IN PRAISE OF THE REAL PLAYSTATION 3

People who have known me through the years know that I’m a hardware enthusiast at heart.  I like to tell people that I’m hardware-agnostic, and that I play no favorites when it comes to computer and console-gaming systems.  I tend to buy pretty much all kinds of PCs, gadgets and consoles, playing with them, comparing the quality of the graphics and their performance.

But here’s the truth:  occasionally a piece of hardware is special enough that it just manages to sneak in and occupy a special place in this gamer’s heart.  For this generation of consoles, which is about to end in about a month’s time, that piece of hardware is the original PS3.

ken-kutaragi-ps3

So what is the original PS3?  If you read the excellent book by David Shippy, “The Race for a New Game Machine”, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  Shippy was the Chief Systems Architect of the IBM PowerPC CPU technology in the Xbox 360 and PS3.  That’s right, both machines were conceived at the same IBM facility in Texas, and share the same core CPU technology.  The PS3 was designed first, in accordance with Ken Kutaragi’s vision, and with Sony and Toshiba engineers that relocated from Japan to Texas just for the project.  They hit some pitfalls along the way, like their failure to complete work on a custom GPU for the system, which required them to buy and use the RSX GPU from Nvidia at the last minute, but the end result was pretty much with what Kutaragi wanted:  a unique, fast as Hell CPU, with seven Synergistic Processing Units to help with calculations; a powerful graphics processor (Nvidia RSX); the massive storage allowed by the BluRay drive, and an internal 20GB or 60GB hard drive.  And the final element:  inside every PS3 the system designers included total hardware backward compatibility with the original Playstation and Playstation 2.  The latter was as much of a custom Japanese gaming hardware system as can be, so Kutaragi opted for the “caveman solution”:  inside each and every one of those systems Sony included the entire hardware equivalent of a PS2.

When you put a computer chip engineer like Kutaragi-san in charge of a company, the problem is that the bottom line is not exactly his top priority.  Kutaragi was getting his awesome custom, exotic piece of Japanese gaming hardware, costs and the bottom line be damned!  So, to make the story short:  even at an unbelievable price of $799.99 Sony would up losing a lot of money on every PS3 sold… in fact, Sony lost hundreds of millions of dollars.  At the same time, the console’s high retail price drove buyers away to the less costly and already established Xbox 360, which had launched a year earlier to great success.  Sony was in a no-win scenario, unless it took some hard decisions.  The company fired Kutaragi, and started removing hardware features from the PS3, to lower its cost and retail price.  Playstation 2 backward compatibility was the first to go, first partially, through the removal of one of the core PS2 chips, and later completely.  Extra USB ports were eliminated, hard drive size was set at 40GB (though that increased soon, as hard drive prices dropped).  The resulting system still ran PS3 games like a champ, and emulated original Playstation games in software, but it couldn’t run Playstation 2 games anymore.  To combat piracy, Sony removed the option to install Linux on the PS3, which angered hobbyists and tinkerers to no end.  The cost reduced machine, while still a good console, was far removed from what Kutaragi had originally envisioned.

I own several of those original 60GB Playstation 3 launch units.  They still work like champs, and I love that I can put any Playstation or Playstation 2 game in them and it will just work.  I watch BluRay movies, as well as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Cunchyroll and Crackle programming on them.  The only one that gave me any trouble was one whose hard drive crashed.  Those machines had another advantage, still enjoyed by latter PS3 SKUs (though it’s not as easy to do on those):  the hard drive is easily user-replaceable, by removing a plastic door and a few screws.  I dropped a 120 GB hard drive from a broken Toshiba laptop I had lying around.  The PS3 formatted the drive automatically and boom, as good as new with twice the storage space.

If you’re wondering about the reason why Sony puts so much emphasis on the easy to work with nature of the AMD hardware in the Playstation 4, it’s because of all the problems they had with the Playstation 3’s exotic custom chips and hardware.  This time around, Sony is not losing money on every PS4 sold.  On the other hand, the PS4 and Xbox One are not the cutting, bleeding edge gaming hardware the PS3 and Xbox 360 were back in 2005-2006.  The stories of developers struggling to get games running at 1080p bear this out.  The Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 are the last of their kind, and I’ll have a drink in their honor.  Kanpai! 😉

THE MMO OF THE WEEK

The MMO of the Week is Lord of the Rings Online. I’ve rediscovered it after leaving it for several years, and it still looks beautiful, and it’s lots of fun.  And it’s the good kind of free-to-play.

THE GAME OF THE WEEK

While the world plays Pokemon X/Y (which I bought) I’m still playing through Grand theft Auto V, and enjoying every minute of it.

THE MOVIE OF THE WEEK

The movie of the week is Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro’s love song to Japanese giant robot anime.  Hideo Kojima went crazy on Twitter over this one, and it’s out this week on BluRay and DVD.  Don’t miss it!