GSUK: PlayTV Hands-On

PlayTV is Sony's latest attempt to turn the PlayStation 3 into an all-in-one home entertainment system.

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PlayTV is Sony's latest attempt to turn the PlayStation 3 into an all-in-one home entertainment system. Due for release in Europe on September 19, the package comprises a simple device that connects to a standard aerial, and software that decodes the digital TV signals. The result is a method of watching and recording live TV via your PlayStation 3, and a way of watching from all over the world via a PlayStation Portable.

We managed to get our hands on PlayTV ahead of its release, and while it has some weaknesses, we were impressed with what this 90-euro (£70) package has to offer. Here's our breakdown of the hardware and software, and what it all allows you to do.

PlayTV Hardware

The packaging for our press kit differs slightly from the retail package, but its contents are exactly the same. It contains the PlayTV box, a USB cable to connect to your console, and a software disc which installs to your hard drive. The PlayTV box is about the size of a glasses case, which seems excessively big--equivalent tuners for the PC and Mac are not much larger than a USB memory stick. The construction of the box is light and plastic, and its matte finish is at odds with the glossy PlayStation 3 exterior. Luckily, the supplied USB cable is long enough for you to tuck the box round the back of the console, and no other power source is needed to power the device.

[PlayTV] [Front] [Rear] [Remote overlay]

The only thing missing from the package is an aerial antenna splitter--we imagine a lot of people will want to leave their TV connected to an aerial when they know they don't want to record anything. Finally, there's also an overlay sticker for the official Sony Blu-ray Disc Remote Control, which adds tags for the guide and recording features not present on the original remote.

PlayTV Software

Disclaimer: The PlayTV software we used was not final. Sony let us know that there wouldn't be any major software upgrades or changes between our test time and release, but there was a chance that any bugs we encountered could be ironed out by the time PlayTV ships.

While the hardware may be disappointingly plain, the PlayTV software is beautifully engineered. As soon as you pop the disc in, a short, snappy video launches to introduce you to the features and setup procedures. The system software then installs 450MB of total data--it's a sizeable memory footprint, but the installation allows you to launch PlayTV from the Xross Media Bar without the disc.

[PlayTV set-up] [Channel scan] [Recording settings]

Once it's installed, the program walks you through a 10-step setup process to set language, country, and system settings before scanning for available channels. The scanning process is the longest stage of the setup, taking around two minutes, but our unit managed to pick up all the available channels on its first go. Your results may vary depending on area and aerial type--in the UK, head over to this site to check your coverage.

The final part of the setup is permitting the system to record programmes while you're playing PlayStation 3 games or Blu-ray/DVD movies. The system warns you that performance may be affected if you enable this feature, but in our tests we found no detrimental effects from performing either function. There are occasional hiccups if you move to the XMB while watching live TV, but you'll find no effect on the recording. A more important decision is whether or not you want to buffer all live TV as you're watching--a feature that allows you to rewind all the way back to the moment you started viewing. This feature is disabled by default--a decision Sony's Mark Bunting told us reduces the amount of strain placed on the internal hard drive over time.

The software takes a while to load up, at somewhere around the 25-second mark. All said, though, PlayTV is easy to navigate and gorgeously presented. While it doesn't have the power or the features of the Sky+ system, it's certainly one of the best Freeview interfaces that we've seen.

Watching Live TV

The default option in PlayTV is to watch live TV, which presents whatever's being broadcast at that point in time. You can navigate through the channels using a DualShock3 or Sixaxis controller, both of which work well, but the Blu-Ray remote control is a more efficient way of jumping between channels.

[Live TV] [Controller mapping] [This Morning] [Ugly Betty]

When watching TV, you can hit pause at any moment, leave the room, and come back where you left off. You can also record any programme as you're watching it, and it will automatically be stored with its title and information in the library. Once it's recording, you can change channels and watch something else (although you can't record the second channel).

PlayTV Programme Guide

The programme guide is accessible at any point when you're watching live TV, but it also has its own button on the main menu. The guide is logically presented, with channels presented sequentially on the vertical, time on the horizontal, and programme titles and synopses filling in the table. A straight line runs vertically down the screen so you can see how far through the hour you are.
[Guide] [Guide view] [More guide views] [Favourites]

The Electronic Programme Guide also lets you create a favourites list, so you can cut out channels you hardly ever watch. You can also click "record" on any individual program to set a schedule, which makes that programme turn red in the guide.

Recording TV with PlayTV

PlayTV has two internal tuners, so you can record one channel while watching another. The system records the digital stream exactly as it receives it, so there's no difference in quality over live TV and a recording.
[Recordings in red] [Recording scheduled] [Recording conflict]

There are plenty of ways to schedule recordings using the PlayTV software. If you want to set a manual recording for a certain time and channel, you can, but the easiest method is to use the EPG to find the programme and then click on it. You can also protect yourself against unpredictable scheduling by setting the software to record earlier and later than the allotted time.

[Keyword search] [Search results]

The neatest feature is the ability to search for individual programme titles and set recordings from there. If you're an avid Simpsons fan, you can record every episode of the show for the coming week, meaning you can gorge yourself on the weekend if you wish. While we wouldn't expect a feature like Sky+ to automatically "series link" your favourite shows, we would have liked to see PlayTV scan for title keywords and then record automatically.

If you're serious about recording, you'll want to either upgrade your hard drive or wait for the upcoming 160GB special edition PS3. While digital TV broadcasts don't take up an excessive amount of storage space, recorded broadcasts soon start to add up. The average file size changes depending on channel (the BBC channels seem to require the most room), but expect an hour of footage to take up just over 1GB on the PS3's internal hard drive.

If you record something that you think you'll want to watch regularly, you can send that programme to the PS3's XMB. This allows you to view it without having to load up the PlayTV software, although doing this removes that item from the PlayTV library. Once in the XMB, your recording is accessible from the videos channel, and is automatically titled using its original information from the programme guide.

PlayTV Remote Play and PSP Connectivity

While PlayTV's PSP functionality was recently downgraded ahead of release, it remains one of the most impressive parts of the package. You can do everything using the PSP that you can on the PS3, including watching live TV, making recordings, and streaming recordings from within the software and the XMB. The only downside is that the PS3 has to be in Remote Play mode, which makes the console redundant for anyone else who wants to use it.

There's a caveat in that both the PSP and PS3 need to be hooked up to a decent Internet connection or over Wi-Fi at either end, but the Remote Play service is a compelling reason to buy PlayTV. Over a local network, the video quality is even better--practically indistinguishable from the original broadcast.

We can confirm that, in accordance with Sony's recent announcement, you cannot move recordings from the PS3 to the PSP over USB. We had a brief moment of elation when we found that you can actually transfer the file itself, but the PSP refuses to recognise it under the video channel. This means that you can't watch your favourite shows on the go, which is a pretty serious restriction of the package.

Conclusion

If you own a PlayStation 3 and don't have a satellite or cable service in your home, then PlayTV is a good option for viewing free-to-air. The software is slick and easy to use, while the ability to record programmes and play games or movies is a definite bonus. On the other hand, the box is ugly, and the inability to move recordings to the PSP will turn many potential buyers off completely. But if you're a commuter with both a PSP and a PS3, then PlayTV is well worth the relatively small investment.

We asked Sony if PlayTV would support high definition broadcasts once they become available. Their response: "To get PlayTV to market and with the current variations in broadcast standards in the regions means this is a high priority update we will look at for the future."

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