Hands-On with the New Sony PlayStation Video Store

The ballyhooed PlayStation Video store lauded by Sony at its E3 2008 press conference yesterday is now live and you don't need to download a thing to get to it! Just have the latest 2.41 firmware installed, a PlayStation Network ID selected, and you can dive in with a simple tap on your XMB's PlayStation Store icon.

(You you can view the store with a PC browser. Check it out, though you'll need a PlayStation ID to login.)

Once you're in the PSN, the actual video button that takes you to the store is oddly inconspicuous, a tiny capsule icon sequestered out of the way in the upper left hand corner next to "Games," and unless you're looking for it, easy to miss. I've encountered dozens of posts on various forums in the last several hours from confused PS3 owners along the lines of "It's up? Where???" because they're looking for something a little splashier and obvious.

Cursor up and give it a tap and you're whisked into a sleek "sort-by" interface with banner ads popping in like boxouts on a conventional web page and category selection options on the left divvied into the following: New Arrivals, Movies, Television, Anime, Available in HD, Rental, Purchase, and Top Downloads.

Getting around from there is pretty straightforward and works exactly like the rest of the recently updated PlayStation Store. Just click on something and you drill down, or tap the "back" button to pull up again. One deficiency I noticed, though, was a lack of hierarchical labeling to give you a sense of where you're at. To be fair, you can only drill in three or four layers at any given point, so it's hard to get lost, but since you can access the same content from multiple nodes, it's impossible to quickly tell whether you're looking at a movie like Hellboy via New Arrivals, Movies, Available in HD, Rental, etc.

Consider how easy it'd be to run a single line of text along the top of the screen. Something, say, like...Movies --> Science Fiction --> Hellboy --> Hellboy HD.

It'd be nice to see an index like that in a future store iteration, if only as a friendly way to help us keep our bearings. Given the mangled way hitting SELECT to read the service's "about" info works, I gather Sony's challenge is screen real estate (the two or three word subheads for the "about" section have to scroll left-to-right just to be legible, making its menu-bar look like a sloppy collision of letters and dots).

'Top Downloads' is currently empty -- no surprise, and I'll bet Sony gives it a week or more to let the numbers aggregate.

As for the content itself, it's pretty much what you'd expect from a startup offering, mostly recent fare from shlock-blockbusters like Cloverfield and 10,000 BC all the way over to stuff like Juno, 3:10 to Yuma, Napoleon Dynamite, and one of my personal favorite films of last year, The Darjeeling Limited. You've got a sprinkling of older films too, from Dances With Wolves and Hoosiers to Hannibal, Donnie Brasco, Child's Play, etc. and the option to view by movie genres or even individual studios, e.g. Disney, 20th Century Fox, MGM, Sony, etc.

Drill on a movie and you're presented with options to buy or rent either SD (standard definition), or as available, HD (high definition) content. As reported, costs for rentals range from $3 to $4 in SD, $6 in HD. I checked a couple dozen films and found the size range for HD movies tends to run between 5 and 8 GB versus 1.5 to 2 GB for SD versions. Expect those numbers to be notably higher if Sony starts offering 3 to 4 hour long stuff, e.g. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings' director cuts.

While most shows include basic info like release dates, length, size, language, and cast info, it's still but a fraction of what you can get on IMDB, which is too bad, because if ever a service screamed for that kind of interactivity, this is it. It's also not possible to see exactly what specific resolution HD content you're dealing with. 720p? 1080i? 1080p? Roll the dice, I guess.

Even odder, you can't actually buy HD content, you can only rent it. Rentals are for 14 days with a grace period of 24 hours once the content starts playing, whereas SD purchases range from $10 to $15. SD can be upscaled, of course, but not letting you optionally buy HD content's a huge dealbreaker for me. I absolutely refuse to play SD content on my 1080p LCD, upscaled or no, because it frankly looks like washed out junk. Is this Sony's way of keeping attention away from the obvious issue of storage capacity? You can probably cram around 30 1.5 GB SD movies onto a 60 GB PS3, but only 8 or so 6.5GB HD versions.

The TV component works more or less the same as the movie one, including a very smart option to browse by TV network (A&E, History Channel, Adult Swim, Discovery, etc.). Think Family Guy, Prison Break, Afro Samurai, and tons more. But the service also has its own stack of oddball gotchas.

For instance: All three seasons of shows like Arrested Development are available, but bizarrely missing episodes like the first and thirteenth of Season One. The first two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are up, but not the latter five. And some shows that are regularly broadcast in HD like "Deadliest Catch" are only available in SD here. Are these accidental oversights? Licensing issues? Or simply a case of Sony overreaching and playing catchup?

Store performance should be less of an issue for those of you on really fast connections, but satellite owners and anyone with a 1.5Mbps or slower connection will experience notable load times as the system draws and redraws scads of thumbnails. Thankfully you don't have to deal with any annoying auto-loading video ads, but the architecture apparently doesn't cache those thumbnails, so moving around as quickly as you'll naturally want to can turn into a sluggish waiting game.

There's more to say here about downloading and PSP syncing, but I'll pause to spare your eyeballs and say more later. Overall, I'd probably rate it somewhere in the B / B-minus range, leaning toward a B-plus for effort. With threadbare video info, sluggish load times, sequentially incomplete shows, no HD version purchase option, etc., it feels a little rough around the edges. Expect to see dozens of tweaks in the weeks and months to come as users weigh in on what's hot versus what's not.

In other words, like anything else these days, file it under "Work In Progress."

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