THE GIZMOS: Upgrades for PS3 and PSP and a test drive of the LG BH200.
Santa delivered some neat treats to techies. Some of the best were actually free.
GIFT OF THE MAGI(C): Sony has just released free software upgrades for the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and the PlayStation 3 that expand those multimedia systems’ entertainment capabilities.
With the new 3.80 upgrade installed, a PSP located in a Wi-Fi zone can now tune hundreds of Internet radio stations from AOL’s SHOUTcast and icecast.org’s icecast. Better yet, the listening’s free. Format options range from Alt Rock to Urban Soul, Brazilian Bossa Nova to J(apanese)Pop to a host of public radio stations from Vermont to California.
Early adopters do have to feel their way, though, into the offerings. Operating instructions are minimal and those on screen “buttons” are virtually indecipherable.
I do like the seamless transitions from one Webcast station to the next, and the on-screen identification of signal bit rate (affecting sound quality), artist and song title.
PS3 UPGRADE: Besides being great for games, Sony’s powerful PlayStation 3 is newly flexing its multimedia potential.
For starters, a software-upgraded PS3 (any model) can now play back video compressed in the DivX format — which is how a lot of content gets passed around on the Internet.
Plus, upgrade 2.10 makes the PS3 the most powerful Blu-ray high definition movie player in the land, by adding “BonusView” interactivity features, most notably picture-in-picture (PIP) with a selectable secondary audio track.
Already being deployed on a number of Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Warner Home Video titles in the rival HD-DVD high def format, PIP offers director, writer and star commentaries or “backstage” documentary views of how a movie was put together — playing visually alongside the film.
BonusView started popping up on Blu-ray movies Jan. 1 with the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment sci-fi action/horror release “Resident Evil: Extinction,” offering a host of user-selectable options. Soon, Fox will get into the act with “Sunshine” and Lionsgate with “War” and “3:10 to Yuma.”
By the way, the latest count shows an installed base of 2.7 million Blu-ray players in the United States — with 2 million of them being PS3 consoles. The last sales figure out of the rival HD-DVD camp was 750,000 units, including stand-alone players and add-on drives for the Xbox 360. To build market share, Toshiba had killer (loss-leader) offers before the holidays, selling HD-DVD players as cheap as $99 and in a bundle with the first season of “Star Trek” for $199. But I’m guessing a fair number of those cheapo players were snapped up by early adopters who already owned an HD-DVD player and wanted yet another for a second TV, so the household penetration for the format may actually be lower than 750,000.
LIVING GOOD: If one high-def disc format doesn’t in fact squash the other, the only way us HD lovers are going to keep our sanity is with a universal “combi” player that spins HD-DVDs and Blu-rays, as well as conventional DVDs and CDs.
Luckily, LG Electronics is now covering this bet with its brand new BH200 player, which I had the pleasure of test-driving for a few days.
Actually the brand’s second-generation universal blue laser player, the BH200, starts up faster and runs smoother than its predecessor, getting a picture on the screen just 80 seconds after “boot-up.” And that was true for both Ben Stiller’s “Night at the Museum” pressed on Sony Blu-ray, and Stiller’s “The Heartbreak Kid,” a Universal HD-DVD exclusive.
The model also plays fair with full support of extra features for both formats. However, buyers of early BH200 units will have to do a software upgrade (via a PC download to a burned disc or USB thumb drive) to get the most out of Blu-ray’s new “BonusView” feature set.
Picture quality was razor sharp and eye-poppingly colorful with high-def discs on my 50-inch, 1080p Pioneer Kuro, and not far off that high mark with upconverted standard DVDs like the Rolling Stones new concert package “The Big Bang” (a Best Buy exclusive).
Audio quality was also stunning, distributed through a home theater sound system. The player supports up to 7 channel PCM audio (featured on many Blu-ray titles), plus the highest (“lossless”) Dolby Digital True-HD and the “lossy” DTS-HD audio format (but not lossless DTS-HD Master.
Despite a $999.95 list price, the model cuts a few corners. I loved the glossy look of the player and its touch-sensitive buttons.
But the disc tray felt flimsy, and digital signal outputs are limited to one HDMI and one optical.