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Sony PlayStation 4 review

DT Editors' Choice

Sony PlayStation 4 review

Highs
  • Powerful hardware hasn’t even reached its full potential
  • Much-improved DualShock 4 controller
  • Multitasking allows background downloads, music over games and more
  • Sharing content is simple
  • Justifies owning a Vita
Lows
  • Many features still on the way, like Gaikai streaming games
  • Baffling lack of DLNA and MP3 support
Sleeker, faster and more flexible than ever, Sony’s PlayStation 4 turns out to be a formidable force in the living room.

Many of the PlayStation 4 apps and functions only just became available to test, while a few others are still being rolled out. With that in mind, we will continue to test the system throughout the week, and we will update this article accordingly.

It’s not enough to just be a gamer anymore.

Hardware makers know that you’re using any number of devices at any given moment, even while you’re in the act of fragging dudes in the latest shooter, and the next generation of consoles has been designed with that in mind. While Microsoft markets the Xbox One as an “all-in-one entertainment” box and Sony’s messaging courts hardcore gamers, the consoles’ features tell the full story: These are both all-in-one boxes that cater by design to a variety of entertainment needs.

So which one belongs beneath your television? We’ve only just begun to hunker down with the Xbox One, so we can’t yet say with certainty. But after spending some serious time with the PlayStation 4, we know Microsoft will have its work cut out for it. Here’s what Sony’s next-generation PlayStation is all about.

Unboxing video

Before you begin

It should be a given that you’ll need the 300MB day one patch, titled update 1.50. Without it, many of the PS4’s primary functions – including anything more than basic online connectivity and DVD/Blu-ray playback – simply won’t work. If you get a PS4 on launch day but then take it somewhere without an Internet connection – people in the military, take note – you’ll need a way to get online for the quick patch.

The PS4 is the best console gaming experience yet

That’s the nature of electronic products these days. Hardware and software developers alike know they have the safety net of post-launch patches. This leaves us in the position of having to judge the system based not only on what it is, but what it will be, and could be. And the PlayStation 4 is a powerful gaming device with excellent potential.

Features and design

The PS4 is relatively small, packaged in a simple black chassis, and it features a sloped front occupied by a disc slot and touch-sensitive power and eject switches. You just swipe your finger across the face to start the system; it’s slick, but having some form of haptic feedback to confirm your touch would be nice. A light bar on the top turns blue to signal it’s powering up, white when it’s smoothly running, and yellow when it’s powered down. It isn’t a very useful feature, but it is a stylish one that will define the look of the system.

The console runs very quietly, except when you put a disc in for the first time. The spinning disc is noisy and creates a noticeable vibration. Every game you play is automatically installed on the replaceable 500GB hard drive, but you can still play the game while it loads. Once the install is done, you just need the disc in the drive whenever you want to play, for authentication. After installing the newest updates, you will only have about 375GB left, though. Upgrading to a higher capacity internal hard drive is recommended, although not essential.

Controller

The DualShock 4 is a massive improvement over previous Sony controllers. It’s a long-overdue redesign, shaped by input that Sony collected from developers during the PS4′s pre-production phase. First-person shooter games in particular benefit from a specific type of controller, one with triggers and a longer frame to grip than previous Sony controllers offered. With FPS titles being so popular, it made sense to design with that group in mind, though it should be noted that the DualShock 4 works just fine with other types of games as well.

Gamers with large hands will engulf this controller.

The new R2/L2 triggers hook outwards like real triggers, making it easier to grip and fire quickly. The thumbsticks have also been altered, with a concave top that offers better stability for your thumbs and less slippage. Despite the controller’s bulkier frame over previous DualShocks, it is still a bit shorter than the current Xbox 360 controller; gamers with large hands will engulf this controller.

The D-pad is unchanged, but the face buttons are digital rather than analog now, with a springier, clicky feel when you press them. The newest addition, the touch pad, is hard to miss. Situated in the center of the DualShock 4, the touch-sensitive surface can track finger movement, allowing for swipe motions in games, and it can also be pressed down on like a button. There’s a lot of potential here for developers to marry “traditional” video game commands with what we see in mobile games. It will be interesting to see how this feature evolves post-launch.

We’re left with the Options and Share buttons. “Options” is a different name for what gamers know as a start button, plain and simple. The Share button is a bit more unusual though – and unique. Tapping it brings up a share menu; press and hold the button to take a screenshot that you can upload, or press it twice to begin a new gameplay recording (this only works with games; the service deactivates itself for apps like Netflix). Up to 15 minutes of footage can be saved, and then uploaded to Facebook. You can also go through the share menu and stream video to Twitch or Ustream.

The controller sports a speaker with its own audio channel, meaning it won’t simply play the same sounds you would hear through your TV speakers or headphones. You also get dual haptic feedback, an evolution of rumble features that allows for the vibration to shake either side of the controller as well as the whole thing. In addition, there’s improved gyroscopic control and a light bar on the front of the controller that integrates the Move technology, so long as you have a PlayStation 4 Eye camera connected. The light bar also acts an identifier for when multiple controllers are connected to the same system, with a different color for each one.

Performance

The PlayStation 4′s launch titles look significantly better than the current-gen offerings, with a higher level of detail, vastly improved lighting effects, and more objects on the screen at once. As with all console launches, game development cycles were curtailed by the hardware launch deadline. The available content right now shows huge potential, but it will likely be at least two years before developers really begin to push the hardware.

One of the best functions of the PS4 is its ability to run two apps at once.

The user interface is a different story. One of the best functions of the PS4 is its ability to run two apps at once, and access the home screen functions at any time, even when you’re in a game. Tapping the PS button on the controller twice allows you to swap back and forth between the currently running app and the last one you were using. You can slow down the system easily if you have too many apps running at once, but it generally runs smoothly; freezes and slowdowns were rare.

Switching between apps that are already open takes no time at all, and starting up a new one takes just a few seconds. You can’t run two games at the same time, but you can easily run one game along with, say, the Web browser or Music Unlimited.

Sony’s subscription music service is at once one of the best and most frustrating features on the PS4. The Music Unlimited app has a massive, searchable library of 18 million songs. Once you hit play, you can then jump into another app, like a game, and have the music continue uninterrupted, basically creating your own game soundtracks. You’ll want to turn down the game’s music and then adjust the Music Unlimited volume by holding down the PS button to bring up a volume bar. Currently, you can only do this using Music Unlimited, and it’ll stay that way until Sony introduces DLNA and MP3 recognition (ideally along with support for external USB storage).

Software and online capabilities

Along with Sony’s Music and Video Unlimited apps, the PS4 also comes with several popular third-party subscription video services like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon to name just a few. The Netflix interface is a highlight, with a smooth, info-filled movie browser and the same Netflix Max discovery feature that the PS3 app offered. With Max, you rate a few films in a chosen genre, and then receive a recommended movie to watch based on your choices.

The PlayStation Store also returns, but it’s slightly underwhelming at the moment due to the console’s lack of backward compatibility. The only games available are those that were designed specifically for the PS4. There’s hope for those who want to play the older games, but that speaks to another bit of unrealized potential we are forced to wait on: the streaming technology that Sony’s ownership of Gaikai offers.

A Web browser is also available, with support for HTML5 but not Flash. The interface is fairly clunky as well, and putting it into full screen cuts off the corners of the website you’re viewing. It’s fine for text-heavy websites, but anything more elaborate is difficult to navigate.

Profiles have also been upgraded, and they now link to your Facebook account if you want them to. This creates two layers of friends: those you only know in the gaming zone by their PSN IDs, and those you know well enough to have their real names. You can request a player’s real name – there are separate friend requests for PSN IDs and real names – though you have the option of setting your account to display your FB name from the start.

Once you link your social media account – a necessary step for sharing recorded video – you will also share the Trophies you earn, any big moments from the games you play, and which movies and music you purchased via Music and Video Unlimited in your newsfeed. All of this can be turned off, but it does offer a level of social integration that is new to the PlayStation ecosystem. It’s difficult to tell what people will accept when it comes to social integration; having the option available could help to nurture a stronger community.

Accessories

For Vita owners, the PS4 will breathe new life into the handheld console. Sony’s handheld gaming system has been criticized for its limited (though continually growing) game library, but the PS4 gives you more reasons to own one. A new Vita app called “PS4 Link” allows you to use the Vita as a second screen for any game that offers such functionality, or play PS4 games remotely. This isn’t a new feature for Sony platforms – the PS3 supported it in certain games using the Vita and the PlayStation Portable both – but it was limited. The PS4/Vita integration represents a huge step forward for off-TV play on Sony consoles.

The PlayStation 4 Camera is sold separately for $60, but it’s closer to being an essential purchase. It features two cameras and a microphone, which allows it to double as a communications device when talking to friends. Alternatively you could use the stereo headset included, which physically connects to your controller – Bluetooth connectivity for headsets isn’t supported at launch.

The camera enables the Move functionality offered by the DualShock 4′s lightbar, but it also recognizes your face. When you have multiple profiles on your PS4 and you set the system to a low-power standby mode, the camera will automatically recognize the face of the profile owner that sits down in front of it once they pick up a controller. It is very similar to what Microsoft’s Kinect can do on the Xbox One, and in both cases it is a very cool “We live in the future!” sort of feature.

Voice recognition also allows you to launch apps from the home screen, but it is fairly limited in its vocabulary right now.

Conclusion

Sony has the chance to do what few people or companies can do, and correct its errors of the past. The manufacturer learned its lessons with the PlayStation 3 they had the better hardware, but didn’t listen to gamers, then seemed genuinely perplexed why people didn’t flock to them or wait a full year after the Xbox 360 was released. With the PlayStation 4, Sony listened to its fans base, and continues to do so. There is an energy around the PlayStation 4. It is a system built around what people want, and what they’ve been asking for. With the PS4, Sony has the tools to retake their crown as king of the console market. 

The PS4 is built on promise and potential. The system that we see in a year from now will likely differ significantly from the launch-day units, just as the games released a year or more from now will better demonstrate the machine’s power. Until then, the PS4 does a lot of things right – enough that it’s worth waiting and trusting that Sony will fix the little things they did away with or deprioritized for launch.

From the start, Sony has said the PS4 is a gaming system first. Gaikai streaming tech will eventually bolster that claim, but the changes here over the PS3 are all very much for the better, even without any form of backward compatibility. The user interface is cleaner and easier to navigate, the addition of multi-tasking acknowledges the changing needs and desires of the modern gamer, and even the controller is a big step forward with its redesigned form factor.

For years now people have been saying that console gaming is on the decline. The PlayStation 4 proves that to be a ridiculous claim. The PS4 is the best console gaming experience yet, and reminds us why we used to get so excited for the release of a new system. 

The next-gen battle has begun, and it’s going to be a long, long war. Based on what we’ve seen so far, and assuming that Sony sticks to its promises, the PlayStation 4 is off to a very good start.

Highs

  • Powerful hardware hasn’t even reached its full potential
  • Much-improved DualShock 4 controller
  • Multitasking allows background downloads, music over games and more
  • Sharing content is simple
  • Justifies owning a Vita

Lows

  • Many features still on the way, like Gaikai streaming games
  • Baffling lack of DLNA and MP3 support
DT
Ryan Fleming

Ryan Fleming is the Gaming and Cinema Editor for Digital Trends. He joined the DT staff in 2009 after spending time covering local news, travel features, and politics. He has also been a frequent guest on podcasts, radio programs, and TV spots. Ryan is a diehard gamer and follower of the gaming industry, an avid filmgoer, and a passionate supporter of his alma mater, the University of Kansas. Find Ryan online at: Facebook: www.Facebook.com/RyanFlemingPDX Twitter: @RyanFlemingPDX XBL: Iridium Six PSN: IridiumSix

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