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.
This is our long-term test of the original PlayStation 4, which has now been discontinued. Read our review of the new PlayStation 4 Slim here.
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.
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 to the hefty sum of £49. 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. If you're looking for a voice-chat upgrade, we'd heartily recommend the £12 Turtle Beach P4C.
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 £20 to £200.
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. 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 a £40 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, 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 in the autumn.
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.
But while at launch the PS4 had a graphical advantage over the Xbox One, with many key cross-platform games such as Call Of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 hitting 1080p on the former but falling short on the latter, Microsoft's decision to drop the Kinect requirement has freed up enough processing power for the gap to be largely bridged.
Now we've essentially got parity in the technical quality of games across the two platforms, it becomes even more about the content itself. Eight months in, how's the PS4's line-up looking?
The PS4 comes with 500GB of storage space, which might sound like a lot compared to the 60GB that the PS3 launched with, but with the OS and its gubbins taking up 92GB, plus big games taking up anything from 30-50GB, that hard disk is going to fill pretty quickly. Deletes and installs are quick, but there is a better solution – upgrade the hard disk.
It’s a thoroughly straightforward job, and according to Sony as long as the drive you’re putting in is a 2.5in model with a speed of at least 5400rpm and capacity of at least 160GB, it will work.
We've done some experimenting ourselves with a bunch of different HDDs and there are definite benefits to upgrading, but you have to decide whether speed or capacity is your priority.
Going for a 1TB HDD is the obvious choice. It more than doubles the usable space on the PS4 while still keeping costs down (2TB 2.5in drives are still prohibitively expensive). I tried the Western Digital Blue 1TB, which is currently £50 on Amazon, and found that loading and install times were broadly on a par with the original PS4 HDD - so it's all gain, no pain.
However, if you want to take the opportunity to speed up your new gaming pride and joy an SSD is a good way to do it. I tried the Kingston HyperX 480GB and Crucial M500 480GB and both saw improvements to install and loading times. We're only talking 5-10 seconds quicker to install a game disc, as the optical drive is the choke point there, but some loading times were significantly improved - starting a new game of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was 24 seconds quicker when using the Kingston, with the Crucial just a couple of seconds behind that.
There is a cost, though - currently £200 for the Kingston and £160 for the Crucial, and of course neither solves the overall issue of storage space. More speed or more capacity - your call.
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.
READ MORE: The Best PlayStation 4 Games So Far
The games of the future
The games that are out now are really just scratching the surface of what the PS4 is capable of, and there's a heck of a lot to be excited about in the run-up to Christmas and beyond.
Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Battlefield Hardline and Assassin's Creed Unity all look like proper revolutions for their respective franchises, while FIFA 15 is prettier and smoother than ever and next-gen GTA 5 will give everyone an excuse to revisit Los Santos.
All of those games will be available on both PS4 and Xbox One, of course, but the game at the top of many a gamer's 2014 list, Destiny, has enough bonus content on PS4 to make the green side of the console divide even greener with envy.
Whether they can make up for Forza Horizon 2 and Sunset Overdrive, both which are exclusive to Xbox One, will only become clear once we've played them all. It's also worth mentioning that The Rise Of The Tomb Raider is, controversially, exclusive to Xbox, at least initially.
What is clear now is that the summertime lull is nearly over and the rest of 2014 contains a bonafide bonanza of brilliant games, regardless of which console you've plumped for.
Click below for extra info and hands-on impressions of all of the most exciting PS4 games in development
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 more than £10, 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 UK 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.
What to watch when you're not playing
Games consoles have to be about so much more than just games, and the PS4 is strong here, too.
If you're the sort of old-fashioned type who still watches movies from optical discs, the PS4 will spin them like a demon DJ. Performance is comparable with a decent standalone Blu-ray player, and 3D Blu-rays are now supported on top of standard Blu-rays and DVDs.
And if you're more of the streaming type, you've got the likes of Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, BBC iPlayer, Demand 5 and Now TV. The latter gives non-Sky subscribers access to Sky Movies, Sky Sports and Sky Entertainment on a contract-free, pay-as-you-go basis, and those that do already subscribe to Sky will be pleased to hear that Sky Go is on the way later this Summer; once it's arrived, it'll essentially make your PS4 a multiroom box. Neat.
And then there's Sony's own Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited. The first is basically a Spotify rival with the advantage of being able to stream music in the background while you play games. The latter is a really rather excellent movies-on-demand service that has all of the big new releases available for streaming in 1080p with 5.1 surround sound.
What about 4K? While the PS4 is said to be capable of outputting a 4K signal, that hasn't been enabled yet. Perhaps when Netflix gets more 4K content and Sony launches the 4K version of Video Unlimited worldwide it might happen. But don't hold your breath for 4K games. While it might be able to output video, actually processing 4K gameplay is probably too much for even the PS4.
There’s also a web browser built-in, and this time it’s less afterthought and more fully featured application. Google results appear rather small and difficult to read from across the room, but actual web pages behave pretty much as they do on a desktop and most embedded video plays without issue.
And if the only thing you want to watch when you’re not gaming is other people gaming, the Ustream and Twitch channels in the Live From PlayStation section are where you want to be. In the eight months since launch this has become utterly rife with ridiculous gaming action. So if you think some guy’s doing a terrible job with that Diablo boss, you can helpfully tell him so in the comments that appear on the right-hand side.
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 £65 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 £65 outlay 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.
READ MORE: Sony PlayStation Vita Slim review
PS4 versus Xbox One: the gap is amazingly close
At launch it was easy to see the PS4's advantage over the Xbox One. It was £80 cheaper, 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.
READ MORE: Xbox One review
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