At launch, the PlayStation 3 was flush with technological bells and whistles: a multi-format memory card reader, user-upgradeable 2.5" serial ATA hard drive, and support for high-capacity Blu-ray discs. It had a powerful CPU, the Cell processor, whose simple name masked its notoriously complex architecture. Like the Emotion Engine in the PlayStation 2, the Cell called for a new approach to processor optimization and would go underutilized for years. Developers had to work harder to harness its potential, and it was expensive to manufacture, ultimately raising the barrier to entry on all fronts. In hindsight, it was perhaps too complex at the start for anyone's good.
Seven years later, the PlayStation 4 proves that Sony has learned its lesson. It was designed around semi-custom PC parts from AMD, a factor that lowers manufacturing costs and simplifies game development. It's less of a jack-of-all-trades than its predecessor, but it hits the necessary extra-curricular touchstones. Even the oft-criticized DualShock, a seemingly sacred PlayStation staple, was reinvented for the better. The PlayStation 4 is refined, both inside and out, and though there are minor imperfections to cope with, they hardly seem to matter in light of the system's numerous achievements.
At a glance, the PlayStation 4's compact, rhomboid chassis is immediately impressive. Its matte-black and glossy panels are divided by a thin light-bar on the hood and a squared groove that circuits the perimeter, sheltering the slot-loading Blu-ray drive, USB ports, and air-vents. Given that it's arguably the most powerful next-gen console, and the only one with an internal power supply, it’s a credit to the engineering and design teams at Sony that the PlayStation 4 is so small and sleek while succinctly incorporating ventilation that not only works, but remains mostly out of sight.
Stood upright, the PlayStation 4 takes on a monolithic silhouette, though it needs a proper stand to secure its precarious position. Laying the system flat keeps it practically secure, but curiously, Sony designed it to sit on three offset feet. As a result, the system wobbles when downward pressure is applied on the left-hand side. For all the intelligence of the PlayStation 4’s design and its sturdy appearance, this is a ridiculous, though still minor flaw.
Sony veered away from its favorite form factor for the DualShock 4, elongating the handles and spreading everything slightly apart for a far more comfortable fit. It went to town with the extra space in the middle, incorporating a 2” x 1” touchpad that also doubles as a large, physical button. Beneath the touchpad sits a mono-audio speaker, the PlayStation home button, and a pair of ports: one for stereo headphones, and an EXT port with a yet unrealized purpose. Gone are the start and select buttons. In their place, straddling the top of the touchpad, lay the new share and options buttons. Perhaps in a move to avoid accidental button presses, these two buttons are unusually flush with the controller. As such, they're hard to press without checking the controller first.
The share button is the more interesting of the two, acting as the gateway to Sony's game capture and video streaming initiative, which we'll get to a bit later.
On the top of the DualShock 4, nestled between the improved, concave triggers, there’s a micro-USB port for charging the non-removable lithium-ion battery, and a multicolor light bar that can interact with the PlayStation Camera accessory. Its ability to change color and brightness allows developers to communicate with players in potentially interesting ways, such as in Sound Shapes where the light pulses on and off with the beat. Lastly, and perhaps least obviously, Sony upgraded the DualShock’s vibration and motion-sensing capabilities to offer greater sensitivity and range for developers to tinker with.
Smartly, Sony chose PC-like x86-64 components for the PlayStation 4, and worked with AMD to develop a hybrid CPU capable of reaching clock speeds up to 2.75 GHz (rumored to run at 1.6 GHz), comprised of two quad-core Jaguar modules. This is paired with a semi-custom 800 MHz Radeon GPU, theoretically capable of 1.84 teraFLOPS, roughly in line with a GeForce GTX 660 or Radeon 7850.
Processors aside, the system’s biggest boon is the 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, an expensive variety of RAM typically reserved for graphics cards. It utilizes a 256-bit interface, clocked at 5,500 MHz, with a bandwidth potential of 176 GB/s. This is likely one of the more expensive components in the entire build, but the bandwidth and speed it lends to the system should prove invaluable to developers, and ultimately, result in better-looking games for players.
The included Blu-ray drive is faster than the one found in the PlayStation 3, but you'll need to wait before playing any games now that Sony requires all games to be installed to the system's internal hard drive first. Blu-ray discs are capable of storing up to 50 GB of data, and with a 500 GB hard drive, it's not unreasonable to worry about space. Granted, most games are well under 50 GB, but if you eventually find that you're running out of room on your hard drive, you have two options: delete game data, or install a new hard drive.
Thankfully, you don't have to void your warranty to accomplish the latter. Simply slide off the glossy panel using your hands and a bit of pressure, unscrew five screws, replace the hard drive, and reverse the process. Lastly, copy the system restore firmware from Sony's support website to a USB stick, and format your new hard drive via the PlayStation 4's operating system.
Though you will only see a minimal performance gain if you upgrade to a faster 7200 RPM hard drive, it's an easy way to increase the amount of available storage space. If, however, speed is critical, you can also install a solid state drive, which will halve loading times in some cases, but these flash-based drives are expensive and storage space comes at a premium. Sadly, external drives may only be used to upgrade the system's firmware. That means no extra storage for game installs, and no support for media playback. Given that the PS4 uses high-speed USB 3.0 ports, this rather limited support seems like a missed opportunity.
Major components aside, PlayStation 4 features a reasonable assemblage of ports and connectivity options. It’s got a gigabit ethernet port, in addition to support for 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, though somewhat disappointingly, wireless support is limited to the oversaturated 2.4 GHz frequency band. Technically, 802.11n devices can support the less-saturated 5 GHz band, but this sadly isn't the case in the PlayStation 4.
This certainly isn't going to hold back the PlayStation 4 from doing what it normally would, but with the near-ubiquitous support for Remote Play and second-screen gaming on the Vita, a more advanced wireless radio could have gone along way to reaffirm the value of connecting the two devices together.
Pairing a Vita to a PlayStation 4 is easy, only requiring that both devices are connected to the same network. The results are typically adequate for gaming, and certainly much better than the PlayStation 3's version of Remote Play, but it's still far from perfect. Depending on your range, and the saturation of the 2.4 GHz frequencies in your gaming environment, a slight delay between the Vita and PlayStation 4 can seriously impact your in-game performance. At the moment, it's a feature that's too inconsistent for everyday use, but has potential that's too attractive to ignore.
Apart from the DualShock 4, the Bluetooth radio is rather underutilized at launch. There's no support for wireless headsets, for example, though as a consolation, you can plug chat-enabled headsets into the controller’s 3.5 mm audio port for chat and/or in-game audio.
Otherwise, audio and video are limited to the HDMI and optical ports on the back of the system, with no support for analog connectivity. Users can take advantage of the system's breadth of audio support, including PCM, Dolby, and DTS audio formats. It's also worth noting that the PlayStation 4 is the first device that supports the brand new DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 format, providing near-lossless 7.1 surround sound for internet video.
While there are no games rendered at the lofty 4K resolution on the PlayStation 4, Sony has confirmed that photos and video will work. 3D support, on the other hand, which was once a priority for Sony, has been put on the back burner. It even neglected support for 3D Blu-rays, a format it pioneered just a few short years ago.
Online gaming hasn't changed a lot since the PlayStation 3, except for one major shift: the PlayStation 4 requires a PlayStation Plus subscription. This service carries a $50 annual fee, but with free games, cloud-save support, and exclusive discounts, it amounts to a fair trade in the end for the majority of customers.
Multiplayer gaming is and will continue to be a mainstay of the online experience, but Sony, like Microsoft, is laser-focused on video streaming and sharing. Though it will continue to evolve over time, the PlayStation 4 can currently log 15 minutes of video in the background, and with the simple press of the share button, you can initiate the video editing and sharing process. Disappointingly, gameplay footage can only be uploaded to Facebook at launch, though screenshots are sharable on both Facebook and Twitter.
Sharing is valuable, but streaming gameplay to Twitch and Ustream proves to be a much more useful and intriguing feature. Again, the process is simple: press the share button, and choose the "broadcast gameplay" menu item, and choose from Twitch or Ustream to start sharing. Once you've logged into your account, you get to choose from a few options such as picture-in-picture broadcasting with the PlayStation Camera, microphone support, and on-screen comments. It's a simple process that works as intended with virtually no compromises, giving Sony an instant leg up in one of the most important aspects of next-gen console gaming.
The optional $60 PlayStation Camera plays a small part in streaming, allowing you to integrate your face and voice into video streams, but it also allows you to control parts of the PlayStation 4 operating system using voice commands. It's not as elaborate as Microsoft's plans for the Xbox One, but it's beneficial when it works as intended. At the moment, you can go to the home screen, start games, take screenshots, and power down the system. The added convenience of voice commands is tangible, but the real selling point of the camera is its integration with streaming video.
Unlike with the PlayStation 3, Sony got almost everything right immediately out of the gate with the PlayStation 4. It's powerful, good looking, and the support for streaming gameplay gives Sony a unique advantage as Microsoft races to catch up. Sony cut a few corners, though really, not having the latest Wi-Fi radio isn't damning, and there are other features that can be patched in through software updates in the future.
The focus on gaming is also readily apparent, especially when compared to Microsoft's overt entertainment-centric efforts. It shows in the hardware, especially with its GDDR5 RAM and beefy GPU, both of which offer significant performance advantages to Microsoft's console. The operating system is light on its feet as well, dedicating its resources to gaming and social features first and foremost. It's a powerful console with understated and forward-thinking designs applied throughout, and though it won't win awards for innovation, it's an impressive next-gen gaming console, and a big step forward for the PlayStation brand.