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HTG Reviews the PlayStation 4: When a Console is Just a (Great) Console

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The PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One? That is the question right now fueling many an Internet debate on which one is best and which one to buy.

At first blush, it seems like an easy question to answer: if you want something to just play games, then it’s the PlayStation 4 all the way, and if you want the media center to end all media centers (eventually), then there’s an Xbox One with your name on it.

And yet, it actually isn’t quite that simple.

How did I get here?

The first “video game console” I owned was a pong console. I can’t remember what brand or model, but it was this flat square box with two knobs on the top, an on/off switch, and a reset toggle, and it played Pong. Sounds boring, but it was actually a lot of fun.

Beyond that, there was only one real video game console at the time: the original Atari 2600. Released in 1977, it retailed for $199, which today is over $750 when adjusted for inflation.

Into the early 80s, there was Mattel’s Intellivision, Coleco Industries’ ColecoVision, and the Magnavox Odyssey². Personally, I had a Commodore 64, which had great graphics, amazing sound, and taught me valuable lessons in patience, because even coupled with a floppy drive, games could take two, three, even five minutes to load (I’m looking at you, Flight Simulator II).

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In the mid and late eighties, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) became a gaming force of nature. The NES revived the video game industry and was the main precursor to the console wars we have today. But, if I can point to any kind of golden age in console gaming, it is was when the 16-bit systems were unveiled; Sega’s Genesis and the Super Nintendo rendered the arcade fairly moot and proved that video game consoles were here to stay.

Since then, Sega has bowed out, Atari is gone, while Nintendo –still very much relevant – has often seemed to lose its way, and despite its enormous success with the Wii, hasn’t been able to repeat with the Wii U.

That then leaves us with Microsoft and Sony, who have been fairly steadfast and consistent. The first three PlayStations have all been successful, while the Xbox (coupled with Nintendo’s missteps) got Microsoft’s foot in the door and the Xbox 360 has become synonymous with gaming excellence.

Microsoft’s yin to Sony’s yang, and vice versa

Which leads us all to this point and our original question: the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One?

The Xbox One has a ton going for it. Let us not forget that it plays games, and plays them very well. It also can function as your cable/satellite box, you can stream movies a la Netflix, Amazon, etc., and you can control the whole thing quite well using your voice. The Xbox One is $100 more than the PS4, but it comes with Kinect and enormous potential.

But, the PS4 is pretty fantastic in its own right. It is a pure gaming machine, though it’s not myopic in that pursuit. It also has the ability to stream Netflix and other popular services, but those features have been de-emphasized in favor of bending over backwards to please even the most die-hard gamers. Sony has created an ultimate gaming machine with all the tools necessary to brag, boast, and promote your gamer cred.

Looking good … on paper

When it comes to comparing specs, the PS4 and Xbox One are almost the same and demonstrate logical generational improvements over the PS3 and Xbox 360, respectively.

PS4 Xbox One Wii U PS3 (2012) Xbox 360 (2013)
Launch price $399 $499 $299 $269.99 $299
CPU 1.6 GHz (estimated), AMD eight-core X86 “Jaguar” 1.75 GHz, AMD eight-core X86 “Jaguar” 1.24 GHz, IBM PowerPC-based, tri-core “Espresso” 3.2 GHz, IBM Power Architecture-based, 7-core “Cell Broadband Engine” 3.2 GHz, IBM PowerPC tri-core CPU “Xenon”
GPU 800 MHz, AMD Radeon (“Liverpool”), 8 GB DDR5 @5500 MHz (effective) 853 MHz, AMD Radeon (“Durango”), 8 GB DDR3 @2132 MHz (effective) 550 MHz, AMD Radeon (“Latte”), 2 GB DDR3 @1600 MHz (effective) 550 MHz, Nvidia G70-RSX (“Reality Synthesizer”), 256 MB GDDR @1400 MHz (effective) 500 MHz, ATI Radeon (“Xenos), 512 MB GDDR3 @1400 MHz (effective)
Memory 8 GB DDR5 @5500 MHz 8 GB of DDR3 @2133 MHz 2 GB DDR3 @1600 MHz 256 MB XDR @3.2 MHz 512 MB of GDDR3 @700 MHz
Video Proprietary, HDMI, Digital optical Proprietary, HDMI, Digital optical HDMI, Component, Composite, S-Video HDMI, Analog-AV out, Digital optical HDMI, VGA, Component, SCART, S-Video, Composite
Supported resolutions 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p, 480i 1080p, 720p 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p, 480i 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p, 480i 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p
Connectivity Proprietary, HDMI, Digital optical, Bluetooth, USB (2) Proprietary, HDMI, Digital optical, USB (3) HDMI, Component, Composite, S-Video, USB (4) Proprietary, HDMI, Digital optical, USB (2) Proprietary, HDMI, Digital optical, USB (5)
Optical media DVD/Blu-ray DVD/Blu-ray Nintendo proprietary DVD, Blu-ray, CD DVD, Blu-ray, CD
Internal storage 500 GB (upgradeable) + USB external storage 500 GB + USB external storage 32 GB (upgradeable) + USB external storage, SD, SDHC 12 GB, 250 GB, 500 GB (upgradeable) 250 GB, 4 GB (upgradeable) + USB external storage, memory card
Communications Ethernet, 802.11n (2.4 GHz), 802.11g, 802.11b Ethernet, 802.11n (2.4 GHz, 5 GHz), 802.11g, 802.11b 802.11n (2.4 GHz), 802.11g, 802.11b Ethernet, 802.11g, 802.11b Ethernet, proprietary wireless
Backwards compatible No No Yes Yes Yes but only with about 50% of Xbox titles.

As you can see, the PS4 and Xbox One offer comparable specs. They both have 500 GB internal storage, HD output, Wi-Fi, and DVD/Blu-ray optical drives.

They both are equipped with similar (the devil is in the details) 8-core AMD “Jaguar” CPUs (though the Xbox’s is clocked just slightly higher). Both companies elected to go with lower-clocked, more energy efficient CPUs that can ably multitask and do other non-gaming stuff. Instead of fewer, relatively high-powered cores, the CPUs have less powerful cores, but more of them.

The two systems do differ a bit on graphics processing units (GPU) and RAM. While the GPUs on both systems are based on the same AMD Radeon architecture, the Xbox’s GPU runs at a higher clock-speed (853 MHz) than the PS4 (800 MHz). However, the PS4’s GPU simply devotes more processing muscle to graphics than the Xbox (18 computing units versus 12).

So, both of these GPUs will do the same thing; each will render graphics exactly the same way, but the Xbox will render them ever the slightest bit slower. It’s really only possible to tell by poring over benchmarks, because subjectively you’re not going to notice a difference between the two.

RAM-wise, both systems have the current PC-standard 8 GB of system memory. While the Xbox one has older, slower DDR3 RAM clocked at 2133 MHz, the PS4 has bleeding-edge DDR5 clocked at 5500 MHz. The same is true for the GPUs. The Xbox One’s GPU utilizes DDR3 and the PS4’s uses DDR5. It’s fair to say, Sony future-proofed their system a bit more in this regard.

So here, the PS4 would seem to win handily, but Microsoft has a couple tricks up its sleeve because it includes an additional 32 MB of high-speed ESRAM, arranged in four 8 MB blocks, integrated directly onto the processor die. 32 MB sounds like a paltry amount of RAM, but consider that this RAM is especially fast and its location means that CPU instructions can be cached so they don’t have to travel to the main memory and back, which equals more bandwidth and less latency.

However, while the inclusion of the ESRAM does level the playing field a great deal, it also complicates things a bit. In programming terms, someone developing a game title would have to fine-tune their code to best use this architecture, while on the PS4 they can simply use all those gobs of super-fast DDR5.

To be fair, the Xbox 360 uses a similar setup and many developers may not be the slightest bit fazed by this. Still, for a developer porting a title from PS4 to Xbox, they may simply opt to lower texture quality and resolution instead of devoting time and resources to tweak it to run optimally on Microsoft’s system.

When it comes right down to it though, the two systems are pretty equal.

The PlayStation 4 console

The PlayStation 4 isn’t the clunky black monolith that we’ve come to expect from console makers. It’s definitely a bit more refined than that, though it isn’t going to bowl you over with its good looks.

The console itself is practical (if not a bit ugly), measuring about 12 inches wide, by nearly 11 inches deep, by just over 2 inches high. It’s basically an unassuming black box, not as wide as an old-timey VCR, but obviously dwarfing the more petite Wii.

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The finish of the PS4 is 2/3 matte and 1/3 glossy and honestly, I wish manufacturers would get past their glossy phase. Gloss finishes are like fingerprint billboards and no matter how much you try, you can’t avoid scratching them. Even if you use a microfiber cloth milled from the wings of cherubs, the unit will scratch over time when you dust it. Our test unit is less than two weeks old and already has some minor scratches marring its glossy finish.

Viewing the PS4 from the side, one can see that it’s quite a bit deeper than the VCR and is trapezoidal — a seemingly odd shape, but actually pretty clever.

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Almost the entire back of the PS4 is devoted to the “lungs” of the console, i.e. venting. The shape of the device does allow it a bit more breathing room should you stick it in a tight cabinet with a bunch of other electronics.

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The front of the PS4 is a demonstration in simplicity: two USB 3.0 ports, a slot-loading optical drive, and between them a power button (top) and eject button (bottom).

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Returning to the back, we can see Sony has again opted for simplicity with a digital optical port, HDMI, a Cat5 Ethernet connector, and an auxiliary port for connecting PS4 accessories such as the PlayStation Camera (not tested), which will set you back another $60 or so.

The bottom left portion of the console houses an internal power supply, which is seriously awesome because it eliminates yet another massive power brick to deal with.

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Overall, the design of the PS4 aims for simplicity and anonymity. It is made to sit on a shelf or in a media center and get out of the way. The only time you’ll actually interact with it is when you plug something into the USB ports (you can charge the controllers even when the system is in standby) or insert/eject game discs.

The Dual Shock 4 controller

If the PS4 console is the backup band, then the included Dual Shock 4 controller is the lead singer.

I could say the Dual Shock 4 is sexy. I could say it is very nearly perfect. I could say it is sublime, intriguing, and just fits me. I could say all these things, and I would not be exaggerating. It’s apparent from the moment you pick it up, that the Dual Shock 4 had a lot of thought and engineering put into it, and it feels really good to use.

From a PC gamer’s perspective, keyboards and mice come in all sorts of sizes and configurations. There are some that specialize in and cater towards gaming, but no matter the features and quality, they never get you out of sitting at a desk.

The console controller, however, must pair nicely with a large swath of the population. A serious PC gamer can very well buy the peripherals they want after the fact; they can always upgrade, and it is expected. But the console controller can make or break a system. In this case, the Dual Shock 4 seals the deal.

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The controller feels especially good in my large hands. I like to have something to hold on to. I can easily wrap three fingers around the grips, which melt into my palms with satisfying sculpted confidence; no dangling pinkies. My thumbs mesh nicely with the rubber divots on top of the two control sticks.

The weight, too, is ideal, being just heavy enough to make you feel like you’re holding something substantial, but light enough that your hands don’t tire easily.

If I have but one complaint, it’s that the “share” and “options” buttons seem to be a little too inconspicuous (hard to press), but that’s very minor and nothing a little routine use won’t solve.

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The front of the controller feature right and left triggers. The bottom triggers are recessed ever so slightly so fingertips find a good purchase and don’t slide off during frantic button pushing. Between the triggers is a soothing indicator light that changes color to reflect system status and controller identity, so you can tell which controller is which when you come back from a break.

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Below the light is a micro USB connector, which allows you to charge the controller even while the PS4 is in standby. When the controller is charging, it pulses with an amber glow matching the color of the standby light on the top of the console. Alternatively, you can take any old USB charger such as the one that comes with your Android phone or tablet, and use that to power and charge your controller.

Reports on battery life seem to land around the 10-12 hour mark. This may pose a problem for marathon gamers, but under normal use, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be an issue as long as you remember to charge it when you’re done. And, remember, you can always plug it in, so you can just buy a micro USB wall charger with like a 9-foot cable. Nevertheless, it’s still something else you have to remember to charge among a multitude of others – phone, tablet, laptop, camera, etc.

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The back of the controller lets you plug in a standard pair of headphones or the included PS4 headset so you can talk with friends and reroute audio directly from the console to the controller, thus bypassing the TV’s speakers – especially useful if you want to play while the rest of the household slumbers.

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Finally, the top of the controller has a small grill for the speaker (adding more depth to games) and a touchpad that also doubles as a big button. Right now, the touchpad is of questionable value but it can be considerably more useful once developers start fully utilizing it. It would be nice if you could simply use it to swipe through menus and selections such as you might on a tablet or smartphone. It will be interesting to see how this feature is incorporated in future releases.

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If you want another controller, it will set you back about $60, which isn’t outrageous considering the quality and technology that went into this thing. Then again, Sony could at least throw in another USB cable for that $60.

In the end, the controller is how you’ll interact with the PS4 99% of the time, so it is definitely something you’ll enjoy holding and using for hours upon hours. This particular controller may go down as one of the all-time greats.

Using the PS4

The actual system is a delight to use. To power on, you can press the miniscule power button on the console or the PlayStation button on the controller. Similarly, hold that same button to power down or put the console into standby.

From a cold boot (powered off) the system takes about 22 seconds to load to the login screen, while a warm boot (standby mode) takes about 28.

Powering down the device completely obviously saves power, while standby will continue to sip 10 watts, though if you are downloading a title, you can expect to add about 60W, and another 4W if you’re charging the controller.

Overall, while the system is on and idling, it consumes about 90W and compares favorably to a regular desktop PC, which consumes between 200W and 400W depending on configuration and workload. As you play the PS4, power consumption will ramp up considerably. And remember, you also have your TV on, so bear that in mind when it comes to electricity use.

Regardless, for a system as high-powered as the PS4 is, it is pretty miserly with peak loads hitting 130-150 watts. You still don’t want to leave it running for days on end, but then again, you don’t have to. You can stop whatever you’re doing, put it into standby mode, and instantly return to the spot you left off at when you log back in.

The PlayStation 4’s interface, aka dashboard

The PlayStation 4’s operating system interface is, in a word, blue. Also, simple and clean, but mostly blue. It’s soothing enough and looks nice adorning a large HD television screen.

The background music, too, is pleasant, kind of new age-spacey and doesn’t grate on the nerves. However, I couldn’t help thinking of the Wii’s menu music and especially the Wii U’s, though honestly, I prefer the former if for no other reason than that it is just so Nintendo-ish. Suffice to say, if you get distracted and leave the PS4 on, the system music isn’t going to drive you crazy, though you can turn it off in the settings under “Sound and Screen” (or just mute the television).

When you log in, you will see three rows of features. The middle row, or what I call the “home row”, gives you access to your installed games and apps, web browser, and so on. As you install games, the home row grows longer, though recently-used items are moved to the front of the line. There’s no way to customize this or pin favorites, so conceivably you can end up with a very long row of games and other features with older or infrequently used items being stuck at the end.

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The system is laid out in a grid. To navigate, you use the left control stick or direction buttons to move up/down and left/right. Control stick down to see more options and information on a particular title.

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Navigate to the top options row to access system features and settings, such as the PlayStation Store, notifications, messaging, and your profile, which you can round out and groom to your heart’s content.

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Is there really anything complicated about this? Not at all. It is designed to be used by millions of people of all ages, so Sony made it brainlessly easy to operate. Nevertheless, if something does puzzle you, you can always read the user manual, which is accessible from the top of the “Settings” menu.

Sharing

One of the PS4’s most touted features is its social sharing ability. There are several different aspects to sharing on the PS4. You can hook it into your Facebook and Twitter accounts, thus allowing you to upload screenshots and gameplay videos to your profiles.

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Or, you can stream your gameplay on popular streaming services, Twitch and USTREAM.

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And you can watch said streaming and videos on the “Live from PlayStation” channel, available from the main menu’s home row.

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Like we said, Sony is out to court gamers, and including so many options to socialize the gaming experience is sure to please many who may want to show off their mad fragging skills, speed runs, or simply make a party out of it.

Profile

When initially setting up the PS4, you will need to create a profile. As time goes on, your profile can be accessed and configured by thumbing up to the options row and selecting “Profile”.

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Here, you can edit your profile, view trophies, change your privacy settings, and administer your captures (screenshots and videos).

Settings

Also accessible from the options row, the “Settings” menu is your one-stop destination for complete control over your PS4. There’s a good deal of stuff here – too much to cover in this review – so you should definitely wade through it yourself.

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Of note here are the ability to change parental controls, check for system updates, configure devices, and wipe profiles and the system clean with the “Initialization” options.

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Again, there’s seemingly a lot to sort through here and clearly some things will apply to you more than others.

The PlayStation Store

The PlayStation Store allows you to purchase and download new titles without leaving the couch. Bear in mind, however, that many of these newer Blu-ray titles clock in at well over 25 GB (as you may have noticed, “Killzone: Shadow Fall” is nearly 40 GB).

This implies two things. First, downloads will take a while on your regular run-of-the-mill cable internet connection and could pose a problem if you have a data cap. Luckily, you can set a title or titles to download while the system is in standby, so you can leave it to do its thing after you go to bed.

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Also, the internal storage is only 500 GB. We say “only” because, at 20, 30, or 40 GB per game, it won’t be long before you’re trying to clear space between all the game installations, captures, and application save data.

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Thankfully, Sony has done the DIY-er in us all a huge solid and made the PS4 incredibly easy to upgrade, and you can get a 1-terabyte 2.5” hard drive for about $80 online. Add another $20 for an external hard drive enclosure for your existing PS4 hard drive and you can effectively triple your storage space for about $100 and maybe an hour of your time.

On the other hand, you could always pop in a solid state drive (SSD) and really speed things up, but SSDs in any kind of meaningful size (500 GB and higher) are prohibitively expensive. Still, upgrade options exist, and the best part is you won’t even void your warranty!

Streaming options

Streaming services on the PS4 are basic: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, and others round things out. It is as you’d expect, and none but the most ardent streaming video enthusiast will be unhappy with the selections.

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You can access streaming options from the “TV & Video” channel on the dashboard’s home row.

Gaming

This is it, the best part – gaming! Let’s just get this out of the way – gaming on the PlayStation 4 is sick – this thing can definitely rock.

Games on the PS4 will be typically graphic intensive; these are the kind of games it is designed for. Don’t expect too many CPU-intensive games of the Civilization 5 variety. The PS4 is all about being a visually impressive gamer with 60 frames per second for a clean, smooth experience.

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It’s hard to gauge exactly what the PS4 is truly capable of. Conventional gaming console wisdom always dictates that it takes at least a year or two before developers really start to exploit the true power of a new console. So the options we’re presented with at the outset are largely previous generation games such as Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts, which look spectacular, but are still glorified ports from the PS3.

Yes, Killzone: Shadow Fall is a beautiful PS4-only title, but it’s still a launch-date title. In other words, things will only get better as game makers start to fully focus their attention on what this console can do.

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That said, damn do things look nice – lighting, shading, textures, dust particles, streaks of sunlight – it’s all there. The first level of Battlefield 4 alone had me gawking and sightseeing while bullets whizzed past my head and things exploded around me.

I probably spent a good five minutes just looking at the dust in this ray of sunlight. Such a simple thing, and yet it’s the simple things like this that really point to where we are gaming-wise. But more importantly, they signal where gaming is going. Anyone who tells me games will never be photorealistic or mimic “real life” isn’t paying attention, because we’re getting very close.

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Yes, one level of one game is really just a taste, but the PS4 really does perform as advertised, and I reckon this thing is going to be a hit. Had I the seemingly endless hours of my teens and early twenties, I’d be logging some serious gaming time while consuming large quantities of food out of boxes, and probably calling off from work. It’s that good.

The Good, the Bad, and the Verdict

Alas, tough adult responsibilities and a devotion to personal hygiene mean that I can only really rubberneck and covet the good fortune of others. So what’s the conclusion? How does the PS4 shake out? And more importantly, which console should you buy?

The Good:

  • 8 cores? DDR5? With all that hardware, you’re not likely to need anything else for at least 5 years or more. Sony did well to give this console a long future so you won’t have to upgrade again for a while.
  • Performance. This thing flies and it’s only going to get better. Sony is still sprucing things up and optimizing it. Expect system updates and new features from their end, and better, jaw-dropping games in the months and years ahead from developers.
  • Awesome internal power supply eliminates the clunky power brick. Goodbye and good riddance clunky power brick.
  • The controller – it’s not perfect, but it’s close.
  • Sharing, at least what I saw and did with it, is pretty sweet. It works, it’s easy, and Sony has thankfully elected to go with popular sharing services and social networks instead of trying to go it alone and invent something closed and proprietary.
  • The price – $399 isn’t cheap, but it’s also not bad, especially for what you get. Put another way, you cannot build a desktop PC with the same hardware and power, let alone ease of use.
  • Upgradeable. 500 GB isn’t a huge amount and should probably count against it. However, it matches with the Xbox One’s offering and unlike Microsoft’s console, the PS4 is painlessly easy to upgrade. In fact, Sony almost seems to encourage it.

The Bad:

  • Limited focus. Okay, to be fair, the PlayStation 4 isn’t meant to be anything but a gaming machine, yet that is kind of a big deal in this age of Apple TV, Roku’s, and now the Xbox One. If Sony doesn’t want to own the smart living room that’s fine, but will that end up hurting the PS4 in the long run?
  • Ugly glossy finish. True, it’s only on the console and only 1/3 of it, but still, yuck. Whatever fingerprints it can pick up, it will, and be prepared to watch it gradually accrue little scratches as earth’s environment plots against it.
  • The system menu, while lovely and fast, has that annoying long home row that you can’t do much about. Applications and games are automatically added to it, so it will get longer and longer over time. You can’t pin or favorite things, nor can you customize it beyond very basic settings such as disabling the background music.
  • Controller battery life. 10-12 hours won’t be a huge problem for many casual users, but for others, especially dedicated, hardcore, marathon gamers, having to plug it in and charge it every day could (and probably will) be very annoying. I also found the “options” and “share” buttons to be a bit difficult to press, though this is likely the result of having big sausage-like thumbs.
  • Spare launch lineup. It’s the scourge of many a new console, but truth is there just aren’t a whole lot of games to choose from right now. By this time next year, this gripe will be irrelevant, but now, headed into the holiday season, it’s kind of a big deal.

The Verdict:

Can I recommend it? Yes, duh, of course I can. It’s an amazing piece of hardware partnered with sexy gaming suave. If you can buy a PS4, then do it. Yeah, you may have that day or two where you question the wisdom of spending $399 on a gaming console, but they will likely dissipate in a whiff of guilty pleasure once you lay paws on that controller and see what this thing can do on a big beautiful HD display.

That said, if you can wait, do so. The games right now are slim pickings and there’s bound to be at least one or two hardware hiccups in the next six to twelve months. There always is after new console launches (see: red ring of death).

Plus, there are two other current gen consoles on the market now and yes, I am being serious when I include the Wii U in that discussion. Nintendo’s system has had a year to mature and has a ton of titles backing it up. If you’re like me, then Zelda and Mario rule the gaming roost. I look forward to new Zelda titles like teenage girls look forward to Twilight and Hunger Games movies. Plus, it’s only $299, and the Wii U GamePad is awesome.

Then there’s the Xbox One, which I’ve played and been equally impressed by. The One is a full $100 more than the PS4, but it comes with the Kinect, voice control, and TV integration. When it comes to specs and performance, the Xbox One and PS4 are, and I know this is cliché, six of one, half a dozen of the other. They really are almost the same machine, so when it comes down to it, it’s a matter of what you want to do and how much that matters to you. If you just want to play games, it’s the PS4; if you want to go the smart living room direction, then get the Xbox One.

When all is said and done, you’re not going to be unhappy if you buy either, but in terms of price, the PS4 is clearly the most system for your money, and if I had $399 burning a hole in my pocket, I’d have no problem handing it over to Sony.

Special thanks to SSgt Ivan Trevino (USMC) for making the “ultimate sacrifice” and loaning his new PlayStation 4 to HTG for a few days to test and review!

Born and brainwashed an Ohio State Buckeye, Matt now lives a warm, snow-free life just north of the Texas/Mexico border. He fancies himself a modern-day jack-of-all-trades; favorite conversation starters include operating systems, Android, BBQ, quantum physics, and roller skating.

  • Published 11/29/13

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