REVIEW: PlayStation TV

The smallest member of Sony's PlayStation family has a lot to tell us about the entertainment giant's big plans for its gaming and content ecosystem. It may also have a secret mission to force the trusty old PlayStation 3 into retirement, but there's a lot of work to be done.

PlayStation TV - The smallest member of Sony's PlayStation family: Source: Sony 

Last year's PlayStation 4 was a dramatic about-face for Sony, aiming to be a very games-focused console rather than follow in the footsteps of the jack-of-all-trades PlayStation 3. With the release of the tiny PlayStation TV, Sony is once again looking beyond games in order to gain a stronger foothold in Australian lounge rooms.

So what exactly is the $149 PlayStation TV? It's basically the innards of a PlayStation Vita handheld games console, stripped back and shoved into a palm-size set-top box with USB, Ethernet and HDMI ports. It doesn't sound glamorous, but this tiny box is more useful than you might think.

Like Apple's ecosystem, the more Sony devices and services you already use the more useful you'll find the PlayStation TV. Fire up the box and you're presented with a surprisingly chirpy interface that wouldn't look out of place on the Nintendo Wii. Dig deeper and you'll find it aims to play five key roles in your home.

The PlayStation TV plays PlayStation Vita handheld games

On the back you'll find a Vita card slot that lets you play handheld Vita games on your television, but you'll need to link a DualShock 3 or 4 controller to the PlayStation TV. There's no remote in the box, so a PlayStation controller is the only way to drive the set-top box.

The PlayStation TV handles a range of Vita games, except for those which rely heavily on the Vita's rear touchpad. Unfortunately the results can be hit and miss. Some games require you to download a software patch, others don't work at all.

The PlayStation TV can play PSP, Vita and PSOne games from the PlayStation Store

This a trick which the almighty PlayStation 4 still doesn't offer after 12 months. Thankfully you can access the PlayStation Store directly from the PlayStation TV menus to purchase games, or download games you've already purchased via another device like the Vita or PlayStation 3. You can also access compatible PlayStation Plus content.

Unfortunately you can't play every classic game you've purchased from the PlayStation Store. For example my copy of Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix, which I purchased via the PS3, isn't available on PlayStation TV because it's technically a PS3 game.

Frustratingly many of the classic arcade games in the PlayStation Store are PS3-only titles, even if they're modern versions of classics like Pacman, which predate Sony's gaming efforts.

I returned to the PS3 and purchased Command & Conquer Red Alert which is a PS3, PSOne and PSP title but it still didn't show up when I switched back to the PlayStation TV. It turns out the PlayStation TV is compatible with "select" PSOne games. There's a list on the PlayStation Europe blog, but many of these are missing in the Australian store when you browse using the PlayStation TV.

This all means that even if you've got an extensive collection of PSOne downloads in your PlayStation Store account you're likely to be left in the lurch by this little box. If you're shopping for new games, do it via the PlayStation TV to play it safe. You might have more luck with Vita and PSP games, but remember you're upscaling handheld games so don't expect miracles when it comes to picture quality.

Also keep in mind that Sony doesn't bundle a Vita memory card, so you're up for $25 for an 8GB card if you max out the 1GB of onboard storage (no-one loves milking a proprietary storage format more than Sony).

If you can't find the games you already own you might be able to purchase a new compatible version via the PlayStation TV, but the thought of paying for the same game again just because of Sony's limited cross-compatibility won't sit well with some people.

Tapping into Sony's online music and video services

This is where the PlayStation TV starts to become more attractive for the spare room, assuming you don't have another box already handling this job. You can buy or rent movies and TV shows just like you can from the PS3 – although you're limited to standard-definition for now. Unfortunately you can't tap into the Sony Unlimited subscription music service, another black mark compared to the PS3.

The PlayStation TV can also stream music and video from a PS3 or a computer running Sony's Content Manager software. Thankfully you can expand this via apps in the PlayStation Store, such as the free Network Media Player which lets you stream from home DLNA servers running on a computer or Network Attached Storage drive. Support for DLNA is another one of those key PS3 features which everyone expected to come with the PS4 but still hasn't appeared as Sony keeps the focus on the games.

Unfortunately the PlayStation TV doesn't feature digital TV tuners like the old Play TV accessory for the PS3, which let you use the console as a Personal Video Recorder. Recording live TV is a feature that will probably never come to the PlayStation 4, Sony Computer Entertainment president and group CEO Andy House insisted at last year's Tokyo Game Show. It's a stark contrast from Microsoft's plans to make the Xbox One an all-in-one entertainment device..

Support for PS4's remote play feature

This lets you pause games on the PS4 in the lounge room and transfer them to another room for when someone else needs to commandeer the main television.

You don't need to be in the middle of a game, you can use the PlayStation TV to take control of the PS4 at any time. It's an impressive trick which might alone justify the expense if you're a keen PS4 gamer trying to balance the entertainment needs of a busy household.

Remote Play games look surprisingly good on the PlayStation TV, even graphics-intensive titles like Knack, but that's via a Gigabit Ethernet switch. Your mileage may vary considerably if you're relying on Wi-Fi. Also keep in mind that no-one else can use the PS4 for anything else while you're using Remote Play, you've seized full control.

For its final trick, the PlayStation TV aims to play PlayStation 3 games… eventually

This is the final piece of the puzzle that might render some PS3s redundant. There's no optical drive in the PlayStation TV for sliding in a PS3 disc. Instead games will be streamed from the PlayStation Now cloud gaming service (formerly Gaikai), where you can rent or buy PS3 games. It might offer PS4 titles in the future and perhaps old PSOne and PS2 titles – but you'll be expected to pay again even if you already own them.

PlayStation Now is available in North America with 100 games and is coming to Europe next year, but there's no timeline for when we might see it in Australia. It's obviously at the mercy of broadband speeds and even then it might struggle with high-end games like Gran Turismo 6. The popular car racing game is single-handedly keeping the PS3 in some lounge rooms as we wait for Gran Turismo 7 to come to the PS4 next year or the year after.

Final verdict

The PlayStation TV makes a great first impression but the closer you look the more you realise how much is missing. It promises to offer all the features that should have been built into the PS4, but the fine print will often leave you disappointed. The value proposition breaks down even more if you're forced to buy an extra DualShock controller and a Vita memory card.

Sony clearly has its sights on the cloud but, as always, you're expected to move at Sony's pace and play by Sony's rules. If you're heavily invested in the PlayStation ecosystem then you might find a place for the PlayStation TV in your home, but make sure it can actually fulfill all the promises you're counting on.

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