Blu-ray Movie Playback – PS3 vs PS4:

November 22, 2013

It wasn’t many years ago that doing much of anything besides playing a video game on a video game console was the norm. It wasn’t even many more years ago that playing a game on anything but a cartridge was the norm. Ah, the good old days, when “gaming” was “gaming,” when the sound of plastic cartridges slamming into a console was just as much music to the ears as were the low-tech 8-bit sound effects. It was a time when powering on the console immediately produced a system and studio logo followed by a minimum-options menu, not an update demand for a patch many, many times the size of an original Nintendo or Sega game. Times have most certainly changed. Now, power on a console and, if that update request isn’t there, users are greeted by a variety of options, including music playback, web surfing, and any number of applications. Gone are those collectible cartridges, replaced with optical discs (which are themselves headed out the door, it would seem, considering the major digital push from platform holders and game makers alike) that hold significantly more data than those old clunky cartridges, particularly if they’re on Blu-ray.

Huge amounts of game data is certainly the major advantage to a system powered by a Blu-ray drive, but another is the ability to play Blu-ray movie content, so long as system manufacturers enable the feature. Sony’s PlayStation 3 console, long the mass-market flagship for Blu-ray playback, brought high definition movie watching into millions of homes, with many of those homes utilizing the system as the primary Blu-ray playback unit. It provided a fast, capable system that was both easy to use and relatively affordable (especially when prices dropped from the exorbitant cost at console launch) for the multi-use individual or family, and particularly now considering the added value of the game system and its numerous applications, from Netflix to MLB.TV. The PlayStation’s proliferation also no doubt helped to secure Blu-ray’s victory over rival format HD-DVD, that delivery medium touted by console rival Microsoft but only supported on that company’s Xbox 360 game console by a bulky external attachment.

Almost seven years later to the day of the PS3′s release, and now well into the maturity of the Blu-ray format, Sony has released its PlayStation 4 console, again with a built-in Blu-ray playback device as part of the $399 kit, a significant drop in launch day price from the PS3′s $499 base model/$599 expanded hard drive launch models. The PlayStation 4 offers a significant increase in game performance and retains the 1080p Blu-ray playback capability of its predecessor (note that PS4 Blu-ray playback requires the 1.50 system firmware update, which can be downloaded from the Internet to the console or acquired via disc directly from Sony by calling 1-800-345-7669). It’s a capable Blu-ray playback machine at its core, as was (and is) the PS3, though as with the review of any single piece of equipment, it’s important to remember that it’s simply a piece of a greater entertainment puzzle, in this case the delivery device that’s just as dependent on the video and audio capabilities and settings of the connected monitor and audio gear, not to mention cursory but no less important factors such as viewing and listening environmental conditions.

On that note, however, the PS4 delivers picture and sound certainly on par with the last generation machine as sampled when paired with familiar content and review equipment as the equation constants. Sampled movies — which assured a wide array of visual and aural styles and encodes — such as Star Trek: Into Darkness, Turbo, Taxi Driver, Glory (mastered in 4K), Moneyball (mastered in 4K), The Walking Dead Season Three, South Park: The Complete Fifteenth Season, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Attack from Beneath, Grown Ups 2, Wing Commander, America’s National Parks: An Eagle’s View, Avatar, Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Complete Fifth Season, WWE Money in the Bank 2013, Beauty and the Beast, All is Bright and Maid in Manhattan — demonstrated picture and sound quality to a high degree of accuracy based on previous experiences with the source material and direct comparisons between the systems. In short, the PS4 delivers the expectedly handsome video quality (those “Mastered in 4K” discs look particularly marvelous) and rich sound. That said, this is a much more limited-focus introduction to the system, covering more the Blu-ray experience on the PS4 rather than an in-depth retelling of the picture and sound reviews which may be found throughout this website and that are, again, dependent on a number of additional factors. Below is a walkthrough of the PS4 Blu-ray user experience, including system settings, system behavior, viewing options, playback controls, and frustrations. Oh, yes, there will be frustrations.

System Settings 

Under the “Settings” icon across the top of the PS4′s main dashboard, users may access two relevant categories for tweaking picture and sound, found under the “Video Playback Settings” and “Sound and Screen” options. The former provides options only to set video output at 1080p/24Hz at “Automatic” or “Off” and Closed Captions options. The latter, “Sound and Screen,” provides options for the following through branched subheadings:

Output Resolution: 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p, along with an “Automatic” option.
TV Size.
RGB Range: “Limited,” “Full,” and “Automatic.”
Y Pb/Cb Pr/Cr Range : “Limited,” “Full,” and “Automatic.”

Disc Playback 

As with the PlayStation 3, the PS4 system may be aligned in the media rack vertically or horizontally for playback. Video can only be sent through the HDMI output port, but audio may be delivered through either the HDMI output port or the digital optical output port. Currently, the PlayStation 4 only plays 2D Blu-ray discs. 3D content is inaccessible at this time, and 3D discs read only a static incompatibility message, which varies by disc. The PS4 does support Blu-ray profiles 1.1 (Bonus View) and 2.0 (BD-Live).

Upon 2D disc insertion, the attractive user interface simply displays a generic disc icon with a “Start” option. Strangely, neither the name of the disc nor the movie icon, with which PS3 users will be familiar when they appear on that system’s XMB upon applicable disc insertion, appear. Don’t worry; they’ll show up elsewhere during playback (more on that below). It’s smooth, but not necessarily faster, sailing from there to the disc’s main menu or first skippable series of advertisements, trailers, and studio logos. On the PlayStation 3, Glory (Mastered in 4K) required 41 seconds from pressing “start” to reaching the first moment a control could be utilized, in this case the appearance of a “resume playback” option screen. Two extra seconds were required on the PS4. Turbo required 55 seconds to reach the “resume playback” screen on the PS3 while it needed only 48 seconds on the PS4 to reach the same “resume playback” screen. Wing Commander, a film that only plays back video content with no menu on the way to film start, required 43 seconds from “enter” to the Fox logo on the PS3 and only 34 seconds on the PS4. It would appear that load times vary by disc but, ultimately, are neither significantly faster nor noticeably slower on the PS4 compared to the PS3.

Playback noise is, generally, nonexistent beyond a very faint hum, loud enough only to be noticeable with the sound muted and no influencing ambient effects, such as a ceiling fan, to mask it. Oddly, the Wing Commander disc produced a distinct and constant light “clicking” sound during Blu-ray playback. This phenomenon appears specific to that disc and appears to be an outlier and, likely, the fault of the disc, not the PS4 system. Otherwise, the machine runs virtually silent, save for initial disc drive spin-up and access upon disc launch. Stopping playback requires a press of the center “PS” button on the DualShock 4 controller and selecting “yes” to return to the PS4 UI.

In-movie User Controls and Interface 

Speaking of the new and improved DualShock 4, it’s required to navigate a Blu-ray disc. Regrettably, the PlayStation 3′s bluetooth remote control does not work with the PlayStation 4, and Sony has not yet released a new remote control for its next-generation console. That leaves open two possibilities: voice commands and the controller. As for the former, forget it. The PlayStation 4, unlike the Xbox one, does not ship with its camera peripheral in the box. And that might be a good thing, at least for the time being. That lowers the price of the console starter bundle, and the PlayStation 4 Camera is extremely limited in functionality at release, anyway. While it can sign in users based on facial recognition, and while users can control basic console functions in the UI, there is currently no support for Blu-ray movie playback voice commands (how great would it be to yell out “PlayStation, pause!” to go wash off that buttery residue left on the fingers after a bag of popcorn rather than smearing it all over the remote?). The same absence of functionality holds true for the included mono headset with microphone.

That leaves the DualShock 4 controller. It’s certainly not as natural an interface as a separate remote control, but using it is easy enough, and it works well. The “X” button serves as the basic “enter/select” button and is used to select menu options, which may be chosen by the directional pad or the left analog stick. Upon playback, the controller provides support for play and pause (the “circle” button; note that, unlike the PS3, the PS4 does not retain the “pause” icon on the screen for the duration of the pause), pop-up menu access (the “square” button), chapter skip (the R1 button skips ahead, the L1 button back), and fast forward and rewind at intervals of 1.5x, 10x, 30x, and 120x (the R2 button skips ahead and the L2 button skips backwards with each speed selectable based on the number of pushes; resuming playback requires a press of the “circle” button). Chapter skips and stopping playback to return to the dashboard are noticeably slower on the PS4 than they are on the PS3.

The “triangle” button brings up an overlying information bar that displays the movie title and icon (inserted here rather than on the desktop, though seeing them in both places would seem the ideal); “title” and “chapter” information; a time elapsed bar and total runtime; and basic playback information that includes video and sound encode information (AVC, DTS, etc), the audio channels in use (2.0, 7.1, etc.), and the audio sampling rate (48KHz, etc.). Unfortunately, it’s a step backwards from the PlayStation 3′s playback information display, which additionally provides video and audio bitrates. Neither system displays the bit depth (24-bit, etc.).

Pressing the “options” button on the controller (where one might expect to find the “Start” button on other controllers) reveals a pop-up guide that allows for the changing of subtitles and audio tracks on the fly. It’s also where the “control panel” may be selected (the “options” button on the PS3 Blu-ray remote) that brings up a number of basic playback options that are, mostly, redundant and mapped elsewhere. There’s also a handy controller usage diagram and a limited settings menu (“display mode,” “dynamic range control,” “audio format,” and “settings,” the latter of which exits out of the movie and back into the UI, forcing disc reset but not forcing the user to re-select the movie from the main PS4 dashboard screen).

Beauty and the Beast: Third Time’s the Charm and a Star Trek: Into Darkness Audio Glitch 

While there were no major glitches to report when sampling the other discs listed above, Beauty and the Beast and Star Trek: Into Darkness did bring about some unexpected headaches. Initial disc playback for Beauty seemed smooth enough, but after the Disney logo appeared on the screen, the PS4 suddenly popped an error message and was forced back to the main PS4 screen. A second attempt at playback proved disastrous. The screen remained black for minutes on end. A press and hold of the PS button on the DualShock 4 prompted the option to quit playback. When that option was selected, the system reverted to a black screen displaying only a spinning circle. After more than an hour of waiting, the system appeared virtually inoperable. The PS button no longer functioned and a hard reset (holding down the console’s power button) was only successful after a dozen or so attempts. After re-checking Glory to ensure the BD drive still worked, Beauty and the Beast was re-inserted and, after a long slog skipping through previews, finally reached the main menu. Playback proved successful. It’s worth noting that the system was background downloading a large update file for NBA 2K14 at the time of the error messages; it’s unclear if the two were related or if the movie playback errors were merely a matter of coincidence.

Star Trek: Into Darkness revealed a significant lip sync problem when the system is set to output audio on the Bitstream setting. Changing to Linear PCM resolved the issue. However, after several removals and reinserts of the disc, the Beauty and the Beast playback malfunction again appeared. The movie would not begin playback, instead sitting on a black screen. Attempting to quit playback via the PS button resulted in the black screen and endlessly spinning circle. Pressing the PS button again allowed for the option to close the application, which resulted in an endless circle on the blue “closing application” screen. Another hour wait, another hard reset to remedy the problem. The system was not downloading anything in the background at the time of this glitch.

Miscellaneous Observations 

Currently, movies cannot be streamed to the PlayStation Vita portable console, though the system does support the streaming of games. The newly released PlayStation iOS and Android app cannot control the system during Blu-ray movie playback. The PlayStation 4, like the PS3, fails to identify a number of subtitle options, listing them as “other” rather than identifying the language of origin. There are no distracting lights on the front of the console during playback, and there is no external display screen as is usually the norm for standalone players. Lastly, the PlayStation 4 is the first device to support DTS’ new DTS-HD Master Audio|7.1 decoder.

The PlayStation 4 console may represent a leap forward in gaming technology, but it’s merely a basic Blu-ray playback device, and one that lacks several now-common features at that. At launch, at least, the player feels severely limited considering the lack of 3D disc playback; the absence of a true remote control; and a fairly limited user interface, settings cluster, and display information bar. The console does output picture and sound that’s a match for the PlayStation 3, which is certainly critical in its success as a playback device. Still, it’s just not ready for primetime as a primary Blu-ray playback unit, particularly considering its slow chapter skip performance and numerous playback and unexpected quit glitches. Frankly, using the PS4 as a Blu-ray playback device has proven to be an exercise in frustration given three system freezes and the audio glitch necessitating another round of disc sampling to ensure it was an isolated incident. Fortunately none of the other discs seemed prone, and the freezes also seemed random. The PlayStation 4 is certainly a worthwhile investment for the avid gamer, but for those either hoping for improved and expanded Blu-ray playback capabilities, it’s currently not worth the upgrade. In fact, it’s smart to stay rather far away for the time being. Considering the price, expanded features, greater stability, and comparable, if not equal, playback quality, the PlayStation 3 remains the superior gaming/Blu-ray playback hybrid machine.

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