Sony's PlayStation 3 is a multimedia powerhouse, juggling the playback demands of Blu-ray, DVD, and DivX with ease. But while on-demand content is growing in popularity, there remain a vast number of people who watch regularly scheduled, over-the-air broadcasts. With many companies selling equipment to watch TV on your PC, Mac, or any number of portable devices, it's not surprising to see Sony enter the market with PlayTV, a new device that will let you watch digital TV on your PlayStation 3.
Utilising a USB tuner, plus the included software, PlayTV will allow users to play, record, and stream free-to-air digital programming. These types of broadcast are common across Europe, where the open DVB standard has been incorporated into such services as TDF in France and Freeview in the UK. We sat down with a prerelease version of the device at a recent Sony event and used the occasion to put our questions to Cambridge-based developer Mark Bunting.
All models of the PlayStation 3 are compatible with PlayTV, although the more hard drive space you have, the more you'll be able to record. Whatever size hard drive you have, 6GB of space will be reserved exclusively for game-related data. The PlayTV adaptor plugs into any free USB socket on the front of the PlayStation 3. The unit itself isn't as small as some PC-based models and, instead, takes up about the same space as an original Nintendo DS handheld. However, it contains two separate tuners so you can watch and record different channels. Also, it does not require an external power source. While you can control PlayTV with a DualShock3 or Sixaxis controller, a more traditional remote control is useful if you want to navigate Freeview's many channels at speed.
PlayTV really comes into its own if you have a PlayStation Portable. By enabling remote play on your PlayStation 3, you can watch TV on your PSP locally via wireless or from anywhere in the world that has a Wi-Fi connection. If you want to use PlayTV from a remote location (if you have a PSP, you're definitely going to want to), then you're going to need a router and a broadband connection to hook it up.
The PlayTV package includes the PlayTV USB tuner and a disc that installs new software on your PlayStation 3 hard drive. The installation adds a "TV" icon to the PlayStation 3's XrossMediaBar, and selecting it allows you to jump straight into the PlayTV software. Assuming you've connected an aerial antenna and you're in a digital area (UK users can check on Freeview's site for availability), automatic tuning of the channels takes about five minutes. From there, you're ready to watch some TV!
The interface for PlayTV is pretty slick, sporting the same colourful menus and rounded icons of the main PlayStation 3 XMB menu. You can navigate the menu system using either a DualShock3 or Sixaxis controller, and Sony claims that it has made the controls as simple as possible for people who don't have a Blu-Ray remote. While changing channels and pausing playback is simple enough, you have to use an onscreen remote if you want to input channel numbers or text pages. There are seven icons on the main menu, with the default option being "Live TV."
Selecting Live TV from the menu takes you straight into the live video or audio stream currently being broadcast. PlayTV supports both digital TV and radio, which you can flip between using the onscreen guide. The PlayTV box actually includes two tuners, so you can record one channel while watching a completely different one.
You can also pause the live TV at any time, allowing you to leave the room and come back to resume exactly where you left off. Because this buffering puts a constant strain on the hard drive, it's only activated when you press the pause button. You can force PlayTV to buffer the live TV stream all the time if you want, but it's not activated by default because of the increase in hard drive activity. While Sony says that its laptop drives are robust enough to cope with buffering, the high rate of return for Sky+ boxes has encouraged Sony to disable it by default.
One of the nicest visual touches of Live TV is the dissolving effect as you move between channels--a touch of gloss that's missing from most digital TV devices.
PlayTV's guide pulls scheduling information straight from the airwaves, which includes programme title and schedule times. It also includes a short blurb about the show and its stars. The guide holds information for all channels up to seven days into the future, allowing you to record anything that's listed during the week ahead.
Unlike some recording systems, such as Sky+, PlayTV doesn't include a series link function that can record every episode of your favourite series automatically. However, if there's something on at a regular time, you can set daily or weekly repeat functions for each of your recordings.
Find and Record
Searching for programmes based on keywords is one feature that PlayTV has over most other Freeview tuners. You can search for certain criteria not only through titles, but also by searching for accompanying information. This means that a search for "simpson" would bring up listings for both the Simpsons animated TV show and programmes starring Jessica Simpson. As Bunting showed us, this feature also allows you to search for programmes about New Zealand, even if New Zealand isn't in the title.
The system manual is accessible through the PlayTV software itself in addition to being included in the box. Using the system should be a cinch for anyone used to Freeview recorders, but newbies may need to use the manual to understand some of the advanced recording and buffering settings.
PlayTV doesn't offer a massive amount of customisation options, but there are plenty of European languages available, including Gaelic and Welsh. For the hard of hearing, there are also options to display standard subtitles or hard-of-hearing audio tracks. The settings menu allows you to tinker with the storage options, as well as decide on the quality of video you want to send to your PlayStation Portable.
If you want to set up a repeat recording or know exactly what time your favourite shows are on, then you can bypass the guide and set recording schedules manually from there. You can set up daily and weekly repeat recordings, so if your show is on at the same time, you can always make sure that PlayTV captures it when you're out.
PlayTV allows you to record both video and audio from digital TV and radio, respectively. The MPEG-2 stream for video is stored in its original form, so there is no degradation in video or audio quality between the live broadcast and the recording. Controversially, there's no copy protection encrypted onto the recording, so you're free to back up anything you record to another device for storage. Likewise, audio is recorded in the MP3 format and can be moved around at will, including to a PlayStation Portable or an MP3 player. PlayTV helpfully adds tag information to the MP3 files for this very purpose, so you can see what you're listening to on any device that supports MP3 tagging.
Recording sizes differ depending on the quality of the original broadcast. In the UK, BBC channels typically take up the highest bandwidth and, therefore, use more space on the hard drive once stored. Lower bit rate channels, such as Dave, take up less room once stored. There are no options to downgrade the quality of stored recordings because the original broadcast data is stored on the hard drive.
If you have special recordings that you want to watch outside of the PlayTV software, then you can export the files directly to the PlayStation 3 XMB. This allows you to watch them using the built-in media player, although once exported, these files disappear from the PlayTV menu.
Some of the best PlayTV features are available to PlayStation Portable owners. Every feature of PlayTV can also be accessed via remote play on a PSP, which means that you can watch TV, schedule recordings, and play stored programmes from wherever you are in the world. The PlayStation Portable can connect over a local Wi-Fi connection to the host PlayStation3 or remotely via another Wi-Fi network. The only catch is that you must leave the PlayStation 3 on standby and have it connected to the Internet.
The menu system for PlayTV is as user-friendly and robust as we've come to expect from Sony. The interface boasts far more polish than most other Freeview equipment we've seen, while its PSP functionality will no doubt make it a must-have for frequent travellers. Displayed on a large widescreen TV, DVB performance can sometimes leave a little to be desired, with MPEG artefacts being a common occurrence on some channels. However, this is a problem facing all digital programming due to compression, and PlayTV is certainly no worse than anything else we've seen.
In terms of high definition, PlayTV does support the HD AVC streams that are currently being tested in Europe. According to Bunting, HD content from the BBC looks fantastic, and it will definitely be supported when the corporation makes it more commonplace.
PlayTV is looking promising. If you're not served by cable or satellite and have a PlayStation 3, then it's definitely worth looking into PlayTV. The release date and pricing information have yet to be announced, but according to Bunting, the software will reach master submission stage at the end of March. Encouragingly, when we suggested a final retail price of £150 (196 euros, US$298), we were told it would be "well below" that price. We look forward to seeing the finished product later in the year.