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Jonathan Takiff | PS3, PSP go to the next level

Upgrades for PS3 and PSP, a test drive of the LG BH200 and DirecTV makes peace with PBS. Santa delivered some neat treats to techies. Some of the best were actually free.

Upgrades for PS3 and PSP, a test drive of the LG BH200 and DirecTV makes peace with PBS.

Santa delivered some neat treats to techies. Some of the best were actually free.


MAGI(C): Sony has just released free software upgrades for the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and the PlayStation 3 that expand those multi-media systems' entertainment capabilities.

With the new 3.80 upgrade installed, a PSP located in a Wi-Fi zone can now tune hundreds of Internet radio stations from AOL's SHOUTcast and icecast. org's icecast. Better yet, the listening's free. Format options range from Alt Rock to Urban Soul, Brazilian Bossa Nova to J(apanese)Pop to a host of public radio stations from Vermont to California.

Early adopters do have to feel their way, though, into the offerings. Operating instructions are minimal and those on screen "buttons" are virtually indecipherable.

I do like the seamless transitions from one webcast station to the next, and the on-screen identification of signal bit rate (affecting sound quality), artist and song title.

PS3 UPGRADE: Besides being great for games, Sony's powerful PlayStation 3 is newly flexing its multimedia potential.

For starters, a software-upgraded PS3 (any model) can now play back video compressed in the DivX format - which is how a lot of content gets passed around on the Internet.

Plus, upgrade 2.10 makes the PS3 the most powerful Blu-ray high definition movie player in the land, by adding "BonusView" interactivity features, most notably picture-in-picture (PIP) with a selectable secondary audio track.

Already being deployed on a number of Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Warner Home Video titles in the rival HD-DVD high def format, PIP offers director, writer and star commentaries or "backstage" documentary views of how a movie was put together - playing visually along side the film.

BonusView will start popping up on Blu-ray movies next Tuesday (Jan. 1) with the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment sci-fi action/horror release "Resident Evil: Extinction," offering a host of user-selectable options. Soon thereafter, Fox will get into the act with "Sunshine" and Lionsgate with "War" and "3:10 to Yuma."

BTW, the latest count shows an installed base of 2.7 Blu-ray players in the U.S. - with 2 million of them being PS3 consoles. The last sales figure out of the rival HD-DVD camp was 750,000 units, including both standalone players and add-on drives for the Xbox 360. To build market share, Toshiba had killer (loss-leader) offers before the holidays, selling HD-DVD players as cheap as $99 and in a bundle with the first season of "Star Trek" for $199. But I'm guessing a fair number of those cheapo players were snapped up by early adopters who already owned an HD-DVD player and wanted yet another for a second TV. So the household penetration for the format may actually be lower than 750,000.

LIVING GOOD: If one high def disc format doesn't, in fact, squash the other, the only way us HD lovers are going to keep our sanity is with a universal "combi" player that spins both HD-DVDs and Blu-rays, as well as conventional DVDs and CDs.

Luckily, LG Electronics is now covering this bet with its brand new BH200 player, which I had the pleasure of test-driving for a few days before the holiday.

Actually the brand's second generation universal blue laser player, the BH200 starts up faster and runs smoother than its predecessor, getting a picture on the screen just 80 seconds after "boot-up." And that was true for both Ben Stiller's "Night at the Museum" pressed on Sony Blu-ray, and Ben Stiller's "The Heartbreak Kid," a Universal HD-DVD exclusive.

The model also plays fair with full support of extra features for both formats. However, buyers of early BH200 units will have to do a software upgrade (via a PC download to a burned disc or USB thumb drive) to get the most out of Blu-ray's new "BonusView" feature set.

Picture quality was razor sharp and eye poppingly colorful with high def discs on my 50-inch, 1080p Pioneer Kuro, and not far off that high mark with upconverted standard DVDs like the Rolling Stones new concert package "The Big Bang" (a Best Buy exclusive.)

Audio quality was also stunning, distributed through a home theater sound system. The player supports up to 7 channel PCM audio (featured on many Blu-ray titles), plus the highest ("lossless") Dolby Digital True-HD and the "lossy" DTS-HD audio format (but not lossless DTS-HD Master) - if your system is up to the job.

Despite a $999.95 list price, the model cuts a few corners. I loved the glossy look of the player and its touch sensitive buttons. But the disc tray felt flimsy, and digital signal outputs are limited to one HDMI (combined picture and sound) and one optical.

Samsung has a rival combi model coming momentarily - the BD-UP5000. It was recently re-priced downwards from $999 to $799. LG product manager Aaron Dew told me his company will adjust the BH200's tab "accordingly" to stay competitive, and already is taking pre-orders for the new LG model at that lower price.

SHORT SHOTS: Been oogling a big screen, Sony rear projection TV set? If you want to buy one, it's now or never. The company will cease production of all RPTVs at its New Stanton, Pa., plant in January, to put the full court press behind flat panel TVs - LCD mostly, but also a new, super skinny OLED (organic light emitting diode) variety debuting here in 2008 in an 11-inch model. Hitachi, Toshiba and Philips have also exited the rear projection TV market in recent months.

DirecTV has finally made peace with the Association of Pubic Television Stations (APTS) and the Public Broadcasting Service, to deliver high definition versions of local public TV stations in all the markets (currently 68) where the satellite service offers local HD stations. As part of the deal, DirecTV also will carry two new national, standard definition channels of pubic television content. All this is contingent on DirecTV successfully launching another new satellite in 2008. While currently boasting the most HD content in the land (including 85 national channels), the system seems to be at its "bits end." Some of my local HD channels freeze up all too readily when there's movement on the screen. *