Sunday, 17 November 2013

Sony PlayStation 4


The PlayStation 4, which replaces the seven-year-old PlayStation 3, couldn’t be more Sony in its overall design. It’s sleek in a very conservative way, modern but cold, and completely obsessed with its high-tech abilities but awkward in the way it presents it all. If the Xbox One is the kid who likes to command attention to brag how cool he is, the PS4 is the smart one who is uncomfortable in the spotlight. It comes across in the marketing, and the final product.

One of the biggest problems with the PS3 has always been its unnecessarily confusing user interface — an overly complicated and unattractive series of screens that felt almost off-putting. That is often the case of the interfaces found on most electronics hardware for any company — software designed by tech geeks and not prettied up by designers with a creative eye.

But the PS4 packages things in a far more friendlier way, relying on tiles (a very Microsoft way of doing things) to show off games and entertainment apps like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Walmart’s Vudu. PlayStation’s obsession with its icy blue color palette will always make it feel cold, but its new software helps it warm up its appeal.

The Console Hardware


From a physical, aesthetic standpoint, the PlayStation 4 is a masterpiece. With its bold, surprisingly attractive parallelogram design and sleek, smooth exterior, the console is undeniably striking to look at, perhaps more so than any other home console in video game history. Stood upright or laid on its side, the system simply looks great, and while I would not necessarily describe the PS4’s size as ‘small,’ it takes up much less space than most newly-launched gaming consoles, and its sleek design is such that, when placed inside an entertainment center, the PS4 seems to all but disappear. A hardware design that is both attractive and invisible – that is a neat hat trick, and the system’s low-profile is aided by the fact that the PS4’s power supply is housed inside the console itself, meaning all users will need to get the system up and running is the AC Cord and an HDMI cable (and an Ethernet cord, if you prefer not to use Wi-Fi).


All that being said, from a hardware standpoint, the PS4 is not perfect. It performs beautifully, and we will talk about that in a later section, but in terms of interacting with the box on a physical level, there are some annoyances. First and foremost is the “Power” and “Disc Eject” buttons, which are not actually buttons at all, but extremely slim little touch panels, akin to the Xbox 360 slim redesign. But where the 360’s touch panels were way too responsive – barely brushing the power or eject button would activate the controls, often at inopportune moments – the PS4 has gone much too far in the opposite direction. Users must hold their finger on the touch panel for at least a few seconds before the system responds, and the length of time seems extremely inconsistent; ejecting the disc occasionally takes only a brief moment, but can sometimes require a few presses, while the length of time required to turn off the console (or, more accurately, put it to sleep) always feels uncomfortably long. The problem is compounded by the small size of the panels, and the even tinier size of the images that indicate what they do. After figuring out which button is which, I doubt most users will subsequently forget, but there is such a thing as too low-profile, and the ‘power’ and ‘eject’ buttons definitely fall into that category. Overall, I would much prefer physical buttons for the PS4; it is something I am sure I will get used to, but for now, it feels wonky and unpolished.

The slot-loading Blu-Ray drive suffers from a similar lack of profile. It works perfectly once you find exactly where the disc needs to go in, but doing so can be a bit of a guessing game unless one’s eyes are on a precisely even level with the drive itself, thanks to the PS4’s all-black design. I cannot say for sure what the solution might be – a glowing light on the drive itself, a small bit of color around the drive, etc. – but something to distinguish the boundaries of the drive would be appreciated; it is particularly bothersome in vertical orientation, where users must also account for the parallelogram shape to make sure the disc smoothly enters the console.

The Controller


Sony's basic controller layout hasn't changed in 16 years. Like all three DualShock models before it, there's a pair of symmetrical analog sticks in the center, four face buttons on the right, a directional pad on the left, and four triggers around back. There are a number of fancy new features here, like the colorful light bar up front, and a clickable touchpad up top. The most incredible thing Sony has done with the DualShock 4, however, is that the company has made perhaps the most comfortable gamepad.


Where previous Sony controllers were designed to be held with fingertips, the DualShock 4's elongated, enlarged grips fit the entire length of my palms. Covered with a matte texture that manages to be grippy without feeling sticky or rough, the controller just melts into my hands without a second thought. Not only are the dual analog sticks, D-pad and face buttons perfectly spaced for your thumbs, they also feel significantly higher-quality than before. Perhaps most importantly, the DualShock 4 is finally a competent controller for first-person games thanks to raised edges on the analog sticks and incredibly comfy triggers that no longer feel like an afterthought. The controller's motion sensor has also been much improved.

Sharing and Streaming


The PlayStation Network, fortunately, is a much smoother experience than the PlayStation 3. Now it's easy to log in with your email and password just once to bring in your PlayStation Network account. During your setup, you can log into Facebook as well, where you can associate your real name and Facebook photo with your PSN ID or opt out. You can then request the real names of people you play with, which will display on your friends list forever.

Facebook doesn't have an app for the PlayStation 4, instead just opting to wrap its features into PlayStation 4 technology. Pressing the Share button instantly brings up three options: share an edited video, share a screenshot or begin broadcasting live.

Unfortunately, videos can only be shared to Facebook for now, but the social network handles sharing well. The PS4's Game DVR captures your previous 15 minutes of play in a clip, and you can quickly parse that and trim it down to one section. Currently, there's no support for splicing or rearranging footage. The video goes up to Facebook fairly quickly, and while the quality degrades a bit, your friends will get the idea. Want to see it in action? I posted a playthrough of a level of Sound Shapes.

The screenshot functions by simply grabbing the still of the last frame before hitting Share. It also can use voice commands from the PlayStation camera. The screenshots can be shared via Facebook or Twitter after entering your PlayStation credentials. Again, the screenshots are compressed and better designed for viewing on a social network.

Hardware


Sandwiched between the PS4's sloping front face, is a recessed area that contains both the slot-loading Blu-ray disc drive (6X for BD; 8X for DVD) and two USB 3.0 ports, which can also be used for connecting and charging the DualShock 4 and other devices. That recessed groove continues around the perimeter of the console and is mostly used as a clever way to disguise vents. Even the majority of the PS4's back end is taken up by vents, with only a section on the upper-left half dedicated to ports for HDMI out, digital out, Ethernet and the PlayStation Camera's auxiliary cable. Sony's relegated the bulk of the charging block to the inside of the console, so you won't have to deal with a bulky power brick cluttering your floor. In terms of connectivity, the PS4 supports 802.11b/g/n, as well as Bluetooth 2.1.


Fearing a repeat of the esoteric Cell system architecture that scared off many third-party developers for much of the PS3's life, Sony opted to imbue the PS4 with an octa-core, x86 AMD "Jaguar" CPU and Radeon GPU capable of 1.84 teraflops of compute power. That arrangement alone makes the console more immediately accessible to developers, as these components are very similar to what you'll find inside high-end PCs. But Sony didn't stop there. The console also leaps past its predecessor and Microsoft's Xbox One with 8GB of high-speed GDDR5 RAM -- a costly memory solution that should help future-proof the PS4 well into the console's life cycle. To hear Cerny tell it, that combination of GDDR5 RAM and x86 architecture makes the PS4 a breeze to develop for and should ensure robust third-party support from the outset of the console's launch. All told, Sony claims the PS4 is capable of "10 times the processing power of the PS3." Take that as you will.

Multimedia


Music Unlimited is, unbelievably, the only option for playing music on the PlayStation 4. You can't set up a media server, or play MP3s or audio CDs. There's a free 30-day trial to the subscription service as part of buying a PS4, but it's a cumbersome hassle if you're not already a member. And why can't we play our own music on this super-powerful PC-esque game console? Sony says more options are coming, but at launch this is your only option.

Music Unlimited takes a shockingly long time to load, and navigation within the app is similarly sluggish. When you've finally located music you'd like to listen to, you can thankfully push the Home button and keep listening to it on a system level. Jump into a game and turn off the game's music track -- voila! It's pretty slick, but that same feature existed in a smarter form on the Xbox 360. And on the 360, we could load our own music onto the box.

Hulu Plus and Netflix load a bit quicker than Music Unlimited, but are still amazingly slow to boot considering how comparatively light the workload is for streaming apps versus next-gen games. Navigation is identical to the PlayStation 3 apps, with a variety of suggested categories sitting below a large active marquee.

Unsurprisingly, the PS4's web client isn't much better than on other game consoles. Navigating a mouse and keyboard-based world without a mouse and keyboard remains a major challenge, even with the addition of a tilt-based keyboard cursor relying on your movement with the DualShock 4. Simply put, you tilt and swivel the DualShock 4, and an on-screen cursor moves in turn over a virtual keyboard. It's a big step forward in virtual-keyboard entry, but still doesn't solve the "web browser with a gamepad" problem.


Conclusion


So now we come to the ultimate question: Should you, the consumer, be interested in buying a PlayStation 4 (assuming, of course, that you can find one in the months to come)?

As you might expect, it depends. It depends on what kind of gamer you are, and it depends on what you want and expect out of a gaming console. Casual gamers and those who primarily use their home consoles as multimedia hubs need not bother with the PS4 at present. The current-gen hardware likely does everything you want and need it to do, and support for those systems isn’t going anywhere in the immediate future. This is something even hardcore gamers should think about, because if you aren’t necessarily interested in any of the games the PS4 has within its launch window, it’s not like your current systems are going anywhere. The PS4 may signal a new era for gaming, but the current era isn’t over, and it isn’t necessarily obsolete just because new hardware has arrived.

Here’s the bottom line, to my mind: If you are someone who plays games frequently, who enjoys video games as one of their primary modes of entertainment and artistic consumption, and have any inkling of wanting a PlayStation 4, you should do your best to get one. This system was made for you. As I said in the beginning, the PS4 marks the ultimate evolution, as of now, of the basic promise of console gaming: power and usability, depth and fluidity, all rolled into one beautiful, intuitive, robust package. The PS4 makes gaming easier, it makes gaming more accessible, and it makes gaming more fun, because focus no longer has to be split with wrangling the user interface or expending extra energy on downloads, installs, and the like. And with a set of truly impressive, remarkably enjoyable features – sharing and Remote Play chief among them – the PS4 continues to innovate even as it perfects. The PS4 is so impressive in so many ways that what should theoretically be its biggest leap forward – the graphics, which are, indeed, unparalleled – seems in some way an afterthought after several days of use.

The system is not perfect – there are problems, both big and small, and I want to stress that until I know more about the noisy fan issue referenced earlier, any recommendation I give is qualified. This is not in the same league as the Red Ring of Death, but it is an unexplained flaw, not experienced by every user, that detracts from the gaming experience. Hopefully it can be resolved. If not, it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, but it is a significant drawback.

But in the end, my overall feelings are positive, and glowingly so. The PlayStation 4 is the home gaming console I have always wanted, and one I suspect will only get better in the future. We are coming off the best and most creatively rich generation in video game history – whether the next one can match it has yet to be seen, but the PlayStation 4 is one hell of a start.