The Playstation 4 is, of course, a Playstation 3 plus a Playstation One. Or two PlayStation 2’s. You get the idea. It’s the new one. I got the system on day one, despite the fact that I had no interest in any of the launch games. So instead of reviewing a system I wasn’t really using I decided to wait for a few months, get a couple software updates under my belt and maybe wait for a game.
I’ve already given some initial impressions, and a small gallery of photos, in my day-one article, “PS4 First Impressions“. In the first part of this review, I’ll focus on the hardware. Part 2 will focus on the system interface and software.
Visually, the unit is striking without being overbearing and fits well with other components. Where the PS3 featured trademark curves, the PS4 is angular and flat in dual tones of matte black. Unlike the glossy PS3 launch unit, it resists dust and fingerprints well. It shares the same footprint as the PS3 and the two stack very nicely. This is good since the PS4 lacks all backwards compatibility. You’ll likely be keeping your PS3 for the forseeable future.
The console is bisected with deep, functional grooves across its slanted face and top. The top one hides an animated light bar that indicates system status. As the groove crosses the front it camouflages the “power” and “eject” buttons (it does this very well; I had difficulty finding them). The horizontal groove across the front hides the slot loading Blu-Ray drive and twin USB ports.
The rear of the unit has the expected complement of ports: power, HDMI, Ethernet, optical audio and a custom auxiliary jack for the PlayStation camera. This is an HD console from the ground up: HDMI is your only option for video. It’s worth noting that there’s not a power brick in sight. For that, I thank – as I shove aside the ridiculously enormous bricks accompanying the XBox 360 and WiiU – Sony heartily. The 500 GB 2.5″ hard drive is hidden away, but like the PS3 and unlike the Xbox or Xbox One, is designed to be user-upgradable.
As it should be, the new DualShock 4 controller is an evolution, not a complete redesign, of the PS3’s already excellent DualShock 3. While controller preference is a contentious topic, I’ve always preferred the DualShock’s lighter, more balanced design to the competition. That said, Sony has clearly listened to complaints and has produced an amazing interface for their new machine.
Triggers or Pedals or Something Else?
One of the Internet’s many hobbies is coming to absolutely no firm decision on what makes a good console trigger button. Arguments tend to ignore the fact that these buttons are not dedicated to an particular style of gaming. I’ll completely over-simplify the issue to “shooters versus racers”.
The “triggers” on the DualShock 3, L2 and R2, are designed more as pedals: they feature smooth resistance and smooth return for precise analog controller across a significant range of input. They work wonderfully in racing games. On the PS3, this makes the bumpers, L1 and R1, the natural “trigger” for shooters as they provide a much cleaner binary experience. On the Xbox 360, the same controls are modeled much more closely to actual firearm triggers. Convex, snappy, almost digital controls for fast, repetitive use rather than slow, smooth adjustments. They are all about the pew-pew.
Neither one of these designs is correct and no design can be correct because there are multiple, conflicting metaphors that any design must address. Every solution is a compromise to a happy medium and usually leans in one direction or another. The DualShock 4 lands squarely in the middle. It vastly improves the pew-pew experience over the DualShock 3 while retaining much, but not all, of its control. I fully expect FPS gamers to be thrilled and racing gamers to be annoyed.
The general layout of the controller is the same as its many ancestors: paired dual-analog sticks, a four button directional pad on the left and the same four button, trademarked-symbol layout on the right. The most obvious difference is the extended grips of the new controller that allow the pinky fingers of ham-fisted people like myself to rest a bit more comfortably. The analog sticks were redesigned with new rubberized, concave grips and have a firmer, more “grounded” feel. Addressing perhaps the most vocal complaint, the new controller also features completely redesigned triggers (see sidebar for more). They are now curved outward to grip the finger better and are significantly snappier.
There are several new features on the controller as well. The biggest addition is a multi-point touch pad situated above the analog sticks. The pad is small but works well and can also be pressed as a large, additional button. The front of the controller features a multi-color light bar that allows the (not-included) PlayStation Camera to track the controller. Taking a cue from the competition the controller also features a small, but effective, speaker and a standard headphone/microphone jack. A mysterious, proprietary serial port is also available for future expansion in addition to a standard micro-USB port for charging. Graciously, the PS4 allows the controller to be charged while the unit is in standby mode where the PS3 did not.
Finally the traditional “Start” and “Select” buttons have been retired. Flanking the touchpad are two new buttons. “Options” does exactly what you would expect and generally matches the “Select” button in practice. “Share”, however, is an entirely new beast and one I’ll discuss more fully in the second part of the review.
Taken in all, the controller is a powerhouse. 18 buttons, two analog sticks, a touch pad, a mic jack and multiple motion tracking systems for input; a speaker and a headphone jack for output and a dedicated peripheral port for… whatever. The light bar acts both as input to the camera and can, in theory, be used as output to the player (although it’s difficult to see when playing). The controller is solid, light and feels incredible. All of the new features have been incorporated into the classic PlayStation design making the controller, if not the console, perfectly suited for backwards compatibility.
Odds and Ends
Everything you need to set up your system is in the box including an HDMI cable. The included USB cable is a nice, “not too long, not too short” 22 inches although, of course, any off-the-shelf cable will also work. A cheap, but functional wired mono-headset/microphone is also included. Supposedly due to differences in Bluetooth version, the PS4 lacks the ability to connect with generic BlueTooth headsets as the PS3 did. Hopefully, this will be addressed with a later update.
When not in use the system can be turned off completely or left in a power-sipping “standby mode” that allows it to download and apply patches, updates and other material while not in use. Standby mode is also a requirement of access the PS4 remotely via the PlayStation App or a PS Vita system. Boot time for the system, from standby, is about 10-12 seconds.
In operation the system is quiet, but not silent. The loudest component, by far, is the Blu-Ray drive which emits a noticeable whine when spinning up. This is forgivable as the drive is also significantly faster than the PS3’s sluggish offering. The system does throw significant heat but does not, itself, grow overly warm.
In Part 2 of our review I’ll look at the system software and online functionality of the console.