November 15, 2013 marks the true beginning of the 8th generation of home video consoles with the release of Sony’s PlayStation 4. Announced earlier this year, alongside its primary competitor in Microsoft’s Xbox One a few months later, The PS4 is first out the gate a full seven years after its predecessor.
The PS4 promises to deliver a platform that’s developer-friendly and gamer-focused, on that’s as powerful as it is social. In our lengthy review of the system, we’ll touch on the setup process, the new interface, social and sharing features. We’ll also review the DualShock 4 controller and non-gaming applications the system delivers on day one.
Setting Up The Console
Plugging in and setting up the PlayStation 4 console is thankfully quick and easy. The basics are the same as its predecessor and the package comes with all of the necessary parts to get Sony’s next-gen game system up and running. As we discussed in our PS4 demo and preview impressions, the console itself is slanted and flat in design for two reasons. On the front, the tilted shape makes it a tad easier for users to hit the power button and on the back, the overlap conceals some of the cords that plug into the back. There’s also a break along the front which will conceal the two USB ports.
A built-in power bar prevents the need for a large brick on the power cord and is again appreciated. The slanted design and the light line down the top and front are more for aesthetic than practicality but it looks good and it looks different than its rounded predecessors.
Turning on the system for the first time will require a one-time-only setup process to set the system’s internet and networking settings and to create or login with a Sony account. There’s of course, a Day One (1.5) update as well to enable many of the console’s features but it downloads rather quickly in the background while users can play disc-based games offline.
If users purchase the $60 PlayStation 4 Eye camera peripheral, the system can sign them in via facial recognition. To login this way, you’ll need to hold the controller up so the camera can see the light bar to prevent accidentally turning the system on when in standby. The facial recognition works fairly well under most lighting conditions but takes longer than simply selecting a player profile.
New to the PS4 is the guest sign-in feature which lets any user sign-in on another person’s console. It’s a way to prevent issues with having to delete accounts when leaving a friend’s house and it lets you access digital content on any other system while signed in. It’s another welcome addition and the console allows up to four users sign in at the same time.
PlayStation 4’s New Interface
PS3 users upgrading to its next-gen successor will immediately notice that the outdated XMB (XrossMediaBar) has been replaced with a new interfaced dubbed the PlayStation Dynamic Menu which embraces larger, easier to read Microsoft-esque tiles. Sony claims its new GUI is designed on the five pillars of being Simple, Immediate, Social, Integrated, and Personalized.
At launch, we can safely say it’s at least three of those things. The PS4 menu system is very fast and much more user-friendly than the PS3’s XMB. On the main menu there’s a ‘What’s New‘ screen which is essentially a social wall and of course, there’s social media and sharing integration with Twitter and Facebook. The interface still isn’t as intuitive as the Xbox 360’s home screen but once learning where everything is, users will quickly be able to access all of its features.
Players can use the mic that ships with the PS4 or the Eye peripheral (or any working third-party headset) to access screens and various functions with voice commands as well. There’s also the official PlayStation app, available on iOS and Android devices, which users can connect to the PlayStation 4 system for more second screen features.
Outside of accessing the PlayStation store remotely and adding friends and sending messages over Sony’s network to other users, the main features currently available let users control what’s on the screen with their mobile device by sliding around. It’s a little difficult to use and we quickly gave up on it in favor of using the primary DualShock 4 controller to navigate the screens. The other more useful feature is the ability to type via the app in text boxes on screen since going from one character to another to write a message is tedious and inefficient.
Even here the app is still not as user-friendly as it should be since it requires going back and forth between the DualShock 4 controller and a mobile device to input and submit text in each separate field. There’s also a few extra unnecessary steps involved in adding friends, so it and the interface have room for improvement.
We were not impressed by the system forcefully requiring us to enter credit card information after redeeming a code for the PlayStation Plus subscription in order to “use this product.” A credit card is required to redeem any voucher code and by default, it’s set to auto-renew from said card so the system is designed to get money from you.
That obstacle aside, the design of the PlayStation store and how it’s integrated into the social wall is smart. It’s easy to read and developers have a place to highlight news and updates for their own games. The system supports free-to-play games and the store makes it easy to sort by various categories. Some titles offer the choice of downloading one component before the other so if you wanted to play multiplayer and download the single player in the background, you can do that. If you’re going to be downloading a lot of full retail titles in the future, be weary of what you want to keep installed since the PS4 harddrive is only 500gb and some games like Killzone: Shadow Fall are upwards of 40gb in filesize.
As a digitally-focused system, the PS4 also has a standby mode which allows it to download updates in the background when not fully “on.” By default the console will check for updates late at night but it can turn on remotely and download purchases made on the PlayStation App or Vita while out and about as well. In this state, the console can also charge plugged-in controllers which make standby mode – and its pretty orange light across the top of the console – a welcome addition.
The DualShock 4 Controller
The DualShock 4 controller embraces the same traditional PlayStation button layout as its predecessors, but adds a few new features and important tweaks. The mold of the controller however, sees the biggest and most long overdue change, dropping the old school DualShock design from 1997 (when it was first introduced on the original PlayStation in Japan) and embracing an ergonomic, more rounded design with better grips. It’s light weight, smooth and slick.
In addition to altering the spacing of the dual analog sticks and face buttons, the sticks themselves see an important change, with Sony moving from the rounded dome top of the DualShock 3 and predecessors to grip-friendly concave sticks with an outer ring on the DualShock 4. This change makes using the sticks for lengthier periods of time feel more comfortable while also making it feel more precise. Unfortunately, the sticks are still placed low and far from where human hands naturally place their thumbs so it’s possible to get hand cramps in extended periods of play.
As for the next-gen DualShock 4 features, the center of the controller now hosts a capacitive touchpad that also clicks in. Some of the PS4 launch titles, including Killzone: Shadow Fall and Warframe use the touchpad as a secondary D-Pad of sorts where users can swipe in any of the four main directions to access special abilities. To the left and right of the touchpad are the ‘Share’ and ‘Options’ buttons which replace the ‘Select’ and ‘Start’ of old, respectively. ‘Options’ serves the same purpose as ‘Start’ previously did but the ‘Share’ button opens up one of the most important features supported by both next-generation consoles: social media and screenshot/video sharing. But more on that later!
The PS button (featuring the PlayStation logo) has been moved to the bottom of the controller to make room for the touchpad. It functions the same way it did on the PS3, bringing up the dashboard upon pressing. Double-tapping it lets users switch between any two apps, or a game and an app on the fly which is handy for checking notifications, social feeds or even the browser while gaming.
The DualShock 4 controller also embraces the PlayStation move tech of the PS3 and has a light bar built into it which not only makes it extremely precise – enhanced with an improved three-axis gyroscope & accelerometer – but can also serve as a extra layer of immersion. The color of the light bar for instance, can change color as an extra form of game feedback and in The Playroom suite pre-installed on the console, holding one’s hand in front of it simulates darkness for the little robots on screen. We can think of a few ideas already of how some games can use that in conjunction with the improved motion controls that still let you have the rest of the controls in your hands. At launch, there are not many games/apps available that take advantage of the controller’s features.
Social Media Integration
The PlayStation 4’s friends list builds upon and shares the same friends lists as PS3 and Vita, except users can now link their Sony account with Facebook and Twitter. These accounts are required if users plan to share screenshots or video. Facebook is currently the only way to grab a real-world photo to use as a profile Avatar. Otherwise, you’re stuck with the weak library of default image choices.
It’s also in these social feeds where users can post videos, screenshots and links to livestreams. Users of course can customize settings so they don’t flood their personal walls with PS4-related content and for Facebooking videos, the system lets users select specific predefined groups of friends from their Facebook lists or from their friends who are playing that same game or have a PS4.
An important step in the process that helps protect privacy is that when associating a Sony account to Facebook, users can choose to grab their real name and display it, making their gamer account much more personal. They don’t have to if they don’t want to, and even if they do, your real name won’t display to friends unless they send a “Name Request,” but it just goes to show how far gaming has come in the world of personal social media. Users can similarly choose what posts show up on the PS4’s ‘What’s New’ social wall.
Sharing Screenshots & Video
The sharing ability built into the PlayStation 4 operating system works super slick and is very easy to setup and use, even for newbies to the world of live broadcasting. At any time during gameplay, simply pressing the ‘Share’ button on the DualShock 4 controller brings up the sharing menu with three options: upload video, upload a screenshot or broadcast video.
The PS4 records the last 15 minutes of gameplay at all times and choosing to upload a video lets the user trim it down into short intervals or upload the entire 15 minute clip to Facebook. All video is maxed out at 720p. Unfortunately there are quite a few limitations when it comes to straight-up video uploading that make it a half-baked feature. The 15-minute cap for instance, is too short, especially considering that multiplayer matches in Battlefield 4 can easily go much, much longer, and that players who do let’s plays and walkthroughs of campaigns, often post lengthier clips. There’s inexplicably no way to retrieve the video outside of uploading to Facebook and the biggest shocker of all, YouTube is not supported (yet).