There's no doubt that PlayStation 3 owners have been breathing a little easier of late. A price drop and some excellent software - with a lot more on the horizon, including some great exclusives like Metal Gear Solid, Little Big Planet, Killzone 2 and Gran Turismo 5 - have helped even up the scales in the PS3/Xbox360 debate.

But there has been one lingering sore point: the PlayStation Network. Nobody who's used both this and Xbox Live can seriously say that Sony's implementation is superior. Basically, Xbox Live allows Microsoft to do what it does best, which is to build infrastructure. It's also now well into its second iteration and whilst it's not perfect, the overall experience leaves Sony's efforts way behind.

The Store has been a particular pain. Its layout was barely logical and basic navigation tasks were inconsistently handled. The wallet system had some merit, especially if you had several accounts on the one machine, but it was broadly acknowledged that Sony needed to get its online house in order.

Last week, the new PlayStation store rolled out (alongside the latest firmware update, which will finally allow owners of 7.1 surround systems to take advantage of all their speakers) and it's a much-improved experience. It's still a long way from perfect and there are still some annoying quirks, but overall it's a huge step forward and Sony has demonstrated that it's capable of responding to user demands. Let's take a closer look.

Pretty as a Picture
The first thing you'll notice is the completely re-designed front end. The interface has been streamlined; the home page has spaces for highlighted items and a row of buttons on the left-hand side that breaks the content down into several key categories: Latest (self-explanatory); All Games (including demos, full games, and extras); Games Add-Ons; Videos; PSP Games; Family Games; Other Media; and We Recommend.

It all makes good sense and each button takes to you where you think it should. Each of these areas is further broken down into further sub-categories to simplify navigation; for example, the 'All Games' page is broken down by genre (Action/Adventure, Driving/Racing, Family etc) and 'Videos' breaks down to Game trailers, Movie trailers and Clips.

A couple of further changes stand out. You can 'Buy Now' or add items to your cart, which bypasses the old Wallet system (though it's still there and remains a handy feature if you've got multiple user accounts on your machine). But the most useful is the fact that items you've already downloaded are marked with a red version of the store's shopping bag icon, which is a huge help (MotorStorm players will especially appreciate this feature).

You'll also find a lot the PSP content that's available on the PC version is now available on the store, which makes the PS3 a pretty handy download centre for all your PlayStation-related needs.

And best of all, plenty of content has gone up since the store's launch, making it definitely worthwhile to visit. Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, the new Operation: Broken Mirror map and vehicle pack for Warhawk and the Metal Gear Online Premiere Beta, for starters. So well done on that front.

Work in Progress
But for all these improvements, there are still a few niggles that detract from the experience. The first is probably the most noticeable and the most annoying: the thumbnail images take forever to load up and you'll be staring at the more content-rich pages for a minute or two before all the images load up (this may not be an issue for our foreign readers).

This just isn't acceptable, considering that the performance lags far behind Xbox Live and indeed most websites. Worse still is the fact that it doesn't cache the images, so if you leave a page and then go back to it, you'll have to wait for the images to all load up again. They wouldn't take up much space and unlike the Xbox360, every PlayStation 3 has a hard drive...

It's also hard to tell exactly where you are on the site. Once you click a button and leave the homepage, there's nothing to tell you which particular content channel you've gone into.

Still, there are two key features that we really want to see, and that Sony really needs to provide if its online offering is to have any hope of rivalling Microsoft's: video downloads and the wanted-since-day-one in-game XMB (cross media bar).

To deal with the XMB first, the ability to pull it up and change settings on the fly, or check a message, or download without having to quit out of whatever game you're playing, is a basic function and one that Xbox 360 (and PC) users have always enjoyed. Sony simply must get this feature into its firmware and it needs to be done sooner rather than later.

The second is more problematic and it points to a fundamental issue. Sony wants the PlayStation 3 to be the digital hub, the one device you have in your living room, connected to your TV and Hi-Fi. The devise you use for games, movies and music. Fair enough. You'd think it'd be easy to make it all happen, from a content side at least, given that Sony owns game, movie and music studios.

But Sony has a vested interest in Blu-ray sales, and its movie and music studios are still coming to grips with digital distribution, digital rights management and the changing business models they bring.

Microsoft has no such problem. It has no vested interest in disc formats and in fact has played down the significance of Blu-ray's victory over HD-DVD because it claims digital downloads are the way of the future, not another disc format.

That's probably true, but the reality is that for the mass market, that day is many, many years away. Which is a problem for Sony, because at the moment the Xbox (especially in North America) has a far superior array of content for download, which means that as the Sony businesses try to get themselves all pointed in the same direction, Microsoft is making hay - and lots of dollars - while the sun shines.

The good news for PlayStation owners is that Peter Dille, Senior Vice President of the PlayStation Network, has reassured readers in a post on the PS.Blog that news on these features and more will be coming soon. Let's just hope it's the news PlayStation 3 owners have been waiting to hear, because the industry as a whole, and consumers in particular, will only benefit once the two rival console-based online systems achieve parity - and begin their contest in earnest.

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