When the PS3 launched in 2006 it was a humongous, monolithic beast of a thing. It was the George Foreman grill of consoles. The smaller and slimmer iterations that followed were far more suitable to park underneath a TV and thankfully the same can be said of the PS4.Much was made of Sony’s decision to put software ahead of hardware when it first announced the PS4, and it’s clear there was nothing to worry about. The PS4 is small, svelte and much better looking than all three iterations of the PS3. The curves have now gone replaced with a sleeker, more angled design. It looks a bit like two slim Sony Blu-ray decks sat on top each other, then slightly moved apart to give it that more edgy look. It still has the same matte plastic used on the PS3 Slim, but adds a thick glossy black strip that prevents it from being just another boring black box.The gloss and matte is separated by a thin status light bar that flashes blue then white when the console is on. It reaches down to the front of the console where you will find the Blu-ray/DVD disc tray and standby buttons discreetly hidden. Indeed, they are so discreetly concealed you can barely see them at first and they only need the lightest of touches to activate.There’s also two USB 3.0 ports to connect the DualShock 4 controllers up front and around the back there’s ports for the same kettle power lead used with the PS3 Slim, an optical digital output, HDMI, Ethernet and a dedicated port for the PlayStation 4 camera. It’s strictly all digital on the connection front for Sony this generation.At 275mm wide, 53mm high and 305mm long, the PS4’s dimensions are smaller on all fronts in comparison to the original PS3 and the PS3 Slim. At 2.8kg, it’s also roughly the same weight as the PS3 Super Slim (2.9kg) and the 250GB Xbox 360 consoles (2.9kg). Having had our hands on the Xbox One (333mm x 78mm x 274mm), the PS4 is significantly the smaller of the two next-gen consoles. That’s definitely a good thing.
Sony apparently played around with a host of prototypes and even contemplated a button-less PS4 controller. We’re glad it didn’t go down that route for the DualShock 4 it replaces.Despite popular opinion to the contrary, we never felt the DualShock 3 was a bad controller, but there was definitely room for improvement. The DualShock 4 delivers where it matters. It instantly feels nicer to hold — it has a little more weight to it and the extra width to accommodate the new features is not really an issue. The longer controller arms with the textured finish running all the way around the back and shoulder buttons don’t get as greasy as the DualShock 3 controller and adds plenty of grip, too.The D-pad and face buttons remain the same as does the PlayStation home button in between the redesigned analogue sticks. The more concave analogue sticks accommodate twiddling fingers and thumbs much better, and movement is a little tighter and more accurate. The shoulder buttons are now narrower and don’t press in as far as the DualShock 3 triggers but still feel great underneath the fingers.Sony has added a headphone jack and mic support, a built-in speaker, Rumble Pak-style motors for improved feedback and a clickable touchpad. Like the Wii remote, the built-in speaker amplifies in-game sounds in stereo. In the PS4 launch title Knack you can hear it in action when you collect solar crystals, but it doesn’t exactly burst with power or richness. The clickable touchpad is an interesting new addition, but is not really put to great use on the games we tested.The Start and Select buttons have been replaced by Option and Share buttons that sit up close to the top of the D-pad and the face buttons. The Option button pauses games and will take you into in-game menus. The Share button will let you upload a screenshot or edit footage from the last 15 minutes of gameplay to upload to Facebook or Twitter.
You can also use the Share button to broadcast gaming live via Twitch.TV or UStream. At the front of the controller is the micro USB charging port and light bar that is interacts with the PlayStation Eye 2 camera. Light bar functionality can be built into games and in Killzone: Shadow Fall it will glow red when you are running low on health.Battery life is an issue, however. The DualShock 3 was good for several days use between charges, but the DualShock 4 only lasts 7-8 hours. That’s a fairly serious loss, though it’s partially offset by the fact the controller now charges when the PS4 is in sleep mode.Battery life aside, the DualShock 4 is the best PlayStation controller we have had our hands on. It’s the subtle changes that really make the difference and make it such a comfortable controller to use. We have yet to see a really compelling example of the touchpad or built-in speaker in action, but when you step up from the DualShock 3 to the DualShock 4 you will not be disappointed.
The PS4 makes some fundamental improvements to basic network functionality. You can now join friends’ games from your friends list. The PS4 also introduces game-independent party chat for up to eight people, a godsend for multiplayer gamers hoping to avoid toxic public lobby audio.The PS4’s home screen includes a feed of your friends’ activity called “What’s New,” and this demonstrates quite a bit of potential. It shows what games your friends started to play, when they’re livestreaming and … maybe too much stuff, actually. The What’s New feed is a wall of informational text and from a distance, it’s difficult to parse. This is indicative of a general tendency toward too many options, and an excess of surfaced information throughout the PS4’s PSN functions.There are other additions that seem beneficial, but have strange oversights that make them potentially problematic. The PSN friends limit has been increased to 2,000, which is great — but there’s no way to organize them. Narrowing your friends or joining larger groups remains outside the abilities of the PlayStation 4 at present, despite system-wide Facebook integration, and sharing options that include Facebook groups. The PS4 also supports real names for friends, which could be a lifesaver — but it requires two-way authorization between both people to activate.PSN is full of small examples of a system that badly needs reorganization and some cleanup. But make no mistake: Sony seems determined not to get left behind or leapfrogged in online this time around, and the basic functionality that eluded PSN on PS3 is now present.The day-one inclusion of Twitch integration works well, and it’s a good thing — the PS4 encrypts its entire HDMI signal in HDCP, which prevents it from working with most capture devices out of the box. For most users, the Twitch streaming is all you’ll need, though we have concerns about general video quality via the system’s internal hardware.Trophies work similarly to the way they did on PS3, but now also include trophy rarity — something we hope everyone everywhere steals as quickly as possible.
One of the biggest uproars leading up to the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One has surprisingly been about gaming headsets. The Xbox One does not ship with one and is not compatible with Xbox 360 headsets. The PS4 meanwhile does support current gen headsets and comes with a headset that plugs into the jack on the DualShock 4 controller. Don’t get too excited, though. It’s not really anything to write home about. It looks like the kind of headset you get packaged with a phone and we struggled getting the earpiece to fit. If you are planning to bark orders at your teammates, you should invest in something more substantial.
Meanwhile, the PlayStation Store is very similar to the current PS3 store, which has made enormous strides over the last few years — but it shares the discoverability and organization problems of the existing store as well. It’s not fair to crucify Sony over this, as every online marketplace shares these issues to some degree or another. But we’re still waiting to see if anyone can address these problems.After seven years, Sony is joining the competition by charging for multiplayer gaming on the PlayStation 4. Players will need a subscription to Sony’s PlayStation Plus service, which thankfully provides much more than unfettered access to multiplayer gaming; it also provides regular discounts on digital releases and a regular stable of free games. For the right player, it’s a tremendous value. And if multiplayer gaming isn’t your thing, the PS4 doesn’t lock any of its media apps behind the PS+ gate. Netflix, perhaps the most prominent example, requires nothing more than its own subscription to watch on the PS4.Perhaps as a signal to how seriously Sony is taking online multiplayer, it’s included a headphone jack on the controller and a headset with every PlayStation 4. That inclusion, coupled with a new party chat system, brings PlayStation 4 to feature parity with existing competition and sets it up for continued innovation in the online gaming space.
One’s thing for sure, the PS4 is very easy to get up and running. Plug in the power cord, hook the HDMI into the TV and you are ready to go. The power supply is built-in, too, so there’s a great deal less messing about trying to find somewhere to put the power bright — an advantage over the Xbox One, which has an external brick.Once you log in you will have to set up a Wi-Fi connection and install the system firmware 1.50 update. It takes around 15 minutes to install. Sony has already announced a 1.51 update to improve the stability of the software and make some UI tweaks and it’s likely that there will be more updates to come. Next you’ll need to set up the online features and that takes another 10 or so minutes so you will need to put aside 30 minutes before you can really explore.If you are a PlayStation newbie, then you will need to set up a PSN (PlayStation Network) account. When setting up a profile you can choose to share your real name and Facebook profile in games or simply use your online ID and avatar. There’s also a strong privacy presence throughout the process where you can choose how much of your PSN activities to share like trophies or videos watched.For PS3 and PS Vita PSN account holders with existing PSN logins it’s a far more straightforward process, and you can even carry over PlayStation Plus accounts when prompted. You can now add a pass code for another layer of security as well.You can make the PS4 the primary console to store content that all users who use the console can access. Now you can login as either a registered PSN user or a guest. Up to four guests are supported on one console and they can all download games and apps. Once logged out, guest data is then removed from the system but the content remains on the hard drive.
While Sony nixed plans to include the PlayStation Camera with the PS4 by default, it is still for sale, and adds some options to the system. Sony has touted the addition of voice commands to the PS4, though our limited time with this feature yielded mixed results. Commands were limited and poorly explained, and frequently went unanswered.The easiest comparison would be with the early feature set of the Xbox 360’s Kinect. The PlayStation Camera is a higher-definition device, and is likely more advanced, but there is a distinctive “first attempt” feel to the camera that seems at odds with the PlayStation 4’s efforts at broader platform streamlining and refinement. But worse for Sony, its capabilities and functionality look downright primitive in comparison to the Xbox One’s Kinect.There’s no IR component, which forces users to maintain a minimum amount of light. The PlayStation Camera adds facial recognition to PS4’s account system, with the procedure for adding biometric data requiring a short setup for each user. At the login screen, the camera scans the scene and, as long as it’s well-lit, identifies faces it recognizes. If a user wants to log in, they simply raise the controller to match a box on the screen. The catch is, if you’re using a controller here, it’s easier to perform the same task with the controller.The PlayStation Camera’s overall place within the PlayStation 4 ecosystem and Sony’s intentions for the system are unclear at this time. While there were elements of the new console that were clearly designed with the camera’s capabilities in mind — the somewhat vestigial indicator light on the DualShock 4 comes to mind — most traces of the potential future are difficult to find in the system as it exists now.At least it’s unassuming. Whether with its stand or alone, it’s a small device that doesn’t occupy the same kind of real estate as the original Kinect or its hefty successor.
But that’s also sort of the problem. This is Sony’s third attempt at a camera peripheral for a PlayStation system.Each previous attempt was marked by an initial burst of enthusiasm and software support, something the PlayStation Camera lacks outside of the cute but minimal Playroom application included on every PS4. More damning, every previous camera was quickly abandoned, with little software support and zero official acknowledgement of its relevance.
It’s fair to say that the XMB is not one of the PS3’s finer points and pales in comparison to the Xbox 360 dashboard. Sony has done away with the XMB interface and introduced the PlayStation Dynamic Menu. It’s cleaner, quicker and much easier to navigate around. Thankfully, game downloads and updates can now take place in the background. There’s still the horizontal bars with the main one showcasing a socially integrated What’s New section, current and recently played games, web browser, TV, Video, PlayRoom, Live from PlayStation and a Library. Highlighting any of these sections and hitting down expands the detail on a game you are playing or a list of downloaded apps. Up top there’s the PlayStation Store, notifications, trophies (including PS3 trophies), messages, chat, settings, profile and power.Sony has not fixed everything, though. It still has the same clunky web browser as the PS3 and it has still not addressed the problem of neatly organizing content with some form of Android or iOS-style folder system. Overall, we are pleased with the changes made so far, but this is an area the Xbox One trumps the PS4 — Microsoft has clearly spent more time fine-tuning this aspect. Of course, hardcore gamers probably don’t give two hoots about any of this, but given the amount of time you’ll spend in these menus it’s a small, but not totally irrelevant point.
Remote Play of PS4 titles on the PlayStation Vita has been one of the system’s most anticipated features.Remote Play works well via wireless LAN in supported titles; several third-party releases have gone above and beyond basic support, including full Vita control in games like Battlefield 4 and Assassin’s Creed 4. Sony’s own first-party games like Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack also support the feature.However, dreams of universal access to PS4 content from anywhere via the Vita will have to wait, as even locally, Remote Play suffers from issues similar to those encountered by Wii U users. Players who move too far away from their routers may lose their connection to the PS4 or otherwise render their game unplayable.We are somewhat confused at Sony’s aggressive pairing of the Vita and PS4’s fortunes with the emphasis on Remote Play, as the former device has struggled to establish a sustainable install base outside of Japan after almost two years of availability. But the potential is there for Remote Play to present a meaningful differentiation from the PS4’s competition.The Vita also presents an avenue for second-screen functionality for PlayStation 4, but Sony has smartly expanded beyond their own handheld with this week’s release of the PlayStation App. The app allows message and friends list management as well as trophy options, but the primary functionality seems aimed at providing augmented app experiences for PlayStation 4 software.
Sony’s current showcase for the app happens through their Playroom software, where players can draw shapes and flick them out to entertain their goofy robot minions.It remains to be seen whether developers will capitalize on the PlayStation App with any regularity, however. Even studios that are embracing second-screen functionality on the PlayStation 4 are relying on their own, dedicated applications on Android and iOS. But at the very least, Sony has multiple means of achieving feature parity with the Wii U and the Xbox One’s new version of SmartGlass. The near-ubiquity of second-screen availability will hopefully encourage developers to add it to their games, which can only be a good thing.
Sony has included 11 apps on the PlayStation store for the UK launch and they are all available to use without having to subscribe to PlayStation Plus. Along with the Music and Video Unlimited services, there’s IGN, BBC iPlayer, Vidzone, Amazon, LoveFilm, Netflix, BBC Sports, BBC News and Demand 5. A quick download of BBC iPlayer, BBC Sports and Demand 5 apps shows everything is in working order. They all work in a very similar way to their PS3 app equivalents, but crucially load video content much quicker. User interfaces still look a little on the clunky side so there’s clearly still some work to be done to make it feel as slick as the Dynamic Menu.Overall, it’s a reasonable bunch with some notable omissions like 4oD and Sky Go although that was not previously supported on the PS3. The biggest absentee is YouTube, an app the Xbox One is receiving at launch. It also means currently you can’t directly upload game footage to the video-sharing site, which is a blow given the emphasis on sharing game footage with the dedicated share button on the controller. Hopefully Sony will remedy this with further updates next year.
There are pros and cons to this approach. This drive toward games first will in all probability lead to a strong ecosystem of exclusives and multi-platform titles on the PS4. The emphasis on powerful hardware dedicated to gaming software is already yielding tangible advantages over the competition, with games like Battlefield 4 running in higher resolution on the PlayStation 4 than the Xbox One.However, at launch, the PS4 has failed to muster a software library that sells that hardware.Downloadable shooter Resogun is a beautiful bright spot in the PlayStation 4’s lineup, and even better, it’s free for PlayStation Plus subscribers. But Sony’s major AAA launch exclusives are impossible to recommend. Killzone: Shadow Fall is gorgeous but poorly designed and boring for the duration of its campaign. Sony Japan’s Knack is a surprisingly difficult grind, which drags on for too long with too little to say or do.Worse for Sony, the delta between most next-gen and current-gen releases this fall has proven minimal beyond superficial visual improvements. While games like Assassin’s Creed 4 look better on PlayStation 4, they aren’t enough to recommend stepping onward and upward to a new console.This is an enormous challenge for the PS4. As a system focusing on games, that’s where it currently lives or dies.
Just as problematic, Sony’s currently announced slate of platform exclusives is thin — shy of Infamous: Second Son, there’s little to carry the PS4 through the spring and summer of 2014. This is a notoriously precarious period for new consoles, as demonstrated by the software struggles of both the PlayStation Vita and the Wii U in the year following their release, and we’re not sure what bridges Sony intends to build between release and holiday 2014.Sony’s repeated emphasis on indie titles has borne little fruit for launch outside of the disastrous Contrast, which appears for free on PlayStation Plus. We expect that 2014 will be dotted with some of the titles that Sony brought to this year’s E3 and Gamescom stages — but their absence from view has us wondering what happened and, more specifically, why they couldn’t make it for launch.To be clear, we’re not saying there won’t be good, interesting software for the PS4. We think that’s inevitable. But we don’t know what that software will be, or when it will see release.
The PS4 is a powerful, great looking console that is need of some killer PS4 exclusives. These are bound to come in time, but there’s no doubt that it’s the more powerful of the two consoles and that Sony has produced a leaner, more gamer orientated console compared to the Xbox One.