It’s the most elegant console design in PlayStation history and one of the best looking products Sony has ever produced. But the PS4’s form is sometimes at odds with its function.
A cutaway wraps around the front and sides of the system, which breaks up the top and bottom panels and prevents the design from taking on too much of a nondescript brick-like trapezoid appearance. The gap houses the front-facing USB ports and slot-loading disc drive, with air intakes on the sides, which draws cool air through the system. Though a clever way to mask the ports and vents, the gap can create issues with certain types of USB storage. While average-sized USB cables or thin thumbdrives fit the slots, thicker devices may not work without an extension cable. What’s more, the thin touch-enabled buttons on the front are extremely narrow and tough to identify, and the choice to put the sole thermal exhaust at the back of the system will centralize heat where ventilation will be most limited in entertainment centers.
Ultimately, each decision is in service of the PS4’s unbelievably compact form factor. Measuring at roughly 2” thick, 10.8” wide, and 12” deep, the PS4 is 35% thinner and takes up considerably less surface area than the Xbox One. It’s even slightly thinner than the PS3 Super Slim. In other words, the PS4 is entering the new generation with a form factor smaller than what had previously taken six years to reach with the PS3.
Even more impressive is how quiet and relatively cool the PS4 remains throughout hours of use. Although by no means silent, the PS4’s noise profile never seems to exceed a gentle hum, even when running the most GPU-taxing titles. When placed on the entertainment center eight feet from my couch, it was hard to even notice.
Under the hood, there’s the much touted AMD-based APU and 8GBs of GDDR5 memory, which is evidenced by the fast, fluid performance of the OS and various apps, and of course, the substantial leap in graphics. Sony has severed all ties with non-digital I/O, offering only HDMI video/audio output, optical digital for surround sound audio, a ethernet port, and an AUX jack for the new PlayStation Camera. There are also two USB 3.0 ports on the front, though as of launch, the PS4 lacks support for external storage devices that would take advantage of the increased data transfer speeds. However, each system ships with 500GBs of storage that’s upgradable using off-the-shelf parts — a notable edge over the Xbox One.
In face of the PS4’s other performance-focused features, it’s unusual that Sony has outfitted the PS4 with a 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi chip instead of the latest standard, 802.11ac, which offers significant gains in range and signal strength. It would have added to the cost of the system and market penetration for 802.11ac products is still burgeoning, but Sony’s aspirations for Gaikai cloud streaming and remote play would have reaped the benefits in the long-term.
Still, the PS4 remains an achievement in console design.
The DualShock 4
The handles are approximately half an inch longer and have a wider, more rounded shape that rests comfortably in your palms. The thumbsticks are shorter with more resistance, creating a better sense of precision and responsiveness. The buttons of the D-pad are slightly larger and pivot inward for better tactile differentiation, while the X, square, triangle, and circle buttons are largely the same.
What’s most striking about the DualShock 4 is how everything from the D-pad to the action buttons — and even the center trackpad — are within effortless reach. I’ve never had to arch my thumbs or index fingers to reach the shoulders or home button, which now falls between the two analog sticks. Simply put, the DualShock 4 feels fantastic.
In addition to the significant ergonomic leap, the DualShock 4 also adds new functionality, most notably wireless game audio. Using the standard headphone jack built into the base of the controller, you can plug in any standard headset or earbuds and access in-game audio, as well as chat. While it lacks the surround-sound processing found on the mixamps of third-party gaming headsets, the audio quality is surprisingly good (even if the included single-earbud set is not). I’ve noticed odd feedback issues with certain headsets, like Apple’s earpods, while most work just fine. It’s by no means a replacement for high-end Astros or Turtle Beach headphones, but it’s more than sufficient for general use and cuts down on wire clutter considerably.
There’s also the new integrated speaker, but usage at launch is sparse. Of the games that do take advantage, very few make a compelling case for its inclusion. The controller speaker will most often just mimic an in-game effect, but in a diminished, tinny tone.
Support for the built-in trackpad is even rarer, and most of the time it’s simply used as just a large button to replace the Select button or, in the case of Killzone: Shadow Fall, as an additional D-pad. What’s worse, it’s not even used in applications where it would make the most sense, like the web browser. Instead of using the trackpad to control the cursor, the function is mapped to the left thumbstick.
But no feature is more underutilized and seemingly superfluous than the lightbar. The next-generation manifestation of the PS3’s PS Move controllers, the lightbar was clearly designed to work alongside the PlayStation Camera and help identify players for motion-based games. But with plans to bundle the sensor in with every system scrapped prior to launch, its utility is now largely aesthetic unless you buy the add-on. While the lightbar can be used to assign players to specific controllers or react to the beat in Sound Shapes, it’s good for little more than novelty. After all, it’s hard to notice small glowing effects when your focus is largely on your TV, let alone a light that’s not even facing you.
We’re likely to see greater adoption and subsequently more alluring uses for the DualShock 4’s unique features as the platform ages, but for now, there’s not much use for them.
In terms of battery life, the DualShock 4 can run for anywhere from eight to nine hours on a single charge, which is considerably less than the DualShock 3’s advertised 30-hour lifespan. Still, it’s more than ample charge time for even the most enthusiastic players, and now that the PS4 can recharge controllers while in standby mode, it’s fairly easy to keep your DualShock 4 juiced up.
The PlayStation Camera
Users can calibrate the camera to recognize them once the system boots up, but rather than just recognizing a player and logging in, the PS4 requires you to raise a DualShock 4 into view as an added authentication step. Although reasonably precise and responsive, the process is less intuitive and effective than just using the gamepad to begin with.
The camera also listens for certain voice commands, which can be used to launch a game or app, power down the system, take screenshots, or swap users. For the most part, the system detects vocal cues rapidly and accurately, but environments with louder ambient noise can throw it off. What’s worse, the camera can take commands from anyone within range of its microphones, making it easy for unscrupulous housemates to disrupt the experience. The camera is inherently useful for motion-based games like Just Dance 2014, and in that use case it performs well, but the number of games that make use of or require it is still a small fraction of those available.
The camera’s lone killer app, however, is providing a picture-in-picture video feed while streaming gameplay to Twitch TV or Ustream. With the camera connected, you can add a personal spin to your livestream by offering a windowed view of yourself as you play. That alone may not be enough to warrant the $60 price of admission, though.
The PlayStation Camera could become a larger part of the software ecosystem and PS4 experience, but at the moment, a Kinect killer it is not.
The OS: XMB Reborn
The opportunity to interact with PSN friends permeates every corner of the OS, which stands in stark contrast to the sterile, isolated social experience of the PS3. There’s a new consolidated activity feed called What’s New, which lists out all of your friends’ recent activity, ranging from what games they’re playing to Trophies they’ve earned, friends they’ve added, screenshots they’ve posted, or videos they’ve captured. In concept, it’s a great method for getting a comprehensive look at what’s happening within your network, but finding new shared content or learning what new games your friends are playing can often be buried amidst the minutiae of recently added friends or new Trophies. For a more targeted view, you can hover over a game and see all activity pertaining to that particular title.
The widespread surfacing of trophies, as well as new Trophy rarity metric, not only gives the system more value, but encourages greater competition amongst your friends. In addition to the bronze, silver, gold, and platinum valuations, each Trophy earned is assigned a rarity value based on what percentage of the community has earned it. It may seem like a small feature addition, but it inspired me to care and value the Trophies I’ve earned, and to seek out some of the more prestigious ones I’ve yet to obtain.
While PSN still won’t allow us to change our usernames, you can now choose to make your real name visible to certain friends via a separate authorization request. If approved, both players will be presented to each other by their real name, and if the system is synced with Facebook, can use their default photo as their avatar.
It’s small additions like these that make the PS4 feel far more like a living, breathing community.
The PS4 also heralds the arrival of long-absent features like cross-game party chat and unified, multi-user messaging. Parties offer the ability to have voice and text communication with up to seven other players. Within the party interface, you can choose to boost chat audio over in-game audio or even swap between talking to your party or chatting with your in-game team on the fly. Oddly, however, neither group is muted regardless of which you choose, which depending on how you look at it, can be an annoyance or a useful tool. On the one hand, it’s helpful for preserving awareness of strategic information provided by your in-game team, but on the other, it can conflict with your party members.
The messages function supports persistent peer-to-peer or multi-user communication across PS4, PS Vita, and mobile, and includes text, image, and 15-second voice messages. What the PS4 severely lacks at launch, however, is any form of video conferencing or messaging.
Although player communication leaves some things to be desired, sharing gameplay experiences both inside PSN and with third-party services like Twitter or Facebook is seamless. At any point during a game, you can tap the share button on the DualShock 4 to save a screenshot or video clip, or broadcast live over Twitch or Ustream.
With the previous generation of hardware, streaming gameplay requires additional hardware and software, but now you can get up and running within seconds. The ability to see comments on-screen in real time makes interaction with viewers simple and fun, and the aforementioned picture-in-picture view offered by the add-on camera brings a personal touch. There are a few disappointing limitations currently, however. For one, the software lacks the ability to dictate compression levels and resolutions outside of generic presets like “good,” “great,” and “best.” There’s also no ability to archive broadcasts, which eliminates replay value for anyone who missed the initial stream. What’s worse, stored video clips or broadcasts can’t be exported to external media at present.
Most important of all, the PS4’s social and game-sharing tools are accessible at any time thanks to multitasking. Jumping in and out of games to view a message or check the status of a PSN download is almost instantaneous. The only time I’ve experienced any slowdown at all is when my connection quality dropped or I was disconnected entirely, at which point the OS struggles to retrieve social data.
Remote Play performance will hinge entirely upon your wireless network. In my home, I was able to get stable performance across multiple rooms and up to 40 feet from my base station, though due to the makeup of my building, dead zones are common – you may experience greater or shorter range. Regardless of whether a connection is dropped or you activate Remote Play mid-session, you never have to restart a game or your system.
Remote Play is also accessible outside of a local Wi-Fi connection, though at present, I’ve yet to make a successful pairing.
And did I mention how great the DualShock 4 is? It’s pretty amazing.
- +Gorgeous, Compact Design
- +Amazing Controller
- +Deep Social Integration
- –Software Lacking Features
- –Hardware Underutilized