News, Views, and Reviews
Bringing home a new console is exciting and scary at the same time, especially on launch day. News of last minute updates, software patches, or failure rates can make the simple task of plugging the system in for the first time a nail biting experience. Will it turn on and work? Will the day-one patch fix what it’s supposed to, or will it “brick” my brand new system before I can even use it? These are the risks an early adopter takes, because the pay off is worth it: getting your hands on a brand new system before anyone else does. Fortunately, my new consoles have been fantastic, certainly worth all the wait and anxiety. Not to mention the satisfaction of having them already, instead of getting on waiting lists or hoping for a chance at the latest shipments before the stores open. I get a special sense of satisfaction, knowing I can answer questions about each system and maybe help people make informed decisions. For these console reviews, I will focus on the hardware, the controllers, multitasking, and the user interface. It’s hard to overlook many of the similarities between the PS4 and the Xbox One, so don’t be surprised if I mention some of the same things in both reviews.
The Xbox One and PS4 have so much in common, from hardware specs to software features, that it’s remarkable how different they look. Both consoles contain an 8-core AMD CPU, 8 gigs of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive, and a Blu-Ray DVD drive. But, the PS4 is even smaller than current generation consoles, and the Xbox One is the biggest console released in some time. While the Xbox One does little to hide that it’s a giant, rectangular box, the PS4 has more artistic flair. It alters it’s thin, flat, square shape with angled edges, and features a thin, off center light strip across its top. This light strip turns bright blue when the PS4 is on, and turns orange when the PS4 is in standby mode. Both consoles have dual-textures on their tops, coincidentally featuring a shiny glossy texture on the left, which is very prone to smudges and fingerprints. The right side of the PS4 is a flat texture, but the right side of the Xbox One is a large vent. The Xbox One uses an external power brick, but the PS4 does not.
Highs: Both consoles look great, and are fantastically different. Really, it will be a case of personal taste; some may prefer the artistic flair of the PS4, and others might appreciate the industrial design of the Xbox One. It is quite remarkable how Sony crammed nearly identical hardware into such a smaller console. Both consoles are super quiet, and they both stay relatively cool.
Lows: Some of the artistic touches on both consoles create some awkward physical problems. The off center light strip on the PS4 continues down the front of the console, and contains the power button above the disc slot, and the disc-eject button below it. But these buttons are super small and hard to see, and are hard to press. It’s impossible to accidentally turn off the PS4 by bumping the button, and I personally prefer to turn on the controller instead, which also turns the console on, and then use the user interface to power down the console when I’m done. This thin separation of the top and bottom halves contains the disc slot, and also hides two USB ports. But that separation is too thin, so it can be difficult to access those USB ports.
For many enthusiasts, the crucial decision over which console to buy comes down to choosing a controller. Years of perfecting analog precision devices have paid off for both Sony and Microsoft. Sony makes the most substantial changes to its controller, clearly working with years of feedback and criticisms for previous “DualShock” controller designs. The appropriately named “DualShock 4” controller has more substantial handles and improved ergonomic design choices make it much more comfortable to hold and use for longer play sessions. Sony didn’t stop there, they also changed the “start” and “select” buttons to “options” and a new “share” button that connects the user directly to a new sharing interface. There is also a touch sensitive panel at the top of the DualShock 4, used as another input area in some games, a mini speaker at the bottom, and a headphone jack. It’s also hard not to notice the glowing light on the front of the DualShock 4, which is intended to interact with the “Eye” camera device (sold separately) but has other functions like changing colors during a game, or indicating who is player one or player two, and so on.
Highs: The DualShock 4 clearly has the most improvements over previous PlayStation controllers, featuring better ergonomics and less input latency, as well as cool new additions. The analog sticks are still next to each other, but the controller is wider – to make room for that touch panel – and provides more space between them. They have also replaced the rounded shape of the analog sticks with an indented center, which prevents thumbs from slipping off. The triggers on the back feel more like triggers. Overall, the DS4 is light and comfortable to hold, and is improved in nearly every way. I really appreciate the feature that allows you to plug regular headphones into that jack at the bottom and use it to channel game audio.
Lows: Like the PS3, the PS4 has no “sync” buttons, which means the only way to pair a controller to the PS4 is with the included micro-USB cable. The “options” and “share” buttons on the DS4 are conveniently located, but they are too flush with the controller and therefore hard to find and press without looking. Also, that touch sensitive panel can also function as a button, and in some games, its too easy to “swipe” an input and “click” a different input just by pushing too hard. I’m still not a fan of the parallel placement of the analog sticks, but I’m happy to notice that I can use the controller for longer play sessions with little discomfort than I ever could with previous PlayStation controllers.
The people that contributed to both systems selling over one million units on each of their launch days are what we would call “early adopters.” They are the consumers, like myself, that watched every announcement since February, and read every news article and game preview they could find. System defects or software issues are not a concern; these people HAVE to have the new product on day one. This target audience is also most likely interested in only one thing: games.
All of the multitasking capabilities of the PS4 and Xbox One are an afterthought to these early adopters. This is fine, and I don’t mean to offend the gaming enthusiasts out there, but MS and Sony have to sell their consoles to more than just gamers. This is a big commitment for both companies: the end result of billions of dollars of research and development costs, and long term plans to keep their products relevant for as long as possible. They have to get them into people’s homes, subscribing to their networks, purchasing content from their online stores, and the best way to do that is to increase the number of things their consoles can do. We saw this marketing strategy take shape during the current generation, as both the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live started offering more and more multimedia content. Netflix was one of the first third-party “apps” added to the Xbox 360 and then the PS3, and other vendors like Hulu, YouTube, HBO, and others followed.
Instead of adding these features and services after the fact, both next-gen consoles have integrated them into their core operating systems, and try to make switching from game to internet browser, YouTube video, or Skype video chats, and back, as seamless as possible. I believe the design philosophy for both Sony and Microsoft is to keep you on your couch, interacting with one device as much as possible. If you get up to look something up on your PC, you might not come back. Or, if you find your newly released movie on Amazon.com, you might not buy or rent it from Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. With all that in mind, how well do the next-gen consoles perform?
Highs: The PlayStation 4 doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of. It is a powerful system, capable of delivering some amazing games in high resolution, and can almost match the Xbox One’s multi-media capabilities, feature for feature. It also shares some user interface issues, but I’ll get to those later. Like the Xbox One, games keep playing in the background, even if you go back to the main menu, you just can’t see both applications at the same time. Like the Xbox One, you can now start downloading or installing a game, and complete other tasks while you are waiting or, if the game reaches a certain percentage of the install, can start playing it before it finishes. It’s already funny to think that something like that wasn’t possible until now.
Lows: It’s hard to ignore how much slower the PS4 is at multitasking than the Xbox One. Because multitasking is relatively new for consoles, it isn’t clear how important it will be years from now. In other words, I don’t want to criticize the PS4 for not being able to do something as well as the Xbox One, especially if it never catches on and nobody cares. It’s also important to point out that the PS4 DOES multitask, you just don’t experience it in exactly the same way. It is also interesting to note that the PS4 was originally intended to ship with its own camera (an updated version of the “Eye” camera used with the “Move” controllers on the PS3, something more similar to the Xbox’s Kinect) but the decision was made to pull that from the bundle so the PS4 could beat the Xbox One’s price by $100. Without the camera packed in with every console, I predict that features like video chat won’t see as much use on the PS4 as it will on the Xbox One.
Clearly, both consoles are attempting to broaden their appeal and include many features beyond playing games. Access to these features is handled by the user interface, or “UI” for short, which includes everything from sharing video clips with friends, inviting friends to chat or play games, watching movies, browsing the internet, downloading new games or other digital content, changing the system settings, and so on. Unlike the system hardware, the user interface is software based, which means it can be changed throughout the lifespan of the console. The PS3’s user interface didn’t see a lot of changes, but the Xbox 360 went through several major updates and changes between 2005 and 2013. Will the new consoles update and change their user interfaces? As they are now, I certainly hope so, as both seem to have more lows than highs.
Highs: I’ll give the PS4 a lot of credit for substantially changing their UI from the PS3 version. In general, applications and features are easy to find with big icons, and the menu settings have been combined and streamlined into a simpler list of options. Sharing your status on social media like Facebook is integrated into the system, and setting up a “party” with your friends that can chat or join games together is handled independently from anything else. Downloading games or important updates is also handled in the background, which means you can keep doing what you want to do while you wait. The new “share” button on the controller allows you to instantly post clips of your gaming sessions online, further reinforcing the social aspects of the PS4.
Lows: As neat as these features sound, they currently run very slowly on the PS4. Switching from a game to the “dashboard” or main menu, to invite friends to your game, and then back to the game, sometimes takes several minutes, not seconds, minutes. In theory, you should arrange the “party” before you start playing, as this party can carry over to other games or activities and therefore only needs to be set up the one time, but it’s pretty sad that it takes so long. Other game to menu back to game swaps take almost as long. Gaming enthusiasts will appreciate that the under-powered multi-tasking capabilities are a worthy sacrifice if it means higher gaming performance. But, navigating the menus themselves can take longer than expected, and some of the applications are harder to find than others. Like the Xbox One’s UI, the PS4’s UI tends to prominently display what you’ve played or done recently, which is great when you are repeatedly playing the same game, but it can also be misleading. Seeing a huge icon that launches a game, for example, won’t really work unless you have that disc in the system or bought and downloaded the game digitally, but it will be on your menu screen either way.
Currently, one of my biggest frustrations with the PS4 UI is the “close application” function. Suppose you are playing one game, and decide to play another. Unless you are swapping discs, there is no way to “quit” playing the first game, as going to the main menu screen just pauses the game and swaps applications. Selecting the new game seems to be the quickest method of prompting the PS4 to ask you if you want to “close application” of the previous game. It seems like something we’ll just have to get used to, but it’s a great example of how some of the UI functions are not very intuitive or user friendly. Why can’t I just have an option to “quit” playing a game?
Similarly, there is a “notifications” tab that keeps track of anything new happening during a session of using the PS4. These could be anything from purchasing and downloading a game from the PlayStation Network, receiving a friend or game invite, or earning “trophies” while playing a game. Some of these notifications are very confusing, such as when you have to download an update to a game and then install it. Does the notification of the “game update” mean that was installed or that it needs to be installed? I’ve gone back and forth from a game to the PS4 menu – taking several seconds or even minutes each time – because the game needed to be updated first and the “notifications: download” tab didn’t progress like it was supposed to.
The PS4 is a dramatic console: it is practically a reinvention of the PlayStation brand itself, and improves on its predecessor in nearly every way. The controller is substantially redesigned, and incorporates features like the touch panel, “share” button, speaker, and headset jack. Games look crisp and clear in native 1080p resolutions, and social features like Facebook and twitch.tv are built directly into the system. Unfortunately, it seems like the UI is both solving old problems and creating new problems. When it works properly, and quickly, it’s efficient, convenient, and intuitive. But too many things are not intuitive, and swapping and closing applications simply takes way too long. These software issues could be ironed out with patches and updates, but it’s hard to review hardware based on its potential rather than its current capabilities. For gaming enthusiasts that won’t miss programming their game console to change channels on their TV, the PS4 is an easy recommendation. For families and multimedia junkies, as well as impatient people, it’s hard to recommend the PS4. Like the Xbox One, it is also missing some of its promised features like game streaming and sharing. Maybe when those features become available, and the UI is improved, it will be easier to recommend.
My final thoughts on the PlayStation brand in general, based not just on the PS4 but its different announcements and presentations throughout the year, is that they have the most to prove. The PS3 struggled in its first few years, but it slowly gained traction, then tied, and even surpassed the Xbox 360 in some territories. The PS3 will likely be remembered for its bigger and better collection of first party titles, though they were mostly single player games. It’s quite telling, then, that the redesigned controller is more comfortable for shooting games, one of the “killer app” launch titles is a shooting game, social applications like cross-game “party” chat is finally available, and many big multi-player titles are going to appear on the PS4. In other words, die hard PlayStation fans and single-player gamers will find what they like, but the PS will finally appeal to multi-player fans. They’ve made their choice, by emphasizing gaming over multitasking, so I can’t wait to see how that decision Plays out for Sony!