Now that we're more than two months out from the mid-November release date of the PS4 and Xbox One, it's a good time to take a second look at both consoles with fresh eyes.
And right now, the PS4 is looking pretty good.
The Sony console has the edge on value -- it delivers a better value. And some recently announced gaming and entertainment features due later this year have the potential to make the investment in a PS4 pay off in 2015 and beyond.
The affordability appeal is twofold. The PS4 is available for $100 less than the Xbox One -- $399 versus $499 for the Microsoft console -- so you're saving money right off the bat. But the Xbox One also requires one to maintain an Xbox Live Gold account to do nearly anything interesting, right down to watching Netflix. By contrast, Sony's PlayStation Plus online service ($50/year) is required only to play online multiplayer games -- and that membership includes access to several downloadable digital games, available at no extra charge.
Meanwhile, Sony announced two big PlayStation initiatives in January: PlayStation Now and a Sony online TV service, both due before the end of year. PlayStation Now aims to deliver real-time game streaming to the the PS4 and other Sony game consoles. Details are more vague on the online TV service, but it looks to be a cable-like video streaming app -- think Netflix or Hulu, but with live TV channels.
To be sure, game lineups on the PS4 and Xbox One are both still small, but they'll continue to expand as months and years progress. And if there's a must-have title on your list that's exclusive to one platform or the other -- well, that pretty much makes the decision easy.
We're not ready to count the Xbox One out by a longshot -- it's still an ambitious console with a lot to offer. As always, a software update or two could totally shift the balance of power. (And the Xbox has two such updates on deck for February and March.)
And -- to be clear -- there's still no urgency to purchase a new game console, especially if you're happy with the PS3 or Xbox 360 you probably already own.
But if you feel compelled to make the jump into next-gen gaming right now, the PlayStation 4 is a solid choice.
Editors' note (February 6, 2014): This review was originally published on November 13, 2013, and has been updated from its earlier version with additional impressions of the PS4 and Xbox One (now that we've lived with them for more than two months), along with more information on what to expect from the console in 2014 based on Sony's announcements at CES.
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.)
Unlike the PlayStation 3, the PS4 won't be sold in multiple configurations: 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. Current free PS4 downloadable games for PlayStation Plus include Resogun and Contrast -- though the list of included games continues to grow each month. (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 on the PS4 are four simple interfaces in addition to a standard power connector -- 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 dual-band 5GHz nor the new 802.11ac standard) and also supports Bluetooth 2.1. That said, very few Bluetooth peripherals are actually currently compatible with the PS4 -- for now, just the DualShock 4 controller, the older PlayStation Move motion controller (if and when there's a PS4 game that's designed to work with it), and some Bluetooth keyboards. In other words, do not expect the PS4 to work with mice, Bluetooth headsets, and older DualShock 3 PS3 controllers -- unless and until Sony decides to widen support with a future firmware upgrade.
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. While PS4 can download updates while in standby mode, you'll need to manually accept the terms for it to install.
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 (available for around $20), 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 a generation ago. 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. That said, some multiplatform games do tend to perform better on the PS4.
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 are generally 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.
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.
PlayStation Now: Coming later in 2014
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.)
Instead, Sony is banking on its upcoming game-streaming service, known as PlayStation Now. Subscribers will be able to stream PS3, PS2, and original PlayStation games not just to a PS4 but also a PS3 and other devices. PlayStation Now will enter beta soon and go live in the summer of 2014. The service looked promising during our initial hands-on, but keep in mind that it 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).
The DualShock 4 controller
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.