The PlayStation 3 is the Blu-ray player that just keeps giving. Smug owners have seen their console regenerate like a Time Lord to accommodate every new wrinkle that creases the face of the Blu-ray format. Britain's car boot sales, by way of contrast, are knee-deep in first-generation Blu-ray decks so feeble they can't play a disc that even vaguely smells of Java.
The most dramatic example of the Sony console's resilience is its burgeoning romance with 3D. Earlier this summer, the PS3 received its first 3D update, enabling it to play a selection of 3D games from the PlayStation Network. Now the free 3.50 firmware update is available, bequeathing the ability to play actual 3D Blu-ray movie discs. So is the PS3 now a credible alternative to a dedicated 3D Blu-ray player? We compared the console with Sony's highly-regarded BDP-S570, available for around £200, to find out.
PS3 meets 3D TV
It looks like the firmware update has rewritten some of the HDMI code. When we connected our revamped PS3 to a loitering 3D screen, it automatically recognised the display as compatible and prompted us to input the screen size, to best optimise the dimensions of its video output.
Interestingly, you won't find any new parameters in the PS3's video set-up menu for 3D. The update lives unnoticed until you pop in a 3D disc.
If you want to use the PS3 3D with your home-cinema kit, you'll need to invest in an HDMI 1.4 AV receiver, otherwise you won't see any video. We hooked the PS3 up to our 3D screen via an HDMI 1.3 AV receiver just to see how it would behave. All was fine until we selected 'play 3D' on our Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs test disc. At that point, the screen went blank.
PS3 load time trumped
In the past, a big plus for many PS3 owners has been the console's disc-loading speed compared to that of tardy stand-alone machines. The PS3's loading speed remains unchanged with the update, and the console made short order of our collection of 3D movie platters (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Coraline and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs).
For the sake of comparison, we held a disc-to-screen loading race with the BDP-S570. This proved a revelation. The BDP-S570 thrashed the PS3, getting the job done in nearly half the time.
In a 2D picture-performance shoot-out, the stand-alone player also outgunned the PS3, offering more detail in its image. This advantage didn't manifest itself with 3D Blu-ray viewing, however. Any slight flaws the PS3's 3D image may have are insignificant compared to the visual mayhem that the 3D process itself inflicts on the viewer. Active-shutter glasses, for example, reduce an image's brightness, corrupt colours and unbalance whites. Trying to differentiate fine levels of video performance under such circumstances is utterly pointless.
The loss of lossless audio
The most significant difference between our rival 3D disc spinners lies in their audio prowess. In 3D playback mode, the updated PS3 doesn't output lossless audio. That means no Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio with your 3D movies.
With a dedicated 3D deck, you get 1080p 3D for your eyes and high-resolution lossless audio for your ears (provided both are on the disc to begin with -- the 3D release of Monsters vs Aliens comes with Dolby Digital 5.1 only).
The PS3 doesn't match up to a 3D deck like the BDP-S570. But, for tentative explorers of the third dimension, the PS3's 3D update provides a good reason not to buy dedicated 3D hardware -- at least until there's more material to watch in the format. The scarcity of 3D content, and the fact that what's available is largely kid-centric animation, means a 3D-enabled PS3 will probably be good enough for many, despite its limitations.
Ultimately, Sony has done a remarkable job of keeping the PS3 at the bleeding edge of the Blu-ray format. We think this latest firmware update is quietly brilliant, and worth four three-dimensional stars out of five.