If you regularly browse any popular gaming site you'll have found it hard to avoid hype over the Firmware 2.4 update for the PlayStation 3. While every new update seems to generate unfathomable levels of interest over the smallest, most trivial new features, 2.40 actually appeared to be worth the excitement.
I still firmly believe that Sony gets off extremely lightly with regard to its online service, rolling out additional features and gaining press coverage for services that its rival Microsoft has given Xbox 360 (and even Xbox) owners for months, if not years.
Firmware 2.40 even caused a number of PS3s to cease working, yet the platform holder seemingly came out of the situation fairly unscathed. Those issues aside, PSN is finally becoming the service it should have been from day one, but how can it beat Xbox LIVE?
The biggest inclusion in Firmware 2.40 is support for Trophies, Sony's answer to Xbox's Achievements. Great on paper, but in reality it's nothing more than a novelty. At the time of writing only one game supports the trophy system, which is pretty shocking. Why not launch with support for all key Sony titles? Surely that should have been the bare minimum to expect.
More games will be added to the list over time, but most older titles won't be patched to include support, and there appears to be no requirement as yet for future titles to include trophies - all Xbox 360 games must include Achievements. If Sony can include trophies for downloadable retro titles too, they'd have a big advantage over the 360. All those PSOne (and potentially PS2) games available on the PlayStation store would suddenly look far more attractive.
Other things that we take for granted on Xbox LIVE still aren't possible on PSN. Cross game invites, allowing you to invite a friend to join you even if he's playing another game, aren't yet possible. Chat options are severely limited too. On Xbox LIVE you're able to talk to a friend no matter what they're doing.
If I'm playing GTA4 and a mate is playing Halo 3, we can still chat. On Xbox LIVE I feel connected to everyone no matter what I'm doing. On PSN you're still pretty much limited to people playing the same game as you, and some games still don't support voice chat on PS3.
Of course, HOME may well change all this, allowing people to get together for a chat before launching a game, then perhaps moving to another game. The problem with HOME is that much has been promised and talked about, but gamers aren't able to use it yet. This service has been on the horizon for well over a year and we still don't have anything approaching a solid release date for anything other than another beta.
A completely free virtual world will give the PlayStation 3 and PSN a massive point of difference and for the first time something to make Xbox LIVE users envious. We can't keep waiting though. Who knows what Microsoft has up its sleeve for Xbox LIVE?
Hopefully the changes made in 2.40 are just the beginning for Sony and the PSNSony offers PS3 owners a web browser, something Microsoft has shown no signs of including as part of Xbox LIVE. At the moment it seems like a huge missed opportunity though. Browsing the internet on a TV, for me anyway, is very different to browsing on a computer.
When sat on a couch I don't really want to be reading, I want to be watching videos. At the moment most streaming video simply doesn't work on the PS3's web browser and if it does (YouTube) it's slow. If Sony sorted this out I could spend hours on the PS3 in an evening. It already has a clear advantage in this area, but it really needs to capitalise on it.
Anyone coming to the PlayStation 3 now will find PSN to be packed full of features, but for many gamers who have been using Xbox LIVE since the service launched on the original Xbox it still doesn't quite feel like Sony is doing anything more than playing catch-up. If you're paying for LIVE (which you don't need to do to get some of its features) you're likely very happy with the service.
Moving over to the PS3 at the moment still feels like a step back in the online space, even though it comes at no cost. If Sony is to convince people that the PS3 is the place to play online, it needs to start leading the pack.
Can PSN become better than Xbox LIVE? What does Sony need to add to the service?