Review: Sony PlayStation 4

Sony serves up power and performance with the PS4 (December 7th, 2013)

MacNN Rating:


Product Manufacturer: Sony

Price: $399

The Good

  • - Great design, excellent build quality
    - Cutting-edge processor and graphics performance
    - Much improved OS and UI
    - DualShock 4 controller outstanding
    - Superb second-screen options with PS Vita, iOS, Android
    - PlayStation Plus great value
    - Expandable storage

The Bad

  • - Limited multimedia functionality at launch
    - Will take time for Sony to fully unlock its potential
    - Currently not a lot of must-have gaming titles

The Sony PS4 is the most important console Sony has yet produced, especially as some observers argue that it could be one of the last dedicated gaming consoles with rise of mobile devices and high-quality casual gaming. It is Sony's proposition for why multipurpose gaming consoles still deserve a place in the home of not only gamers, but other users who might primarily be after an entertainment hub with some occasional gaming. However, to help differentiate its console from the Microsoft Xbox One, its primary competition, Sony has pitched the PS4 at the gaming heartland. So how is the Sony PS4 shaping up and is it a must-have device for your family room or study?

Design and Construction
The Sony PS4's design says a lot about who Sony is targeting the PS4 at. At the launch of the PS4 earlier this year, Sony controversially did not reveal the console's design. At the time, Sony said that it hadn't finalized the design, however, it also wanted to keep its powder dry and not allow Microsoft an opportunity to make any last minute adjustments to the look of its console. The final design is completely befitting of a gaming console for the 21st Century. It is a forward-thinking design that looks futuristic and exciting, which is exactly the right way to get gamers interested in it. Sony has taken a leaf out of the design of high-tech gaming rigs that aim to convey the cutting edge technology inside the box through its external appearance. Like those gaming rigs, the PS4 also uses lighting for effect, but also function. Its long light bar doubles as a status indicator as well glowing variously white and blue.

Although it is predictably made from plastic, Sony has used a mix of glossy and matte plastic finishes to also help convey a sense of quality. It is also remarkably compact, and is around the same size as the slim versions of later generations of the Sony PS3. When you think about the technology that it is packing inside it, including a power supply, it typifies what customers expect from the Sony brand. It has always specialized in miniaturization of technological componentry and the design of the PS4 exemplifies this. Its tiered, angular design looks great sitting as a part of your entertainment set up sitting underneath or next to your high-definition TV in the family room, or next your monitor in a study. Its rear also includes an extensive ventilation array that looks cool, but will also work to help keep your PS4 cool during extended periods of game play.

The Sony PS4 packs an x86-64 octa-core AMD 'Jaguar'/'Kabini' chipset clocked at 1.6GHz with a Radeon 7870-equivalen GPU with 18 compute unit and 8GB of ultra-fast GDDR5 unified system RAM. It is around six times more powerful than the Sony PS3, is well positioned to power the next generation of video games and 4K Ultra HD entertainment content into the next decade. In terms of raw numbers, the PS4 is theoretically capable of producing up to 1.84 teraFLOPS of processing power per second, which gives it a handy performance edge over the Xbox One, which is capable of 'just' 1.31 teraFLOPS by comparison. The PS4 also enjoys double the memory bandwidth of the Xbox One, which will give game developers plenty of scope to further optimize the gaming performance of titles for the PS4 that should see it produce games that are demonstrably superior in terms of detail and frame rates.

The must-buy gaming title for PS4 owners looking to test out the hardware capabilities of their new console is Killzone: Shadow Fall. While reviews have been less than kind about its single-player campaign experience, they have been overwhelmingly positive about its multiplayer experience and the visual feast that it offers generally. On a large screen HD TV, Killzone looks simply stunning and is noticeable leap in gaming performance over the previous generation PS3 titles including visual stunners like the Uncharted series and the new Grand Turismo 6. The difference is most noticeable in the amount of overall detail and depth that this adds to gaming titles, with both near and far scenery and imagery looking spectacular. In addition to the additional pixel pushing power, the other notable improvements come in far superior lighting and shading effects. We only expect this to improve as developers learn how to eek every last bit potential from the console over time. At the moment, it is safe to say that the PS3 titles can still compete with the PS4, but that the gap that already exists will become more appreciable over time.

Other launch titles worth checking out include Knack, Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag, Battlefield 4 and NBA 2K14. Assassins Creed includes 60 minutes of additional gameplay that is exclusive to the PS4, while it too also looks impressive running at 1080p 60fps, providing for a smooth and immersive gaming experience. If there is an early indicator about the difference in performance potential between the PS4 and the Xbox One, Battlefield 4 is the case in point. EA opted to release Battlefield 4 in native 1080p/60fps on the PS4, but chose to limit this to 720p/60fps on the Xbox One. Although the studio had developed a 1080p version, it didn't move forward with it for launch. From the perspective of photorealism, you really need to check out NBA 2K14 - you can bet the casual observer who wanders past you playing the game will be wondering why you are using a controller while watching a live match!

DualShock 4 Controller
The DualShock 4 controller is easily the best PlayStation controller Sony has ever made. It is clear that a lot of thought went into both the look and feel of this critical peripheral. It is very light and comfortable to hold with both analog and trigger feel both responsive, but also reassuringly robust and ergonomically designed. The most obvious physical change is the new front facing touchpad that adds another level of interaction to games. It is surprisingly unobtrusive and is fun to use. In Killzone, for example, you use it to control your drone's commands like another D-pad, albeit a touch controlled one. This frees up the physical D-pad for other in game functions. In Assassins Creed, you use the touchpad as a mouse to navigate around maps.

The next most notable design change on the PS4 is futuristic front-facing glowing light that serves a few functions. Firstly, it will glow blue if it is the primary controller connected to the PS4, while it will then change color to identify each player individually in a local multiplayer sessions. Game developers also have access to the API and can use it to various effects in games. It can also be used for motion control functions when paired with Sony's optional Eye Camera and glows amber when it is charging - which, incidentally, can now also take place when the PS4 is in stand-by mode.

One of the DualShock 4 features that Sony has been keen to tout is its new 'Share' button. This allows you to tap into your social networks and instantly share your latest triumphs or wipe outs with friends. The PS4 automatically records the last 15 minutes of each gaming session on a constant cycle allowing you to instantly capture, edit and share these directly to Facebook and Twitter, or also broadcast live to Twitch and Ustream. The 'Share' button also makes it extremely easy to take screenshots from your PS4, which is how we put together the screenshots for this story. One other minor, but significant change to the DualShock 4 controller is the addition of an in-built speaker, which adds another immersive dimension to games, while the accelerometer and gyro have also been improved. One area that seems to have reverted somewhat is battery life, with charges typically lasting for between 7-8 hours. Overall though, the PS4 DualShock 4 is very much a winner and will keep keen PlayStation players happy while also possibly turning some non-believers into believers.

User Interface
While Sony kept the design of the PS4 under wraps for a few months after its initial reveal, it kept the PS4 UI under wraps even longer with an official reveal only happening on the day of the console's launch. It is a more a refined and polished evolution of the PS3 interface and is as slick as you would expect of hardware that is this powerful. Navigating the UI is quite intuitive and is a fast and fluid experience using the PS4 controller, with the XMB getting a substantial upgrade over the PS3 version. The XMB idea still persists, but Sony has also added additional visual features that make the experience much more visceral and befitting of a next-gen console. When you are playing a game, for example, you are provided with a new screen view that highlights the game and additional game content and features associated with that game.

Further, instead of being locked rigidly into one part of the XMB, you can more easily navigate between screens and functions as well. This is courtesy of significantly improved multitasking that allows you to suspend a game and return to it to carry out other functions including surfing the Internet, or make adjustments to settings. Re-select the game and it instantly picks up where you left off. A double tap of the PS button on the DualShock 4 will also show you all of the currently open apps. It all makes for a much improved user experience, giving you much more flexibility and functionality than we have previously enjoyed on a PlayStation console. Another example of this is the way the console supports multiple user accounts, including guest accounts, where a friend can come over and temporarily download their user profile, which is then automatically deleted when they log out. In time, this is only likely to get better, but Sony has made a very solid start on the OS and interface front, which is not traditionally its greatest strength.

Apps, Multimedia
The PS4 promises to be a multimedia powerhouse; there is no question that the PS3 before fits that bill, so there is no reason why the PS4 will not eventually follow suit. However, the App selection and multimedia capabilities of the PS4 at launch is surprisingly thin, although there is no question that the PS4 has more than enough power and performance to ensure that this is quickly addressed. It does seem a bit unusual that given it is seven years since the PS3 launched, the PS4 has not launched coming out punching in this regard. Odd multimedia omissions at this stage include the inability to play CDs, MP3 files and 3D Blu-ray titles, and no DLNA server support all of which are currently supported on the PS3. Sony says that it will these capabilities to the PS4 in a future update, but that it was focused on delivering an optimal gaming experience at launch.

In the meantime, Sony serves up music, movies and TV content through its own Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited apps, which deliver streaming content with subscriptions. Other key entertainments apps include Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Redbox Instant, Crackle, NBA Game Time, NHL GameCenter Live, Twitch, Ustream, Epix, and Yupp TV. While this is a solid launch line up, it is surprising to note that YouTube is currently an omission. That said, it is inevitable that it will eventually arrive, as will other services. So while Microsoft is emphasising with the name of its next-gen console that it plans to be the One device that you need for the home theater, any suggestion that the PS4 is not poised to do the same or has similar intentions is misplaced. You also have the added flexibility of being able to upgrade the 500GB hard drive yourself, so you will never run out of storage space for media content. Don't forget that much of Sony's consumer electronics portfolio is centered on multimedia and home theater entertainment. It has a lot of other devices that it can tap into with the PS4 as well, including its extensive Android smartphone and tablet line up, not to mention the yet to be fully embraced PS Vita.

Second Screen and Online Gaming
If the raw power of the PS4 hasn't already enticed you, the interconnectivity between the Sony PS4 and the PS Vita handheld gaming console may turn the PS4 and the PS Vita into your must-have pair of gadgets. To date, the PS Vita has struggled somewhat in the face of the casual mobile gaming juggernaut that has swept the world in the past few years. As much as we enjoy it, it has few 'must-have' titles. The Remote Play for the PS4 is the first truly killer app for the PS Vita and it works incredibly well, so well, that it seems that Sony may have planned it to be this way all along. We were able to easily set up our PS Vita to sync with the PS4 and stream live PS4 games directly to the PS Vita.

There is absolutely no loss of gaming fidelity with games like Killzone: Shadow Fall instantly responsive to PS Vita input in a way that feels no different to using the DualShock 4. Even better, the touch screen and rear touch pad of the PS Vita ensure that you have access to the full suite of controls as you do on the DualShock 4. The only downside is that you need to be within about 18 - 24 feet of the PS4 before the connection becomes unstable. However, it is brilliant for stopping household clashes over who gets to use the TV. Added to this Sony's PlayStation app for iOS and Android that will turn your mobile device into a second screen for games that will come to support it, while also providing supplementary information and an additional control surface for navigating your PS4.

Although a PlayStation Plus subscription is now required for multiplayer online gaming in most games, it offers excellent all round value that most users will really appreciate. Microsoft charges an annual subscription for the same service, although it might argue that its service is more robust, but does not deliver the same level of free gaming benefits, balancing out the equation. Free PS4 games on launch for Plus members include the fantastic Resogun and the clever Contrast. If you are thinking about buying one for its second screen capabilities, some great free titles are ready to download to get you off and running for native PS Vita gaming as well.

On the rear of the PS4 you will find an HDMI out, aux port, S/PDIF optical out and a Gigabit Ethernet socket. On the front there are two USB 3.0 ports, which currently only support charging. The PS4 also has 802.11n Wi-Fi built in, but disappointingly, does not support the new 802.11ac standard - on the plus side, the PS4 does not require a connection to the Internet to work at all, unlike the Xbox One which will check in with Microsoft's servers from time to time for authentication purposes. The PS4 supports Bluetooth, which at this stage is used to pair with the DualShock 4. Despite pushing NFC 'One Touch' connectivity throughout 2013, the PS4 does not include NFC although is possible that Sony could later release a multimedia remote with NFC integration as it has done for some of its TVs. As an IR port is also absent from the PS4, it seems a purpose-made multimedia remote for the console is inevitable. As we have previously mentioned, although Sony created the widely used DLNA standard it is currently not enabled on the PS4, but it is expected in a future update allowing users to stream their own content from a local PC.

Final thoughts
The Sony PS4 is a very powerful piece of hardware that is nowhere near full tapped at this early stage in its product lifecycle. However, it has been released into a very different context to the PS3, one where high-speed broadband Internet connectivity is much more widespread. When the PS3 launched, few could anticipate the way that the console ultimately evolved. Knowing this, Sony has put its energy into redeveloping the PS4 operating system and user interface ensuring that it is stable, fast and a major improvement over the PS3. In executing this, it has then focused on ensuring that the PS4 delivers on its core function, which is to provide gamers with the best gaming experience possible. Although its only major launch title Killzone: Shadow Fall has debuted to mixed reviews from a gaming perspective, it certainly delivers spectacularly on the visuals front. It has also scored some exclusive content for Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag, one-upped the Xbox One with 1080p/60fps for Battlefield 4, and has secured early Beta access to the hotly anticipated Destiny, by Halo creators Bungie.

While it is missing some fundamental multimedia capabilities now, these will be delivered in the next round or two of updates. In addition to offering more powerful hardware, its interoperability with the PS Vita is a significant advantage. PS Vita Remote Play offers a unique advantage allowing you to play PS4 games remotely with complete precision, which also allows you to shut down the PS4 remotely. Add to this a second screen strategy for iOS and Android that is off to a good start, and you have in the PS4 what is shaping up to be not only the most powerful console this generation, but one that could be the most flexible as well. You can't discount the value-added benefits of PlayStation plus, which gives you an instant collection of top notch gaming titles across the PS4, PS3 and PS Vita. The flexibility of being able to upgrade the hard drive yourself if you choose is an added bonus. The Sony PS4 is an exciting console and is set to deliver gamers a lot of fun and entertainment in many forms over the coming years.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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