November 15. That's the day Sony unleashes the PlayStation 4, the long-awaited follow up to the company's PlayStation 3, a machine that debuted all the way back in 2006. The road leading up to launch has been tedious and bloodied by an intense rivalry with Microsoft's Xbox One, due exactly one week later.
Both new consoles arrive with their own marketing spin designed to claim the gaming throne: at $400, the PS4 is the “affordable” next-gen machine, whereas the $500 Xbox One promises an ambitious, always-on integration with live TV that aims to subsume your cable box.
Without these distinctions, however, Sony and Microsoft consoles could be separated at birth. Both offer powerful HD graphics that nearly match high-end gaming PCs. Each delivers a small initial set of non-gaming streaming entertainment apps, and a relatively underwhelming slate of exclusive games out of the gate. Meanwhile, both offer a near carbon-copy lineup of third-party games, including the requisite roster of EA Sports titles, and the latest installments of the Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Battlefield franchises -- all of which have already been released on the PS3 and Xbox 360.
The PS4 and the Xbox One also share one ugly defect: neither console can play games purchased for their respective predecessors. Your library of PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 discs is not welcome here.
That’s the playing field onto which these two next-gen consoles arrive this holiday season. So, which console is right for you? Is it worth spending $400 or more on a new console now? Does the PS4 make the case for PS3 owners to upgrade -- or for Xbox 360 owners to switch?
It’s a lot to digest, so let’s get started. I'll walk you through the future of Sony gaming.
Editors' note (November 13, 2:45p.m. PT): This review has been updated from its original version with additional hands-on impressions and a rating, now that we've had a chance to use the PS4 with the 1.50 "day one" firmware installed. We will update the content herein (and alter the rating if needed) as we continue to live with the console -- and, soon, the Xbox One -- in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
What's in the box
Included inside every PlayStation 4 box is the console, power cord, a 6-foot HDMI cable (finally!), a DualShock 4 controller, a Micro-USB cable (to charge the DualShock 4), and a monoaural earbud for online chat. (The earbud plugs directly into the DualShock controller; you can alternately use any pair of headphones with a standard 3.5mm plug.)
The PS4 won't be sold in multiple models this time around. There's only one version, a 500GB model that retails for $400. This is $100 less than an Xbox One, though the latter ships with its camera and voice/motion-sensing peripheral, Kinect, in the box. It'll cost you $60 extra to pick up the PlayStation Camera for the PS4 -- which I'll get to a little later. That model provides some of the same features as the Kinect, but it's less sophisticated than Microsoft's, and isn't as tightly integrated into the system.
For early adopters, Sony is also throwing in a free month of PlayStation Network Plus and a free month of the Sony Music Unlimited music-streaming service, as well as a $10 credit for the PlayStation Store. Day one free downloadable games for PlayStation Plus include Resogun and Contrast. (Owners of some PS3 titles can upgrade to the PS4 version for just $10 each, for a limited time.)
Despite its smallish size -- at least compared with an Xbox One -- the PS4 packs a lot of power under the hood. The box is 2 inches high by 11 inches wide by 12 inches deep, weighs about 9 pounds, and packs in 8GB of DDR5 RAM. The CPU is a low-power x86-64 "Jaguar" eight-core chip, and the graphics are powered by a 1.84 TFLOP AMD Radeon "next engine." The fine print may not impress the layperson, but suffice it to say, the PS4's innards are in line with a mid- to high-end gaming PC.
Like previous PlayStations before it, the PS4's 500GB hard-disk drive is user replaceable (a standard SATA laptop hard drive or SSD will work), something I'm thrilled Sony has decided to keep intact. That 500GB may seem like more than enough storage, but with game sizes beginning to flirt with 50GB apiece, that might not cut it a few years down the road.
The PS4 boasts a striking angular design with a modestly low profile. The front end angles toward the user, sleekly hiding two USB 3.0 slots to the right and a slot-loading 6x Blu-ray drive to the left. Between these two ports are touch-sensitive power and eject buttons that give off familiar PS3 beeps when activated.
Around back of the PS4 are four simple interfaces in addition to a standard power connect -- the same size plug each PlayStation in the past has adorned. From left to right there's an optical audio, HDMI, Ethernet, and auxiliary port, which is used for the optional PlayStation Camera.
Note that the PS4 must be connected to an HDTV with an HDMI input; there are no analog (composite or component) outputs for this PlayStation.
The PS4 is equipped with wireless 802.11 b/g/n protocols (but not 5Ghz nor the new 802.11ac standard) and also supports Bluetooth 2.1. That said, Sony has indicated that most current Bluetooth peripherals -- including headsets and older DualShock 3 PS3 controllers -- won't work with the PS4. The main exception is the PlayStation Move -- if and when there's a PS4 game that's designed to work with it.
The PS4 has two power off modes when not in use. It can be turned completely off or it can be put into standby mode. It's worth noting that the PS4 must be on or in standby mode to receive automatic updates or be woken up remotely.
The top surface of the PS4 is one-third glossy and two-thirds matte black. Between these finishes is a slick multicolor LED that glows amber in standby, white while powered on, and blue when booting up.
Unlike the Xbox One, which must rest horizontally, the PS4 can be used vertically as well. Sony recommends using a dedicated stand for vertical operation, but the PS4 seems to sit on its side just fine by itself.
Not included with the PS4, the aforementioned PlayStation Camera is a $60 accessory that allows you to control your PS4 with your voice. It'll also recognize your face and log you in should you set it up that way. Its functionality is quite similar to the Xbox One's Kinect, though it doesn't feature any IR blasting support. In fact, there's no IR port on the PS4 hardware, either, so you're stuck using the DualShock 4 controller when watching movies or streaming video. (Sony says a special Bluetooth remote is in the works, but didn't supply an ETA.)
Built into the PS4's operating system is interactive software called The Playroom that creatively demonstrates the PlayStation Camera's place in the PS4 environment. If you don't have the camera, The Playroom falls flat.
So what does playing a PlayStation 4 feel like? Quite honestly, it's a lot like the PlayStation 3. There's a noticeable bump in graphics, of course, but it's logical to assume the real heavy hitters won't have their day until we're deeper into the system's life cycle. Like I mentioned earlier, the jump in visuals is not as dramatic as it was going from SD to HD. Also, PC gamers with the luxury of a souped-up machine probably won't be much impressed at all. It's also worth mentioning that some cross-platform games like Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag don't look nearly as good as PS4-exclusive games like Killzone: Shadow Fall.
Not all of the PS4's launch software received the next-gen "port" treatment. A lot of the sports games (FIFA 14, Madden 25, and NBA 2K14) are reworked from the ground up and run on next-gen engines to take better advantage of the new hardware. Of course, these next-gen games will be available for the Xbox One as well.
In terms of gameplay, the PS4 experience is greatly improved thanks to the fantastic DualShock 4 controller. Nearly every genre I tested seems to benefit from the redesign.
During any gameplay session you can suspend the action and back out into the Dynamic Menu. Double-tapping the Home button will bring you back to the game or you can manually select it from the menu. However, if you put the system in standby mode or turn it off, you'll lose your gameplay session.
Sony has been very vocal about the PS4's support for independent game development and plans on offering a healthy selection of titles at launch and soon after. These titles can only be accessed through the PlayStation Store exclusively.
Game saves are synced in the cloud (and backed up locally as well) and can be accessed on any PS4 you log in to as long as there's an Internet connection -- though you'll need to be a PlayStation Plus member to make use of this. I'll dive deeper into account management later on.
Of course we can't overlook backward compatibility. For all intents and purposes, there is no disc-based backward compatibility at all on the PS4 -- none of your PS3 games will work on this machine. (Xbox 360 games are similarly incompatible on the Xbox One.) However, Sony has teased streaming capabilities that the company plans on implementing thanks to its acquisition of Gaikai last year. The service won't go live until 2014, but the plan right now is to have a portion of the PS3 library available for streaming play. Of course, that will require a wicked-fast high-speed Internet connection and -- probably -- the repurchasing of the titles you want to play (or at least a subscription to Sony's PSN Plus service).
For now, those PS3 owners who purchase a PS4 are out of luck with their current game collection, but some games (Like Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag) will let gamers upgrade to the PS4 version for a small fee. In Assassin Creed IV's case it's $10.
The PS3's answer to Xbox 360 Achievements, known as Trophies, continues on the PS4 and will merge both PS3 and PS4 trophies together. The PS4 introduces a dynamic trophy system where developers can program new trophies as well as classifying the rarity of items based on the performance of other players.
While the Xbox 360's controller was the seemingly perfect evolution of the original Xbox's pad, the DualShock 4 is just as, if not more of an impressive realization. It felt absolutely wonderful and addresses nearly all of the shortcomings of the DualShock 3 (the predecessor controller that shipped with the PlayStation 3). Unlike the slippery dome coverings of the DualShock 3's sticks, the two analog sticks on the new controller have smaller embossed faces that make for much easier control. The DualShock 4's sticks flank the familiar PlayStation Home button and audio speaker that is built into the controller. (Don't worry -- audio from the controller can be turned off.) Below the PS Home button is the headset jack (for online chat and game audio) and an "EXT" port for use with something else down the line. Sending PS4 game audio through the controller will only give you stereo sound, but just having the option to do is a small revelation. If you want to send chat and game audio through the headphone jack, the audio being sent through the HDMI port will cut out. You'll need a mic-equipped pair of headphones (like one you might use with your smartphone) to have game audio and chat in one shot.
The DualShock 4 is wider than the DualShock 3, perhaps to fit the controller's clickable touch pad that sits between the Share and Options buttons. The touch pad works just like a laptop touch pad and feels equally as responsive. The Share and Options buttons replace Start and Select. Though they occasionally function like their predecessors, they are also used to activate game DVR footage and sharing.
The L1, L2, R1, and R2 buttons have all received redesigns as well, but no button on the pad seems to have benefited more than the L2 and R2 triggers. These now extend out and feel much more comfortable to pull. The DualShock 4 also has two rumble motors so developers can localize the vibration feedback contextually within a game.
Like the DS3, the DS4 has a six-axis motion-sensing system, which encompasses a three-axis gyroscope and a three-axis accelerometer. A fun little note here: you can click the right stick during text entry to get a tiltable keyboard that's slightly quicker than entering letters manually.
You'll likely notice the glowing light emanating from the DS4's back. It's designed to work with the PlayStation Camera accessory and will change colors if there's more than one controller connected to the system. Below it sits a Micro-USB port for charging the controller's built-in rechargeable battery.
Additional DualShock 4 controllers will cost you $60 each. The console supports up to four.
Both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have made substantial efforts in streamlining the user interface. The PlayStation 3's cross-media-bar has evolved into the PlayStation 4's "Dynamic Menu" that casts a blanket of simplicity throughout the operating system, logically grouping like-minded items together.
It basically consists of two horizontal rows, the top filled with icons for various functionalities like Friends, Trophies, and Settings, and a thumbnail lower row that is populated by recent activities like the last game you've played, shared game DVR clips, downloaded titles, Web access, other media, and more.
When you highlight an item in the Dynamic Menu, "live" items from the PlayStation Network (PSN) will populate with relevant content for you to browse.
Signing up on the PSN for the first time will require a 323MB day 1 download that will unlock most of the console's connected features. You don't need to update in order to play games, but it's highly recommended for everything else the PS4 can do.
Those who own a PlayStation Vita can connect the portable to the PS4 to activate remote play. Setup is fairly simple and it actually works well, but performance all depends on the strength of your home network. The concept is similar to what Wii U owners can do with that console's GamePad controller except for the fact that PS4 remote play uses your home. It's a godsend when your PS4 TV is being used up, but it's not a bulletproof work around because of its reliance on an ever-changing connection speed. While it's entirely possible down the line, you won't be able to play your PS4 outside of your home network.