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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hardware Review: The PlayStation 4

Review by Nick H.

The PlayStation 4 is a very serious-looking piece of hardware with a great deal of potential. At launch, however, it does feels somewhat unrealised. For a system that claims it is all about the games, the release would have felt a little bit stronger if it had a more robust library of actual titles. But that aside, let's talk about the console itself.

The Console

Compared to the round, often bulky appearance of the PlayStation 3, the latest iteration of Sony's long-running series has a sleek, angular look with the half-matte and half-gloss finish. The glossy side is actually my least favourite as it is incredibly prone to picking up fingerprints and particles of dust. It looks slick, but it went straight from box to shelf with minimal handling, and I could still see a handful of blemishes that required immediate wiping down.

The back of the unit appears to be very well vented, and it was nice to see that the power again is more like a simple cord and not the Xbox 360's brick power supply. After having the system run for about five straight hours it was kicking out some warm air, but surprisingly the heat didn't feel too excessive. For those of us during the last generation who suffered through multiple replacements of consoles due to hardware failure (often heat related), it was nice to feel as though the system was not getting dangerously hot. Additionally, the system is very quiet. My PlayStation 3 often sounds as though it is brewing a cup of coffee with the somewhat loud 'gurgling' sounds it makes. No such extra noise is being generated here. From my seat eight feet away, I could not hear it over the audio coming from the television.

The Controller

When the PlayStation 4 was first announced, there were a lot of people clamouring for a look at the console. I appreciate that it looks nice on the shelf across the room from me, but I was much more interested in the controller since that is what my hands are on throughout the experience. I have happily played every PlayStation to date, including the portables. Nothing Sony has made felt as good in my hands as the PlayStation 4 controller.

The profile is slightly larger, and the underside has a subtle but nice bit of texture for improved grip over the smooth (and sometimes sharply seamed PlayStation 3 controllers). I sat in one spot, moving my hands from one controller to another as I compared them. The PlayStation 4 was just a little bit heavier, but certainly not as much so as the Xbox 360 wireless controller with its batteries installed. The rumble and motion controls worked just fine on the DualShock 4 controller, but I was more interested in how the buttons felt. I am happy to say that the concave analogue sticks are a major improvement over those of the PlayStation 3. Here my thumbs rested comfortably in the centre and the sticks themselves had just a bit more tension to them.

I never really had any issue with the PlayStation 3 trigger/ bumper buttons, but the PlayStation 4's are very much superior. They feel a bit shorter in range to activate, and a bit cleaner to press down on. The face buttons are good and springy while being laid out in familiar PlayStation fashion. I admit that the touch panel originally struck me as somewhat unnecessarily gimmicky when it was first announced, but it feels fairly responsive (working well in Killzone) and also serves as an additional button you can press (serving as the Select button substitute for calling time outs in Madden). In the end I suspect the developers will have to justify its place on the controller by finding good uses for it, but the potential is certainly there.

Speaking of buttons, gone are the traditional Start and Select buttons that have graced most controllers since the NES days of old. On the right is an Options button, which is essentially a renamed start. It basically pauses the game you are playing and brings up related menu items. The Share button on the left replaces where most of us think of the Select button, but serves a very different purpose here as it allows you to pump out your most recent gaming footage or screenshots. This feature is very cool, but it still feels a bit restrictive. A lot has been made of the lack of YouTube or computer-usable video format. I am not a heavy Twitch user yet and I do not update my Facebook with a lot of my gaming content. I would however, like to be able to easily grab my videos and perhaps edit them on my computer and then upload them to YouTube for embedding on a site or sharing with friends. We are not there yet, but I have to imagine Sony is aware of this particular desire and I hope we see it added in the future.

My biggest complaint about the above two buttons is their position and height. They are a bit toward the top and fairly flush to the controller's surface. You will not hit them accidentally, but I did struggle just a bit when I was intentionally trying to press them. It got easier with use, as you would expect, but they are probably the two least 'natural' buttons to depress.

One other concern is the battery life. I like not having to rely on AA batteries, but it seems as though this controller runs down much quicker than the DualShock 3. Maybe it is the touch pad, perhaps it is the rumbling mechanisms in the device or the bright light bar, or there could be some altogether different reason for it, but I have had to put it on the charger a couple of times on day one.

The Installation

Pulling the PlayStation 4 out of the box, it is a very easy console to set up. It is quite compact and only has a pair of cables coming out of it. One is the HDMI (it is digital or bust here) with the option of using an optical out for your audio (my television runs an optical out to my sound system, so I chose to simply use the HDMI connection). The only other cable is the aforementioned power cable, which is nice and tidy without the power brick.

Once I turned it on, I was guided through a handful of menus to help get the party started. Basic questions like spoken language, time zone and more were quick to navigate through before I was prompted to run the system update. I had some concerns that this would prove to be a slow process because of all the new day one traffic, but the update and installation all went very smoothly.

The hiccups did not occur until I attempted to merge my account with my PS3 and Vita profiles. The process itself, when it actually went through, was incredibly quick and simple. Unfortunately the day one traffic was expectedly high. Anyone who struggled with early Diablo III or SimCity 4 knows what these growing pains are like. Still, with some persistence, I was able to get my accounts synced up after about twenty five minutes. From there I was able to see my friends, my trophy list and messages and as a PlayStation 3 and Vita veteran, it all felt very familiar.

The Operating System

I have always liked the PlayStation crossbar menu. I thought it was logically organised and I was able to find things on it very quickly and easily. This feels like a natural evolution of that, with a focus on scrolling across menu items horizontally. It does occasionally seem cluttered, and if there is an easy way to organise items into folders of some sort, I have not found it yet. Like the PlayStation Vita, every game you play has some sort of mandatory installation taking place. I have no problem with this on principle, as it should allow for faster content access and maybe even will cut down on some wear and tear from moving parts - only time will tell there.

That being said, I do have concerns about the hard drive size. I was able to fill up my hard drive on the PlayStation 3 pretty quickly in the past, and the install sizes of games now is pretty significant. With only a 500 gigabyte hard drive, I had managed to use up close to one fifth of it in the first day thanks to large mandatory installs. I would gladly have paid a bit more for one or two terabyte options.

With all of the traffic on the servers right now, I had a very hard time putting online functionality through its paces on day one. Connectivity issues continue to pop up, forcing me to play most of my titles largely offline to start. I was unable to access the PlayStation Store at all this afternoon. All attempts over a span of three hours were met with an error code stating that the servers were undergoing maintenance.

It also feels like there is a heap of information being put out there, with notifications on almost everything anyone is doing and a friends list that allows you to add a great many more people to it - but no way to organise it. It might have been handy for me to be able to break friends up into groups, but for the moment the friends list feels messy. It would also be very nice if I could mass delete things like notifications. As soon as my account synced up, I was greeted with 81 notifications, and if I want to delete them, I have to do it one at a time.

The Verdict

The system power is there. Killzone and Battlefield flex some early muscle for the PlayStation 4. The first level of Battlefield showed off rippling, reflective waters, excellent character and facial animations with gorgeous lighting and particle effects. Visual improvement is really the low hanging fruit for development teams, however. They are easy to show off, but what will define the next generation will be improved social aspects, faster or non-existent loading times and worlds of content the last generation was incapable of supporting. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 opened up all new opportunities in online console gaming, so now the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One need to find new ways to creatively expand on this foundation.

The PlayStation 4 is an excellent piece of hardware, but it feels heavily untapped potential at this point. It is clear that the future for the PlayStation 4 is very bright, with a number of exciting titles on the horizon. I have certainly enjoyed my time with it so far and came away largely impressed, but a lack of compelling titles and some organisational concerns with the operating system prevent the console from being the truly breathtaking experience we might have hoped for after such a long wait.

- Nick H
 US Editor
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Hardware Review: The PlayStation 4
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