We take a look at the PS4 a year on from release
From most perspectives, the PlayStation 4 has had a fantastic first year. When the two next-gen consoles launched a year ago, it was Sony that came out on top with both its hardware and its message. The PS4’s games-first focus resonated with both the press and the public, while its combination of hardware, software and services seemed more compelling. Now, close to 14 million units have been sold, outselling the Xbox One by just over one third. A handful of great exclusives have hinted at the console’s power, while third-party titles have generally looked better on the Sony system.
All this is true, yet Sony can’t kick back and celebrate quite yet. The last few months have seen the Xbox One beginning to fight back on sales, while the PS4’s games line-up for the all-important holiday season has relied on third-party titles for clout. Sony’s flagship racer, DriveClub, has become something of an embarrassment, and the console’s next wave of big hitters isn’t due until after Christmas. Given all that, is the PS4 still the console to buy?
Watch our PS4 video review
PS4 – Hardware
It’s certainly the neatest of the two consoles; at 275mm wide, 53mm high and 305mm long it makes the 333mm x 78mm x 274mm Xbox One look roughly as svelte as an old VHS video recorder. It’s a sleek design, and while noise levels rise in gameplay with the Blu-ray drive running, it’s usually quiet as well. There’s no external power brick to cram in with your AV equipment, and it’s an absolute doddle to set up. For most of us it’s a question of plugging in the power lead and an HDMI cable, and you’re away.
Like the Xbox One, the PS4 has matt and gloss sections, with the glossy chunk housing the Blu-ray drive, and the matt section concealing two USB 3.0 ports in a central horizontal gulley. The power and eject buttons are touch-sensitive and themselves hidden away in the light-up bar which runs along the top and down the front in-between the two sections, also acting as one massive status indicator. Round the back there’s the HDMI output, and optical audio output, an Ethernet port and an additional USB 3.0 port designed for the PlayStation Eye camera.
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It’s what’s inside, however, that has made the most difference in the latest phase of the console wars. Sony played very smart indeed with the architecture of the PS4, not only fixing the major weakness of the PS3 – a reliance on a non-standard, hard to program, proprietary architecture – but also giving the PS4 a surprise advantage over the Xbox One. Where both consoles are based on AMD x86 APUs with eight CPU cores, the PS4’s APU has 18 compute units in the GPU portion to the Xbox One’s twelve. What’s more, where the Xbox One has 8GB of 2133Mhz GDDR3 RAM, the PS4’s APU can get its hands on 8GB of 5500MHz GDDR5. The Xbox One can compensate with a higher CPU clock-speed (1.75GHz to the PS4’s 1.6Ghz), GPU clock speed (853Mhz to 800Mhz) and 32MB of ESRAM cache to speed things up, but that still gives the PS4 more graphics horsepower to play with, not to mention more memory bandwidth.
The result? Well, we’re still seeing key titles – Dragon Age: Inquisition and Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor – where the PS4 version runs at a 1080p resolution while the Xbox One version runs at 900p or 720p before scaling. In other cases, as with GTA 5, the PS4 version gets you more detail in the scenery or a slightly smoother frame rate.
The difference isn’t always huge – while you’re actually playing a game, an upscaled 900p doesn’t look that different to 1080p, and even 720p doesn’t look that much inferior with anti-aliasing and layers of lavish effects applied. All the same, the PS4 versions do look better, and there’s a real possibility that, as developers become accustomed to the hardware and start to push the boundaries, Sony’s hardware may give them more headroom for more spectacular visuals. Certainly Sony’s own first-party studios will be working to exploit the PS4’s advantages.
We had some concerns about having this much power inside such a compact box, but so far there doesn’t seem to be any impact on reliability. Tales of PS4s failing remain thin on the ground, and, though occasionally loud, the fans don’t appear to be working overtime.
SEE ALSO: Best PS4 games 2014
PS4 – Controllers and Accessories
One thing everyone is agreed on is that the DualShock 4 is Sony’s best controller ever. It’s more intelligently laid-out than the DualShock 3, more comfortable to hold, and the dual analogue sticks are much tighter and more precise. The feel of the bumpers and triggers is nigh-perfect, and it just feels like a more solid, grown-up pad.
While there’s still something gimmicky about the clickable central touchpad, built-in speaker and the light bar at the rear, games have found uses for them. Having the sensor bar flash red and blue while you’re wanted by the cops adds to the atmosphere in GTA 5, as does getting calls through the speaker, while having beeps and flashes synced with the on-screen motion tracker was an inspired idea for Alien: Isolation. And though not all games have made menus or inventory management work all that well with the touchpad – and that’s when we remember to use it – it can handle such functions pretty well.
Sony also gets credit for bundling a microphone headset, however basic, in with the kit, and for allowing you to plug any old pair of headphones into your DualShock 4 and get in-game stereo sound through the controller’s Bluetooth connection. If you’re playing on the living room TV and don’t have some wireless headphones handy, then it’s infinitely preferable to having a cable snaking around the back or side of your TV.
Sony never invested as much as Microsoft in motion control technology, and so far support for the PlayStation Camera and PlayStation Move has been, shall we say, low key. Move might make a comeback when the Project Morpheus VR headset eventually goes into production, but for now these accessories are roughly as inessential as accessories can get.
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PS4 – Interface
Sony’s interface has proven a real strength for PS4. It doesn’t have the advanced features of the Xbox One’s dashboard, but it’s simpler, more intuitive and straight to the point. The important things – your most recently-played games, friends’ activities, notifications and settings – are never more than a few taps of the D-pad away, and you never have to think about which page you need to go to to start a game, launch an app or visit the store; it’s all just there in front of you.
It’s also social in the best sort of way. Turn your PS4 on, the What’s New page loads and you can see immediately what your PS4 friends have been up to. You can also quickly see who’s online and what they’re doing, and from there’s it’s not a struggle to launch the same game. When you’re playing a social-focused game like Destiny or DriveClub, these little things make all the difference.
Sony has also done its best to match the Xbox One’s voice commands, though with limited effects. You can navigate to specific pages, take screenshots or launch games and apps, but you miss out on the Xbox One’s advanced search features and any deeper voice integration with specific apps. We’ve yet to find anyone outside Microsoft who considers voice command the Xbox One’s killer feature, but it’s a point worth noting anyway.
Overall the PS4 interface is a big success, but it still needs work in some areas. While it’s faster than the Xbox One to power on, it’s disappointingly slow to resume from standby and it can’t take you straight to your current point in your current game; a trick which the Xbox One manages with ease. And while Sony has minimised the time between you installing a disc or starting a download and the game becoming playable, we’re still not in instant territory yet. In fact, we’ve spotted some developers allowing you to start the game quickly only to then hit you with massive loading delays once you’re at the title screen – guys, this isn’t cool.
SEE ALSO: Best Games of 2014
PS4 – Apps and Services
Arguably, Sony has focused more on features that matter more to the PS4’s core purpose as a games machine. Remote Play through PlayStation Vita – and now PlayStation TV plus Xperia Z2 and Xperia Z3 Android devices – can be a real boon, enabling you to relinquish the TV and carry on gaming with a mobile device. PS Vita’s different control layout can be an issue, and there’s too much lag to play anything action-oriented without either cabling the PS4 directly to your router or using the direct Wi-Fi link at short range. Certain games also suffer from illegible text, tiny on-screen maps or unusable inventory screens – RPGs like Diablo III or Lords of the Fallen are particularly troublesome. When it works, though, it’s brilliant, and we’ve happily played the likes of Destiny, inFamous: Second Son and Wolfenstein: The New Order on the Vita’s smaller screen.
In fact, game streaming options are rapidly becoming a PS4 forte. Share Play is in its infancy, but the ability to stream a game from your console to a PSN friend hundreds of miles away is pretty impressive, even with the sixty minute time limit and a drop to 720p. Lag will vary according to your Internet connection, but in early tests we’ve found the experience perfectly workable, and it’s a great way to enjoy local co-op games – like Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham – with someone who can’t be in your living room. Broadcasting and video and screenshot upload features work seamlessly through the Share button, and the ability to grab screenshots and copy them directly to a USB memory stick has made many a journalist’s life that little bit easier.
SEE ALSO: PS TV – 10 things you need to know about PlayStation TV
We’ve yet to see PlayStation Now in the UK, but it’s due next year with a line-up of classic PSOne, PS2 and PS3 titles available to stream for a one-off rental charge or monthly subscription fee. It remains to be seen how well it copes on our rather inconsistent broadband infrastructure and how the pricing and business model will work over here, but if the costs work out and it performs well it will be another feather in the PS4’s cap.
PSN itself has had a rough rep in comparison to Xbox Live, and service disruptions and the whole DriveClub debacle haven’t exactly helped. Yet for most of the last year we’ve found it reliable, and the Facebook integration, if you take that route, adds a level of personality that was previously missing. Sure, it’s annoying that you need a PS Plus subscription to play online, but at least PS Plus is one of the best deals in gaming. Sony keeps pushing a great selection of older triple A titles, smaller games and indie hits onto the Instant Games Library portion of the service, and if you have a PS4 and PS Vita, it’s a must for that alone.
The PS4 didn’t launch with the strongest set of apps, and even now its missing a few big names. YouTube has crossed over to PS4, along with Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Now TV, but users of Tesco’s Blinkbox service are out of luck. iPlayer and Demand 5 are available, but not ITV Player or 4oD. You can broadcast PS4 streams to Twitch, yet there’s no Twitch app to watch streams beyond PS4 streams. Meanwhile, Sony’s Music Unlimited remains the sole choice of music streaming services for PS4, while there’s still no DLNA streaming client for the console. None of these are deal-breakers, but they make the PS4 a less capable media player than its predecessor, the PS3.
SEE ALSO: PS4 Backwards Compatibility – Can you play PS3 games on PS4?
PS4 – Games
The best piece of advice when choosing a new console is that you shouldn’t buy the hardware but the games. Here there’s plenty of good reason to choose Sony. It’s had some excellent triple A first-party titles, including inFamous: Second Son and The Last of Us: Remastered. It’s also had some the pick of the indie games, and that’s something we expect to see repeated next year with No Man’s Sky, The Witness, AlienNation, DayZ and Ryme. The big third-party titles, including Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, generally run better on PS4 as well. Buy a PS4 now and you won’t suffer from a lack of great entertainment.
Yet the crucial Autumn/Winter period has so far seen a dearth of quality exclusives for PS4. While Xbox One owners have been able to shout about Sunset Overdrive, Halo: The Master Chief Collection and the phenomenal Forza Horizon 2, PS4 owners have been stuck with underachievers like DriveClub and LittleBigPlanet 3. The situation should improve next year with the launch of From Software’s Bloodborne and Sony’s own The Order: 1886, but the PS4 is now under pressure to produce a console-defining killer app. Microsoft has a strong line-up in place for 2015 with more to be announced. Sony needs to match it, if not surpass it.
And that really is the only problem with PS4 right now. There’s enough quality in the third-party line-up to justify a new console purchase today, but not enough great first-party titles to make that purchase automatically a PS4. Buying one now, then, remains pretty much what it was last year: an act of faith that Sony’s more potent hardware will mean better games long-term than you’ll find on Xbox One, and that Sony itself will produce great exclusives that lead the way. With the likes of Uncharted 4, The Order, No Man’s Sky and Bloodborne on their way that’s hardly a shot in the dark, but where last year Sony had the edge on Microsoft, this year’s competition is tight.
After a year, the PS4 still has the sleekest, most powerful hardware, the most intuitive interface and an improved line-up of apps and games. It has streaming capabilities that Microsoft can’t match, with more to come. What it doesn’t have is a killer app that makes the PS4 a must buy, and while it’s better than the Xbox One on most third-party titles, it needs more big and groundbreaking exclusives if it wants to remain this generation’s dedicated games machine of choice.
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