In Part 1 of the review, I focused on the hardware and controller of the PS4. Here I’m going to dive into the operating system and online features.
PS4 features a completely new interface that retires the venerable XrossMediaBar of the PS3. Thankfully it did not adopt the odd, wobbley, but admittedly more functional interface of the PS Vita. Instead, Sony developed a bold, tiered design reminiscent of modern tablet UIs. You begin on a horizontal row of large icons representing your games, applications and functional groups (such as “Video”). Push up and you enter the “system” tier which houses notifications, messages, friend information, system settings, trophies and the PlayStation Store. Push down from a game or application and you’ll enter a detail area containing recent activity, updates or news about the application and available add-ons or related content.
There are some conspicuous absences however. Sony seems to have decided to eliminate features to push it’s service offerings. The PS4, unlike the PS3 offers no DLNA capability for networked pictures, music or video. Indeed, it lacks even local MP3 or CD playback. Where the PS3 could legitimately be your core media hub the PS4 requires you to supplement with other devices.
The most obvious – and unforgivable – flaw with the system is that there’s no user control or management available. The order of your icons is based on usage and can’t be changed. The few available folders are pre-defined and cannot be modified. Icons for applications that you don’t want or need, such as video services you don’t subscribe to, can’t be removed (although they will sink to the bottom of the list). While this is a minor problem now due to the lack of available software, the system will quickly become unwieldy. Where the PS3 had a terrible, hard-to-manage system for sorting and categorizing content at least it had a system. This is a huge step backwards.
Other than that insane brain fart, the interface works very well. It’s undeniably gorgeous and, especially compared to the aging PS3, incredibly responsive. It’s crisp clear and built for large, HD displays.
Social Media, Friends and PS PLus
Every aspect of the system is built to promote interaction with others. The main area on the home page, “What’s New”, provides tiled, multi-column view of recent updates from yourself, your friends and your games in a scan-able, “Tumblr-style” jumble. You can also easily see updates specific to a game, as well as news and web links, in the “Live Tile” area for the title. Friend screens are also vastly improved over the PS3 and include everything you’d expect: recent activities, trophies, chat, messaging, invitations, etc. Of course the friends list extends seamlessly across the PS Vita, PS3 and PS4.
Online Play and Playstation Plus
On the the PS4, online play requires a paid PS Plus subscription (normally $50 per year, but often on sale for $40). While this is an additional requirement over the free-play of the PS3, it’s tempered by several things:
- When you add a PSN account to a PS4 account you can choose to activate that unit as your “Primary PS4”. Once this is done, all accounts on that machine will share many of the benefits of PS Plus: online play, any downloaded games, etc. In short this means that most families will need only one PS Plus account to enjoy the majority of the benefits.
- PS Plus is undeniably a tremendous value. In one year you’ll net dozens of free games and deep discounts on everything else. The titles made available are generally high-demand, triple-A titles across a huge range of genres.
- One subscription works across the PS3, PS Vita and PS4. In general, you’ll see at least two free games a month for each platform.
While the loss of free online play on the PS4 is a blow, it’s a soft one. Anybody that can’t get $50 of value out of PS Plus simply isn’t trying.
Your own profile page is similar, but also gives you access to edit preferences and reviewed your captured media. Interestingly you can optionally link your PSN account directly to your Facebook or Twitter accounts. Via an echoed request you can then choose to allow select friends to see your Facebook/Twitter profile picture and real name instead of your PSN ID and avatar. It’s a minor enhancement, but it adds significantly to the experience. Although Sony was unable to make it happen on the PS3, the PS4 features the often-requested multi–person, cross-game voice chat via the “Parties” function.
The PS4 takes sharing very seriously, so much so that there’s now a dedicated button for the feature on the new controller. Pressing the Share button allows you to post any captured screens or video to your Facebook or Twitter accounts. Surprisingly, at this time, YouTube is not directly supported. This is less important as of firmware 1.70, which allows you to transfer captured items to USB storage and upload them manually. You can also broadcast your gameplay live on Twitch or UStream.
The PS4, like a DVR, automatically records a running 15 minute buffer of video (developers can suppress this if they choose). You can also double-press the Share button to specifically start a video clip at that point. Press and hold the Share button for a moment (or say “Playstation, Take Screenshot” if you have the PS camera) to take a screen capture. Video can be trimmed before being posted or, for more control, the new Share Factory application can be used to add titles, transitions and stitch multiple clips together.
When broadcasting your gameplay you can also broadcast audio from a headset or audio and video from the PlayStation camera. You can also enable comments to communicate directly with your viewers. You can, of course, watch other broadcasts as well; either directly on the PS4 using the “Live from PlayStation” application or via your favorite UStream or Twitch clients. Streaming, at least on my Comcast cable connection, is remarkably clear and solid.
The options may seem daunting but are extremely simple in use. The ability to instantly share something with your friends takes some getting used to, but it’s hard to underestimate how much it fundamentally changes the landscape. Did you finally make it past that boss, spot a cool Easter egg or score a particularly sensational headshot? Share it, instantly, and save it forever.
The PS4 is a remarkable piece of equipment and epitomizes the quality and style that we’ve come to expect from Sony. After six months of use it’s been absolutely rock solid, but Sony hardware has always been absolutely rock solid. The interface is easy and clear and while it’s missing some obvious features, it’s also one of the most complete and stable interfaces I’ve ever seen Sony deliver. The days of “ship the hardware, fix the software later” seem to have passed.