60 Days with PlayStation 4

The PlayStation 4, from Sony

The PlayStation 4, from Sony

A couple of months ago, I had a birthday and turned 46. Some men my age will celebrate this milestone by treating themselves to a new sports car, boat, or plastic surgery. I was pretty proud of myself, splurging only on a new PlayStation 4. All-in-all, I think the PS4 is a beast of a gaming console. But, the lack of true next-gen titles, UI frustrations, and some foolish crippling hold it back from being great. The game catalog is a problem that will be solved with time.  Hopefully most of these system issues will be solved with future firmware updates.

PlayStation 4:
The system itself is quite well made, although, personally, I’m about done with piano black. A little shorter than a slim PS3, while being just as wide, it’s pretty amazing how much Sony has stuffed into the box. With an AMD 8-core CPU, Raedon GPU, 8GB of RAM and Blu-ray player, PS4 has plenty of power. But, beware of big power in small packages… when running at load, the PS4 fans will kick in and they are pretty loud. Not original X-Box 360 loud, but loud none-the-less. Sony also continues the PS3 tradition of weird power and eject buttons. Four USB ports would have been nice as well, it just looks like 2 has become the standard for consoles. These minor squabbles aside, the Playstation 4 really is a good looking system.

As for the rest of the hardware… it’s got Wireless-N.  On a $400 system that expects multi-gigabyte downloads, Wireless-AC would have been a nice gesture.  In fact, can I trade in the goofy built-in LED light-bar PS4 has for Wireless-AC?  Accessing the Hard Drive is not quite as easy as on the PS3, but it is still user-upgradeable.  That’s good because, on the standard 500GB drive, with Sony’s OS taking over 100GB, the HD will fill up pretty quickly with 15-50GB game installs.  So, I dropped a 1TB Seagate hybrid 2.5in drive in.  I’ve had good experience with these SSD/HDD hybrid units before, and it seems to help the PS4 boot slightly faster, but not quite the speed boosts I’ve seen them make on computers.

Free PlayStation Network gaming is a thing of the past with PS4. The pain of paying $50 for a years subscription to play online games is somewhat mitigated by Sony offering a game or two every month, for subscribers to download for free. These games are usually older titles, indie games, or something from one of Sony’s game studios. The selections are pretty well curated, and the freebie games are of surprisingly good quality.  A nice feature, at least for people with both PS3 and PS4, is that one PSN subscription works for both systems.

The PS4 hardware. About the size of a PS3, but no curves or rounded edges.

The PS4 hardware. About the size of a PS3, but no curves or rounded edges.

UI & Dashboard:
The old MediaXBar interface from PS3 is gone, replaced by the new “PlayStation Dynamic Menu“. Sadly, it’s a huge step backwards, but it sure is flashy. The top-most portion of the menu, where you get to PlayStation Store, you Friends list, System Settings, etc, is actually pretty okay. But, after that, it’s either a mess, or generally worthless. In a world where digital downloading of games is becoming the more prevalent, Sony has gone with a terrible menu system. Rather than having a “Games” menu, which users could sort alphabetically, most recently played, or whatever, Sony chose one long left-to-right row for all of your games. If you want to play something on a disc, this is no problem. When you put the disc in, that game becomes the first icon in the row. If you want to play something that you’ve downloaded, and a few weeks ago, you have to scroll. And scroll. And scroll. Weirdly, Sony has a solution to this problem – a “Library” icon showing all of your downloaded titles – but they keep it as the very last icon in the row.  It’s not a deal-breaker issue, especially since the PS4 game catalog is limited right now.  In the future, when you have 20-30 game sprawled out across this menu, it’s going to be a pain.

It’s not just games that are thrown into this menu-row, but apps for video and music as well. Sony also is allowing companies to buy placement within the UI. For example, for video apps, I downloaded Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. When I go to my Video Apps menu, however, Redbox is also shown, with a reminder to download it. It’s sad to see some of the ‘crapware‘ practices reach into the UI of your gaming console.  The rest of the interface is a mishmash of ’tiles’ showing what games you and your friends have been playing, and what trophies everyone has earned.  This means big chunks of the UI are network-dependent, and can suffer from some lag.

Basically, the whole thing needs to be rethought and rebuilt, but that same ‘one long left-right menu’ paradigm carries over into the PlayStation Store.  You have a left menu to select between some not-entirely-intuitive options.  Where’s a “Genres” menu, Sony?  And, once you select one of these items, Sony hits you with the one-long-row menu again, this time forcing you through 3-6 up-sell opportunities for titles before you can choose to see a list of all the titles.  It’s sad.  Marketing built this, not a Human Interface Designer, and it glaringly shows.  The capabilities of the system, the quality of the build and design, are very gamer-focused/gamer-friendly, but the UI is all about putting selling opportunities as a barrier to the content gamers want or seek.

The DualShock 4 controller is very, very comfortable.

The DualShock 4 controller is very, very comfortable.

DualShock 4:
The new DualShock controller is, without a doubt, one of the finest game controllers I’ve ever used.  It has enough heft to have a quality-feel, but light enough for long gaming sessions.  Battery life is fairly good, 5-6 hours.  The buttons feel solid, not mushy or weak, it’s a solid piece of equipment.  Interestingly, it contains a speaker that games can tap into.  For example, in InFamous: Second Son, if someone calls your characters mobile phone, it will ring in the speaker of the controller.  Used in the right way, like this, the speaker can add a little ‘something’ to the game, making the gamer feel more personally connected to the action.  The new ‘touch pad’ on the other hand…

Like the Ouya controller, DualShock 4 tries to pull off a touch-pad, similar to a track/mousepad on a laptop.  When using the PS4’s built-in web browser, the track-pad can be more effective for navigation.  Outside of that, the touch-pad serves no practical purpose, but some games try to jam it in.  In InFamous: Second Son, to recharge your super-power, you have to hold down the touch-pad.  In certain parts of the game, you may need to swipe, or swipe and hold.  Really, these instances are limited to cut-screens, and any button on the controller could perform the action.  But, it’s there.  The problem with the touch-pads, for both PS4 and Ouya, is that they are placed in awkward positions on the controller.  And, there’s really no where else for them to go.  Maybe someone will find a useful application, outside of mouse-simulator, but until then, the touch-pad is mostly useless.

Otherwise, not too much has changed since DualShock 3, just refined into a great gaming controller.  The “Start” button has been banished as extraneous, which it was.  The old “Select” button has been rebranded as “Options”, and moved to a handy position near the right-side buttons.  Sony has added a “Share” button, to easily post screenshots, etc, on social networks.  It’s not something I’m likely to use much, if at all, but I’m sure some folks love it.

Bluetooth Headsets = Fail:
Right up front – they don’t work with PS4.  Yet.  We think.  Yes, the PS4 has bluetooth, and, yes, it’s fully capable of working with bluetooth headsets.  It just doesn’t.  It’s stupid.  It could be that Sony is hard-at-work on more important components right now.  With online gaming as a focus for the PS4, bluetooth headset support would seem to be a logical priority.  At least, I’d hope so.  As of now, the only solutions are to use the trashy one-earbud set packed in with the PS4, a cheap-but-only-semi-less-trashy one-ear over-head set, or a so-so-but-$100 USB wireless set from Sony.  Given Sony’s shameless marketing within the UI, the cynic in me suspects that they are withholding bluetooth support for reasons that are not technical.  It sucks, but, given the micro-transaction/soak-the-user trend in gaming, not entirely unexpected.

Media Support:
So, do you like Sony Pictures movies and TV shows?  How about Sony Music recording artists?  If so, you’re in luck.  The PlayStation Store has access to all that stuff, plus other content through partners.  Prices are terrible, however.  Frequently, for the price of a few rentals, you could subscribe to Netflix for a month.  There is no DNLA support, or MP3 support.  And, I’m not sure I’d bet on either of those coming.  There are several subscription-based streaming service Apps you can use, for video and music, but zero options for your own local content.

It seems that Sony’s “total living room media/gaming solution” strategy from PS3 days is over.  Frankly, this is probably right.  An Apple TV, Roku, or Fire TV streamer is generally less cumbersome to navigate, and uses way, way, way, less power.  To the point where a $100 media streamer might pay-for-itself in only a few months, say, for cable-cutters who stream several hours daily.  My guess is:  look for Sony to work with streaming partners that will give them a cut, rather than make it easy for users to access local media.  They own a movie company and a music company, and may be likely to feel that a high percentage of local media is pirated.

Games:
At this point, the PS4 catalog is pretty thin.  I’ll have some individual reviews for a few games coming, but, the pickings are fairly bare.  However, the good news is that most of the genre-bases are covered.  If you’re a sports gamer, there’s at least one good game for most kinds of sports.  If you like 3rd-person action, that’s covered, and so-on.  As time goes on, there will be a greater variety of games, but, right now, we’re not there.  By any stretch of the imagination.

There are no true next-gen exclusive titles, for either Xbox One or PS4.  As such, PS4 games look marginally better than their PS3 counterparts.  As far as PS4 is concerned, there’s a couple of near-next-get titles available:  NBA2K13 and inFamous: Second Son.  The facial and in-game character models in NBA2K13 are the best on any console, but the character models in other parts of the game are very PS2’ish.  For inFamous, the models are great, but not better than top previous-gen games.  What set it apart is the scale and detail of the world, and lack-of-lag in the most system-taxing parts of the game.

Would I Buy It Again?
Yes.  But you need to realize that you are buying a gaming console, and maybe a totally inefficient media streamer.  You also need to understand that the game catalog is small right now, and if you burn through 6+ hours of gaming a day, you’ll eat through it all quickly.  There are some bad UI elements, and an idiotic bluetooth headset policy.  Even with these irritations, the PS4 is still a rock-solid game console.  While the graphics are not yet “WOW!” better, they are 1080P and fluid.  The controller is simply outstanding and, with enough really fun games out now, and coming soon, the PS4 is a worthwhile purchase.

Mike Knotts

Mike Knotts was born in 1968 in a small town in southern Indiana. Even when very young, Mike showed a love for all-things technical and sci-fi. Moving with his family to California in the early 80's, he eventually graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in History. Rather than put that to good use, Mike continued to pursue his passion for technology by working for early, regional ISP's in the mid 1990's. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he works as a project manager for an Internet startup. Mike is a co-founder of Geekometry.

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