It’s not as good as Sky Plus. There, we’ve said it, time to move on. If you were expecting a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) with the same functionality as Sky plus, then Play TV will disappoint you. But, of course, it was never designed to compete with Sky’s impressive Personal Video Recorder system. Rather Play TV is aimed at people who have a PS3 but no satellite/cable TV (or a PVR) and the good news is that it serves its purpose very well.
The Play TV package includes a modest-looking Freeview tuner (when we say “modest” we mean “downright fugly”), an overlay for the PS3 remote and an installation disc. Simply plug the RF antenna cable into the tuner, then the tuner into the PS3 (via USB), insert the disc and you’re ready to go. Once everything is connected and the software is installed, Play TV will then scan for channels and, at least initially, signs were not good. While searching, the tuning software displayed the signal strength and this was surprisingly low. While my existing Freeview box records the signal strength as between 95% and 99%, it was concerning to see that Play TV valued it between 75%-80%. However the picture, although a little grainy (especially on older programmes that don’t support widescreen), holds up pretty well. Obviously, due to the lack of HD channels on Freeview (until 2009), don’t expect a mind-blowing image – it is roughly comparable to the in-built TV tuner you’ll find in most modern HDTVs. But if Play TV’s picture quality fails to impress, its PVR functions certainly do not.
Utilising the power of the mighty Cell processor, Play TV has a little more horsepower behind it than your average Freeview tuner. As such, where many Freeview boxes sport slow, unresponsive menus, Play TV offers slick, lightning quick navigation. You can scan through the now/next preview at the bottom of the screen or, for a more comprehensive listing, bring up the Electronic Programming Guide (EPG). This displays the full Freeview schedule and you simply the select the program you want and choose to watch or record. Should you decide on the latter, the program will then be stored chronologically in Play TV’s library section. Thankfully, Sony has made sure the recording process is as uncomplicated as possible and even the most ardent technophobes will soon grasp the basics.
However, the EPG is not without its faults.The most glaring omission from Play TV’s functionality is the series record option. A staple on Sky Plus, series record allows users to record entire series in a single button press. Play TV offers a basic repeat record function which is fine unless the program you want to record is not always broadcast at the same time. It’s a simple, incredibly useful, option that would have added to Play TV’s already impressive recording system. The EPG itself is also let down by occasional slow-loading, meaning you’ll find yourself waiting for programme info to appear before you can schedule a recording. It seems at odds with the slick, polished presentation on offer elsewhere in the package. In addition, despite Play TV’s twin TV tuners, you can only record one channel at a time unlike the PVR’s used by Sky and Virgin Media.
Nevertheless, although you can’t schedule concurrent recordings , you can do anything else with your PS3 while Play TV records. Despite Sony’s disclaimer, there was no discernible drop in picture quality when I played games or DVDs whilst Play TV was recording. You can freely watch another channel, a recorded show, a DVD or play a game without any effect on your recordings. In fact, you don’t need to have your PS3 switched on for Play TV to work – it will switch on the system from standby in order to record and will then turn itself off once the recording is done. Should you also own a PSP, Play TV gets even better. Not only can you transfer recorded TV to your PSP (although it must be converted first) you can also watch PlayTV live through your PSP anywhere in the world, providing you have wi-fi access.
What Play TV offers is a robust, user friendly and competitively-priced (assuming you already own a PS3) freeview tuner. The PVR functionality is the real draw, however, and for the most part Play TV does not disappoint. Despite the lack of a series record option and the slow-loading, it’s easy to forgive Sony due to the sheer wealth of features it has crammed in to Play TV. Plus, the PS3’s network connections surely mean there is a possibility the software flaws can be patched by Sony at some point. Perhaps there is also some plan in the works to allow PS3 users the chance to purchase access to restricted Freeview channels (like Setanta and Top-Up TV). The potential is there to expand Play TV and, for those of us with no access to satellite or cable, we can only hope that Sony continues its efforts to turn the PS3 into the ultimate home entertainment solution.