Like a box of Cracker Jack, the PlayStation 3 has a little prize inside. Within every PS3 gaming console comes the world's most advanced, most affordable Blu-ray Disc player.
That was true a year ago, too. As long as it remains true, though, Blu-ray has no shot at overtaking DVD as the preferred spinning-disc movie player in the home.
Remember, most people dial a technological 911 when told they must add a simple converter box to their analog television before next year's government-mandated changeover to all-digital signals. You think they're going to wrestle with a PS3, a computer mutant, then spend $30 for a Blu-ray movie they already have on DVD?
It's a tough sell. But for the past several weeks, I've been living (and sometimes wrestling) with a $400 PS3 in my home theater. The PS3 acts like a computer - sluggish and loud, its fan noise like a windstorm on the Mojave - and it uses almost 200 watts of electricity, as much as some big-screen HDTVs. (The average DVD player consumes maybe 15 watts.)
It's foremost a game console, so it doesn't come with a remote control for nongamers, either. Prepare to pay $25 extra.
The PS3 has a reputation for producing flawless video, so I wasn't surprised when it sailed through even the toughest challenges on the Blu-ray version of Silicon Optix's HD HQV Benchmark test disc.
The audio can be just as stunning, too. The PS3, because it's a computer, is never out of date. As soon as the PS3 arrived, I downloaded the latest firmware from the PlayStation site that added the latest high-definition audio and interactive BD-Live, which allows network connectivity for downloading supplemental movie material and (hairball alert!) maybe buying a T-shirt at the PlayStation Store.
Where other players would become hopelessly outdated, this simple download turned the PS3 into the latest Blu-ray player, Profile 2.0. So, let's assume you've gotten this far with a PS3. Now, to hear a high-def soundtrack with the PS3, you'll need an audio-video receiver with the latest HDMI 1.3 specification and decoders for the high-resolution audio formats. And even then, the PS3 will send Dolby TrueHD in a digital form called Pulse Code Modulation, or PCM, instead of the standard DVD player's language, bitstream.
There aren't too many audio-video receivers under $600 that qualify. There's really no need for anything fancier than Yamaha's RX-V663 ($549) in a home theater, anyway. It upconverts video via HDMI, it decodes high-resolution audio and, at 95 watts a channel, it's plenty powerful.
So I set up the Yamaha, made sure it was speaking the same digital language as the PS3 and played three discs with Dolby TrueHD soundtracks. Here's what I found: There's little consistency now in these soundtracks.
I could hear the differences. I could also see them, numerically, after asking the PS3 to display the audio quality measured in kilohertz and megabits per second. Keep in mind that the Dolby Digital soundtracks many of us listen to on our DVD players run at 48,000 samples a second, or 48 kilohertz, and 448 kilobits, or 448,000 bits, per second. Theoretically, the higher the numbers, the better the sound.
So what's the message, that Dolby TrueHD is flexible? No, audio engineers are still figuring out the new technology and the lowest-risk, highest-performing Blu-ray player is still the PlayStation 3.
That tells me it's just too early in the game for the average consumer. Unless you're a gamer, a fearless techie or a high-definition fanatic, stay away.
Kevin Hunt is a consumer electronics columnist for the Hartford Courant.
What: PlayStation 3 as a Blu-ray Disc player
Price: $400 for 40-gigabyte PS3
Hot: The best Blu-ray player for the money, can be updated.
Not: Power-hungry, loud; Sony's XcrossMediaBar interface might confuse casual users.
Alternative: Not recommended; the technology changes too fast.