Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: PlayStation 3 3D Display

Yes, I'll admit it.  I'm a gadget geek.  I'm like a kid in a candy store when it comes to playing with all the cool new hi-tech toys on the market.  I love when I get the chance to take "new features" or "upgraded technology" for a spin.  So when Sony first announced plans to release a PlayStation branded 3D display in November, I was itching to get my hands on one and put it through its paces.  Unfortunately, the usual pre-Christmas end of year rush kept me from thinking about it too much, except for those occasions I'd see the display at retail and say to myself, "Hey David. There's that PlayStation display again.  Y'know, sooner or later you should really check that out and maybe even write up a piece on it."  To which I'd follow-up with, "Umm, I really need to stop talking to myself out loud like that. People are beginning to stare."

Well thanks to those blackmail pictures I have of Santa's risque summer vacation (as well as a convenient sale at Best Buy dropping the price to $299 this week), I've got the PlayStation 3D Display hooked up in the office and ready to go.  So now comes the big question ... "Is this thing actually any good?"

I started this piece off talking about my love of gadgetry, but I've also been a video game geek for a LONG time.  From my days of playing three different Pong knockoffs on my old Telstar, to playing Star Wars: Jedi Arena and Atlantis on my Atari 2600, to dumping quarters in the arcades for just one more round of Xevious and Kung-Fu Master, to defending the Mushroom Kingdom in Super Mario Bros. and staking Dracula in Castlevania on my NES, and all the way through to seeking out lost treasures in Uncharted 3 and getting my groove on in Dance Central 2 on my PS3 and 360.  Because of this, I think it's pretty safe to assume that I've got plenty of firsthand experience on the evolution of video game visuals.

While I'm fairly certain that there's no display on the market which will magically make my Atari 2600 pump out any sort of sugary eye candy, what the PlayStation 3D Display does for the current generation of consoles (and, of course, the PS3 in particular) is pretty impressive ... particularly at that $399.99 MSRP.  After getting over the initial shock of the smaller screen size (I've been playing games on a 37" screen for a couple of years), I was surprised by the overall quality of the picture.  Images were crisper and sharper that I expected.  Although the "Standard" picture settings felt a little off, switching over to either "Dynamic" or "Cinema" settings made everything pop.  Of course, picture is a matter of taste, so you can always tweak things to your heart's content with a "Custom" setting.  But no matter which setting you choose, the screen's native 240Hz refresh rate guarantees that the onscreen action runs smooth as silk with little to no "ghosting" seen in many comparable displays.  This high refresh rate also helps ensure that the display's 3D performance also stays smooth and vibrant, since a display's refresh rate is essentially cut in half when accommodating active shutter glasses.

Speaking of the 3D performance on the PlayStation 3D Display's (seriously Sony, no one could come up with a catchier moniker for this thing), I've got to say using that it in conjunction with the PS3's Blu-ray 3D support is fantastic.  Any doubts I had about the value of the display vanished after I popped in a 3D copy of TRON: Legacy.  Everything jumped out from the 24" display and felt like it was right in front of me even from across the room.  More impressive, the display didn't lose any quality even moving around to different viewing angles.  And thanks to the display's built-in subwoofer, the sound had a little extra "umph".  It might not replace anyone's Dolby Surround Sound system, the display pumps out better audio that I'd have thought the small speakers were capable of.  In fact, the only problem I really had using the display had more to do with its high gloss (and overly reflective) coating occasionally bouncing back some of the room's background light sources.  If you've ever tried to play a PSP in a brightly lit room, you know what I'm talking about.  Of course the simple solution to this is to just turn off any unnecessary lighting.

As cool as the 3D is, it's still not the most interesting feature of the PlayStation 3D Display.  That distinction goes to the display's unique "SimulView" feature.  In case you've missed it, SimulView takes the technology behind active shutter 3D glasses and "tweaks" it in a very game-centric manner.  Usually, these 3D glasses work by shuttering in sync with the television in order to give each eye its own image and recreate a 3D experience.  What SimulView does is to shutter both lenses at the same time in sync with one picture, while shuttering a both lenses on second pair of 3D glasses in sync with a different image.  So what's the result?  Two people watching the same screen get to see two distinctly different points of view.  What's this do for gaming?  Remember how much you used to love getting friends together for some split-screen gameplay ... but you HATED when your friends would sneak a peek at your screen? Well, thanks to the SimulView feature, each player gets his own full screen without the ability to spy on the other player's action.  This all sounds like a cool trick on paper, but how is it in practice?  Actually, it works beautifully.  I've played around with it for a while now, and I've yet to run into any problems or bleed through of the opponent's screen.

Now, there are a few caveats to keep in mind with SimulView.  First and foremost, because of how SimulView works, each player's screen is presented in 2D, not 3D.  Also, just like regular split-screen gaming, there's no separate audio stream, meaning that while you can't SEE your opponent's actions on the screen, you'll still HEAR everything they're up to.  Finally (and most importantly), SimulView is only supported by a small number of games (so far, at least).  More games are supposedly coming with SimulView support, plus current games can add support later via downloadable patches if the developers choose to do so.  However, it's hard to gauge just how much time and effort developers will put into SimulView support unless and until the technology takes off with gamers.

I've gotta say that as much as I'm digging my PlayStation 3D Display, there are some fairly glaring faults ... most of which COULD be contributed to Sony trying to eye its bottom line.  For starters, it's being marketed as a "3D bundle", but the package deal is pretty light on content to actually call itself a "bundle".

Here's everything you get in the package:
  • 1 24" PlayStation 3D Display unit
  • 1 black plastic stand for the display unit
  • 1 AC power cord
  • 1 6.5' HDMI cable
  • 1 pair of PlayStation branded universally compatible active 3D glasses
  • 1 cloth pouch for those glasses
  • 1 Micro USB cable for charging the glasses (about 11" in length, tip to tip)
  • 1 MotorStorm Apocalypse game

Notice anything missing here?  I sure did.  For starters, if one of your biggest selling points is going to be the SimulView technology, allowing two players to play together ... why in the hell did Sony decide NOT to include a second set of 3D glasses?  It just seems odd to put so much focus on a feature that you can't actually use right out of the box.  And just to throw a little extra salt in the wound, the included copy of MotorStorm Apocalypse is one of the early games that supports SimulView ... but you won't be able to experience it for yourself unless you shell out an extra $60-70 for another set of glasses.

Oh, and while we're talking about things NOT included in the bundle, would it have killed Sony to include a simple remote control?  I mean, the display has an IR port FOR a remote, but it doesn't actually include one.  Huh?  I'm sure it's an excuse to upsell gamers on the newly redesigned official PlayStation remote, but my recommendation is to just grab the nearest universal remote and use it.  I was lucky enough to have my TiVo remote handy and, sure enough, the first Sony code listed operated the main functions of the display just fine.

My last gripe could be just a minor nuisance to some or a near deal-breaker for others.  It has to do with the display's inputs ... or rather it's lack thereof.  The PlayStation 3D Display has just three input options: 2 HDMI and 1 component.  Considering the number of gadgets I have in the office, that's just not enough.  Sure, it's a problem easily remedied with a $20 HDMI switch box, but just like the remote control, it's not something I feel like I should have to buy.  Unlike the remote, though, I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who will do just fine with only 3 input ports.

Despite a few minor flaws and a relatively small size, I've got to say that, on the whole, I'm impressed with the PlayStation 3D Display.  This small unit packs a surprising visual performance.  It's never going to replace your main living room TV, but it makes for nice game room addition.  And at just $400, it's hard to deny that you're getting plenty of 3D bang for your buck.


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