Sony has come good on its promise to turn the ubiquitous PS3 console into a 3D Blu-ray player by way of a free firmware update. No cost; no catches; your console just went fully 3D.

It's a remarkable piece of forward planning by the PlayStation division that not only gives its black box an edge in the war with Microsoft's Xbox 360, but also lends the 3D movement a much needed leg up, effectively putting a 3D Blu-ray player in millions of homes around the world.

But was 3D ever on the roadmap for PS3, or is this a compromised version of it, rushed out in time to play Sony's solitary 3D Blu-ray release and deliver the 3D message being pushed by Sony's marketing?

Extensive testing of an updated PS3 Slim and an older PS3 'Fat' reveals some shortfalls.

Old dog, new tricks

Early adopters that already have a 3DTV to go with their PS3 will have been playing three-dimensional games since the 3.4 firmware update in June. I for one have been hooked on Wipeout HD all over again now that the extra dimension has been added.

With the 3D gaming update came a compromise, though. The maximum resolution in 3D mode dropped to 720p, which of course looks a little soft on a large 1080p screen. Fears of the same thing happening with 3D Blu-ray are unfounded.

Both PS3s manage full HD 3D output, which means you see a frame sequential 1080p image through each eye and a very sharp image on screen. But that's at the expense of audio support for Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Without an HDMI v1.4 port, the PS3 seems unable to output full HD 3D video and high-resolution surround sound at the same time.

In other words, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix of Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs drops to compressed DTS 5.1. This probably won't mean anything to the majority of PS3 owners, but it's a major blow for cinephiles seeking the ultimate home cinema experience. Perhaps it's a situation that can be fixed by firmware at a later date, but Sony's reluctance to reassure HCC readers makes us suspect not.

Updating both a new European PS3 Slim and a legacy PS3 console from the first production batch to hit the US, gave slightly different results. Firmware 3.5 is a big update of 170MB and it brings an attractive orange interface, but few other changes beyond 3D BD compatibility.

Now when you load the 3D Blu-ray release of Cloudy... the '3D detected' message pops up and you have the choice of watching in either 2D or 3D. Played on the PS3, the movie has all the detail and depth of field you get with a dedicated 3D player.

The film's colour palette is the highly unrealistic and lurid mix of reds and purples that appeals to kids and it is all faithfully reproduced by the console. The image is sharply resolved at 1080p, although there is, however, the usual drop in brightness, which means you'll get much better results if you dim the room lighting.

The 3D effect is just as successful here as on Sony's dedicated deck, the BDP-S470. There's a clearly defined perspective to the film that puts key characters in the foreground and scenery behind, and it adds to the fun when hamburgers appear fly through the screen and into the room.

Firmware oddities

There are scenes, however, where the 3D scope just looks odd. Fast-forward to Chapter 12 and the warehouse looks suitably cavernous with ropes dangling eerily in the foreground, but the view of lead character Flint in the dustbin is strangely out of focus on one side. All of the rubbish at the bottom of the bin should be on the same plane, but instead only half is sharply resolved, while the other half is blurred. This seems to be more an issue of the disc than the PS3, however.

Apart from the criminal lack of lossless audio, another oddity of the firmware updated PS3 is the way the film flips into 2D whenever you call up the onscreen menu. It automatically reverts to 3D when you resume play, so it's not a problem by any means, but just a little inconsistent.

Far more worrying are the compatibility issues. Our legacy PS3 wouldn't recognise Monsters vs Aliens on 3D Blu-ray for example, which is frustrating given the dearth of 3D material available right now. It does play on the PS3 Slim, though, which may indicate a limitation of the older console.

So, the PS3's transition to a full HD 3D Blu-ray player is a bit of letdown. Free 3D playback can't be sniffed at, but the lack of lossless audio is a major issue. Basically, if you're as committed to lossless audio as you are to 3D images, the PS3 is a no-go as a 3D player, and you're best off buying a dedicated deck.

We desperately hope that Sony will figure out how to fix this – and iron out the disc incompatibility issues.

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First published in Home Cinema Choice Issue 189

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