We're rolling out PlayStation 4 review coverage all the way through the launch on Nov. 15. Check out more coverage here!
Now, seven years after the launch of PlayStation 3, Sony is releasing the PlayStation 4, and it's pitching PSN and internet-enabled features as a central pillar. We were promised hardware that would connect us more closely with our friends, that we would be allowed to share our best gaming moments at the touch of a button, or to prove our skills in real time via livestreams. Flow-killing system updates would be delivered automatically, Sony assured us. And finally, finally, we were promised cross-game party chat.
The PlayStation 4 appears to deliver on most of these commitments but, like the Wii U last year, the brunt of the console's most highly-lauded features are coming in hot. In fact, nearly every feature other than the ability to play retail games was enabled via a system update only a few hours before this writing.
That makes a detailed, timely review problematic, but we've done our best to delve into the PS4's big ticket features and answer as many questions as we can. Given the circumstances, we'll be updating this review as we dig further into Sony's slanted console.
Update: Sections on Live Streaming, Remote Play, Media Services, some extra details and a conclusion have been added.
PlayStation 4 hardware (E3 2013)
The PlayStation 4 itself is an attractive device. The unit is close in size to the "slim" PlayStation 3 that launched back in 2009. Not taking the PS4's angled sides into account, the two consoles have nearly the same square footprint. The angled sides, incidentally, are a big part of what makes the PS4 so eye-catching. In a world full of square black boxes, it really stands out. The majority of the outer case is textured, matte black plastic – again, not unlike the slim PS3. When viewed horizontally, the top left of the console is composed of reflective plastic very much like that of the original PlayStation 3 and, yes, it's a magnet for finger prints. The line that divides the matte and reflective plastic hides the power LED, which alternates between blue, white and amber to indicate start-up, power and standby, respectively. The dividing line also disguises touch-sensitive power and eject buttons on the front of the console. You'd be forgiven for not spotting these, as their icons are absolutely tiny.
The only troubling physical quality of the PS4 is that the plastic casing has a good amount of flex to it. Squeeze or prod the console and you'll be able to see and feel the plastic bending under your fingers. The outer layer of plastic feels very thin, and honestly I think a sharp object could probably pierce it (though I'm not about to test that theory). It won't be a concern for many users, but those who travel with their PS4 will want to be extra careful.
The DualShock 4 is one of the most comfortable controllers I've ever held. It abandons the long-maintained DualShock design for something much more ergonomic. Specifically, the DualShock 3's tapered prongs have been replaced by more bulbous and natural handles. Even better, the back of the controller is made of a textured, but not rubberized plastic that offers great grip. The D-pad directions are spaced more closely together, and there's a nice divot in the middle that gives the thumb a natural place to rest. The analog sticks are spaced slightly further apart, and they now feature concave bowls on top, preventing the slippage common with the DualShock 3. Speaking of slippage, the DualShock 3's convex triggers are gone, and in their place are delightfully concave triggers that do a much better job of cradling your all-important shooting fingers. The shoulder buttons, meanwhile, have become more rounded and are just a bit larger. The face buttons and Home button are basically unchanged.
The light bar can add interesting touches to games. In Sound Shapes, it pulses to the music, while Killzone: Shadow Fall will see it change from green to orange to red based on how much health you have. You'll also use the light bar to sign into the PS4 using facial recognition (more on that later).
Finally, the Options button is essentially a start button, usually opening menus or configuration settings. That leaves the Share button, which I'll cover in another section.
Update: It appears that the 3.5mm headset jack will accept regular headphones as well as the official PS4 headset. If your headphones have a microphone, you can use that mic for voice chat. Using in-system options, you can even have game audio sent directly to your headphones instead of the TV. In other words, there's no need to pony up for a fancy gaming headset, you can use any headphones you want and listen to your game audio right from the controller. Want to use some Beats? Go for it. Still rocking that taped-up Walkman headset from 1985? No problem.
The PS4 UI, called the PlayStation Dynamic Menu, is similar to the Cross Media Bar (XMB) on the PlayStation 3, though it's presented in a much cleaner manner with large, friendly tiles. The main horizontal row houses What's New, your games, Video and Music Unlimited, the web browser, TV & Video and a section called Library. The Library seems to display your downloaded content specifically, as mine shows only Netflix and Resogun, while my disc-based games like Battlefield 4 and Killzone: Shadow Fall remain on the main menu.
Press down on any main menu tile and you'll dive into further information about that game or app. Diving into a game, for instance, allows you to see your friends' activity for that particular title and related downloads.
And that brings us to social network integration. The PS4 allows you to link to both your Facebook and Twitter accounts for the purposes of sharing screens, videos and stories about your gaming accomplishments. If you really want to annoy your friends, you can have Facebook automatically publish stories every time your earn a Trophy or start playing a PS4 game. You can also specifically decide which of your Facebook groups can see your screenshots and videos. Strangely, you can't share to multiple groups, meaning you'll need to create a special PS4 group on Facebook if, for example, you want to share to family and friends but not co-workers. Also strange, the only way to use a real photograph as your PSN profile picture is to link your account to Facebook. If you enable the option, this will automatically use your Facebook profile picture on PSN. Again, this is the only way to use a real photo – you can't snap a profile picture with the PlayStation Camera.
Finally, above the main horizontal row in the Dynamic Menu is a smaller row that houses areas for the PlayStation Store, notifications, friends, messaging, party chat, your profile, Trophies, settings and power. All of these function as you would expect them to, though party chat deserves special recognition as it finally brings cross-game chat to PlayStation. Just as you would form a party on Xbox Live or join a chat server on PC, party chat allows up to 8 players to voice chat regardless of what game or app they might be using. You can even move from one chat lobby to another, which should be a wonderful tool for creative griefers.
Update: Party chat will work across both the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4. In other words, if you're on a Vita, you can party chat with your friends on PS4 and vice versa.
The Dynamic Menu in general isn't without a few hiccups of its own. I encountered one moment when it became unresponsive for several seconds, notably when installing Killzone: Shadow Fall. Upon installation, the game required an additional update to be downloaded. At this point Shadow Fall's tile briefly displayed two different "start" buttons. One of these had a disc icon indicating I could start the game. The other was unlabeled, though clicking it appeared to start installing the update. Updates are supposed to be applied automatically, so something seems to have gone awry, though it did eventually right itself.
Navigating menus can be jerky, as the selection cursor will occasionally refuse to move until a particular item or graphic has loaded. Using the Home button to quickly jump out of games and apps isn't always seamless either. None of these issues break the experience but, like the voice chat echo, they're certainly noticeable.
Overall, the Dynamic Menu is very usable and generally snappy, efficiently presenting necessary and secondary information and keeping everything well organized. I'm curious to see what will happen once the main horizontal bar fills with games, as scrolling through a long list could become unwieldy. Then again, it might be difficult to have too many games at once on your PS4 hard drive, but we'll get to that later.
Update: A note on user profiles. Every PSN user can tie their account to a single PlayStation 4 as their "primary" console. Any content you download on your primary PS4 will be accessible by other profiles on the device.
The only way to log into a different PS4 is to log in as a guest. When logged in as a guest, you will have access to everything on your account, and you'll be able to download any games you own. You can even purchase games while logged in as a guest. Once you log out, all of your personal information will be removed from the system. Anything you've downloaded will remain on the hard drive, but it won't be accessible to anyone who doesn't own rights to it. For example, say your friend does not own Resogun, but you do. You can log in as a guest, download the game, and you can both play it. Once you log out, Resogun will stay stored on the hard drive, but your friend will no longer have access to it.
You are allowed to log into two PS4 consoles simultaneously, on one as your primary console and the other as a guest. So, if you have two PS4s in the same house, it's possible to be logged in to watch Netflix on one console while someone plays multiplayer using the same account on another console.
Sharing video and screenshots on PS4 is remarkably easy, especially if you're used to the complicated setups needed to capture video and screens on other consoles or PC. The PS4 is always recording your gameplay, stretching back to the most recent 15 minutes played. At any time – inside or outside of a game – all you have to do is press the Share button, and you'll instantly be given the option to upload a screenshot or video. If you want to upload a specific highlight, you can trim videos down using a simple editor. Just mark the beginning and endpoint of the video and voila, instant fame.
Videos post exclusively to Facebook, while screenshots can be posted on both Facebook and Twitter. Incidentally, if you want to upload media at all, a Facebook or Twitter account is required.
Installing Games, PS3 to PS4 Upgrades
Even if you buy all of your games on disc, you're going to have to sit through a short installation before you can play them. A few tests have all come in under two minutes, with Need for Speed: Rivals being playable after 51 seconds, Knack after 1:43 and Battlefield 4 after 1:45. Battlefield 4 also required a secondary download of just under 600MB, which took us about 7 minutes to download, but those speeds will vary based on location and internet service.
The new streamlined PS Store interface has a section specifically designated for PS3 to PS4 conversions. Simply select the the game you'd like to update, pay the $10 fee (or use the $10 PSN voucher that currently comes with PS4 purchase) and the game will begin downloading. These are hefty downloads and, unlike games on discs, will require far more patience than a few minutes.
By now you might be wondering what kind of impact all of this sharing and installation is going to have on your hard drive. After a day of futzing with the PS4, I accumulated around 40 minutes of gameplay footage and nearly 40 screenshots, which totaled just under 1.7GB. That won't make much of a dent in the PS4's 500GB hard drive, 409GB of which are usable out of the box. Game installations, however, make a significant dent. Killzone: Shadow Fall is a whopping 39GB, while Battlefield 4 takes up 35GB and Assassin's Creed 4 requires 21GB. Resogun, a smaller downloadable game, is 461MB.
The PlayStation Camera is not included with the PS4, but I'm including it in this review for one simple reason: Sony very much wants you to buy a PlayStation Camera. Without one, you'll be completely unable to play the PS4's only pre-installed game, The Playroom. Should you fire up The Playroom without a PlayStation Camera installed, you're only option is to watch a video that informs you of just how awesome the $60 peripheral is. Note to parents: If you haven't bought a PlayStation Camera, do not let your children watch this video, lest this year's Christmas present be transmogrified from incredible PlayStation 4 to unsatisfied yearning.
I'm not saying that the PS4 is only for kids, but that's probably the best audience for The Playroom. It's not really a "game," but rather a series of augmented reality activities, and by "series" I mean four. You can do four things, two of which involve playing with (admittedly adorable) robots. Then there's an AR version of Pong, and the other activity is really just a glorified, barely interactive explanation of the DualShock 4's features. You can see everything there is to see in about 10 minutes.
If the PlayStation Camera is meant as competition for Microsoft's Kinect sensor, it's not quite there yet. Whereas the Kinect offers almost complete control over the Xbox 360's UI, the PlayStation Camera's functions aren't nearly as pervasive. Voice commands can launch some applications, but not others. Your voice can launch Sony's Music Unlimited app, for example, but not Netflix. And even so, Music Unlimited can't be controlled with voice after it's launched.
The PlayStation Camera's abilities will likely grow with time, assuming app and game developers support it, but right now there isn't a convincing reason to pick one up beyond a handful of minor conveniences.
Update: The PlayStation Camera also allows you display a live feed of your face (or whatever you want to put in front of the camera, really) during live streams. It's not required for live streaming, but it's a nice touch if you want to connect with your audience.
Live streaming on PlayStation 4 is comically easy. The PS4 supports both Twitch and Ustream, and setting either service up is as easy as entering your user name and password. Once that's done, all you have to do is tap the Share button while playing any PlayStation 4 game. Here you can choose to broadcast gameplay, select your service and set up your stream options. You can edit the name of your channel ("Watch me play Knack" etc) and choose whether or not you want a link to your stream automatically posted on Facebook and Twitter. Click "Start Broadcasting" and, boom, you're streaming. That's it. No capture card necessary, no need to snake inputs and outputs between devices. Just press a couple of buttons.
While streaming, you have the option of using the PlayStation Camera to display your face in a small window on the screen. You can also choose do display stream comments directly in the video window, which is very handy if you don't want to look away from the screen to see what people are saying. You can also disable one or both of these features if you'd prefer to stream in a full screen view. You can plug a microphone into the DualShock 4 to broadcast your commentary, or you can use the PlayStation Camera's built-in microphone (though you will get feedback loops if your game audio is turned up too high).
Incidentally, if you open any system level menus while streaming a game – by hitting the Home button, for example – the stream's video feed will be replaced by an animated hold screen. Viewers will still be able to hear your voice, but they won't be able to see you navigating menus. Along the same lines, personal information that pops up during games is automatically blurred. For example, if you receive a friend request while streaming, the pop-up notification will be blurred for the sake of privacy.
One caveat for experienced streamers: You can't pipe in alternate audio inputs. The streaming app only pulls in the audio from your headset microphone or PlayStation Camera. Party chat audio will not be heard on the stream. And the PlayStation 4 isn't a PC, so it's not like you can simply reroute the audio from a Skype call. In other words, the only way to have multiple people speaking on the same stream is if they are all physically in the same room.
You don't have the kind of meticulous stream quality control you have on PC either. There's no way to directly configure your bitrate or resolution, for example. The quality options available on PS4 are restricted to 4 broad selections: Low, Medium, High and Best. That's it. We definitely noticed some artifacting in our live streams – especially in action-heavy games like Resogun – though most of the time the quality is certainly acceptable and often exceptional. The stream you see above was made using the "best" setting.
It's also worth pointing out that, regardless of the stream quality, the quality of your actual game is not affected. Some viewers complained of "lag" while I streamed a round of Killzone: Shadow Fall multiplayer, though I experienced no lag on my end. You can see this moment yourself by jumping to 34:15 in this video. The stream hitches, but it all remained smooth for me while playing.
Overall, live streaming is one of my favorite features on the PlayStation 4. You don't have as much freedom as you do streaming from a computer, but the ease of use is pretty incredible.
Update: Added the above Live Streaming section to the review, and new details regarding the DualShock 3 and cross-platform party chat.
Like the PlayStation Camera, Remote Play isn't something that every PlayStation 4 owner will get to experience, since it requires a PlayStation Vita, but the feature warrants a place in this review. Put simply, it's kind of astounding, although there are some caveats. The long and short of it is simple: Using the PS4 Link app on your Vita (available with a recent system update), you can utilize almost all of your PlayStation 4's functions remotely. You can navigate menus, browse the PlayStation Store, edit and upload videos and screenshots and, of course, play games. If your PS4 is in standby mode, the Vita can even turn the system on remotely. There are, however, some things you can't do remotely, including live streaming or watching videos services like Netflix and Amazon Instant. Still, being able to play full PlayStation 4 games in any room of my house is very impressive.
With both my Vita and PS4 hooked up to the same WiFi network, as Sony recommends, the gameplay quality was virtually flawless, with no latency between button presses and on-screen reaction that I could perceive. I was able to play Resogun, a quick-paced, precision-demanding game with no problems. Likewise I was able to play Assassin's Creed 4 and Battlefield 4 without issue – at least in terms of latency and quality.
Remote Play makes more sense for certain games and genres than others. Shoot-em-ups like Resogun are a near perfect fit. Battlefield 4, on the other hand, doesn't work very well at all. There just isn't enough travel on the tiny analog sticks to aim with much accuracy, making fine adjustments almost impossible. Sure, you can dial down the in-game sensitivity option, but then your soldier will turn at a snail's pace – not good in a military shooter. Not only that, but the reflex action of drawing your knife becomes a clumsy game of trying to tap the lower right quadrant of the touch pad.
Remote Play is a very cool feature, and it adds some great value for anyone with a PlayStation Vita.
TV, Movie Services, Music and Blu-Ray
Sony has made it no secret that the PS4 is a games console first and foremost. To that end, the only media services on the top level of the Dynamic Menu are Sony's own Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited. The rest are tucked away in the TV & Video menu. The available services includes heavy hitters like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, as well as Redbox Instant, Vudu, NBA Game Time, Crackle, Crunchyroll, Epix, NHL GameCenter and YuppTV.
Blu-Ray, unsurprisingly, runs swimmingly, with simple button shortcuts for skipping chapters and the like. The Options button on the DualShock 4 brings up an easy-to-understand menu, and you can even bring up the same weird grid of numbers and on-screen buttons that have been around since the PS2 era. It's all familiar territory, and it works just fine.
Music support, meanwhile, is incredibly limited, which is surprising coming from one of the companies that pioneered the compact disc. You can't actually play compact discs, for instance, nor can you listen to MP3s from a USB stick. As it stands, you're stuck with Sony's Music Unlimited service, which is a letdown. Likewise, media servers for streaming music and video aren't supported either. The only choice here is to purchase movies and TV from the PSN store, or use services like Netflix.
Sony has hinted that it might add support for CDs, MP3 and media servers in the future, but right now the PS4 probably isn't the best choice for multimedia junkies.
The PlayStation 4 isn't without its troubling aspects. Hard drive space looks like it will be eaten up very quickly. The UI may become cumbersome to navigate as more games are added to your home screen. Some players may grouse at the necessity of linking to Facebook and Twitter accounts to take advantage of the console's most interesting features. Even taking these complaints into account, the PS4 accomplishes its goals with remarkable aplomb.
The PlayStation 4 is a well-designed console that packs a lot of features into a single package while still keeping games front-and-center. The ability to capture video and screenshots and share them with your friends is a simple, practically seamless process. Live streaming is phenomenally easy to set up and fun to do. Remote Play is a big win for PlayStation Vita owners. Movies, music and TV are there if you want them, but the PlayStation 4 keeps your games and the friends you play them with in the spotlight.
As ever, games are the sticking point for any console, and will ultimately define the success of the PlayStation 4. Thankfully, third party support is already strong, and Sony has some good studios under its belt, so at least a few gems are guaranteed. On the plus side, even if the games are bad, at least you can entertain yourself by making fun of them on Twitch.
This review is based on a retail PlayStation 4, provided by Sony. The console was procured at a review event hosted by Sony. Travel and accommodation were paid for by Joystiq, in accordance with our editorial policy. All testing, including online features, was done in the reviewer's home.