Test-driving the new Playstation 4

CorrespondentNovember 21, 2013 

GAME CONSOLES OUTLOOK 1

The Sony Playstation 4.

HANDOUT — Courtesy of Sony

Sony’s next-generation gaming console, the PlayStation 4, has come out of the gate strong. Since hitting retail shelves last Friday, the new $399 system has sold more than one million units in the first week – indeed, in the first day, thanks to pre-orders. The PlayStation 3 sold about half that in its first month, back in 2006.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s competing system, the $499 Xbox One, goes on sale today (a review of that system will run here next week). Millions of buyers will make the switch to one of the new consoles this holiday season, and the timing of the new releases is, of course, no coincidence.

If your household is anything like mine, then you already know that swapping in a new game system is something of an upheaval. The game console has become the home entertainment hub in our living room. We watch all of our DVDs and Blu-rays on it, plus streaming video from Netflix and other providers, and the console is wired directly into our sound system and home network.

Since getting in an advance review unit of the retail PlayStation 4 last week, I’ve been setting up, hunkering down and taking notes. Is the PS4 worth making the upgrade? Now or later? Here are some aspects to consider.

Price: At $399, the PlayStation 4 is $100 less than the Xbox One, and $100 less than the PlayStation 3 upon launch. Keep in mind, though, that the PS4 retail box only includes one controller –the wireless Dualshock 4 –and you can’t use your old PS3 controllers with the new console. An additional controller will set you back another $60, as will the optional PlayStation Camera peripheral.

Games: Speaking of backwards compatibility, neither the PS4 nor the Xbox One will play games from their respective predecessors. On the plus side, the PS4 does have a decent – but not great – assortment of launch titles, including the latest installments from marquee franchises like “Assassin’s Creed,” “Battlefield,” “Call of Duty” and several EA Sports titles.

Technical Specs: There’s no doubt that the PS4 is a powerful piece of machinery. The eight-core x86 CPU and supercharged graphics processor approximate the specs of a high-end gaming PC. That is to say, PS4 games are going to look, sound and respond much better than current PS3 games. Even in my limited time so far with launch titles “Killzone: Shadow Fall” and the soccer game “FIFA 14,” the PS4 feels sharper and faster. The 500 GB replaceable hard drive provides plenty of space for storage.

Hardware: As snazzy as the PS4’s innards are, the console is pretty impressive from the outside, too. It’s surprisingly small – only 9 pounds – and the two-tone angular design elegantly conceals the necessary nuts and bolts. The forward-facing USB ports and slot-loading Blu-ray drive are virtually invisible, as are the touch-sensitive power and eject buttons. On the back, you’ve got ports for HDMI (cable included this time!), Ethernet, PlayStation Camera and optical audio, my favorite technical oxymoron.

Setup: Even with the snarl of wires I have to deal with in our living room, I found set-up to be fast and easy. The built-in Wi-Fi picked up our home network with no problem, and the console uses Bluetooth 2.1 to talk to controllers and peripherals. Once you’re online, set aside 15 minutes during set-up for the PS4 to make some firmware updates.

Controllers: The most conspicuous changes to the PS4 system are actually right there in your hands. The new Dualshock 4 controller adds a touch pad, a light bar for motion tracking with the PlayStation Camera, enhanced rumble motors, integrated speaker and a headset jack for live chat. There’s also a new “Share” button that works like a gaming DVR: You can grab clips on-the-fly from the PS4’s auto-record cache and put them online instantly.

Interface and online: The PS4 user interface is essentially a nicely streamlined version of PS3’s cross-media bar. To get the most out of it, you’ll need to activate your existing PlayStation Network account, or make a new one. This opens up access to the PS4’s range of online services for streaming online video (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) through your console to your TV. In fact, the PS4 experience is heavily reliant overall on online options – via the PlayStation Network – and so you’ll want to check the fine print on some online options. For instance, online multiplayer on most games, previously free on PS3, will now require a paid subscription.

It will take a few weeks to evaluate the extensive online integration, and that’s really going to be the important stuff, long term. Both Sony and Microsoft would very much like you to adopt their console as your new home entertainment hub for games, movies, TV, music and everything else.

But for now, the supercharged PS4 looks up to code – and then some – as a solid gaming console upgrade. Too bad I have to share it with the kids.

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