find it's switched itself on and done the recording without input.
There are slicker, more feature-packed PVR boxes out there, then, but they cost more, and if you don't have one then this is a fair purchase and a good example of delving into the PS3's processing headroom for practical lounge apps.
8 / 10
PlayTV is due out for PS3 on 19th September for GBP 69.99.