Sony PlayStation 4 review

Pros

  • Attractive and compact design
  • Great new controller
  • Impressive streaming support
  • Many new features

Cons

  • Most features require PSN connection
  • PS Plus required for non-F2P multiplayer

It's the eighth video game console generation now, and Sony has been active for four of them. The PlayStation is in its fourth iteration (not including the PlayStation Portable and PlayStation Vita), and Sony has helpfully and consistently named it the PlayStation 4.

This £349 game system is more powerful than its predecessor, and includes a ton of new features. The completely redesigned DualShock 4 controller is one of the most welcome changes. However, the console's complete lack of backwards compatibility (a lack shared by the Xbox One) will have most gamers clinging to their old system even if they buy a new one, and its media functions aren't nearly as ambitious as the Xbox One's. As a new dedicated game system with social networking and streaming media features, though, the PlayStation 4 shines.

Design

The console's design is clearly inspired more by the PlayStation 2 than the PlayStation 3. It's black, mostly matte, and angular. From the front, it cuts the same profile as the PS2: It’s a perfect rectangle. It's even closer to the (original) PS2 than the (original) PS3 in size, measuring 275 x 305 x 55mm (WxDxH) and weighing a relatively svelte 2.75kg. The first PS3 weighed 5kg and measured 115mm tall (later, it shrunk to 2.1kg and 60mm), while the first PS2 weighed 1.8kg and measured 75mm tall (and later became an ethereal 900 grams and 25mm tall).

Look at the PS4 from any angle other than head-on, though, and you'll see just how different it is. The system is designed as a parallelogram, with a front bottom and rear top that jut out at sharp angles. A prominent Death Star trench-style cut-out runs along the edges of the case, and the top side and top half of the front side of the system are split into glossy and matte black finishes. A coloured indicator light sits hidden on a line between the two halves on top, glowing white, blue, or yellow to show what the system is doing.

It certainly looks striking, but it's not the most user-friendly physical design. The front panel holds two USB ports for charging controllers or other devices, along with a slot-loading Blu-ray drive you have to squint to see under the top lip of the system, in the trench. It's a drive you'll learn to find by feel alone, locating just the right spot to place your discs so the slot sucks them in. The back panel houses an HDMI port, an Ethernet port, an optical audio port, and a modified USB port for accessories like the optional £55 Xbox-Kinect-like PlayStation Camera. The overhang of the top side of the system makes it difficult to see the ports, but a few cut-outs around them make them easy to identify by touch.

The power (and eject) button can be frustrating, but not to the same level that the Xbox 360 Slim managed to attain. The bad news is they're touch-sensitive with no physical feedback. The good news is they're so small you won't accidentally turn the console on or off, or eject the disc (like I've done many times with the Xbox 360 Slim). They're tiny rectangles on the front, positioned just left of the centre of the system. The power button sits between the glossy and matte black halves of the top, and the eject button is between the two matte black halves of the bottom.

Hardware

Like all game consoles, the PlayStation 4 can't be judged purely by its hardware and how it looks on paper. Architectures and operating systems differ so much between consoles and generations that we can't evaluate them based on specs and benchmarking as we do with computers. However, for the sake of completeness, these are the specs of the PlayStation 4.

The console uses a 16-core 64-bit AMD "Jaguar" CPU and 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, and its GPU is an AMD Radeon-based engine. It has a 500GB hard drive built in for storage, and uses a Blu-ray drive just like the PlayStation 3. The 500GB drive is all you get; it's the only version of the PlayStation 4, and the system doesn't support external hard drives. Because of this, you can't download movies or music to the PlayStation 4. All media is streaming-only, including movies and shows purchased on Sony Video Unlimited. For a full breakdown of the specs of the PS4 and Xbox One, see this article (and also note that the PS4’s hard disk can be easily switched out and upgraded if you want more storage).

What's included

The PlayStation 4 comes with only a few accessories, but they're enough to make the system completely functional. Besides the console itself, you get a DualShock 4 controller (which connects to the PS4 via Bluetooth), a USB-to-microUSB charging cable, an HDMI cable, and an earpiece that plugs into the controller. The included monaural headset is a simple earbud with an in-line microphone (see the image to the right).

The box also includes an insert with codes for 30 days of PlayStation Plus, 30 days of Sony Music Unlimited, and $10 (£6) on the PS Store, so you can start playing on your PS4 even if you don't buy any games with it. PlayStation Plus offers a rotating selection of free games that remain available after you download them for as long as you remain a member, and Sony Music Unlimited membership lets you stream any music available in a Songza-like service.

DualShock 4

While the PS4's body was designed with style in mind, its controller was clearly designed for comfort. It keeps the same basic design and layout of previous Sony DualShock (and Sixaxis) controllers, but makes many welcome changes that make it feel more satisfying in your hands. The little fin grips used in the DualShock 3 have been replaced by larger, rounder grips that have an Xbox 360 controller feel. The analogue sticks have been redesigned, each with a convex centre surrounded by a ring-shaped ridge that keeps the stick in place under your thumb. The triggers are larger and not nearly as wiggly as the Sixaxis or DualShock 3 triggers, which will please shooter fans.

Besides the welcome physical changes to make the controller more comfortable, the DualShock 4 has a handful of new and useful features. The gamepad has a rectangular touchpad placed between the direction pad and face buttons (and between the Share and Option buttons that now replace Start and Select), which can be used to perform gestures in certain games. The touchpad clicks, so you won't accidentally register a button press by taking your finger off the pad for a second and putting it back on. The gamepad also features a small speaker, like the Nintendo Wii Remote and Nintendo Wii U gamepad. Finally, an accessory port on the bottom, between the grips, lets you plug in the included monaural earpiece, in the same way the Xbox 360 controller works.

Then there's the lightbar, which faces outward from the front of the controller. It's the most prominent aspect of the DualShock 4 because it glows, and lights up different colours based on who is playing and what game is being played, with blue being the default for the player in control and in the system's interface. The lightbar is also used by the PlayStation Camera for augmented reality and motion controls. Unfortunately, you can't turn the bar off, so if you have a very glossy HDTV, you'll probably see its reflection in dark games.

I tried Knack, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Injustice: Gods Among Us Ultimate Edition, Madden 25, and Battlefield 4 on the PlayStation 4, and they all felt much more comfortable than the not-particularly-uncomfortable DualShock 3 controller. Noted fighting game enthusiast and controller connoisseur Jeffrey Wilson gushed about how good the controller felt when I schooled him in Injustice.

Power and graphics

On paper, the PlayStation 4 is much more powerful than the PlayStation 3. However, it's tough to compare the launch line-up of a system, including many ports from the previous generation, to the games available on a system after seven years of being in the market. The exclusives I tried, Killzone: Shadow Fall (pictured below) and Knack, definitely looked great, with lots of detailed objects on-screen, long draw distances, and plenty of visual effects. However, compared to later games on the PlayStation 3, like BioShock Infinite and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, any graphical improvements seem incremental. On the PS4, Battlefield 4 looks about the same as it does on the PlayStation 3, and it definitely doesn’t represent a big leap in quality.

I have no doubt that PlayStation 4 games will look noticeably better than PlayStation 3 games in a year, but for now the improvements of the launch titles based on sheer power don't seem like as big a step up compared to the PlayStation 3 over the PlayStation 2, or the PlayStation 2 over the PlayStation. Don't get the PlayStation 4 with great expectations of much better looking games today. What you’re really purchasing now is an expanded feature set and the potential of significantly more impressive games in the future, as developers learn how to fully take advantage of the hardware.

Interface

The XrossMediaBar (XMB) interface that dominated the PlayStation 3 and most Sony home entertainment products for years has been rethought here. Instead, the PlayStation 4 uses the PlayStation Dynamic Menu, an interface that bears shades of the PS Store's most recent redesign and hints of Microsoft's Metro interface (on the Xbox One). Dynamic is the right word, because the entire screen changes based on what you have highlighted.

The main screen is populated by a row of large icons that expand when you highlight them, starting with What's New on the left, your most recent games to the right of it, and PlayStation 4 features like the web browser, Live from PlayStation, and Downloads. Each selection shows additional information like your friends' activities in games and whether any of them are currently broadcasting gameplay (we’ll talk about this more shortly, in the Sharing Button section). It's an attractive and information-rich interface that focuses mostly on integrating social network features into the mix on every level.

The top of the screen holds icons for the PS Store, notifications, friends, the current user, trophies, and time. Pressing up on the left analogue stick or the direction pad brings those icons to the bottom of the screen and hides the larger icons, freeing up the top third of the screen to display notifications, friends lists, trophies, and other information. The Settings menu is also accessed in this way, along with a Parties voice chat feature that lets you bring friends together online for voice chat when doing different activities.

You can control the PlayStation 4 with your voice, either with the included wired headset or the PlayStation Camera. This feature is much more limited than the voice control features of the Xbox One, but it lets you jump to games, take screenshots, and even turn off the system. It worked well in our tests, though the noise of the lab sometimes made it mix up commands.

Online and media services

PlayStation Network is the way to get online with the PS4, and it serves as the access point to all online services. The PlayStation 4 has both Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port, so you can access your network however you want. PSN has undergone a few changes with the PlayStation 4, especially with multiplayer gaming. PSN on the PlayStation 3 didn't require users to subscribe to the PlayStation Plus premium service, which costs £40 per year, to play online games. Unfortunately, PSN on the PlayStation 4 requires this subscription to play online, with the exception of free-to-play (F2P) games. This move shifts the PS4's online requirements closer to the Xbox 360 and Xbox One's requirements (both of which need the premium Xbox Live Gold service to play online).

The PlayStation 4 is very functional as a media hub, just like the PlayStation 3. It works as a Blu-ray player and can access online streaming services such as Netflix. It isn't nearly as ambitious as the Xbox One as a media hub, though, lacking any integration with your cable or satellite service as will be offered by the Xbox One's Watch TV feature (though the latter won’t come to the UK until early 2014).

Functionally, it doesn't try to do too much more than the PlayStation 3; it just does it all more smoothly and comprehensively. Fortunately, you don't need to subscribe to PS Plus to use streaming services such as Netflix, whereas the Xbox One and Xbox 360 both require Xbox Live Gold subscriptions to watch Netflix (and indeed nearly everything else).

Multiple users

The PlayStation 4 juggles multiple users much better than earlier iterations of Sony’s console. Several players can sit on the couch, with each holding a gamepad (up to four, while the Xbox One supports eight simultaneous players). One user stays in control of the interface, indicated by the name on the top of the screen. However, when more than one user is logged in to the system, any user with a gamepad can take control, and the main screen will reflect that by displaying all of the pertinent game and social information of the active user.

A user can set the PlayStation 4 as their primary system, letting every other user play games downloaded from his PSN account. A user can only have one primary system, though, and if it's not the primary system only the user with the rights to the game (through purchase or PS Plus membership) can load it.

If you have a PlayStation Camera, you can log in using facial recognition by registering your face with the PS4. Multiple users can log in this way by showing their face and holding up their DualShock 4 controller so the camera can recognise which player has which controller based on the colour of the lightbar.

Sharing button

The DualShock 4 features a new Share button in place of a Select button, which lets users record video, take screen shots, or stream gameplay online. The PlayStation 4 records the last 15 minutes of any game you play, and the Share button saves those 15 minutes as a file you can upload to Facebook or post on PSN. It also captures a screen shot (including shots of the main menu) which you can post on Facebook or Twitter.

Live broadcasting through Twitch.tv and UStream are supported and integrate seamlessly into the system. When you play a game and press the Share button, you can choose between posting the most recently recorded clip, posting a screen shot, or live streaming to either service. I streamed some Resogun gameplay to my Twitch account, and it showed up online within seconds.

The live streaming feature is full of great touches besides just streaming gameplay. You can enable a face camera with the PlayStation Camera so viewers can see you as well as the game, and you can keep track of comments in your channel's chat window thanks to an overlay on the screen. You can disable both and just blindly stream full-size unobstructed gameplay as well.

These live feeds can be viewed on the PlayStation 4 without a Twitch or Ustream account. The "Live on PlayStation" menu shows users currently streaming, and if the stream is public you can jump in and watch at any time. Viewers on the PlayStation 4 also get an "Interact" button when watching streams, which Sony says can let viewers interact with the game directly and serve as helpers.

The Share button has one big hitch, though: If you don't want to share videos or screenshots on PSN, Facebook, or Twitter, you have no other options. Currently, there's no way to get gameplay clips off the PlayStation 4's local storage, and screenshots posted on Twitter are less than full resolution.

Backwards game compatibility

There is no backwards compatibility with PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, PlayStation, PlayStation Vita, or PlayStation Portable games. Sony has stated that it plans to make PlayStation 3 games available through Gaikai streaming, but nothing has been officially announced yet. Currently, there is no way to play previous generation PlayStation games on the PlayStation 4 in disc or download form, so you might want to keep your PS3 around (especially if it's a first version with backwards PS2 compatibility).

PlayStation Vita and mobile integration

If you have a smartphone, tablet, or PlayStation Vita, you can interact with the PlayStation 4 directly through a local network. The PlayStation app for iOS and Android turns your mobile device into a simple interface and remote control for your PlayStation 4. You can access your PSN information on your mobile device's screen, or turn it into a gesture-based controller to navigate through menus. This is particularly useful if you want to use your PS4 to watch streaming media or Blu-ray discs. Strangely, the app doesn't function as a touchpad to control the on-screen web browser, but it offers a keyboard to input text. The app also lets your mobile device serve as a second screen for games that support this feature, but it doesn't directly mirror what's on your HDTV.

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The PlayStation Vita works not just as a second screen, but as a controller and remote display. The Vita's Remote Play feature lets you play PlayStation 4 games on your Vita, as long as you're within Wi-Fi range (either on the same network or through a Wi-Fi Direct connection). The Vita has fewer buttons than the DualShock 4, so the touchpad on the back is used to activate the missing buttons. I found the Remote Play feature to be smooth and responsive, but the lower resolution of the Vita's screen made PlayStation 4 games, which are designed to be played on HDTVs, harder to see.

Verdict

The Sony PlayStation 4 feels like a beefed-up PlayStation 3, and that's just fine. It has several new and useful features like sharing gameplay footage and handling multiple users at once, and the DualShock 4 is a fantastic upgrade over the DualShock 3 and Sixaxis controllers. It isn't quite as ambitious in the media department as the Xbox One (see our review of Microsoft's console here), but it also isn't quite as expensive, even if you buy the optional camera. The PS4 is a game system at heart, and a very good one at that.