Sony PlayStation 3 vs Microsoft Xbox 360 with HD DVD Player

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This week, the titans are clashing. Sony and Microsoft, both notorious for pulling out all the stops, are going head to head with their latest game machines. Although not a gamer, I'm drawn to the PS3 and the Xbox 360 (and its new trimmings) as feats of hitherto unseen technological wonder. Both companies have bet recklessly on their platforms, and both see them as gaming plus a whole lot more. So while the gaming world has its own critiques — and while the Nintendo Wii continues to charm with its less performance-based attitude — my desire was to see what the Xbox and PS3 could do in the way of movies, music and other entertainment. I tethered both of them to a smokin' 46-in. Sharp 1080p high-definition LCD TV and let them rip.

Most gamers know that the PS3's delay was caused by its Blu-ray drive, and many suggest that the Blu-ray advantage isn't worth the price or the wait. Sure, movies on Blu-ray have a picture quality six times higher than a standard DVD, but the vast majority of so-called high definition TVs don't even have the 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution (known as 1080p) to show Blu-ray's full glory. From a home-theater point of view, though, the PS3 was not only the first Blu-ray player to be priced well under $1,000, but the first to be introduced from Sony, the mother of the Blu-ray initiative. In other words, for anyone who already has a sweet 1080p TV, or is planning to spend $2,500 or more to get one, the PS3 is almost a requirement, being one of the only reliable sources of full HD video.

If you don't know about Blu-ray, it's because it's not the only successor to the DVD. A few companies, including Microsoft, support a different standard for next-generation movie discs, called HD DVD. The conflict between the two formats has made it tough for consumers to make any decisions, so sales have been miniscule. But now that Sony's Blu-ray is appearing in Sony's eagerly anticipated PS3, Microsoft's HD DVD format is appearing in, you guessed it, Microsoft's Xbox 360. Okay, not "in" the Xbox-an accessory drive that connects to the console via USB has just gone on sale for $200. That brings the total for Microsoft's premium high-def-movie playing system to $600, the same price as the premium PS3.

I'm a big fan of high-definition TVs, even the more affordable 720p sets, and I can vouch for the fact that whether they're on Blu-ray or HD DVD, movies look much better than they do on standard DVDs. Pop in the Blu-ray edition of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby that comes with the PS3, and you're blown away by the detail (and by how old and pockmarked Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly look up close). Likewise, load up the copy of Peter Jackson's King Kong that ships with the Xbox HD DVD player, fast forward to an action scene and suddenly, there are two T-Rexes and a gorilla duking it out in your living room. I can't spot the difference between Blu-ray and HD DVD movie; no one but the most finicky of videophiles could. So when looking at both game consoles as a source of high-def movie content, forget about differences in video quality and think more about your gaming preferences as well as the movies themselves, the Blu-ray and HD DVD lineups on or Netflix.

As similar as they are in movie playback, the two platforms are very different in other areas. The PS3 thinks locally — it handles content best when it's on its hard drive, or on a disc in its drive, or on a memory card or USB keychain that's plugged in directly. The Xbox 360 is all about the network.

I take a lot of pictures, and was happy to see that the PS3 came with card readers for not just Sony's Memory Stick, but the more popular SD and CompactFlash as well. You can move photos from memory card to hard drive and back to memory card. I have never seen a device scroll through high-resolution photos faster than the PS3, certainly never blown up on a 46-in. monitor. It even renders your photos in realtime into a 3D animated slideshow, if you so desire.

Bringing photos to the PS3 for review makes sense, but in this era, carrying music on CD to the PS3 to listen makes no sense at all. Yet that's what Sony expects you to do: stick in a CD, let the PS3 go online to look up the tracks, then import it to its hard drive, even though you've probably got thousands of songs already ripped into MP3 format on your computer's hard drive.

Team Xbox knows about your music collection. If the Xbox 360 is connected to your home network (via Ethernet or a $100 Wi-Fi accessory), you can quickly pull up tracks from PCs around the house. You can also stream photos and videos, although not all formats are supported and the photo browsing, while thorough, lacked the sophistication of the PS3. Team Xbox also knows about your iPod. You plug it directly into the Xbox 360 to play any tracks but the ones you bought on iTunes. If you happen to have a Zune, you may plug that into the Xbox 360 as well. It won't shock you to hear that when I plugged the iPod and the Zune into one of the PS3's many USB ports, nothing happened. Of course, the PS3 does support music served up from the PlayStation Portable, if that's where you keep your tunes.

The differences continue. Xbox has a thriving online community and plans to open a video download service on Nov. 22. However, it doesn't give you a web browser. The PS3 does have a browser, plus built-in Wi-Fi and support for Bluetooth wireless earpieces. The craziest thing is that Sony has permitted geeks to load additional operating systems onto the PS3, including Linux. With all that processing power, it's a generous offer, although probably not one that many people will take up.

Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 have talent beyond their ability to give gamers their fix. Where the PS3 has a remarkable aesthetic elegance, the Xbox 360 has a rugged connectedness. Photographers should lean towards the PS3, while music lovers will want to stick with the Xbox 360. For movie buffs, the confusion is greater: while the Blu-ray format is backed by more studios, the new Xbox Marketplace movie and TV store may well become a paragon of convenience. The one thing I do know for sure is that you better be ready to pay. While both are expensive, they come with even pricier hidden costs: to maximize your enjoyment, you need a really nice TV. Then again, if you've already got a really nice TV, you can probably afford them both.