You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

The PlayStation 4 revisited: small improvements for a solid system

Engadget Engadget 29/06/2016 Timothy J. Seppala

© Provided by Engadget

Engadget is re-reviewing the current generation of game consoles, each of which has benefited from major firmware updates, price drops and an improved selection of games. We've already revisited the Xbox One, and now it's the PlayStation 4's turn. Though we've raised the score from 83 to 86, you can still find our original PS4 review here, if you're curious to read what we said at launch.

The PlayStation 4 has outsold its closest competition, the Xbox One, for most of the time since the two systems launched in Nov. 2013. In fact, according to recently released sales figures, Sony has moved some 40 million units over the past two years. Based on the company's earnings reports, those sales have helped keep Sony afloat -- even after the console's price dropped from $400 to $350.

Similar to the Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 has received a steady stream of post-launch updates, along with a ton of new features. But unlike the Xbox, the PS4 hasn't seen any patches that fundamentally change how the console operates. Instead, features like a dedicated Twitch app, Spotify integration, rapid resume from low-power mode, and game streaming to a PC or Mac have improved upon how the system already worked.

With time, however, fresh issues appeared that we couldn't have possibly predicted when we originally reviewed the console in 2013. Some are even the result of new features Sony has added since then.

Hardware

Sony has confirmed the existence of a newer console, the so-called PS4.5, but hasn't said when you'll actually be able to buy it. For now, then, the model that launched over two and a half and a half years ago is the one we've got. The system's overall design hasn't changed either. Aside from a nostalgic, ultra-limited edition console released in honor of PlayStation's 20th anniversary, the standard version remains a coal-black obelisk. Except now, you can swap in game-themed or different colored faceplates if you'd rather the console not blend in with the rest of the black A/V gear in your living room.

Up front there's a slot-loading Blu-ray drive, a pair of USB 3.0 ports and two touch-sensitive buttons for powering the system on and ejecting a disc. If you're still mixing up which button does what (it's OK, I do it myself occasionally), the top turns it on and the bottom spits your discs out. Finding them in the dark is a pain, but they're directly in line with the LED strip that runs from front to back. It glows orange when the system is in low-power mode, making it easy to find the buttons by feel. Around back, meanwhile, you'll find you'll find an HDMI socket, digital audio output, Ethernet jack and a dedicated PlayStation Camera port.

The system is also surprisingly portable. Because the PS4 uses the same-style power cable as the PlayStation 3 Slim (and many other electronics), along with a standard HDMI cable, there's no need to unwire your entire A/V setup just because you're housesitting and don't want to be away from Uncharted 4: A Thief's End for a weekend. There's no bulky external power supply to carry around, and the console itself is small enough to easily fit into a backpack or messenger bag.

The disadvantage here versus Microsoft's console is the PS4's lethargic 802.11b/g/n wireless card. If you take multiplayer seriously or just want the fastest downloads possible, you should always run a hard connection to any gaming device, but sometimes being close enough to a router to do so isn't possible.

Doing anything on the PS4 over WiFi is a time-consuming process, be it downloading a game from the PlayStation Network Store, or an update for a game or the system itself. Indeed, some Engadget staffers have seen downloads almost three times slower on WiFi versus a wired connection. Over Ethernet, the system's built-in speed test reports 79Mbps downloads and 4.4Mbps uploads on my home network. With WiFi that number dropped to 32Mbps down. That said, our gaming reporter Jessica Conditt has never experienced such issues on her PS4.

In 2013 the iPhone 5s supported 5GHz wireless, and Microsoft also packed dual-band capabilities into the Xbox One, which came out that year. This was a weird omission on Sony's part, then, and it's become all the more noticeable considering how many people buy their games digitally these days, and how large these files are. Uncharted 4 comes in at over 50GB, for instance. A faster WiFi card would also make streaming a game to another device via Remote Play a better experience.

Unlike the Xbox One, the PS4 doesn't support external hard drives, which would augment the system storage. That's partly because it doesn't need to: You can swap in a new internal hard drive as large as 4TB, a step up from the base model's paltry 500GB of storage. The dearth of USB connections is a bit of a problem, though. If you're using the PlayStation Gold wireless headset, for instance, that eats up half of what's available. Listening to music via a thumb drive and your DualShock 4 controller's battery dies? It's time to decide which is more important unless you have another device with unused USB ports nearby that you can use to charge the gamepad.

DualShock 4 controller

Speaking of which, the DualShock 4's battery life is still awful. System updates have added the ability to change the brightness of the controller's lightbar (a likely culprit for battery drain) but I'm still lucky if I can go more than two play sessions, totaling about eight hours, before having to charge it again. In contrast, I only need to replace the batteries in my Xbox One controllers every few months. Maybe Sony could address these issues the way that Microsoft did and release a premium-priced controller with higher-quality components and improved battery life. I'd buy one.

In other gamepad-related woes, the concave thumbsticks that original reviewer Ben Gilbert raved about have an inherent flaw: Their grippy, rubber covering is susceptible to tearing with normal use, revealing sharp plastic underneath. You can hit Amazon for a variety of inexpensive replacement sticks, but that requires tearing open the gamepad to install them -- not an easy feat for most. The better solution is opting for silicone caps that stick on your stock thumbsticks. But this honestly shouldn't be an issue in the first place, especially considering how comfortable and well-designed the rest of the controller is.

The inclusion of a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on every paddle means that you don't need to shell out for a gaming headset if you already have stereo earphones. That said, aside from a handful of games like the excellent, Sony-developed Tearaway Unfolded, the on-board speaker goes mostly unused.

Same with the clickable touchpad that dominates the gamepad's face. A vast majority of the time its touch-sensitive surface is neglected in favor of developers just treating it as an extra button. When a developer does make use of these novel features they tend to be really well implemented. It's a shame more don't take the time to. What isn't a gimmick, though, is the "share" button to the immediate left of the touchpad, but more on that later.

PlayStation Camera

Lastly, we have the PlayStation Camera, an accessory that has been mostly forgotten by game developers. Like the touchpad, speaker and color-changing lightbar on the DualShock 4, very few devs have taken advantage of this accessory. Until Dawn uses it to record video of who's playing during scary moments, and Tearaway Unfolded took advantage of it to occasionally break the fourth wall, but until PlayStation VR launches it's not necessary. Sure, logging into my PS4 profile with my face is novel, but I couldn't tell you what triggers the facial ID system to launch on start-up; I still regularly have to log in the old-fashioned way, choosing my profile with a controller. There's just no compelling reason to own one right now.

UI

For the most part, zipping around the PS4 interface is fast. It's an iteration of Sony's Xross Media Bar UI from the PS3 (yeah, substituting an "X" for a "C" is still awkward), with a horizontal row of tiles for recently used items like games, apps and streaming services. Each game offers patch notes, and each tile has a drop-down menu featuring additional content. You'll also see your saved screenshots and videos, along with recent activities from friends like trophies unlocked. It's a lot like the social feed from the Windows 10 patch on Xbox One, but integrated on a per-game basis rather than one river of everything. Even with a speedy, wired connection, though, the drop-downs (which rely on data from PlayStation Network) are slower to load and navigate compared to the main UI.

The PlayStation Store where you access streaming applications and game downloads sits at the far left; on the opposite side is the library. The library was added after launch, and it's where your entire collection of games and applications resides. Anything you've downloaded or installed lives here in a grid. The problem is, it's a pain to navigate because even if you've uninstalled something, it still stays on the list. That means the Destiny First Look Alpha I was part of two years ago is there alongside Doki-Doki Universe, a demo I grabbed but never played. This means sifting through a lot of clutter just to get to the stuff you own.

The library was supposed to help streamline the main UI, but in practice it's about as effective as shoving your laundry in a closet before company comes over, to give the illusion that you actually cleaned your house. Your most recently used items stay on the main screen, but with time, unused ones will migrate here too. What'd be really nice is the option to customize the main UI or at least pin specific apps and games to the home screen, similar to what the Xbox One has offered since 2013.

Pressing up on the d-pad reveals tabs for the PlayStation Plus premium service, notifications, your friends list, an event calendar, messages, party chat, user profile, trophies, system settings and power options. With the exception of the PlayStation Plus tab, everything loads almost instantaneously, and is logically sorted. In the system settings, for example, Sony removed some of the arcane video settings that were on the PlayStation 3 and opted for a more streamlined setup. That simplicity extends to options for adjusting audio output, and connecting social accounts, among other things.

My biggest gripe with the PS4 is how it handles system storage. Countless times, I've gone to either download or install a game and the console has given me an error message saying there isn't enough free space on the hard drive. Except there is. The most recent offense was with Doom. My PS4 currently has over 60GB of free space, and Doom is a 47GB download. Entering my redemption code, I received an error message and was transported to the system storage screen to clear up some space. Deleting 86GB of games I wasn't playing anymore should've solved the problem, but didn't. I've since power-cycled the console and rebuilt the system database from safe mode. Forty-five minutes after the initial attempt, I was finally able to start downloading the game.

And that's the best-case scenario. On previous occasions, rebuilding the database and deleting over 100GB of installed games didn't fix the error. I'm not even sure what I did to eventually fix it those times, now that I think about it. When I asked a Sony engineer about this, he didn't have a clear answer for me. One response was that game files need more space to uncompress than their download size suggests, hence the error about not having enough storage space. But the engineer I spoke with couldn't explain why, even after deleting and rebooting, that sometimes didn't address the error message.

Social

The heart of the social experience on PS4 is located right on the gamepad, where you'll find the "share" button. Pressing it takes screenshots, records video and starts a game-sharing session or a broadcast on Twitch or YouTube. Depending on your preference, you can configure the button a few ways. You can also configure what happens when you press it. Personally, I have the button set up so that a single press grabs a screenshot and a double tap starts recording a video clip.

This saved media can be shared in a variety of ways, including as a message or to Facebook and Twitter. That will post the screenshot or video clip to the "What's New" activity feed on the home screen. Unlike the Xbox One's "community" tab that sorts everything into a reverse-chronological river, What's New is three tiles wide, pushing game broadcasts from the community, not your friends list, notices of trophies unlocked by friends, suggested friends and PSN Store advertisements into one feed. It's a mess to navigate and I rarely use it.

What I constantly take advantage of is how easy it is to take and share screenshots on PS4. Sharing them via social media is seamless and takes five button presses and I'm back to whatever I was playing prior. The annoying thing here is the inability to simultaneously share to Facebook and Twitter. Being able to take screenshots almost anywhere (and save them as PNG files instead of just JPEGs) almost makes up for it. Aside from the Twitch app, all the screenshots taken for this review were captured without using external methods. Even better? You can save them to a USB stick and do what you want with them; no need to upload to OneDrive and then download to a computer like on the Xbox One.

Another destination for your screenshots is the Communities feature introduced in the last big firmware update, version 3.5. Communities are what you make of them, and can be used to organize clan games, share screenshots to the discussion board and, well, that's about it.

Game broadcasting

When the PlayStation 4 debuted, there wasn't a fully dedicated Twitch app. You could watch streams originating from PlayStation via the Live From PlayStation application, but if you wanted to check out a stream of, say, the Dota 2 International you'd have to load Twitch on the system's web browser. It was incredibly janky. Live With PlayStation broadcasts aren't just favored; they're the only ones that are picked up by the homescreen drop-down menus and the "What's New" tab. But at least now there's an official Twitch app for watching broadcasts. It works like the Xbox One version does, with a main grid of channels to choose from on the home screen, video and chat taking center stage on a given broadcast, and past streams and channel info off to the right.

While the streaming options started out limited, today they're pretty robust. You can stream to YouTube, Twitch or even Dailymotion. You can also customize your stream with camera effects and a green screen (to remove any background from what the PlayStation Camera picks up). It offers more flexibility than broadcasting from Xbox One does, but you're still better off launching your pro-streaming career with a PC and capture device.

PlayStation services

Sony really likes the "PlayStation" name: It's put it on a number of services accessible from the PS4. PlayStation Now is the company's quasi-Netflix-for-games streaming service; PlayStation Vue is its TV app for cord-cutters; and PlayStation Plus is its monthly premium service, granting access to online multiplayer and three free game downloads per month.

Rather than offer true backward compatibility for older games via software emulation a la Xbox One, if you want to play a bulk of Sony's legacy titles on your PS4 you'll have to pony up $100 for a yearly PS Now subscription, $45 for three months or $20 per month. Is it worth it? Not really. Even with a solid internet connection, game streams cap out at 720p, audio quality isn't on par with a disc-based game and there's lag stemming from streaming gameplay off Sony's servers, to your PS4 and then returning your controller input to the server. Taking the price and user experience into account, it's a far better idea to pull your PS3 out of the closet. If you have a hankering for an even older game, downloading a PlayStation or PlayStation 2 game from the PSN Store and playing it on a PS Vita is a much better idea.

Microsoft wanted to control your TV's main HDMI input with its plan to make the Xbox One into the ultimate set-top box, but it's Sony that's come closest in that regard, thanks to PlayStation Vue. Even then, using the app (up to $50 per month depending on the package) that wants to be your stand-in for a cable subscription is still a rough experience.

I rarely play multiplayer games online, so paying for access to do so isn't my cup of tea. But PlayStation Plus is so much more than that. It gives me three free games per month, the occasional option to vote on what games will be free and discounts for digital purchases. A majority of the games are from indie developers, and while the quality of said games may have dipped as of late (not everything can be the killer survival horror game Outlast or local co-op adventure Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris), they still regularly best what Microsoft gives away with its Xbox Live Gold promotions.

Different ways to play

In one form or another, Sony's Remote Play feature has been around since at least 2010. But using the company's PlayStation Portable handheld to access a PS3 and playing games from it always felt kludgy. Using a PS Vita handheld to do the same with the PS4 is dramatically better, but my giant mitts aren't ready to trade a DualShock 4 for the Vita's comparatively cramped confines just so I can play Destinyfrom my bedroom.

More than that, the Vita is missing a few buttons that the DualShock has, so you need to remap them to the handheld's rear touchpad. Streaming to a Sony tablet and connecting the gamepad via Bluetooth works like a dream. If you're after precision, though, and the game you're playing requires lightning-fast responses, like streaming with PS Now, you're going to be disappointed. Remote Play is an interesting feature, but unless you have the perfect setup for your network (home or otherwise), the tradeoffs might not be worth playing PS4 games away from your TV.

It's the same with Share Play, the futuristic PS4 feature that lets you virtually pass a controller to someone else via the internet. The ability to have a friend across the country help you get past a tricky spot is pretty nuts. When it works, anyway. Same goes for playing couch co-op with a friend who isn't in the same room with you. The problem is that Share Play requires an extremely fast connection between both people to provide the best experience. My modest 85 Mbps connection floated between "low" and just a few notches into the "good" rating. Even starting a session is dicey.

But when it works -- and, more importantly, when the game you're playing doesn't block the feature -- it feels crazy. The initial setup is really unintuitive, and the amount of lag will make or break whatever you're playing. The X-Wing training mission in Star Wars: Battlefront is okay because it doesn't require twitch reflexes for your co-op partner, but dipping into the game's first-person shooter survival mode can be unplayable because of lag. Simply watching a friend play a game works pretty well, though, because it's a passive experience and doesn't rely on transmitting gameplay data from your console to your buddy's.

Game selection

The list of fresh exclusives on PS4 keeps growing. Last year alone saw the ultra-tough Bloodborne, the perennial MLB: The Show and the interactive horror flick Until Dawn. That's in addition to all of the indies that hit Sony's latest console before Xbox One, like Rocket League. This year we've seen Ratchet and Clank, The Witness (a console exclusive), Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, and another edition of Sony's gorgeous baseball franchise, The Show '16. There's still No Man's Sky, The Last Guardian and all of the upcoming PlayStation VR games as well. Simply put, there are lots of reasons to own a PS4, with even more to come.

Wrap-up

It's easy to see how Sony has moved over 40 million PS4s. After getting kicked in the teeth for most of the last hardware cycle, Sony wasn't about to let that happen again. The PS4's focus has always been on games, not replacing your cable box. By focusing on that first and then augmenting the device with services like game streaming, Sony has built an excellent -- in fact, the best -- game console. It isn't perfect, to be sure, but it keeps improving on a formula that already works well.

More from Engadget

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon