Candy and I have talked about building or buying a home theater computer (HTPC) for years. We have a pretty nice home theater including a projected HD picture that is almost 100″ diagonal and fairly impressive 5.1 sound. This gear works great for DVDs and HD-DVDs (yes, I picked the wrong horse in that race) but, being me, I want more. I want to be able to listen to all of my music on it, including the tracks that I buy from emusic.com and I do not want to mess around with CDs. (Isn’t it amazing that, back in the Dark Ages, I used to be annoyed when I had to flip an LP over every 15 to 20 minutes; now I am annoyed that I have to change CDs every hour.) I have gazillions of digital photos which I would like to enjoy in the comfort of my den and in a more share-able form than my laptop screen. I even have a small collection of digital video which, like the digital photos, I want to see bigger than my laptop screen.
I have noodled, off and on, with building an HTPC from open source projects such as MythTV and Freevo and Medibuntu. None really hooked me. The technology is still so new that you need a pretty carefully crafted recipe of hardware components to make it all work well and the chore of concocting the recipe and then locating all the right parts was too daunting. Worse, I was afraid that I would end up with a system that was so complex that only I could dependably run it.
I even considered buying a pre-built system with Windows Vista Home Premium. My friend, Steve, has one and it is a beautiful thing: everything just works. In my den, when it is time to watch a movie, I want to turn the equipment on and simply watch the movie. Three things put me off of this idea, though. I do not want a whole computer in my den. I certainly do not want to mess with a keyboard and mouse. And I do not want to pay as much for a HTPC as such a system would cost by the time I bought hardware which included a Blu-ray player, a video card with HDMI output, and a sound card with optical output.
Given this state of affairs, I had given up on getting a HTPC, figuring that I would revisit the idea in a year or so.
Candy and I are narrowing in on our tenth wedding anniversary. As a present to ourselves, we decided to replace our HD-DVD with a Blu-ray player and that meant that I got to play one of my favorite games: comparison shopping for electronics! I was completely surprised to find many reviews like CNET’S Best Blu-ray Players from January 28, 2009 which rank the Sony PlayStation 3 at the top of the list.
This list consists of the best Blu-ray players on the market and the bottom line is clear — the Sony PlayStation 3 is by far the most recommendable Blu-ray player available today. There are a few caveats — the PS3 doesn’t have analog multichannel outputs or an IR receptor — but they’re overshadowed by the fact that you also get a high-def gaming console and media streamer. Some home theater die-hards will insist on a standalone player, but everyone else should stick with the PS3 until standalones cost much less and perform comparably.
Beyond the basic PS3 system, I needed add only one accessory: a “real” remote control for playing movies so that I would not need to fiddle around with joysticks and a gaming remote. Sony sells a DVD remote control which looks surprisingly like the remote for any other DVD player; it has all of the right buttons in familiar places and with familiar labels. At $20, this was a no-brainer add-on.
The PS3 plays Blu-ray discs and DVDs beautifully. With the DVD remote control, operation is trivial. Pop the disc into the slot and, if the PS3 is not doing something already, it starts playing the disc automatically, just like a stand-alone player. If the PS3 is busy with another task (such as playing a game or playing some music), it only takes a few button presses on the DVD remote to switch to the disc.
I figured that buying a gaming console would provide some of that male bonding, family time that we dads crave with our sons. I have only two things to say on this subject: 1) Game graphics and sound are stunningly awesome on the PS3, and 2) my kids make these games look easy. Never mind how I make the games look. ’nuff said.
At this point, I was a very happy camper because the PS3 did everything I had wanted it to do and it did both things very well. Add in the trivial set-up and the nice, black design, and virtually silent operation and you will well understand why I was grinning. Then I started poking around at the other menu choices. My first stop was the music menu.
Audio CDs work just as expected. Pop the disk in and play it, just as easily as playing a DVD. With a couple of button clicks, you can even copy the CD to the internal disk drive so that you can listen to the album without digging out the physical disc. Sweet. Better yet, with just a little bit of effort, I was able to copy my entire digital music collection (more than 2,800 tracks, about 13 GB) from my laptop onto a 16 GB thumb drive and then onto the PS3. Now I can listen to everything I own, even music which I only own in MP3 format, on the real sound system in my den instead of only on my computer speakers. Double sweet!
Next, I tried photos:
Not only did the PS3 do a gorgeous job of scaling the 3872 x 2592 pixel digital images to fit the 1080 pixel tall screen, it is super simple to zoom and pan around the photos using the two joysticks on the gaming controller. The PS3 also includes great eye and ear candy in the slideshow department: nice transitions with enough motion to keep the viewer’s interest and an ability to play any of my music in the background.
Videos work great, too. I was able to copy some AVI movies straight out of our Canon PowerShot onto the PS3 and watch them. The PlayStation even did a nice job projecting the MP4 videos that I have of the first Apollo moon landing. Guess what: they are just as blury today as they were in 1968 and it was still fun to watch them again.
This is one of the few times in my life when a piece of equipment has wildly exceeded my expectations. I bought a Blu-ray player and got a full-fledged HTPC. I can hook up a USB keyboard and mouse for the few times when I want it (like when typing a credit card number to purchase a game on-line) but I do not need the keyboard since everything can be done easily and smoothly with either of the controllers.
Now if only I did not look like such an buffoon playing the video games….