In-depth look at the PlayStation Video Store
By Matt Bailey
Finally, the media package is complete. The PlayStation 3 has offered much to those forming a media centre in their living room, with a decent music player, DivX-capable video player that can stream over the network, and of course the Blu-ray drive for HD films. Here in the UK we've also received VidZone - Sony's free music video streaming service, and of course, BBC iPlayer, now available directly from the Cross Media Bar (XMB). However, it's only recently that we've received the final piece in the puzzle; the Video Store, which is already being heavily promoted by Sony.
The PlayStation Store launched in Europe with the PS3 back in March 2007, and has since been serving up demos, trailers, themes, download-only titles such as the PixelJunk series, and even full games on Blu-ray, like Burnout Paradise. While it did very well serving up all these features to PS3 oners, particularly since the Store was properly integrated with the system last year, Europe was left behind for quite a while on the video front. North Americans have had the ability to rent films since July 2008, but our long wait seems to have been worthwhile with a collection of over 800 titles already available only a short time after launch.
There's a reasonable portion of those 827 films (at the time of writing) in HD too; 164 HD movies are available for rental, usually costing £4.49 or £3.49, which is £1 more expensive than the standard definition rental. The rentals last for 14 days from purchase, and can be played as many times as you like within 48 hours from the first time you start watching. You can also buy movies from the PlayStation Store, usually priced at about £11.99 for new releases and £6.99 for older ones. Unfortunately at the moment these are only in standard definition, with Sony planning to introduce HD films to buy at some point in the future. However, considering that rivals such as the Zune Marketplace on Xbox 360 and the iTunes Store don't have purchases either, or won't let you buy any HD movies without an Apple TV, this is not a particularly large downside at this point.
However, an important thing to note is what we're still missing; TV shows. The rights issues for things like US TV appear to be so complex at the moment that Sony has taken a step back from trying to offer a similar service here, and indeed Microsoft have done the same on the Xbox 360 too. Apple, however, has succeeded in this area, so we hope that it's something Sony will eventually introduce. We have more hope that they can get people like BBC Worldwide and Channel 4 on board, as these British companies already put content on YouTube and the MSN Video Player, as well as iTunes. We also appear to be missing certain films; despite the prescence of Warner Bros. there's no sign of The Matrix, and we have Alien films 2 through 4, but not the first one. These are just a few of the oddities in the film selection that we expect will be ironed out in time.
The service looks like it will be well supported, with Sony adding new content each week. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince arrived on the Store soon after release on DVD and Blu-ray, and there's plenty of other films being put online all the time. It's also pleasing to see films which start off as purchase-only become available for rental later on too. Over 200 films are purchase-only, and a large chunk of the new releases fall into that category, but steadily we're seeing new films become available to rent.
The mechanism for getting content is as easy as it is for any other piece of content on the PlayStation Store. From the main page there's a range of options, such as browsing new arrivals, HD films, or finding films via genres. When you select a film you might get a choice of options, such as whether to rent it on SD or HD, or to make a standard definition purchase. If it's only available as a purchase, you'll be taken straight to the next screen. As with every item on the PlayStation Store you get a description, and the ability to either pay for it right away, or add it to a virtual shopping cart. Some films also offer up a video preview on this screen, which will stream right away. The best part is that the cost of rentals and purchases are listed in real money, that's Pound Sterling, rather than something like Microsoft or Wii Points. Once you complete the transaction, you're able to download the film, which may take some time if it's an HD rental, with films coming in at around the 7GB mark. Unlike games purchases, once the download is completed it cannot be downloaded again, but you do have the option of backing up rented or purchased to external media, like a USB flash drive or hard disk drive.
Another option is to transfer films to your PSP. Both rented and purchased movies can be transferred to, and played on, the Sony handheld. At least, standard definition rentals can be. You can also download films directly to the PSP via the PlayStation Store on the handheld, or via the Media Go software for Windows PCs. Unfortunately, despite the lower resolution of the handheld, you still need to download the same file, usually over 2GB in size. This is a lot of space to take up on a Memory Stick Duo, but the up side is that you can use exactly the same files across the PSP and PS3, letting you use the PSP as a backup, and making the transfer process a lot easier and quicker. The video quality on the device is impressive, and makes the hassle of clearing space worthwhile.
Talking of video quality, it's worth discussing what films will look like on an HDTV via your PS3. The service currently offers 720p movies that look crisp and don't suffer from any compression put in place by Sony. It does compare less favourably with the Zune Marketplace, though, which now offers 1080p movies via an instant streaming method, which means you can get better video quality, and don't have to wait so long to watch. However, as with other video files from the PlayStation Store, you can actually begin watching while the film is downloading. Unless you have a superfast connection, you're certainly going to have to wait a while before you can watch an HD movie though without catching up with the download, but it's nice that the option is there.
So, Sony have jumped into the market with a service that rivals existing offerings well. The selection of movies, and greater choice of HD content certainly puts the service above the likes of the Zune Marketplace and the iTunes Store in these areas, and the ability to put content on a PSP compares well with the ability to do the same with an iPod or iPhone on Apple's service. There are certainly some improvements to be made, but already the PlayStation video store is shaping up to be the best and easiest way to download and watch films on your TV from the comfort of your sofa.