It’s the eighth video game console generation now, and Sony has been active for four of them. The PlayStation is in its fourth iteration (not including the PlayStation Portable and PlayStation Vita), and Sony has helpfully and consistently named it the PlayStation 4. This $399 (list) game system is more powerful than its predecessor, the PlayStation 3 and includes a ton of new features. The completely redesigned DualShock 4 controller is one of the most welcome changes, but the console’s complete lack of backward compatibility (a lack shared by the Xbox One) will have most gamers clinging to their old system, even if they buy a new one.
Editors’ Note: This hands-on preview is based on the PlayStation 4′s capabilities before launch and day-one patch, with most features besides disc-based games and the basic interface disabled. We will expand this review to reflect online features as they become available. Until then, we will not give the PlayStation 4 an official score.
The console’s design is clearly inspired more by the PlayStation 2 than the PlayStation 3. It’s black, mostly matte, and angular. From the front, it cuts the same profile as the PS2: a perfect rectangle. It’s even closer to the (original) PS2 than the (original) PS3 in size, measuring 2.2 by 10.8 by 12 inches (HWD) and weighing a relatively svelte 6.1 pounds. The first PS3 weighed 11 pounds and measured 4.5 inches tall (later, it shrunk to 4.6 pounds and 2.4 inches), while the first PS2 weighed 4 pounds and measured 3 inches tall (and later became an ethereal 2 pounds and 1 inch tall).
Look at the PS4 from any angle other than head-on, though, and you’ll see just how different it is. The system is designed as a parallelogram, with a front bottom and rear top that jut out at sharp angles. A prominent Death Star trench-like cut-out runs along the edges of the case, and the top side and top half of the front side of the system are split into glossy and matte black finishes. A colored indicator light sits hidden on a line between the two halves on top, glowing white, blue, or yellow to show what the system is doing.
It certainly looks striking, but it’s not the most user-friendly physical design. The front panel holds two USB ports for charging controllers or other devices and a slot-loading Blu-ray drive you have to squint to see under the top lip of the system, in the trench. It’s a drive you’ll learn to find by feel alone, locating just the right spot to put your discs so the slot sucks them in. The back panel houses an HDMI port, an Ethernet port, an optical audio port, and a modified USB port for accessories like the optional $60 Xbox-Kinect-like PlayStation Camera. The overhang of the top side of the system makes it difficult to see the ports, but a few cutouts around them make them easy to identify by touch.
The power buttons can be frustrating, but not Xbox 360 Slim frustrating. The bad news is they’re touch-sensitive with no physical feedback. The good news is they’re so small you won’t accidentally turn the console on or off or eject the disc (like I’ve done many times with the Xbox 360 Slim). They’re tiny rectangles on the front, positioned just left of the center of the system. The Power button sits between the glossy and matte black halves of the top, and the Eject button is between the two matte black halves of the bottom.
The PlayStation 4 comes with only a few accessories, but they’re enough to make the system completely functional. Besides the console itself, you get a DualShock 4 controller (which connects to the PS4 via Bluetooth), USB-to-micro-USB charging cable, an HDMI cable, and an earpiece that plugs into the controller. The included monaural headset is a simple earbud with an in-line microphone. The box also includes an insert with codes for 30 days of PlayStation Plus, 30 days of Sony Music Unlimited, and $10 on the PS Store, so you can start playing on your PS4 even if you don’t buy any games with it. PlayStation Plus offers a rotating selection of free games that remain available after you download them for as long as you remain a member, and Sony Music Unlimited membership lets you stream any music available in a Songza-like service.
While the PS4′s body was designed with style in mind, its controller was clearly designed for comfort. It keeps the same basic design and layout of previous Sony DualShock (and Sixaxis) controllers, but makes many welcome changes that make it feel more satisfying in your hands. The little fin grips used in the DualShock 3 have been replaced by larger, rounder grips that have an Xbox 360 controller feel. The analog sticks have been redesigned, each with a convex center surrounded by a ring-shaped ridge that keeps the stick in place under your thumb. The triggers are larger and not nearly as wiggly as on the Sixaxis or DualShock 3 triggers, which will please shooter fans.
Besides the welcome physical changes to make the controller more comfortable, the DualShock 4 has a handful of new, useful features. The gamepad has a rectangular touchpad placed between the direction pad and face buttons (and between the Share and Option buttons that now replace Start and Select), which can be used to perform gestures in certain games. The touchpad clicks, so you won’t accidentally register a button by taking your finger off the pad for a second and putting it back on. The gamepad also features a small speaker, like the Nintendo Wii Remote and Nintendo Wii U gamepad. Finally, an accessory port on the bottom, between the grips, lets you plug in the included monaural earpiece, like the Xbox 360 controller does.
Then there’s the lightbar, which faces outward from the front of the controller. It’s the most prominent aspect of the DualShock 4 because it glows. It lights up different colors based on how is playing and what game is being played, with blue as the default for the player in control and in the system’s interface. The lightbar is also used by the PlayStation Camera for augmented reality and motion controls. Unfortunately, you can’t turn the bar off, so if you have a very glossy HDTV, you’ll probably be seeing its reflection in dark games.
I tried Knack, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Injustice: Gods Among Us Ultimate Edition, Madden 25, and Battlefield 4 on the PlayStation 4, and they all felt much more comfortable than the itself not-particularly-uncomfortable DualShock 3 controller. Noted fighting game enthusiast and controller connoisseur Jeffrey Wilson gushed about how good the controller felt when I schooled him in Injustice.
The XrossMediaBar (XMB) interface that dominated the PlayStation 3 and most Sony home entertainment products for years has been rethought here. Instead, the PlayStation 4 uses the PlayStation Dynamic Menu, an interface that shows shades of the PS Store’s most recent redesign and hints of Microsoft’s Metro interface (on the Xbox One). Dynamic is the right word, because the entire screen changes based on what you have highlighted.
The main screen is populated by a row of large icons that expand when you highlight them, starting with What’s New on the left, your most recent games to the right of it, and PlayStation 4 features like the Web browser, Live from PlayStation, and Downloads. Most of these icons populate the lower third of the screen with updates from friends and the game itself, but we can’t test how the menu system works that way yet.
The top of the screen holds icons for the PS Store, notifications, friends, the current user, trophies, and time. Pressing up on the left analog stick or the direction pad brings those icons to the bottom of the screen and hides the larger icons, freeing up the top third of the screen to display notifications, friends lists, trophies, and other information. The Settings menu is also accessed this way, along with the Parties voice chat feature we will explore when online services are enabled.
You can control the PlayStation 4 with your voice, either with the included wired headset or the PlayStation Camera. This feature is much more limited than the voice control features on the Xbox One, mostly focused on simple program launching from the main menu and not much else.
The PlayStation 4 juggles multiple users much better than in earlier iterations. Several players can be on the couch and each holding a gamepad (up to four, while the Xbox One supports eight simultaneous players). One user stays in control of the interface, indicated by the name on the top of the screen. However, when more than one user is logged in to the system, any user with a gamepad can take control and the main screen will reflect that by displaying all of the pertinent game and social information of the active user.
The PlayStation Camera will enable facial recognition so different users can log in with the camera. We will test this feature when it becomes available.
The DualShock 4 features a new Share button in place of a Select button, which lets users record video, take screen shots, or stream gameplay online. These features will be explored in more detail when they are enabled.
Backward Game Compatibility
There is no backward compatibility with PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, PlayStation, PlayStation Vita, or PlayStation Portable games. Sony has stated that it plans to make PlayStation 3 games available through Gaikai streaming, but nothing has been officially announced yet. Currently, there is no way to play previous generation PlayStation games on the PlayStation 4 in disc or download form, so you might want to keep your PS3 around (especially if it’s a first version with backward PS2 compatibility).
PlayStation Vita Integration
The PlayStation 4 offers two ways to use your PlayStation Vita handheld with your console. You can connect to your PS4 through the Vita to use Remote Play and play PS4 games streamed to your Vita. You can also use the Vita as a second screen in some games, like the Nintendo Wii U gamepad. We’ll check out these features when they’re enabled.
On hardware and interface alone, the Sony PlayStation 4 is an impressive successor to the PlayStation 3, with several interesting new features. While its complete lack of backward compatibility is disappointing, the new menu system and interface features like multiple user sign-in are great improvements over the PlayStation 3. The DualShock 4 gamepad is an excellent upgrade, fixing many of the complaints we had about previous Sony controllers. But many of the PS4′s features require a PlayStation Network connection, which was unavailable when we tested. We’ll fully explore these features, and offer a full verdict with a numerical score very soon, but so far, we’re impressed.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc