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 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 soon get a really pretty white version of the console, which comes bundled with Destiny.
READ MORE: Destiny preview
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 microUSB 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 the DualShock 3's Start does during games, but also 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. Eight months on, the cute controls in The Playroom and control of the OWL robot in Killzone Shadow Fall - both launch titles - are still the most interesting uses of the touchpad, with other games using it only as an extra button, if at all.
We’re still 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. We suspect Sony would have sold a great deal more controllers by now if they'd been cheaper, even without the light bar and touchpad.
One of the fancy features of the DualShock 4 that we do love is the in-built speaker. Again, it's been used only sparingly so far, but alerts in Resogun and voice logs in The Last of Us Remastered are injected with an extra dose of awesome when they come out of the controller.
Speaking of sound, the bundled mono headset continues to be an unpleasant blemish in an otherwise very premium package. 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. There are also now a whole host of PS4-compatible headsets out there, ranging in price from about S$40 to S$400.
READ MORE: Three of the Best PS4 Headsets
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 it (for free) and try the PS4 version. It’s just far more responsive, accurate and smooth. The motion control is so much better that 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 features, we are very convinced by the overall quality of the new controller. There are reports of the thumb pads on the analogue sticks degrading, and we have in fact seen that happen ourselves on the pads used with Stuff's dedicated FIFA machine, but to say those pads are subjected to excessive wear and tear would be a massive understatement. One that's looked after should remain solid for a long time to come.
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.
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.