Hello, sweetie. You’ve gotten slimmer.
Rumours, anticipation, declaration, hype, pomp, and release into the untamed wilds. From the circus of announce to the defiant one-upmanship to the inevitable dearth of availability, next-generation is unmistakeably here. I’ve had my hands on a Playstation 4 since right around US launch, thanks to international shipping, and, after playing around a bit with it, I can tell you what I think of it. While this is a “review”, I won’t be giving the Playstation 4 a score, since it’s a console in its infancy. Instead, this review will focus on the positives and negatives, and hopefully give you a good idea of whether the PS4 is the machine for your needs.
First of all, the machine is pretty. The PS4 console is sleek, elegant, and unobtrusive. Its relatively small stature lets it fit into your entertainment system – both literally and stylistically. The black rhomboid shell swoops back at the top, giving the front a strange yet appealingly different slope, marking it as a distinct and striking piece of tech. It’s bifurcated twice, with a horizontal groove around the midline and a left-offset vertical groove. Aside from providing zero practical function for existing, except for perhaps concealing some of the ventilation slits, it serves to divide the console into four distinct segments – and it’s a fitting visual metaphor. On the front panel at the top is the understated recessed Sony PS4 logo, while the rear panel contains HDMI out, optical (TOSLINK) audio, and an Ethernet port. The top left segment of the console is made of shiny black plastic, while the other segments are matte black. Inside the horizontal groove, you will find the disk slot on the left and two USB ports on the right. Placing these inside the groove make it slightly more difficult to practice proper disk and plug insertion and removal, for a small stylistic gain. And I’m just not a fan of form trumping function.
The vertical line provides some function, though. Along the long top of the console, the vertical line is a light bar, which indicates the system’s power status. White light will emanate and occasionally pulse when the system is starting up, and will turn to the signature Playstation blue when in operation. It’s a stylish and neat way of providing visual feedback, however it can be a bit bright and distracting when in a dark room – even if it’s only pointing upwards. Along the front, the line identifies where the “buttons” are located, with a power “button” above the horizontal line, and an eject “button” at the base of the line.
I put the inverted commas around “button” for a reason – the operational controls are all touch activated. I get that buttons are so last year, and I get that it looks prettier, but placing these basic functions within tiny symbols with absolutely zero tactile feedback is a big operational issue. You don’t know, for example, if your console has zero power or is somehow incapacitated, or if you’ve simply missed the magic invisible touch bit. And the same goes for the eject function, which can take a few seconds to kick in.
Luckily, all these basic functions can also be performed by a nearby controller – the much lauded Dualshock 4.
It’s being lauded for a reason. The Dualshock 4 is a fantastic way to control your games. Now, being primarily a PC gamer since my Gamecube went out of style, I haven’t had much truck with these fingertip-manipulated-handheld-control-devices. I can’t fairly compare it to the previous Dualshock 3/Sixaxis, since I’ve only played a PS3 a handful of times. But the Dualshock 4 is a significant improvement over the Xbox 360’s controller.
Firstly, it follows the matte and shiny black scheme of the console, although with some grey mixed in at the back. I don’t mind the look, although the smooth circle cutouts under d-pad and button inputs can get scummy quickly. It’s generously wide, allowing for appropriate separation of the hands without becoming fatiguing, even for smaller hands like mine. It’s very comfortable to hold, given the different textures each grip section has, and always feels secure. Triggers feel great. I like the flattened off face buttons, which feel resistant and responsive to press, and the d-pad feels solid. Sony has eschewed the analogue input of its previous iterations, instead favouring the more “modern” digital approach. I don’t particularly like that decision, but it has been made largely redundant by game designers. Start and Select have been replaced with Options and Share, with Options fulfilling the role of Start/Select and Share linking in to the social functions that I’ll get to in a bit.
Smack bang in the middle is a rather large touchpad, which also doubles as a button. While we’re yet to see an innovative use of this touchpad, I’m sure someone will come up with something suitably gimmicky in the future. Below the touchpad is an integrated speaker. It’s not the greatest quality, but I found it interestingly implemented in Resogun, and I think it has some great potential if it’s used properly. Under that is the Playstation button, which allows you to instantly navigate back to the main menu, as well as offering a number of quick console functions like volume control and logging out. On the bottom of the controller is my hands-down favourite feature – a full four pole 3.5mm analogue audio jack. Plug in your wired headset (I’ve been using my Gamecom Commanders, but the PS4 comes with a rather cheap mono/mic option for the desperate) and all audio gets sent through to your earphones. No patches, no proprietary hardware – all you need is a standard set of headphones. It’ll work with headphones only, as well as full headphone/mic combos, providing you with a painless audio solution for two-way communication. Fantastic.
On the top of the controller, however, is my least favourite feature(s). There is a wide triangular light bar on the top, which awkwardly deforms the shape of the controller at the top. The glow works like the Playstation Move peripheral, as well as a player number and power indicator, but it’s bright and unpleasant and thoroughly obnoxious. It can light up a room, and, in my dark cosy little game cave, that’s A Bad Thing. Just below the light bar is the micro USB port, which allows for charging. While you don’t get a separate power charger in the PS4 box, it does come with a USB to micro cable which you can use to charge it from your console. Or, if you have a standard smartphone charger (like the one for my Galaxy S3), you can plug your controller into that. And you’ll be doing it a lot, since the Dualshock 4 seems to go flat every six to eight hours. At least it has decent wireless range, able to pick up my inputs from the opposite side of the house.
There has recently been some talk about how it may not be the most durable controller, and while I can’t say mine has seen any wear, I did handle an “old” controller today – one attached to a display console in a heavily trafficked retail store. I saw signs of wear on the thumbsticks, with the textured rubber tops having lost some of their bump and going a grungy powder grey. I can’t attest to how well it was treated, and it looked like it had seen sufficient abuse, but the sticks wearing down isn’t an encouraging indication.
Finally, the Dualshock 4 comes with motion controls inbuilt. I haven’t used it in any games yet, but it does work well within the OS. I haven’t explored it fully, but you can switch on keyboard motion navigation, and it can be quicker than manual input once you get the hang of it.
The OS is pretty decent. It’s quick to navigate, most of the time, and offers some great basic features. You can feel the power of the new system as it glides through menus. Firstly, you can activate your PS4 to a single primary account, while having secondary accounts that can access ALL the paid content and features of the primary. That means you only need one PS+ membership per console, and other users on the system can play all those wonderful free games you get as a PS+ member. Also, secondary accounts can access multiplayer through that one primary membership – which now requires a paid subscription to PS+ (LE SIGH). Account switching is easily managed by holding the PS button on the controller and selecting the log out option, with the option to store account credentials or log in as a guest.
The UI itself is generally rather clean and neat. There are two vertical bars – one that is full of your apps, and one that is full of system stuff. The topmost bar is the system one, with small icons that link to things like PSN, friends, trophies, general notifications, and system settings. I’ll go into more detail on the PSN storefront and friends app a bit later, but some system things deserve a mention here. There are a number of useful options you can switch around, like whether to mute the audio output when a headset is plugged into the controller or what your power preferences are. You can also manage your account credentials here, setting the primary account, and linking and managing your subscriptions to PS+ and other Sony stuff. Disappointingly, you can only store one internet connection at a time. It might not affect most users, but I’m mobile with my gaming equipment, and the ability to store my home internet connection as well as my work flat’s credentials is an important feature for me, and it’s sorely lacking.
The main row of the UI, big and bold, handles all the things you want to do on your system. First up is the What’s New screen, which you will default to on powering up. It shows game updates and news, as well as the recent activity of your friends, all from a convenient drop down list. Along the main bar, your latest used apps is organised left to right. It’s a clean way of distributing your game library, although it may get a little cluttered as the available list of things to do gets larger. I couldn’t find a simple way to distinguish between games you have installed and ready, and those that you need the disk inserted for but don’t. It makes playing from disk unnecessarily confusing at times.
Your most typical way of navigating the main menu will be the controller, but you can also navigate via voice commands. If you have them enabled in the settings and a headset plugged in, you can use simple commands to play apps and open things, although it’s more of a rudimentary feature at this stage. I found zero issues with it recognising my broad Australian drawl (HAWYA GARN MAYT?). It’s supposed to work with the Playstation Camera too, but I don’t have one so I can’t attest to its accuracy.
All good consoles need apps, apparently. And, so far, Playstation 4 is utterly disappointing. In Australia, access to a variety of apps is sorely lacking, and the choices for multimedia integration is, currently, very poor.
Integrated into the system is the PSN app, which is an effective, if a little messy, storefront, although the current choice is rather anaemic. It’ll take you to a list of available PS4 games (and PS4 games only – no buying a game for your Vita on your PS4), as well as purchasing services, renting a few movies, and inputting PSN codes. It’s not incredibly intuitive to navigate at first, with its way of segmenting games into a truncated horizontal ribbon first before offering you a “show all” option on the far end of it. It does let you search for titles, and to organise by genre, popularity, or price. Once some more games get added to it we’ll see how the current UI issues hold up, but hopefully it’ll receive some streamlining soon.
Also integrated is the Friends app. Using this, you can search for users and make friend requests. Friend requests have to be accepted by the other party, but once they are it’s a pretty efficient way of keeping tabs on people. You can see their detailed player stats, provided their privacy settings allow it. More importantly, it allows for a real name request – no longer will you be rifling through your friends wondering who is who. It’s a great system that lets you keep in touch with your more “important” friends by name rather than handle, and one that is a great addition.
That leads to proprietary apps, which fall into two categories – apps downloaded from the PSN store, and games.
Games are pretty self-explanatory. Buy and install a game and it pops up as a shortcut on your home ribbon. From here you can either start the game or expand it to a drop down display that shows you the latest news, updates, and personal and friend activity. Having that extra information available is a nice optional touch, which can help you keep up to date and in touch.
Entertainment apps are available for download mostly through the PSN store, although the two proprietary Sony streaming services come preinstalled.
Video Unlimited – Sony’s proprietary content distribution platforms also suffer from PSN’s abject lack of content. Video Unlimited holds a small selection of mediocre films and shows, and one or two good ones, available for stream at a not insignificant price. It’s only meant to be a basic service, but it left me feeling disappointed at the lack of effort Sony has gone to to acquire distribution rights for the service.
Music Unlimited – on the other hand, Music Unlimited is much better. For a reasonable subscription fee you can instantly have access to a broad selection of high quality music at no additional cost. And, best of all, you can keep it running in the background during gameplay to have your very own custom soundtrack. The only problem I had with Unlimited was that navigation was a little tricky, the app was a little slow, and my (very expensive) internet connection could not deliver a stutter-free HQ music service, although dropping it down to standard fixed the stutters.
There are only three other apps available for download at the moment – at least in Australia. Yep, that’s it. Three. Preinstalled Videos and Music Unlimited, plus three more. While the US gets Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and NBA and Redbox and everything on this list, Australia gets just three. Quickflix – Australia’s cheap answer to Netflix, Vidzone – which is actually a pretty decent repository of music video clips, and IGN.
Out of these three, I’ve only tried Vidzone, which is a simple music video streaming service, completely free and with a great library. It doesn’t have the neatest UI, and it’s not exactly consistent with how the Sony apps are controlled, but it has a decent amount of content – I was swapping between sledgehammer licking starlets and calling people Al – oh, and they have Duran Duran (Ordinary World, you pervs)! You can build and save playlists using the search and save feature, and rearrange stuff pretty easily. It’s ad-supported, but it’s not too intrusive with it. Oh, and some video clips come with a karaoke version – hours of homemade fun right there.
Of course, all this lack of content will (hopefully) change as more apps get released, but, currently, it’s a truly woeful start. If you’re looking for an entertainment centre, you won’t be doing it on your PS4.
There are three other things that the Playstation 4 can offer you, and both revolve around content sharing in some way or another.
Firstly, there is the companion app. Download it from the App Store or the Play Store and put it on your smartphone or tablet. It offers a few basic features, such as allowing you to go to the PSN store (through opening a browser tab), manage your friends, see your trophies, and do some generic account housekeeping. Not particularly interesting on that front. More importantly, you can link it to your PS4 system and use your device as a second screen. Currently I haven’t seen any genuine second screen implementation through this app, although the option is tantalisingly there. The most use you’ll get out of it right now is the ability to use your phone or tablet’s touchscreen to type. It turns the time consuming process of navigating a keyboard with a controller into an extension of your regular device, and that’s a good thing.
Secondly, there is PS Vita connectivity. You can use your Vita as the app described above. On top of that, you get the remote play ability. It’s a nifty feature that allows you to play your PS4 through your Vita, with next to zero noticeable latency. And it is really quite noticeable how fast it is – I experienced no real latency issues at all. There are one or two limitations – some network features become unstable, since the system is using the bandwidth to talk to the Vita. Distance isn’t great – perhaps 10-15 metres under ideal conditions. Beyond that, it’ll start glitching out. Additionally, the Vita lacks the L/R 2 and 3 buttons, migrating them to the rear touchscreen. This can get a little unwieldy. You can play using the Dualshock 4, but it can be a little bit difficult to set this up and it’s via exploiting OS miscommunications, since there is no option to do it natively.
Finally, you can share your content on Twitch, Ustream, Twitter, or Facebook.
Pressing the Share button on your gamepad will immediately do a number of things. By default, pressing it once will create a screenshot and store the last fifteen minutes of gameplay onto the 500GB hard drive. Your previous fifteen minutes of gameplay is automatically stored to the system in the background – almost certainly long enough for you to capture that sweet 1337360noscope or whatever that you just pulled off, and then some. From there, you are taken to a menu where you can share it to your various streaming/sharing accounts – although YouTube is not currently an option. Holding the button creates a screenshot for you, storing it to the system for access later. Double pressing the button will immediately mark the start of a new recording session, while pressing once again cancels it. Sharing is great, easy, smooth, and intuitive, and your button press actions can be swapped around. Fifteen minute background storage is fantastic, well outstripping the 30 seconds of the Xbox One.
I do have a few complaints with sharing, though. Firstly, streamed videos don’t save to Twitch – once it’s over, it’s over and gone forever. This is supposedly getting fixed, though, which will be much better. Second, YouTube upload isn’t supported at the moment, again rendering your stream to the ether after completion. Thirdly, there are issues revolving around non-gaming stream use. You might have heard about the couple that used the PS4 to livestream a webcast and become internet famous? Did you also hear about the person who livestreamed themselves getting intimate? Twitch and Sony are apparently cracking down on non-gaming usage of the livestream function and banning accounts that breach rules. So be wary. Finally, the screenshots are too small in resolution, and you can’t get them off your HD. The only way I could capture screenshots for the Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag next-gen difference article was to screenshot using Share, tweet it, then open the tweet on my PC and save the image. And they still came out looking rubbish resolution. I hope they change it so you can at least choose your desired screenshot quality and allow direct transferring of stored content.
Playstation’s approach with the PS4 currently seems like it’s a gaming system first and foremost. Playing and sharing games simply, smoothly, and powerfully is the PS4’s primary objective. Everything else it does currently feels like a half-hearted attempt to allow some media playback. And that’s okay. I don’t need an integrated media centre within a gaming console – I already have a TV and a laptop for that. For the people who do want that all-in-one multimedia centre, get an Xbox One. For people who don’t care about the multimedia solution, for gaming and sharing the PS4 is simply superior. More power, more elegance, more ease of use. The PS4 is the gaming box this generation needs.
Buying a PS4 right now, in its current state with a lack of games, lack of content, lack of apps, and standard early adopter hardware issues, would not be a recommended move. But whether you should buy a PS4 right now or not is rather a moot point, considering stock is sold out pretty much everywhere until February. Chances are you already have one, or you won’t be able to get one for a few months anyway. It doesn’t deliver everything it’s promising just yet, but the future is looking good. The PS4, as it is now, is a great, powerful, beautiful piece of tech, and in its complete form with a wide selection of apps and games, it is sure to make any game-focused owner very satisfied. Bottom line? You’ll enjoy your PS4.