Two weeks ago, Sony froze the catalog of its online PlayStation Store—the central hub it uses to offer downloadable content for its PlayStation 3 console—and announced that it would be performing an extensive makeover in two weeks. This morning, the new PlayStation Store launched globally, and it’s a major improvement over the prior version, offering a simplified interface for browsing and downloading games and videos.
To go one step further, it looks like Sony finally has an online store interface that outdoes the one on Apple TV—now, the PlayStation 3’s only challenges are to populate the store with similar content, and get enough hardware out there to make a real impact on the digital marketplace. More photos and details are available by clicking on the headline above, or the read more link below.
[Updated: For readers unfamiliar with the past, present, or future of the PlayStation Store, Sony has been planning to challenge Apple by adding movie and TV show downloads to the Store. According to a report, the company has recently demonstrated the video download service to retailers and publishers, and Sony’s official PlayStation blog has confirmed that additional details are coming “very soon.” As such, the PlayStation Store, Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace, and Apple TV’s version of the iTunes Store will be in direct competition with one another as sources for digital video downloads; this piece is intended to look at some of the ways Sony is bringing the PlayStation 3 up to speed for that fight.]
Key to the new store’s layout is a completely straightforward navigation system. The old PlayStation Store made you feel like you were playing a video game while trying to find content: hit the joystick right three times, up once, and then the circle button to go back a menu. Now, like Apple TV, one button brings you back a menu and another button brings you forward. The main and second-level menus give you a vertical list of options on the left, with context-specific choices on the right in a grid. Text is easy to read, and nicely balanced by art.
A fade/zoom effect like Apple TV’s brings new menus on and off of the screen. It’s one of a couple of nice little touches that make the new Store seem modern, and unlike just skipping through a bunch of slides someone whipped together.
This series of shots shows how you can download content that actually updates the appearance of the PlayStation 3’s interface. Note that the PlayStation Store is just one of a number of options from the system’s main menu, rather than ever-present “buy more stuff” links from all of the menu options. While Apple TV 2.0’s links everywhere approach makes business sense, it also transforms the interface into an apparent cash grab.
Under the Themes & Wallpapers section of the Store, you see a grid that provides sample art, titles, and descriptive text for each of the 20 options, as well as an arrow to see more content. Cropping or shrinking the art to fit into manageable boxes makes it easy to figure out what you’re hunting for, even in a large collection of content.
The Store’s only major visual miscue is this downloading interface, which is a relic of the earlier PlayStation Store. While the actual downloading process is very simple now, with nothing more than clicks to confirm your download (rather than joystick presses, agreements to licensing terms, et cetera), the translucent overlay on top of the file details menu makes the screen look cluttered until the download is done. A cleaner design for this portion of the interface would be nice; Apple TV got this part right for sure.
Voila. After a familiar installation process, the downloaded Call of Duty 4 theme replaces the PlayStation 3’s icons and background with new ones that promote the popular and excellent Activision game. Apple has been extremely resistant to “skinning” on its portable devices, but these theme packs are really cool options for users tired of the static look of the interface.
Another interesting feature of the new PlayStation Store is its collection of high-definition movie trailers. This shot doesn’t show all of the icons—Sony’s servers are apparently overwhelmed this morning with people downloading the new Store update—but there are lots of movies represented, nearly as many as on Apple TV. The interesting part:
You can choose resolutions for the trailers, including full 1080p video versions that are designed to take maximum advantage of the latest high-definition televisions, as well as lower-resolution HD and SD versions. Apple TV’s support for 1080p content is basically MIA at this point, and there isn’t any choice between trailer resolutions save for an HD trailer section and SD trailer section, with movies that may or may not overlap. This, despite the Apple.com QuickTime Trailers section, which often has multiple resolutions for every movie, including movies that haven’t for whatever reason made it on to Apple TV yet.
Sheer customer base aside, there are a few other non-trivial ways in which Apple has Sony beat, though. Plans aside, the PlayStation Store currently offers no music, podcasts, or real video content—you get trailers for Blu-ray Discs and theatrical releases, but not movies to purchase or rent. This store also has no streaming capability: everything is downloaded to your PlayStation 3, either in the foreground or background, and then watched, which is a huge advantage of Apple TV’s “start downloading and watch immediately” approach. And Sony’s price point of $399 is still prohibitive for mass-market penetration. While a $299 PlayStation 3 isn’t too far off at this point, the Store isn’t going to take off in a significant way until more people can use it, and there’s more content to be purchased. Sony is clearly headed in the right direction, though, and having used the old Store with some UI discomfort, I’m definitely looking forward to using the new one more in the future.
[Update 2: Though the Store doesn’t offer video streaming, Sony now enables you to leave the Store and start watching a video that has not yet finished downloading to your hard drive—a feature comparable to the way Apple TV’s video downloads work. Just like Apple TV, this feature requires significant caching to let you view high-definition content, as a test download last night stopped for extended periods five times during playback of a brief trailer; Sony also requires you to delete the file once it has been viewed.]