Sony's Grave Error: The $499 HDMI-Lacking PS3.
No HDMI, no HDCP. That equals no 1080p thanks to ICS. This equation spells disaster.
by Gerry Block
May 19, 2006 - Prior to Sony's pre-E3 media conference early last week, it was more or less impossible to bring up the future of the PlayStation 3 without launching into a debate on the subject of price point. After months, if not years, of rumors suggesting the console would not ship for less than a king's ransom, no journalist or fan could say a word about the PS3 without a careful mention that if Sony wasn't willing to sell the system at huge loss, the console was doomed. Last week at their pre-E3 media-conference, Sony finally dropped the proverbial bomb, announcing two PS3 models, differentiated by $100 in price but potentially far more in capabilities.
In word, Sony downplayed the disparity between the $499 and $599 PS3 versions, citing the primary difference between the consoles at the time of the announcement as the difference in built-in hard drive space, namely 20 GB for the low-end and 60 GB for the high-end. Within minutes, however, journalists homed in on a variety of factors that placed the lower-end PS3 into contention for the dreaded "tard-box" classification of crippled-console.
Not only does the $499 PS3 lack built-in support for Wi-Fi broadband and SD and Compact Flash memory cards, but rather shockingly, the machine does not possess HDMI output. Rumors spread like wild fire that the $499 machine was also missing Bluetooth support for wireless controllers, spreading fury among fans and detractors alike.
A week after the announcement, Sony representatives have gone on record with the press, officially clarifying that the $499 console will support Bluetooth and that Wi-Fi adapters and flash-memory reader add-ons will be made available for the console. The hard-drive will also be upgradeable, as Phil Harrison, long time SCEA heavyweight, told GI.biz, "You can upgrade to whatever size of drive you like. You can put in any drive that you like—it is a computer, after all."
Calming though such statements are, what may prove truly calamitous for the budget-model PS3 is its lack of support for HDMI. On the surface, the lack of such a feature does not spell immediate disaster, as HDMI is merely a high-end video-cable that couples digital image signals with digital sound, essentially equivalent to a DVI and optical audio connection combination. The $499 PS3 model will be able to transmit games in full 1080p High-Definition via component cables without a problem, and far more surround sound receiver-amplifiers support optical-audio than HDMI.
Where the pain will set in, however, is when Blu-ray movies begin making use of HDCP/AACS copy-protection and the infamous "Image-Constraint-Token" (ICP). At the demand of the major Hollywood studios, both HD-DVD and Blu-ray standards have been developed to support this next-generation copy-protection scheme that protects Hi-Def movies from piracy and illegal digital distribution. While AACS is more or less innocuous from the standpoint of a general consumer, HDCP is destined to rain frustration and disappointment upon the masses, or at least those who purchase the $499 PS3 package.
The HDCP system is the means by which each piece of hardware involved in transmitting a High-Def movie signal, from player, to wire, to amplifier, to HDTV or computer monitor, checks for support and protection from hacking and piracy before passing the signal along the chain. Each device must have a specially programmed HDCP chip, and any link in the chain that lacks such protection will cause the entire system to fail, causing movies encoded in 1080p Hi-Def to down-convert to 540p, by means of what is known as the "Image Constraint Token" capability of AACS/HDCP copy-protection scheme.
The crux of the $499 PlayStation 3's problem is the fact that HDCP copy-protection only supports digital connections, namely HDMI. Cutting straight to the chase, the $499 PS3 will not be able to play Blu-ray movies in 1080p High-Definition the moment Blu-ray DVDs begin implementing ICP. Though most studios have agreed to a one or two year grace period in which the Image Constraint Token will not be implemented while American consumers make the switch to next-gen DVD and purchase HDCP-ready HDTVs and PCs, barring a massive retreat on the part of the Hollywood studios, HDCP and ICP are the future of Hi-Def movies, and the $499 PS3 will not be invited to the party.
Sony's thought process in crippling the $499 PS3 in this respect is positively dumbfounding. The general populace has not been educated in the intricacies of HDCP / AACS copy-protection, and a variety of electronics manufacturers are presently involved in class-action law-suits filed by consumers after the companies erroneously claimed support for the new format when their products were, in fact, incompatible (most notably ATI and NVIDIA at this point in time). Legions of buyers will purchase the $499 PS3 version, believing that it represents an excellent value as both a next-gen DVD player and game console, only to discover that its Blu-ray capabilities are stripped a year or two into its lifecycle.
At the least, the decision to remove HDMI support from the $499 PS3 is a badly designed means of protecting the market for the higher-end stand-alone Blu-ray players that Sony and its partners plan to launch, beginning with the $999 Samsung BD-P1000 that will hit the streets on June 25. At worst, Sony is committing a massive breach of consumer trust if it markets both the $499 and $599 PlayStation 3 consoles as Blu-ray movie players and does not seek to educate buyers on the differences between them. Considering that, thus far, the most direct communication between manufacturers and consumers on the topic of HDCP support has been, at best, obfuscation, and at worst out-right lies, the chances that Sony aims to do the right thing in this regard are low.
There's still a chance that things might be set right. The Playstation 3's architecture has thus far been somewhat amorphous, as there has been word that the motion-sensing capabilities of the PS3 controller were added only weeks before E3, which suggests the possibility that Sony could recant under pressure and add HDMI output to the $499 console. It's also possible the word has gone out among electronics manufacturers that Hollywood is backing off demands for HDCP and ICS, which might explain why Microsoft thinks it can get away with producing a USB-based HD-DVD drive for the Xbox 360, a console that most certainly does not support HDCP natively (the standard wasn't finalized until the late first quarter of 2006) and presently does not even have wires capable of transmitting a digital signal (DVI or HDMI). Such a change of heart would be rather uncharacteristic of the movie industry, however, despite the fact that the algorithms that serve as the basis of HDCP-protection are fundamentally flawed and will be likely hacked and broken within a year of their implementation.
Until Sony announces a $499 PS3 design change, we at IGN Gear can, in good faith, only recommend that interested buyers steer clear of the lower-priced PS3 model or make the purchase fully aware that they may in future suffer severe repercussions when it comes to Blu-ray movie playback -- one of the key features that puts the PS3's price point above competing systems. 540p, the resolution that the Image Constraint Token will down-convert 1080p movies to in non-HDCP systems, is by no stretch of the imagination Hi-Def, and will, without major changes in PS3 design or studio policy, be the future of Blu-ray playback on the $499 PS3. Sony must either make this truth clear to buyers or make a hardware alteration. Any other response should be counted as negligent and anti-consumer, grave mistakes for a company that is risking so much on the PS3 and Blu-ray's success.