Eight months is a lifetime in tech. A phone that's been available for eight months has already been demoted to irrelevance by the next dream device on the horizon.
But with consoles it's different. Consoles have to live for years, and consoles evolve as they get older thanks to more games, more apps and more features.
It's no different with the PlayStation 4, of course. There have been no fewer than ten firmware updates added since launch, plus new games and apps, but is the PS4 really that different - and better - than the console we first met back in November 2013? And is it still ahead of the Xbox One in perhaps the most vicious console war ever known? Continue reading this freshly updated review to find out.
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 at most times completely unnoticeable unless the room is all-but silent. Impressive.
Eight months on we're still to hear of any major technical issues with the PS4. There's always time for a Red Ring Of Death-type problem to reveal itself, but so far the slim, tightly packed chassis doesn't appear to impact reliability.
It still looks like a classy bit of kit, too, even if the smart details such as the thin strip that runs around the edges are tireless dust-collectors.
And if black is just a little too subdued for your tastes, you can now pre-order a really pretty white version of the console, which comes bundled with Destiny.
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. Or at least it will be once you've done any and all firmware updates that will probably be available for your freshly unboxed console.
Once done you can finally get to know the PlayStation 4 interface, known rather undynamically 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 in the order you most recently installed or 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), while 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 set up 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.
One omission that still hasn't been rectified is that you're not alerted when your Friends come online. For some people with hundreds of friends (they don't count as real friends - you do know that, don't you?), that may be a blessing, but having the option to turn those notifications on and off surely wouldn't be that tricky. Perhaps a way to group friends into groups, so that you can be notified from some and not others, would be a neat touch.
When it comes to actual gaming, pop a 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.
Not quick enough for you? Games can now be pre-ordered from the PS Store and downloaded before launch, ready for play as soon as the clock ticks over to the official release date. It's a brilliant feature that would be far more attractive if buying digital versions of games from the Store wasn't so much more expensive than buying the discs from your friendly online shop. Buying non-physical copies direct from the source shouldn't command a premium in 2014, but it does.
Using the PS4 is a slick and fast experience all-round, though. Whether from standby or switched off entirely the console takes just 25-30 seconds to boot, and lag or stutter when navigating menus and multitasking is a rare, rare thing.
There’s a pleasing openness to Sony’s approach, too. Sure, unlike with PS3 an expensive annual 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, movies or DLC 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 still isn't available. More annoyingly, the PS4 doesn’t have DLNA built-in and still won’t play media files over your network or from USB. The company has been "exploring possibilities" since launch with regards to adding the features, but eight months on there's still no confirmation. Fingers crossed they're part of the plan for the recently announced 2.0 firmware, due soon.
The games of right now
The roster of 25 games at launch has risen to a very healthy 96 at the last count - a number that's made all the more impressive when compared to the Xbox One's 59.
There's plenty in there that's not really worth your time, of course, and loads of big hitters that are available on both consoles - Call Of Duty: Ghosts, Battlefield 4, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, FIFA 14, Watch Dogs, Need For Speed Rivals and Wolfenstein: The New Order to name but a few.
Then there are a few big exclusives: InFamous: Second Son, Killzone: Shadow Fall and its excellent standalone expansion Intercept, and The Last Of Us Remastered. That last one might be a remake of a PS3 game, but it's a remake that every Xbox One owner wishes they could play.
PS4 is also marginally winning the indie game war, with crackers such as Fez, SteamWorld Dig, Flower, The Swapper, Transistor and Resogun all unavailable on the Xbox One.
There are obviously Xbox One games that PS4 users can't play, with Titanfall and Forza Motorsport 5 being particularly lust-worthy, but you can't help but feel that eight months in you're more likely to find a gaming experience that's up your street on the PS4 at the moment.
Online gaming: living the digital distribution dream?
These days a console lives or dies on its online offering, and the PS4 is a very well connected console.
As well as all of the indie games previously mentioned (and a great deal more that weren't) every disc release is also available as a digital download, and many can now be pre-ordered and pre-downloaded so that you're ready to play the moment the official launch day begins - no more midnight excursions to the shops for those massive releases that you just can't wait for.
The problem is that, as mentioned earlier, digital downloads of games cost more from the UK PlayStation Store than the same games on disc do from the likes of Amazon. The gap is often a lot, and to our mind the extra convenience isn't really worth that. This needs to be sorted, but in Sony's defence, it's also a problem for Xbox.
There are good points, too. PS Plus is now mandatory if you want to play games online, but it also includes free games as it did on PS3. Admittedly your subscription only entitles you to one free PS4 game per month (plus two PS3 games and two Vita games), and so far the games that have been offered haven't really been top-tier releases, but we fully expect that to change once Sony has a bigger back catalogue to draw from.
And then there's PS Now, which reintroduces backwards compatibility through streaming of PS3 (and Vita) games on a rental basis. At the moment it's still in beta, and only officially available in the US, but we've already done some testing with it and even though we were streaming to London from servers in the States the performance was very impressive. This will be a very exciting feature when the beta launches in early 2015.
There are other big online features on the way, too, such as Share Play. Described by Sony as a "virtual couch", it allows you to take it in turns playing a single-player game with a friend, even if that friend is halfway across the world and doesn't even own the game. Local co-op will be playable this way, too - perhaps it's time we came up with another name for that.
When it comes to traditional online gaming with friends, Sony now has a service to rival Xbox Live, which is just as well seeing as you now have to pay for it. It's very robust, chat is clear, and setting up parties is pretty quick and easy. The fact that you're not alerted when friends come online seems a weird gap, and hopefully one that Sony isn't going to take too much longer to fill.
And if showing off is your kind of thing, there are plenty of ways to share your gaming exploits, thanks to the dedicated Share button. Simply pressing the button opens a menu in which you can choose to either save your screenshot or the last 15 minutes of gameplay, which the PS4 has automatically been recording in the background. If it's not an opportune moment to be taken out of the game - fear of a fragging, for example - holding the button for a couple of seconds saves a screenshot for you to share later, while a double-tap starts recording a specific section of video.
You can upload screens and videos straight to Facebook or Twitter, or can now transfer to USB. One word of warning, though - for some reason the PS4 compresses screenshots as you upload or transfer them. The only way to get full, 1080p shots is to send them in a message to a friend across PSN, then open the Messages area of the PlayStation comapnion app and save the picture to your phone. Fiddly.
The camera: turn your lounge into The Playroom
It now looks as though Sony's decision not to bundle the PS4 with a camera was a very wise one, but there has always been one available – the ingeniously named PlayStation Camera. The wee unit, which looks as though it’s been constructed out of cubes, costs a big chunk and has two lenses on the front so it can gauge depth.
Once connected the camera can scan your features to enable facial recognition for automatic login, which is very quick and consistent. You can also use it for voice control. It’s far more limited than Kinect’s functionality, but the voice recogition is reliable and allows quick navigation between games, as well as hands-free screenshots.
However the best way to show off the PlayStation Camera is to open The Playroom, which is pre-installed on all PS4s. Once it’s talked you through correctly setting up your camera (I’m afraid you’re going to have to move that coffee table) The Playroom gives you access to three activities. AR Hockey is the only real game, as it pitches two players against each other in a game of - you guessed it - Air Hockey that involves using the DualShock 4’s motion control to bend and twist the table to your advantage. The other two involve messing around with a floating robot called Asobi and a bunch of delightful little people called AR Bots. The most fun is to be had with the latter, who inhabit your controller until you flick them into your lounge using the touchpad. You can then kick them, make them dance, or throw them objects that you create using a connected tablet. The thrill is relatively short-lived, but as a way to show off the capabilities of your new console The Playroom is absolutely superb.
Really though, eight months on from launch we'd have expected to have seen more software that takes advantage of the PlayStation Camera. As it is, other than login we've not really used it, making that extra cash payment look like a real waste. The advice now is to save your money - you can always add the camera if a killer app or game for it comes along in the future.
Remote play: PS4 + Vita is a match made in gaming heaven
Talking of killer, it's time to dig out that old Vita you’ve left gathering dust. Connect Sony’s handheld to your PS4 and you’ve suddenly got the ability to play next-gen games anywhere. The closer to your PS4 you are, the better it works, but Remote Play does actually work across the internet - we've even had it working from a cafe a couple of times.
You lose a little graphical fidelity, of course, but PS4 games still look quite astoundingly awesome on the Vita’s 5in screen, and while there’s a touch of input lag (particularly when playing over the web) that will make it a poor choice for competitive deathmatches, for single-player gaming it’s barely noticeable. Extra buttons are cleverly mapped to the touchscreen and rear touchpad, too, and as everything you see is a mirror of what the PS4 is doing, you can simply use the Vita as a fancy extra control pad for the main console if you so wish.
PS4 versus Xbox One: the gap is amazingly close
At launch it was easy to see the PS4's advantage over the Xbox One. Cross-platform games looked and performed better on the Sony console, and many of the Xbox's headline features were half-baked at best.
But now Kinect has been taken out of the equation and both the price and performance gaps have been obliterated. The PS4 is still the prettier device, but do you choose a console based on that? We certainly hope not.
Choosing which one to get should come down to two factors: the exclusive games that you're most excited about and which one your friends have got. There's now no wrong decision.
Its big advantages over the Xbox One may be gone, but the PS4 is still an absolutely cracking console, and one that keeps getting better with every new game, app and firmware update.
For many, the only real priority is beautiful 1080p gaming, and the PS4 has done that since day 1. But with Remote Play, Share Play, PS Now and PS Plus it has a bunch of true next-gen features that add real value and wow factor. And it's all delivered with a degree of snappiness that the previous generation couldn’t get close to.
Of course we want more. We want to see some really clever stuff done with the PlayStation Camera and the DualShock 4's funky features. We want loads more games. We want more free games through PS Plus and we want digital downloads of games to be cheaper than the discs.
But that's because we're greedy. The PS4 was brilliant when it launched in November 2013 and it's undeniably even better now. We can't wait to see what comes next.
Words: Tom Parsons