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PS3 Linux

How it works and what it's good for.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

It's probably not immediately apparent to you while reading this, but this is a momentous point in Eurogamer's history. These words may seem broadly the same as others you've read on the site, but I assure you, they are not - these are special words. For many years (well, about seven), Eurogamer has written about the finest, and least fine, games available on videogame consoles - but our inherent PC bias has always been apparent from the fact that no matter the words we wrote, they were always written on PCs.

No longer! Today, dear reader, you are viewing the very first words to appear on Eurogamer which have been written on a game console!

This is probably the point at which one of my colleagues inserts a barb about how I've used a Mac for about three years anyway - and that at some point in the distant past some mentalist probably submitted a review written on a Dreamcast or something. However, the point remains - I'm writing this article on a game console. A PlayStation 3, in fact, running the extraordinarily competent 2.0 Writer application on the Linux operating system. It wasn't even that difficult to get to this point; but the question is, should you bother, and what does the availability of Linux mean to the average gamer considering a PS3 purchase?

On the next page of this article, you'll find detailed instructions and guidelines for how to get Linux running on the PS3, including download links for all the various bits you'll need. If nothing else, this should give you a good idea of how difficult it is to get running (not very, but still not recommended for entirely non-technical users) and perhaps let you decide whether you want to take the plunge yourself.

Beards and Sandals

The version of Linux which currently runs on PS3 - I used Fedora Core 5 - is extremely advanced in some ways, and utterly backwards in others. It has a text mode installer which requires significant technical know-how to operate without a detailed guide, and dumps the user - logged in as root - at an unfriendly command prompt. Worst of all, without knowing specific PS3 Linux commands, you cannot either return to the PS3 operating system, or change video resolution in Linux. It's all still very rough and ready in that regard - and in other respects, too, it's quite basic. I couldn't get it to acknowledge the existence of a wireless network adapter in the PS3, for example.

However, if you simply want a system that can run office software, browse the web and so on, PS3 Linux is more than adequate. With a keyboard and mouse plugged in, the system becomes, effectively, a PC; the GUI is straightforward, the applications available are extensive, and the whole thing, by and large, just works. It's well outside the scope of this article to actually review Linux - suffice it to say that thousands of people choose to run it as their desktop operating system, but despite my respect for what the people working on the OS have accomplished, I'd really prefer not to, given the choice.

What is much more interesting from the point of view of the average user is what Linux means to the PS3 in the somewhat longer term. You can run MAME and a number of other emulators on it, you can connect to network shares and to the Internet, and you can play any media you choose through the variety of excellent open-source media players like VLC which are available for the platform. Right now, doing all of these things is possible but somewhat awkward - perhaps best left to advanced users and hobbyists. However, it would be naive to assume that things will stay that way.

The fact is that by opening up the PS3 to other operating systems, Sony has made it clear to users that they can adapt the PS3 to their individual uses without having to chip the system. It will probably be a matter of months before someone develops an operating system, based on Linux, which installs through a simple process on the PS3 and presents the user with a nice, simple interface, controlled by the SIXAXIS pad, for playing a variety of media, streaming from servers on your network, reading webpages, playing emulated ROMs, and so on.

Sound familiar? It is, of course, exactly what the Xbox became when it was chipped, had its hard drive replaced and was updated with a piece of software called XBMC - Xbox Media Centre. The PS3 is a more powerful system, which benefits greatly from things like USB ports, built-in card readers and a wireless LAN card, all of which enhance its functionality as a media system, while a faster processor will make the playback of high-definition content, such as H.264 video, a possibility - so it will be a very valuable system as a media box, just as a chipped Xbox was in its day.

However, the fascinating part of all of this is that in the case of the PS3, no chip will be required - and Sony has, in fact, made the tools freely available to accomplish this. A few restrictions exist - you can't access the RSX graphics chip, for example, so 3D graphics won't be possible - but so far nobody has found any restriction which will prevent an XBMC style system from being developed for the PS3 which any user can install simply by downloading a DVD image and putting a small file onto a USB key.

In a sense, you could argue that this is the death of chipping. You can run your own OS and all the homebrew you want on the PS3; you can run games from any region, with region coding being explicitly forbidden by Sony's regulations for the system. The only reason remaining for chipping, arguably, is simple criminal piracy, and, unlike with other consoles, it's hard to think of any reason anyone other than a pirate would want a chip in their PS3.

More importantly, though, this is a fascinating development for the PS3 as a platform. Right now, PS3 Linux is really a toy for hobbyists - and while I've written this entire article on it, I doubt I'll be writing any more in this fashion. I'll be intrigued, though, to come back in six months time and find out what the open source community has done with Sony's new toy - because the potential here is undoubtedly incredible.

If you want to try out PS3 Linux for yourself, flick over the page for detailed install instructions!