Sony PlayTV review

It case you haven’t heard, PlayTV is a digital TV tuner for your PS3. It provides the hardware to receive digital TV signals (Freeview in the UK) and connects to your PS3 via Mini-USB.

Besides the single aerial connection and Mini-USB, there is only an LED – the box is otherwise featureless. Your PS3 has all the power and software to handle the various features available, so in essence, it works pretty much the same as a USB digital TV tuner.

Of course, your PS3 is connected to your HDTV via HDMI (at least we’d hope it is) and you have it set to output in 1080p, so you step into the vague world of upscaling. Does it make TV look better? No, it doesn’t. We found the picture quality was similar to that from the on-board digital tuner in our Samsung TV, a touch blockier, but overall a strong performer. But what it does mean is that you don’t lose quality having looped through the console which is a problem with Scart devices.

Set-up is a breeze and having run through the software installation (we were using a debug review code PS3) a quick scan picked up all the Freeview channels. The first thing that you’ll notice is that the quality of the user interface is absolutely spectacular. If Sony has done one thing, it has set a standard for on-screen menus with PlayTV.

Aside from the quality, the menus are intuitive and lightening fast to navigate. Once the EPG is populated you can browse around it at great speed, much faster than many TV menus, and leagues ahead of our standalone Freeview tuner. We like the speed, the way menus spring up and the timeline running through the EPG, so you know where you are. Also, recording/scheduled programmes appear in red, so you can’t miss them.

With twin tuners, PlayTV can record one channel whilst watching another, but unfortunately you can’t record two programmes at the same time, which is now fairly common in PVRs. You can either browse the EPG and select programmes to record, setting up a schedule, or jump into recording from the channel you are recording.

Scheduled recording will wake the PS3 from standby as it would a PVR. The amount you can record will depend on your model of PS3, but again, if you are looking to archive a large amount of TV, then this is not the way to do it, least not without some fiddling around.

One glaring omission here seems to be the lack of series linking. When you choose to record a programme you get the option to start and finish recording up to 10 minutes either side of the scheduled timings, as well as a dubious "repeat" option, giving you daily or weekly recording options, up to 25 times – so potentially you could set it to record all episodes of Top Gear, so long as they fall on the same time slot and aren't moved by football or snooker. A little primitive.

You also get the normal pause live TV functions and you can opt to have a buffer to rewind live TV if you wish.

Playback of recorded programmes is simply a case of entering the Library in the main menu and here PlayTV has another ace up its sleeve in the form of thumbnail view as well as a normal list view. This means you can skip over your recorded programmes to find what you want and it is exceptionally well delivered. You can then watch your programme, or move a recording out to your home menu, i.e., on the XMB.

One of the controversial points on PlayTV has been the can-you-can’t-you with copying these files to other locations. Once a file is on the XMB, it can be copied to a PSP, USB stick or memory card, however, it is in M2TS format, which we found our PSP wouldn’t recognise and our PC wouldn’t play either (but we didn’t examine third-party conversion options, which do exist). You could, however, dump masses of TV onto memory cards, if that’s your thing.

Remote Play will allow you to link up to your PS3, enter PlayTV, and watch TV on the move. Working over a local Wi-Fi network caused no problems around the house, and with a solid Wi-Fi internet connection we had full access to all live TV channels and all our recorded programmes. Of course, this means you also set new recordings, say, whilst you’re in that meeting in LA, to watch in the hotel afterwards. Whilst great for big kids on the move, but it might pose some problems for parents...

You also are not restricted to watching TV whilst recording. You can still play games whilst recording in the background. This does come with the warning that it might cause a drop in performance, but nothing that we noticed. The great thing about this is that if you have just bought the latest hot title (on the PS3, are you sure?) and you don’t want to stop, then you can record Eastenders for the Missus while you keep gaming.

So what are the downsides? Well, you have to have your PS3 on, which means listening to that fan. Ok, it is not so far removed from many PVRs, but PS3 owners will know all about it. You also have to accept the fact that there is no aerial loop-through either, so you can’t use your regular TV tuner without splitting the signal further down the line (a boosting signal splitter is a cheap addition).

Another consideration is control. Whilst control with a SIXAXIS controller is pretty straight-forward, especially for those who have used multimedia functions of the PS3 before, an overlay is supplied for the (optional) Blu-ray controller.

We did also experience the occasional crash, but have to acknowledge that Sony claimed this was a "pre-release" version, so hopefully crashes will not be a problem for the retail version.

Verdict

Many people have asked about HD support, but whilst we are still in a terrestrial broadcast HD wilderness, I think £70 is a price worth paying – after all, if you paid out for a PVR, you’d experience the same HD dilemmas. This isn’t Sky+ HD and it isn’t Freesat: it’s a DVB-T tuner. What can be achieved in the future with updates remains to be seen.

There is no doubt that adding PlayTV to your PS3 gives you a whole new world of possibilities. The menus systems have been exceptionally well designed and are lightening fast. If you have a PVR, you really don’t need it. If you don’t, then £70 is cheaper than most.

The RF loop through absence is a bore, but one that is easily bypassed. Ok, it doesn’t give you the full range of options you’d get from a standalone PVR unit, but for those that want occasional recording, it suits perfectly well.