Editor's note: this review is based on tests done by our UK site Stuff.tv. As such, certain products and services referenced in this review might not be available here.
FULL DISCLOSURE – this review is based on testing at Sony’s offices. At this stage a number of UK-specific features are currently unavailable, so a lot of what we’ve written is based on a connection to the US servers. We’ll update the review as more UK features become available. Got it? Great. On with the review!
If you believe the buzz, the PlayStation 4 has already won this console battle. At first that was down to Microsoft committing harakiri with unpopular pricing, strict DRM and a shifting of focus away from games for its Xbox One, all of which made the more traditional, affordable and open PS4 look very appealing, especially to the hardcore gamers out there.
And then, just as Microsoft appeared to have regained some credibility with a reversal of its less popular policies, Sony landed another blow in the pre-launch PR battle as reports emerged that cross-platform games (specifically big hitters Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts) looked better on PS4 than Xbox One.
We’re not going to beat around the bush: the PS4 is awesome. But is it so awesome as to decimate the Xbox One before it’s even released? As always, there’s more to it than that.
Design and build: living life on the wedge
Smaller and lighter than it seems in pictures, the PS4 is not a device that you’re going to have trouble finding a home for. In fact, it’s very close to the PS3 Super Slim in terms of width and height - the 30cm depth does increase its footprint, but only to PS3 Slim levels. It’s a pretty compact device, then, and that’s extra impressive when you realise that the power pack is built in, whereas the Xbox One has a big external unit.
Overall this is a subtle but unique design, with the etched PS4 logo and glossy section (which is actually the removable hard drive cover) adding a touch of class. Only the slot-loader lets the side down in this regard – there’s nothing exactly wrong with it, but it’s got a bit of clunky resistance that the super-smooth Wii U drive doesn’t.
Far more important as far as we’re concerned is the noise a console makes, and the PS4 is a very stealthy device. When idling we recorded 42dB from 14cm in front of the console – just 2dB over the ambient noise in the room. While installing a game disc this rose to 51dB, but once the disc is ripped it settles back down to around 43-44dB. In short, it’s significantly quieter than the most recent versions of the PS3 and Xbox 360, and completely unnoticeable unless the room is all-but silent. Impressive.
The controller: more different than it looks, and all the better for it
For many people (including this reviewer) the DualShock 3 was just too small and light to be very comfortable, and the lack of trigger-like shoulder buttons was an ergonomic issue when it came to shooters and racing games. Thankfully, while the DualShock 4 looks like only a minor departure from its predecessor, it’s a much better pad.
There’s a small increase in weight, slightly larger, rounder handles, and the L2 and R2 buttons have greater surface area and far greater travel. Each individual improvement is a subtle one, but together they’re enough to transform the DualShock into a far more satisfying controller and a worthy rival to the Xbox One pad.
Also in the “subtle changes” category is a shift from mini-USB to micro-USB for the top-mounted charge-and-sync socket. There are also two new sockets below the PS button on the underside of the controller. One is for connecting a wired headset (more on that below), the other – labelled “EXT” – has a purpose not yet revealed by Sony. We love a good mystery, but if it turns out to be for a QWERTY keyboard attachment we’re going to be right miffed.
The Start and Select buttons have now been retired and replaced with Share and Option buttons, the first of which enables easy uploading of the game footage that the PS4 is constantly, automatically capturing, while the latter largely behaves just as Start did during games but reveals more info and options when pressed while an icon on the GUI is highlighted.
Those two new buttons straddle the DualShock 4’s boldest new feature – a clickable, multi-touch-capable touchpad. Unfortunately we’re not completely sold on the usefulness of the touchpad – it does nothing at all when you’re in the PS4’s menus and only serves a purpose in games if developers specifically integrate it. So far that amounts to cute controls in The Playroom and control of the OWL robot in Killzone, which could be operated using the d-pad just as easily. Perhaps developers will come up with brilliant uses for the touchpad, but it’s not a totally convincing addition yet.
We’re similarly underwhelmed by the light bar on the top edge of the controller. We understand that it helps the optional PlayStation Camera to track you and it does look pretty, but the suggestion that it can communicate player status and the like by flashing and changing colour is rather undermined by the fact that you can’t really see the bar when holding the DualShock at a normal gaming angle.
We wouldn’t mind, but the touchpad and light bar are presumably the high-tech elements that most push the cost of a separately bought DualShock 4 up to the hefty sum of $87.90. We’re not convinced at this stage that that’s worth it.
On the other hand, every expense has been spared on the bundled mono headset. Essentially half of the cheapest-feeling pair of earphones you’ve ever seen, the bud actually does a decent enough job of pumping voice-chat into your lugholes and has a mic and switch at around chin height so that you can spout expletives at your enemies and use voice control for the PS4 UI.
One extra advantage of the headset socket is that it can be set to carry all audio, so any normal pair of headphones can be plugged into it for a spot of private gaming or Blu-ray watching - especially useful as PS3-compatible Bluetooth headsets currently don’t work with PS4.
Finally and unsurprisingly, motion control makes a return in the DualShock 4, and it’s far more accurate than before, as anyone who’s played Flower on the PS3 will notice when they download (for free) and try the PS4 version. It’s just far more responsive, accurate and smooth. The motion control is so much better you can now use it as a way to enter text in the PlayStation’s menus, and it’s much quicker than using the d-pad.
All in all, while we’re not yet convinced by every one of the DualShock 4’s new features, we are very convinced by the overall quality of the new controller. And let’s not forget, those new features are things that Microsoft hasn’t even attempted with the Xbox One’s pad.
Operating system: “PlayStation Dynamic Menu” doesn't do it justice
So you’ve ogled and plugged in the console and fondled the controller so much that it’s already covered in mucky fingerprints, now it’s time to get gaming. Actually, it’s not. At least it’s not if you want to use any of the PS4’s myriad online features or play Blu-rays and DVDs, because they require that you immediately update the firmware to 1.50. At just over 300MB it’s not going to take terribly long to download through most broadband connections. All told it should take around 6 minutes to get from starting the download, through the install and back to the (now more feature-packed) home screen.
Once done you can finally get to know the PlayStation 4 interface, known rather boringly as the PlayStation Dynamic Menu. This row of bold, square icons always contains What’s New, TV & Video, Live from PlayStation, Internet Browser, Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited and Library, with any games you’ve installed slotted in by the order of how recently you played them. This whole section is designed to feed you live information, though, so hover on What’s New and you’ll see news and updates from around the PlayStation Network (now to be known as PSN), and leaving the cursor on a game brings up a row of extra icons that include things such as new content that’s now available, the section that you last reached (so that you can hop straight back to that point), your friends’ recent activity in the game, community videos and the game manual. It’s all genuinely quick, slick and useful.
But don’t mourn the old XrossMediaBar, for it’s just an upwards-press away, and with so much content now having been moved to the PlayStation Dynamic Menu, this is now a clearer and cleaner selection of icons that takes in the likes of the PlayStation Store, Friends, Parties, Trophies and Settings. All are pretty self-explanatory although it’s well worth exploring the Settings menu to ensure all is setup the way you want – we’d definitely recommend enabling standby features so that the PS4 can download software updates and provide power via USB when it’s on standby.
Pop a game disc in and the bad news is that you have to install at least some of it before you can play it – in fact the process starts automagically as soon as you slot the disc in. The good news is that this doesn’t take as long as you might imagine. In fact, we were able to play Call of Duty: Ghosts just 55 seconds after slotting it into the drive. The game continues to install in the background, but the only way to tell is a touch of extra noise from the console – the game itself plays flawlessly.
Using the PS4 is a slick and fast experience all-round, really. Whether from standby or switched off entirely the console takes just 25-30 seconds to boot, and the only stutter we managed to get in our entire time with the system was a momentary pause when we pressed the PS button during a game of Knack and immediately tried to open Killzone. And we struggled to recreate that after the one instance.
There’s a pleasing openness to Sony’s approach, too. Sure, unlike with PS3 a $42.99 per-year PlayStation Plus subscription is now mandatory if you want to play online, but if one person in the house has subscribed, everyone else who uses that console also gets access. Ditto any games that have been purchased and downloaded.
On the other hand there are a couple of odd omissions. You can’t customise the wallpaper, for example, and the suspend and resume feature isn’t yet available. More annoyingly, the PS4 doesn’t have DLNA built-in and currently won’t play media files over your network or from USB. The backlash at that announcement seemed to take Sony by surprise, though, and the company says it’s “exploring possibilities” – fingers crossed that means we’ll get media streaming in a future update.
Gaming performance: the next-gen promise fulfilled
We demand more than great games from a modern games consoles, but gaming performance still comes first, and once you’ve overcome the disappointment that 4K games are still the exclusive domain of the high-end PC the PS4 is hard to fault in the performance stakes.
The fact that key cross-platform titles such as Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 boast higher resolution graphics on PS4 than Xbox One is a huge boost to Sony’s console, and vindication of its decision to plump for 8GB of expensive and powerful GDDR5 RAM. Developers may well learn how to get more from the Xbox One in the future (it’s not even out yet, for heaven’s sake), and indeed first-party games such as Forza 4 already hit the 1080p/60fps next-gen target figures, but the fact remains that if you want to play the big third-party games at their best, the PS4 is the console to go for on day one.
Slick, powerful and packed with stand-out features, the PS4 delivers on the next-gen console promise