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review added: 11/15/00

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Sony PlayStation 2

review by Greg Suarez of The Digital Bits

Sony PlayStation 2

Performance Ratings - Video Games (Video/Audio): A+/A
The graphics are unbelievable. Period. For game console-heads like myself, this is Eden. Sega's Dreamcast is close to the PS2 in graphics power and smooth animation, but the PS2 steps up the overall presentation and kills the Sega in the versatility contest. Game audio is usually impressive as well, depending on the artistic choices of the programmers.

Performance Ratings - DVD-Video (Video/Audio): A-/A-
There are a couple of built-in video "tweaks" that can be applied to DVD playback on the PS2, that can both help and hurt the picture. But the default settings seem to be the best trade-off for both anamorphic and non-anamorphic DVDs. Darker scenes seem to be portrayed a bit too dark, with slight smearing, but this is so minor that it will likely not be noticed by most users under most conditions.

Performance Rating - Music CDs (Audio): C+
Imaging and clarity are very good compared with most budget-priced, mainstream CD players. However, both imaging and clarity break down somewhat when compared to a higher-end Sony ES CD player, for example. The output level from the analog jacks is very low, requiring a higher volume setting than normal.

Value/Overall Rating: A-/A+
At $299 a pop, the PS2 isn't cheap, especially considering the now lower $150 price of the Sega Dreamcast - a system close in gameplay and graphics power. Also, it's inevitable that the $299 price tag will be cut around this time next year, when Sony feels the heat from the new Microsoft X-Box and Nintendo GameCube consoles. But the bottom line is that for $299, you're getting the ultimate video game console experience in the solar system today, a DVD player on par with most mass-market units, a decent CD player, plus Internet connectivity (tentatively in 2001) for surfing and gaming with your best friends thousands of miles away. And the "coolness" factor of this machine is second to none. There's only one word to sum up the PS2, and that is SWEET!

Specs and Features

Performance Features: NTSC, supports PlayStation 2 and PlayStation software, Region-1 DVD-Video playback, Dolby Digital/DTS pass-through, compact disc playback, compatible with broadband Internet service (tentatively in 2001)

Output Terminals: Integrated A/V Multi-Out compatible with composite, S-Video or component video (Integrated A/V Multi-Out connections contain 2-channel analog audio outputs), optical digital audio

Input Terminals: Two controller pad ports (compatible with DualShock and DualShock 2 controllers), two memory card ports (compatible with PlayStation cards and 8MB PlayStation 2 cards), two USB ports, expansion bay for hard disk drive

Input/Output Terminal: S400 i.LINK (IEEE 1394 FireWire) up to 400 Mbps

Included Accessories: One DualShock 2 analog controller, integrated composite video/analog audio cable, AC power cord, instruction manual

Recommended Accessories: 8MB PlayStation 2 memory card, S-Video or component video cabling, second DualShock 2 analog controller

Physical Properties: 12"/3.125"/7.25" (W/H/D), 5 lb. 5 oz.

"How long you been waiting in line?" (or, Getting your hands on a PS2)

Not many things will get a person up eagerly at 4 AM. But I had no trouble getting up at such an early hour on the morning of the big day - PlayStation 2 Day - October 26, 2000. Some people had been waiting in line all night at the neighborhood Best Buy, but I planned ahead and pre-ordered my brand-spanking new PS2 way back in March. I was pretty confident that I'd have mine at launch despite Sony's shocking announcement in September that, due to parts shortages, the number of units headed to the U.S. on launch day (one million to be exact) would be sliced in half. This, dear readers, is why some of you are banging your heads into the wall in frustration looking for one to call your very own.

You might be wondering why I was so stupid as to pass up sleep when, after all, I was confident of getting my PS2. Well, this was an exciting event and I enjoyed the time I spent in line with my fellow gamers, discussing the system and basking in the thrill and anticipation of the moment Electronics Boutique opened their doors and gave up the goods.

Okay, enough prologue already! You came for a look at the PS2, and that's exactly what you're gonna get...

Nuts n' Bolts of the PlayStation 2

With the ever-maddening pace of development and popularity in the high-tech world of PCs, the Internet, video games and home theater, the word "convergence" has actually started to mean something. A one-box solution to all your entertainment needs (DVD, Internet, video games, CDs) is Sony's aim for the PlayStation 2 (PS2). Riding on the staggering success of their first generation gaming system, PlayStation (PSX), Sony decided to evolve their CD-ROM based system many steps further. Graphics/gameplay power has been dramatically elevated, DVD-Video playback capability is now on-board (the games are, in fact, DVD-based), CD playback returns and, eventually, PS2 owners will be able to enjoy broadband Internet connectivity for both surfing the Net and playing games with friends on-line. Sony is on the right track with the PS2 to succeed in the monumental task of achieving convergence while leaving both high-tech entertainment geeks (like yours truly) and casual video gamers begging for more.

Packed in an unassuming (but beautiful) electric blue box, the PS2 is a sleek, black, industrial-looking contraption that seems more like something Q would supply James Bond with than the next generation entertainment machine. However, the laser-sharp, purple-blue PS2 logo and stylishly embossed Compact Disc, DVD-Video, DVD-ROM, Dolby Digital and DTS logos on the top panel assure you that this an entertainment device of some power and not a briefcase-sized nuclear weapon. The unit seems heavier than any of its competitors and feels much more solid than its predecessor. The PSX had a flip-up door to load discs, while the PS2 has a sturdy motorized drawer. Also new for the PS2 are two USB ports (for connecting peripherals like a keyboard or a mouse) and an IEEE 1394 (aka FireWire) input/output connection for broadband Internet connectivity - Sony calls this i.LINK. This feature will allow for Internet surfing and the ability to play games with other PS2 owners on Sony's network once it's up and working. Sony hopes to have its network on-line sometime in 2001, and will require a monthly subscription fee to access it. An expansion port, located on the rear of the unit, will accept a future accessory hard disk, which has an unknown release date as of now. What all this means, dear readers, is that the PS2 is quite a versatile machine that is designed to allow for even greater versatility in the future.

Front of unit

Back of unit

Connection to your television can be done by either composite, S-Video, or component video cabling. Video output and analog audio outputs are integrated into one bundle via an A/V Multi-Out. On tap for both video gaming and DVD playback is an optical digital output that can pass Dolby Digital and DTS bit-streams from corresponding discs. Included with the PS2 is a set of composite video/analog audio cables. But if you have the ability to take advantage of S-Video or component video connections, do it! The extra amount of detail afforded by the latter connections is worth every penny that the cables will cost you.

On the gaming front, control pad jockeys can plug into one of two control pad ports, which support both the first-gen DualShock controller and the new DualShock 2 controller. If you're into role playing games, or setting up a season in Madden NFL 2001, there's also room on-board for two memory cards. Keep in mind that original PSX games can only be saved on first-gen memory cards, and PS2 games can only be saved on the new 8MB memory cards, so keep one of each handy if you just can't bear to let go of Medal of Honor or Tomb Raider.

Accessories

DualShock controller

Speaking of accessories, make sure you snag that new 8MB memory card because a lot of PS2 games have staggering levels of customization that you will want to take advantage of - not having a card will prove to be very frustrating. If you get lonely, don't hesitate to invite some friends over to join you in a little madcap, beer-greased PS2 gaming mayhem. Many PS2 games have extensive multi-player modes, so make sure you have an extra controller around (or have your friends bring their own controllers along).

So there you have it, the nuts and bolts of the snazzy PlayStation 2. In a few minutes, we'll take a look at a few of the early games available for the PS2. But first, let's see how the system handles DVD movies. So take a break from pummeling quarterbacks and wide receivers in Madden NFL 2001 and watch Brad Pitt pummel emotionally repressed yuppies in Fight Club. After all, this is The Digital Bits, and DVD is what we're all about.

"New Shimmer's a floor wax AND a desert topping!" (or, How does a video game machine do as a DVD player?)

No more excuses. No more whining. You have no reason not to own a DVD player now. At $299, the PlayStation 2 might be a little more expensive than a comparably equipped mainstream DVD player from Sony, but you also get killer video gaming and eventual Internet access all in one box! But you ask, "C'mon Greg, how effective can the PS2 be as a DVD player when it does all that other stuff too?" Well, there's good news and bad news.

First, the bad news. There's only one forward and reverse search speed, which looks to be approximately 2x to 8x. If you watch a lot of DVDs from Universal Studios (which tends to conserve chapter stops like rare elements), the lack of a 30x speed might be a bit annoying. The other gripe I have is that the PS2 does not have a built-in remote control receiver... and, subsequently, does not come with a remote control in the box. While there are several third-party remote controls on the market for the PS2's DVD facilities, I have yet to come across one that is either ergonomic or attractive. Plus, whichever one you choose, the remote's receiving device plugs into one of the controller ports, so if your PS2 does equal duty as a gaming machine and a DVD player, switching back and forth could get rather annoying. However, if you can't (or won't) spend the money for a third-party remote, the DualShock 2 controller included with the PS2 can be used to navigate your DVDs. An icon-based menu will show up on-screen to assist you with set up of the DVD portion of the unit, as well as chapter selection, audio track selection, subtitles, etc. The buttons on the controller are also assigned functions similar to a traditional DVD player remote, but are less intuitive. Using a controller for a DVD remote is doable, but can prove cumbersome.

Now the good news. The PlayStation 2 provides DVD playback on par with most mainstream DVD-only players on the market. Sony has built in two video enhancement options that can have both positive and adverse effects on picture quality. The first option is Digital Noise Reduction (DNR), designed to reduce noise and interference (this is the same basic process sometimes done in post production to your favorite DVD movies - you've heard us call it Digital Video Noise Reduction or DVNR). DNR has two levels of strength (DNR1 and DNR2), or can be turned off altogether. I found very little, if any, difference in video quality with the sample discs I viewed while switching between the various DNR settings. The other tweak available is Outline Sharpening (aka the dreaded edge enhancement). The function of this feature (which has five different settings between sharpest and softest) is pretty self-explanatory. The +2 setting sharpens edges to the point of causing serious noise problems, while the -2 setting turns the picture so soft that objects lose definition. I recommend leaving both DNR and Outline Sharpening set to their default positions - "Off" for DNR, and "0" for Outline Sharpening - especially for the non-videophiles out there, who might harm the picture quality more than help it with these adjustments. To my eyes, the default settings provided the best trade-off of noise and edge enhancement for anamorphic, non-anamorphic and full-frame presentations.

To give the PS2 a workout with anamorphic video on DVD, I popped in the super-hip, bone-crunching flick, Fight Club. Compared with a standard DVD-Video player, I found the PS2 to display almost all of the detail and smoothness that I'm used to seeing, without any MPEG decoding or artifacting problems. Two small problems did appear, however. Very dark scenes such (as the nighttime scenes behind the bar where Tyler and Jack first trade blows) appear a bit too dark, with fine detail blurring somewhat. And I felt that colors were a little over-saturated - they had a little too much pop. But these are fairly minor issues for most people, and a vast majority of viewers will likely never notice them without doing back-to-back comparisons with another player.

The non-anamorphic demo was provided by Criterion's 2-disc release of Armageddon. Again, colors had a bit more bite than I'm used to, but everything else about the video was as good as I'm used to seeing it. The vast cityscape shots of New York in this film prove to be problematic no matter what kind of system you have. Lacking an anamorphic transfer, the outlines of buildings and bridges can appear very jagged, looking like the edge of a serrated knife. Hoping that the PS2's Outline Sharpening feature might alleviate this problem somewhat, I commenced tweaking. But no matter what setting I used, jaggies always remained (the Outline Sharpening softened the jaggies ever so slightly, but at the trade-off of picture detail). Again, my recommendation is to leave Outline Sharpening set to the default position.

Rounding out the DVD examination, I wanted to test the full-frame capability of the PS2, because I know some of you out there still have not come to grips with the idea of letterboxing. So I used the side B, full-screen version of Luc Besson's The Fifth Element from Columbia TriStar. Again, except for slightly too intense colors, all picture aspects were on par with my normal player, including a nice level of detail and good shadow delineation.

Audio from the optical digital output - which can pass both Dolby Digital and DTS bit-streams - is pretty much identical to all other DVD players I have heard (note that the PS2 does not have a built-in Dolby Digital or DTS decoder). It's important to remember that the quality of the Dolby Digital or DTS decoder and digital-to-analog converter(s) in your receiver or processor will have more of an effect on the sound than the DVD player, which simply passes a digital bit-stream. For a brief discussion about the PS2's built-in digital-to-analog converters, see my critique of the PS2's playback of compact discs (on the second page of this report).

So, what have we learned? The PlayStation 2 makes an excellent DVD player, despite some extremely trifling video anomalies and a couple of ergonomic flaws. If you were afraid that the PS2 would be a second rate DVD spinner, think again. When you're finished impressing your friends with some amazing video games, impress them even further with some reference caliber DVDs.

Lock n' load... feel the power... rev your engines (or whatever you need to do to get hyped), 'cuz we're about to shoot some bad guys, lob some 40 yard touchdown passes and outrun the cops when we turn our attention to the PS2's video game personality of the hyperactive PlayStation 2.

"We Got Game!" (or, A look at PS2 software)

Boy, oh boy! Everything from playability and graphics power, to the packaging and appearance of the game discs has changed with the PS2... and changed for the better. The first thing you'll notice is that the PS2 games are packaged in Amaray/Alpha-style keep cases, just like DVDs from studios such as Columbia TriStar and Universal. Original PSX games come in standard CD jewel cases, so this new packaging means that PS2 games can be easily distinguished from their cousins. Opening the PS2 game case, you'll see that the instruction manual is the size of a DVD insert, allowing for a larger, more flexible layout to the manual. The biggest surprise I got was opening my first PS2 game, Madden NFL 2001, and flipping the disc to its data side. The surface is a brilliant blue-purple color instead of the dead black of PSX games. What that excited me I don't know, but it did. PS2 is all about the visceral experience I guess.

One of Sony's biggest selling features of the PS2, is that the new console is backwards compatible. In other words, it can read first generation PSX games too. And, buried in the set-up menu that's found whenever the system is booted up without a disc, the user can adjust two settings within the PSX driver: Disc Speed and Texture Smoothing. Disc Speed will increase load times of PSX games, while Texture Smoothing attempts to smooth out some of the jaggies and rough graphics of PSX games. Both features don't work with every game and, when they do work, I found that the improvements were minor. Still, it's nice to be able to squeeze every last bit of fun from your old software. Actually, the biggest boost in picture quality to your old PSX games is not so much from the Texture Smoothing feature, as it is in the simple upgrade from composite video to S-Video or component video cabling. Trust me - the better connections and cables do make a difference.

Out of the 27 PS2 titles available at launch, I decided to pick up the five that interested me the most. So, on the next page, you'll find brief reviews of Madden NFL 2001, Midnight Club Street Racing, Smuggler's Run, TimeSplitters and Unreal Tournament. Before reading each review, keep in mind that what these games offer in terms of graphics power, visual depth, fluidity of action and quality audio presentation downright slays almost anything you can get on a gaming console today (although, as I said, the Sega Dreamcast comes close). These are not meant to be definitive reviews of these games, but rather the idea is to give you a straightforward, layman's look at some of what the PS2 has to offer. So... on to the games!


on to page 2



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